Why Mennonite education matters

October 5, 2016 | Feature | Volume 20 Issue 20
Terry Schellenberg | Special to Canadian Mennonite

"Why should young people from our congregations choose a Christian college or university like Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, B.C., Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., or Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg, instead of a public university?” The question posed to me for this piece is often seen as the either-or choice for students, and the obvious starting point for conversation.

While not unimportant, I wonder whether a different, perhaps more foundational, question is more helpful: “Should Mennonite schools matter to the church at all?” And if so, what might such “mattering” look like? This question points to the heart of these schools as much as to the church that birthed them. Neglecting it also shapes identity and purpose, and over time unties a relationship that I’m convinced is mutually essential to both church and school.

Young adults from our congregations are choosing from many excellent public university and college programs and degrees. They are finding career success in widely varying fields. Each of the three church schools named is connected variously and in vital ways with public university systems. And while I resist the manner in which public universities can position themselves as “value neutral” and as “the economic engines of society”—“innovatively preparing students for the world of tomorrow”—there is much that happens within and through them that is important.

Our church’s questions revolve not around whether our young adults have adequate study and career options available. Rather, as part of a calling out of their vocation, we must wrestle with how a vision for faith, character, peoplehood and witness are formed and deepened. It’s from these questions that the church can also imagine and call out a vision to strengthen the vocation of its schools.

Grebel, CMU and Columbia were birthed by different Canadian Mennonite communities, in unique geographical and cultural contexts. Particular theological, educational and church impulses shaped the vision and program of each one. Over time, much has changed in society, church and school. We in the church confront a range of opportunities and strains. While each of our church schools has shaped a unique programmatic focus, all three continue to exist from the heart of the church. None of them exists for itself. It’s what happens through and beyond them that matters.

My care for the church has been nurtured by people, and the life and witness of Mennonite congregations, in Calgary; Alsace, France; Elkhart, Ind.; Kitchener-Waterloo; and Winnipeg. I have also been privileged to attend to work in various Mennonite schools. I’m absolutely convinced that these schools matter to the witness of our church and to the young adults who find their way within them.

At times, my caring for church and school can also be threaded with frustration. We in the church struggle with how to tend and strengthen these schools. At times, we’ve been uncertain how to engage in the meaningful or complex conversations about our church’s hopes, needs and strains. Our church often hesitates to cast a vision for our young adults for why these schools matter deeply to the faith and the peoplehood we long to embody. We can be quick to name our schools’ insufficiencies and failures—indeed, both schools and church have them. In our struggle, we as a church fail ourselves as much as our schools.

Here’s what I’m convinced our church schools are called to:

Be Christian, be Anabaptist

The young adults from our congregations long for places in which to authentically explore and deepen their faith. They are thirsty for opportunities, through a range of disciplines and experiences, to think critically and reflectively on God, the world and their place in it.

It takes time and intentional practice to nurture a trusting faith and to build and renew foundations for following Jesus Christ in life. Our schools have unique capacity and, indeed, carry a sacred trust to open Christian faith in a complicated world, and to formulate wise questions that help reveal God’s mystery and presence.

They are places in which young adults connect with others who are part of the wider, diverse communion of God’s people. Here, they are intentionally invited to patient discernment of the Bible as a guide to faithfulness. It’s in the classes, hallways, dining halls and residences of these schools that students learn and practise the counter-testimony narratives and paradigms that form faith.

It’s also in our schools that an understanding of our Anabaptist theological particularity is opened for students—often for the first time. Invariably when we are most comfortable with “being Mennonite,” we are most open to “being ecumenical”—to contributing generously to, and learning with humility from, the diversity of God’s people.

Anabaptist Christians bring particular convictions and gifts to the table: Scripture and the Sprit give witness to God’s voice; truth should be lived; Jesus meant what he said, and he was talking to us; Jesus’ vision of salvation is rooted in relationship with a merciful God and is tied to compassion in our world; disciples are formed essentially and inseparably within living, worshipping communities of faith; and, in a world of violence and fear, learning Jesus’ way of peace and reconciliation, and living a passion for justice and for how God’s Spirit can make us whole, matters.

It’s also in each of our schools that we can nurture a vocational call for our church’s young adults who are pursuing diverse career paths as business and tradespeople, medical practitioners, engineers, farmers and much more. It’s here that their passions are brought into conversation with faith, and their inmost longings with the world’s need.

Model invitational community

The longing of young adults for connection in community tempers the individualized impulse of our culture. It also speaks a hopeful narrative within our own sometimes splintered church story.

Our schools have such potential to nurture formative communities, with faculty mentors playing a critical part. Learning to dialogue about faith and life with those who share similar convictions, and with others whose convictions are other than their own, is a gift to students. Our church has much to learn from the generous and broad hospitality cultivated in these schools.

Think and connect

Our church and society are confronted with straining complexities of economic and ecological resilience, migrations of people, dialogue about science, technology and social agency, and much more. The commitment of our church schools to have students think about life and faith with all its mysteries, to imagine boldly, to ask questions of every kind, and to connect their heads with their hearts, is to be valued. Connecting students to conversations with current voices, and with writers, thinkers and questions offered long before we came on the scene, is critical.

Our church needs Anabaptist leaders whose faith, relational skill, and creative vision for mission and witness help us to more intentionally be the church. Nurturing broadly educated, bold, entrepreneurial pastoral leaders in our schools is essential to our church’s future. No less important is to prepare our young adults who will be teachers, healthcare professionals, accountants, carpenters and musicians, to be as theologically attuned for the life of faith as they are for their careers. Training theologically literate leaders—formal and lay—who catch, reflect on and live into a vision for God’s kingdom is an essential calling.

Finally, I believe these schools can serve as a frontline laboratory for our church, helping the church think carefully about what it means to be faithful and transformative in all its dimensions. Where else are young adults and Christian scholars from many disciplines dedicating themselves to think clearly and critically about the world in all its forms?

Grounding in the arts and humanities, Bible, sciences, theology and music are important to preparing students for life. It’s in our church schools that the potential exists to bridge the silos of these disciplines and bring them together into meaningful conversation. It’s there that academic study and a rigorous pursuit of truth in our living are threaded. As Christian scholars in our schools root themselves in living, worshipping faith communities, their thinking and teaching are strengthened by the church’s understanding of God and its witness in the world.

“Should Mennonite schools matter to the church at all?” Perhaps we as a church pose this question and engage in its possibilities too infrequently. I am convinced that both church and school are strengthened by caring enough to call out a vision for who we might be together. There is unique capacity in our schools to help form our young adults and to have our scholars listen attentively to, and walk alongside, the church in facing complex strains.

Indeed, I’m convinced that church and school serve as vital anchoring points for the other. They each function as necessary symbols for the other, communicating that biblical scholarship and theological reflection matter across every discipline and through all of life. As in any relationship, lack of intentional connection can too easily push school and church apart, and we neglect or take one another for granted, to the detriment of both.

We—in school and church—must care enough to tend and carry the gift and the strains into conversations that strengthen our shared vocation and our capacity to make pilgrimage together. Our Mennonite schools matter a great deal to the young adults and the church they serve. When such vision is clear, we can, with conviction, offer compelling alternatives to young adults and their influencers who are considering a plethora of post-secondary options.

Terry Schellenberg has been the external vice-president at CMU since 2009. In addition to teaching, his career has included 20 years of service as a junior-high and high school principal in Alberta and Ontario. He graduated from Canadian Mennonite Bible College, one of CMU’s founding colleges, in 1979. He is a member of Home Street Mennonite Church, Winnipeg.

See also “Schools report on 2016 fall enrolment.”

For discussion

1. What Mennonite schools have members of your congregation attended? What was the vision that drove the founding of these schools? How does the broader church benefit from strong church schools?

2. How much does your congregation encourage young people to consider attending Mennonite schools? Terry Schellenberg confesses his frustration when it seems the church has no vision for why church schools matter. Do you share his frustration?

3. Schellenberg suggests that church schools are good places for young people to “explore and deepen their faith” as they “think critically and reflectively on God, the world and their place in it.” Is this an important motivation for students who attend these schools? What role do parents and the church play in these decisions? Are the schools you know successful in helping students deepen their faith?

4. Schellenberg writes, “[T]hese schools can serve as a frontline laboratory for our church” as scholars “think clearly and critically about the world.” Can you think of examples of students helping to present new ideas to the church? Is the Emerging Voices Initiative an example?

—By Barb Draper

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