Going deeper together

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November 6, 2019 | Editorial | Volume 23 Issue 20
Virginia A. Hostetler | Executive Editor
'We desire to go deeper in our relationship with God and with our neighbours both inside and outside the church walls.' (Image by congerdesign/Pixabay)

If you have been paying attention to what the regional churches are up to recently, you may have noticed a common question and a common longing. A question expressed at both regional and nationwide levels: What is God calling Mennonite Church Canada to do, as a church? And the longing: We desire to go deeper in our relationship with God and with our neighbours both inside and outside the church walls.

It makes sense to tie the question and the longing together. How can we in the church embark on a larger communal direction without being in touch with the heart and mind of God? And how can we give a focus to our work together without listening attentively to the person in the pew beside us and the person across the street?

Members of MC Canada now have two years of living into the new structure for the nationwide and regional churches. This has required us to learn some new ways of doing things and has demanded fresh discernment about the direction for our collective body. Leaders at the regional and nationwide levels are inviting us to consider our vision, our spiritual groundedness and our relationships. 

At a consultation on mission in March of this year, Doug Klassen, now MC Canada’s executive minister, emphasized that our calling arises because of a deep connectedness with God. He stressed that new strategies, structures or styles of worship will not bring about the revitalization of the church, but that transformation will come from a deepened spiritual life. 

At the April annual gathering of MC Eastern Canada, speaker and author April Yamasaki spoke on the theme, “Deepening our relationship with God” and began with the question, “What does it mean for us to be friends with God?” She pointed to Psalm 27 to show aspects of this relationship, including lament, surrender, waiting, confidence and joy.

MC Alberta is in the midst of “Vision 20/20,” a process designed to help members live into deeper relationships with God and each other. “Living into a new structure and hope for the church is not easy or convenient,” says a report by Tim Wiebe-Neufeld, the regional church’s executive minister, and June Miller, communications coordinator. But members of the regional church are being encouraged and equipped to do “prayerful listening for God’s voice as [they] discern what it means to be the church in the 21st century.” 

“Refresh Refocus Renew” is the aim of MC Saskatchewan’s three-year process, as members seek to deepen their walk with Christ, with each other and with their neighbours. Executive minister Ryan Siemens reflects: “Christ calls us to love one another, as we are, simply because Jesus loved us first. The grace of God, as revealed to us through the person of Jesus Christ, is the divine reality into which we are invited to live together, warts and all. And in deepening our walk with each other as imperfect people, the divine reality of God’s grace is made known to each other and the watching world.” 

At the annual delegate session of MC Manitoba, in March, guest speak Sara Wenger Shenk called listeners to become rooted and grounded in God instead of being blown by the wind. In this fractured world, “we are going deeper into the love of God,” she said. MC Manitoba’s “Mission, Values, Constitution” statement says in part, the regional church “is a covenant community. . . . Our commitment is to be together and to grow closer in love without insisting on uniformity. . . . God’s message of love motivates us to nurture and care for others and each other.”

One of the activities at this year’s MC British Columbia annual meeting was a workshop to practise listening. As participants considered the pain caused by privilege and prejudice, Pastor Darnell Barkman challenged them, “What can we do to make Mennonite Church British Columbia more like Jesus?” We must listen to each other and become more like Christ, he said. “We, as disciples of Jesus, are transforming our reflexes to be Christlike so that our actions reflect his actions in body, mind and spirit. This is the fruitful life of a mature disciple.”

May God guide the church as together we continue seeking a shape for our vision and as we grow deeper into divine love and love of neighbour. 

Read more editorials:
Shaped by our essential book
Stories told and untold
Disciples and citizens
The zucchini principle
Digital church

'We desire to go deeper in our relationship with God and with our neighbours both inside and outside the church walls.' (Image by congerdesign/Pixabay)

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"Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you're gonna have to serve somebody." – Bob Dylan (modern day minor prophet)

Virginia Hostetler reflects on the state of the union of Mennonite Church Canada two years after the restructuring of the Mennonite Church body into 5 distinct conferences.

Hostetler states that leadership of Mennonite Church Canada as well as regional church bodies have spent some time in the previous two years searching for future direction in light of the restructuring process, ascertaining that new ways of doing church and new ways of discerning God’s will are required in the 21st century. The discernment process was formulated within the framework of two questions, namely: “What is God calling Mennonite Church Canada to do? and How does that impact our desire to go deeper in our relationship with God?” all somewhat reminiscent of “A certain ruler asked him saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The ruler went away disappointed.

Hostetler outlines the specific thinking of Mennonite Church Canada, as well as leaders from each region. She states that Doug Klassen, newly appointed executive minister for MC Canada identifies that “transformation will come from a deepened spiritual life.”

Hostetler cites April Yamasaki, in conference with MC Eastern Canada, that the deepening of relationship with God (Psalm 27) requires aspects of “lament, surrender, waiting, confidence, and joy.” From the MC Alberta conference, Tim Wiebe-Neufeld encourages “prayerful listening for God’s voice,” for members trying to discern what it means to be the church in the 21st century.

MC Saskatchewan executive minister Ryan Siemens posits that members seek to love one another in acceptance of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Sara Wenger Shenk encourages MC Manitoba leadership to be strengthened as a covenanted community committed to “going deeper into the love of God.” And lastly, Pastor Darnell Barkman challenged MC British Columbia members to “listen to each other and become more like Christ.”

Hostetler ends her editorial with a prayerful “May God guide the church as together we continue seeking a shape for our vision and as we grow deeper into divine love and love of neighbour.”

It seems to me that the questions posed by MC Canada are somewhat disingenuous, in that the questions are raised in the context of “how do we do God in the 21st century?” I am not a Biblical inerrancy/literalist, however I suspect that “doing God” in the 21st century is not much different than “doing God” in the 1st century. The message has not changed all that much. It seems that we keep repeating the question in hopes of receiving a different response.

The MC Canada and regional leadership responses to the questions, seem to me to be more of the same, a collection of platitudes, boiler plate, and bromides intended to keep the masses from exiting the pews. To my mind, these responses seem to be generated from a vantage of “professionalized Christianity,” and lack the prophetic voice of a leadership guiding God’s people on what to do to “inherit eternal life,” namely emulate Christ’s actions.

The “certain ruler” (Luke 18:18-30), insists to Jesus that he has kept all of the commandments since he was a child. Many adherents to MC Canada make the same claim. Jesus’ response to the ruler and to ourselves was/is, that keeping the commandments was not enough, more was required; “He said to him, ‘You lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”

In my experience, this response from Jesus the Christ has not been a very popular response amongst Mennonite Christians. We have derived a variety of theological and practical equivocations as to why such a response is ideologically misaligned and impractical for the here and now, especially in the 21’st century.

The 1st century is indeed a long time ago and echoes of “what God is calling the Church to do” seem to be ever more faint with each passing century, with less and less relevance and application. That being said, perhaps a cursory examination of Anabaptist/Mennonite Church history would be of value, especially the seminal event of recent Mennonite history, the Soviet/Mennonite experience.

During the Protestant Reformation, early Anabaptists in search of a deeper spirituality (Michael Sattler, et. al. Schleitheim Confession 1527) decided that they would have all goods in common, much like the early church exemplified by Christ and the Apostles in Acts 2:42-47.

This Anabaptist/Mennonite attempt to emulate the early church of Acts was short-lived. The Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther – 95 Thesis 1517), which included the Anabaptist movement, was paralleled by the onset of merchant and agrarian capitalism.

Over a few short generations, followers of Menno Simons began to prefer the deeper meaning of bringing goods to market in exchange for capital, as opposed to having all goods in common as advocated by the example of Christ and the Apostles. Schleitheim and its “all goods in common so that all may have enough” became marginalized, in exchange for the lure of the “Golden Calf” of capitalism.

By 1631-32, the new Dordrecht Confession of faith adopted by Anabaptists contained no mandate to have “all goods in common.” It was to be clear sailing for capitalism and empire building for Mennonites from then on.

Oh, to be sure, by 1661 there was still the odd lunatic and crackpot like Thieleman von Braght, Anabaptist publisher of the Martyrs Mirror (The Bloody Theater). Von Braght, much like John the Baptist in another time, railed for the Anabaptist/Mennonite people to repent from apostasy in their pursuit of wealth and empire. Von Braght published his Martyrs Mirror in protest of this apostasy, questioning “What did the martyrs die for? Wealth accumulation?” His protestations were to no avail.

The Mennonite church response was indeed one of “going deeper,” deeper into the heart of capitalism, wealth accumulation, and empire. God seemed to be condoning the pursuit of wealth accumulation, it was happening therefore it must be God’s blessing. It was every man for himself, a precursor to Adam Smith’s inquiry into the Wealth of Nations (1776) and his theory of capitalism, that economic benefit for all can usually be accomplished when individuals act in their self-interest.

By 1789, religious, military, and economic pressures in Prussia compelled some Mennonites to depart for Russia/Ukraine at the bequest of Catherine the Great. After an understandably modest start, the pursuit of empire in Mennonite Ukraine began in earnest, culminating in what some have tagged as the Mennonite Golden Age (The Russian Mennonite Story – Paul Toews, 2018). Earnest application to empire building resulted in estates and magnates and unimaginable accumulation of wealth as researched by historians such as James Urry in “Wealth and Poverty in the Mennonite Experience: Dilemmas and Challenges (JMS 2009), or even in C. Henry Smith’s “Smith’s Story of the Mennonites” (5th ed. 1981), wherein he notes that by 1911, “the eight largest Mennonite factories producing agricultural machinery and implements accounted for … 6.2 percent of the output of all Russia.”

Throughout the Russian/Mennonite experience, it seemed that the Mennonite Church was willfully disobeying Biblical injunctions from Yahweh against the pursuit of mammon, or perhaps the Mennonite Church leadership had merely misread/misunderstood Christ’s message. Ignoring the essence of Yahweh as a just God, and ignoring Christ’s admonitions to “sell all you have,” was to have grave consequences in real time.

The tremendous inequity between wealthy Russian Mennonites and the impoverished Russian proletariats and Mennonite disadvantaged, was a significant factor during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent collectivization efforts by Lenin’s Bolsheviks and Stalin’s Communists. The Mennonite wealth was painfully redistributed.

Surely the Soviet/Mennonite experience, harsh though it was, was indeed a message from Yahweh to the Mennonite Church, turn from the pursuit of wealth and prosperity, and turn towards justice, an echo of the very message that the people of Judah and Israel had received from the prophet Amos.

Some historians say that it is important to study history, in order to learn from our mistakes. From my vantage point here in southern Manitoba, it seems we have learned little indeed from the Soviet/Mennonite experience, or from our history in general. We are engaged in full-blown empire building and wealth accumulation with little regard for Yahweh’s justice. We have embraced a prosperity gospel, touting that financial well-being is the will of God. Unfortunately, it seems it is the prosperity gospel which motivates us, not the will of God.

Given all that has happened in a brief but eventful Anabaptist/Mennonite history, combined with the ministry of Jesus the Christ, as well as the understanding of Yahweh as a God of justice, surely Mennonite Church Canada should not be asking the question at this point, “whither to from here, Lord?” It is the 21st century, however I don’t think the message has changed all that much. But don’t take my word for it, as you search for deeper relationship with God.

Matthew 6:24 comes to mind, "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (NIV).

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