Renewing Identity and Mission: a consultation on MB history, theology and calling
“After 150 years, you’d think we’d know who we are,” one participant noted at the Renewing Identity and Mission (RIM) consultation. Held July 12–14, RIM was part of Celebration 2010, an event marking the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren church. Pastors, historians, and seminarians presented 30 papers in 15 workshops, examining facets of MB history, theology, and practice. Scholars and laypersons – young or old, well-versed in the subjects or encountering ideas and histories for the first time – responded in roundtable discussions and Q&A sessions.
Diverse influences on the movement have always raised questions about what it means to be MB. But they have also formed the denomination into an entrepreneurial community of believers with a strong commitment to evangelism, biblicism, and a personally experienced faith. These themes were repeated, but assessment of how well we actually live out the values professed was largely absent. “I heard you say you are people of the Book, but I noticed very few of you carrying the Book,” Danisa Ndlovu, president of Mennonite World Conference, remarked at the binational session.
The mostly Canadian presenters spoke on the history and successes of the MB church in the past 150 years, and plenaries given by international brothers highlighted the global nature of the MB family, but American perspectives were under-represented. (Only 6 presenters out of 30 were American, not including the BFL Q&A which had equal Canadian and U.S. representation.)
Alfred Neufeld’s plenary address Monday night set the tone. “Denominations are not abominations,” Neufeld declared, urging his listeners to consider denominations a gift, a reflection of the diversity and beauty of creation. Not merely “cheap relativism about revealed truth,” denominations are a picture of how with “humbleness and even gratitude for the historic perspectives and special gifts, every church is able to contribute to the wider body of Christ.”
Neufeld, a theologian and leader in the Paraguayan MB conference and Mennonite World Conference, surveyed 16 commentators’ assessments of the birth and development of the denomination. Not to “lead us to a proud hagiography,” he said, but to “the consciousness that God has entrusted to us some precious jewels, some considerable talents, so that we might multiply them and do things better in the future.”
Renewal is a feature of the establishment of the MB church, said Neufeld, but he encouraged the church to recover its “apostolic and prophetic origins” in living out its mission today. Invoking MB anthropologist Paul Hiebert’s concept of critical contextualization, Neufeld urged that, as in the 1860s, the MB church should be critical not only of the broader cultural context, but also of its own current practice, in order to be a true community of covenanted disciples expanding the Kingdom of God.
Audience response zeroed in on ambivalence about identity, particularly at the local church level, where some worshippers at “community churches” are not aware their ecclesiastical home is MB nor understand what that “MB” means. In his official response to Neufeld’s paper, CMU president Gerald Gerbrandt affirmed the Mennonite Brethren’s “intuitive” passion for evangelism and mission but challenged the denomination to measure the lines we draw against the New Testament body of Christ.
Mission was on the tongue of each international presenter at Tuesday night’s plenary. John Sankara Rao of India and Nzuzi Mukawa of DR Congo spoke with gratitude about the first missionaries who risked safety and comfort to spread the gospel in foreign lands, “so that today, we might have Jesus,” said Mukawa. Today, Indian and Congolese MBs risk their health and security to bring news of the gospel to their neighbours.
César García of Colombia added an account of suffering in his own homeland, but spoke of opportunity for further mission through “traditional” methods (the Colombian church has sent missionaries to Peru, Panama, Mexico), and a method dating beyond 1860 to the New Testament church – migration.
The MB church in Germany (comprised largely of immigrants from the former Soviet Union) has seen this phenomenon as well, said Johann Matthies, mission development team leader for MBMSI in Europe. These Umsiedler struggle to connect with a European culture that sees the church as a bridge to nowhere.
Participants affirmed the vision of holistic mission presented by international guests, and named challenges like aid without paternalism, a healthy distribution of finances, fear and uncertainty about engaging a culture that doesn’t believe in truth, and awareness of need in our own backyard. “The glut of information is paralyzing,” said Randy Klassen of West Portal Church, Saskatoon, but “profound humility” is our starting point.
RIM workshop presenters faced the same challenge as the plenary speakers – addressing an audience that runs the gamut from professional historians and theologians to interested church members with limited knowledge of MB history and theology. The papers were academic and favoured the former group, but the lively discussions which followed each presentation made room for all. With two presenters per 90 minute session, each was allotted about 25 minutes after introductions; half an hour was given to questions from the floor. Three sessions in each timeslot were organized loosely around themes: MB identity, MB theology, and MB mission.
The majority of the 10 workshop papers presented in Track 1 explored questions of identity in the context of Mennonite Brethren history. Presenters were primarily educators from a variety of disciplines, although historians dominated the line-up. They frequently spoke of the inherent difficulty in labelling MB identity and theology.
“There is virtual consensus that multiple influences impacted early Mennonite Brethren and that this convergence of influences was controversial at the time and still is today among MB historians,” said Bruce Guenther. How best to categorize this new movement was vigorously debated. “Despite the fact that the movement claimed to associate with Anabaptists, in many ways they intentionally borrowed from others.” Guenther called this amalgamation a “new way of doing Mennonite.”
Baptists influenced the early MB’s understanding of conversion, said Andrew Dyck, in his paper on conversion and spirituality. Gay Lynn Voth’s paper explored the implications of the willingness of early Mennonite Brethren to borrow theology, among other things, from various groups.
The significant influence of Pietism was noted in several sessions, including the opening paper by historian Abraham Friesen. The conversation following Friesen’s paper was lively, as participants criticized Friesen for being “too hard” on the Pietists and for not providing his audience with a clear definition of Pietism. The difficulty of defining Pietism was acknowledged by more than one presenter, but unlike Friesen, some attempted to do so anyway. Harold Jantz noted the Russian Mennonite church was very formal while MBs “wanted life in the church and to encounter Jesus and that’s what Pietism was for them. It also opened up their world to mission and other Christians.” Larry Warktentin offered five characteristics: Pietism emphasized the Bible and Bible study, godly living, and hope of transforming the individual, the church, and the world.
The influence of evangelicalism, specifically the current trend among U.S. and Canadian MB to describe themselves as both evangelical and Anabaptist, was also explored in this track. Guenther argued that MBs have always been both evangelical and Anabaptist. “This dual identity is a huge advantage to us,” he said, because it allows Mennonite Brethren to draw selectively and critically from both streams.
When asked why the evangelical and Anabaptist aspects of MB identity have interacted as “oil and water,” Guenther responded: “I don’t think they are polar opposites. The reason the traditions came together is precisely because there is such compatibility between them that it works.”
Other papers presented in this track explored a specific aspect of Mennonite Brethren identity in North America.
- Valerie Rempel explored how Mennonite Brethren have “officially” told their story and how the decisions made in the storytelling process have helped to form the denomination’s identity. Harold Jantz used life stories of four Canadian leaders to point out strands of MB identity recognizable to this day.
- Survey findings: Sam Reimer reviewed the Canadian Evangelical Churches Study, noting that the identity of Canadian MB churches tends to be strongly evangelical, less Anabaptist. Lynn Jost outlined trends in preaching and changes in MB identity revealed by a bulletin survey of six U.S. MB churches from 1955 to the present.
- Myron Penner outlined the popular view of intellectual history, then countered that understanding with an explanation of how philosophers themselves understand the role of reason in demonstrating that belief in God is intellectually viable. The session ended before Penner made the connection between philosophy and MB identity, but the Q&A time showed his material engaged participants.
In Track 2, each session highlighted the importance of community hermeneutics – the discipline of working together at theology. Of course, conflict was an underlying theme in these workshops. Tim Geddert and Doug Heidebrecht’s papers explicitly asked the questions the other workshops danced around: how do we figure out what the Bible says – together – and what is the role of the MB confession in that process?
The MB church has always valued biblicism, said Geddert, but he cautioned against inadequate understanding of cultural factors, both for our own reading, and in the original audience, and challenged us to bring a discerning mind to every promise and command recorded in the Bible. The Confession of Faith points back to the Bible even as it attempts to lay out our understanding of it. “It’s important not to lose our engagement with texts and the Confession,” said Heidebrecht. “The Bible is always right, but is our interpretation correct?” Geddert asked. Thus, “we must engage with people – it makes our theology better.”
- Jericho Ridge Community Church navigated the waters of the contentious Women in Ministry Leadership issue by using a multilevel, inclusive discussion process to come to congregational resolution. The process is as important as the decision, said pastors Brad Sumner and Keith Reed: members felt heard, gained instruction on the issue, and learned how to disagree respectfully.
- “Church life is more an emotional journey than a theological one,” said Dan Unrau in his paper on the role of family systems in conflict within the church; “When we know our families, we know ourselves.” With a healthy understanding of ourselves and each other, we can “learn to walk toward conflict.”
- According to J Janzen, Canadian MBs have lacked a robust peace witness. We have not wholly rejected the use of force, nor fully engaged in social activism, nor managed interpersonal and congregational conflict well, he asserted, citing our emphasis on evangelism and personal peace with God as major factors. He challenged MBs to reach a more holistic understanding, erasing the line between good works and good news, relocating individuals within a community of faith and accountability – and above all,“be humble.”
- In a report on his organization’s theological orientation, Don Peters explained that Mennonite Central Committee is working intentionally to be “on the same page” with ICOMB, recently adopting a statement of faith (“Shared Convictions” of the Mennonite World Conference) that agrees with the ICOMB Confession.
Questions about jurisdiction dominated the BFL Q&A, along with topics that need discernment. At the end, USMB BFL chair Larry Nikkel’s question still hung in the air: “Should the BFL be more prophetic in its leadership?”
Speakers and delegates affirmed that a heart for missions and a desire to reach unsaved people “is in the DNA of Mennonite Brethren.” Over our 150-year history, missionaries have thanked God for providing knowledge and guidance to carry out the task. But there are always challenges. Track 3 provided an overview of 2010 mission realities – on what’s new, what’s still true, and what’s to do.
- The sweeping reach of media: satellite TV, radio, and internet are producing fruit in previously unreachable parts of the globe. It’s probably “the most exciting single change” at work in missions today, said Randy Friesen.
- The emerging generation: the digital world is “messing with our minds” and has “changed how we do life,” Jules Glanzer explained, making it all the more important to be present, face-to-face people, as Christians.
- Holistic church planting: meeting physical human needs while ministering spiritually is a major success story in this period.
- Partnership – with the local church to support media and material outreach, and between national conferences: ICOMB’s work to develop confessional unity among its 19 conference members, is building a “global sense of what it means to be MB,” said Abe Dueck.
- Interculturalism: Canadian society is increasingly multicultural, but the church is lagging behind. To truly make a place for others, churches must go beyond the peaceful coexistence of multiculturalism, learning “self-critique” and “empathy” for those who are different, said Ken Peters. Beware – the church will be changed in the process.
What’s still true
- Suffering and persecution: the greatest growth in the church is under “authoritarian and oppressive regimes.” Those on the edges of society may have less to lose, and thus experience fewer impediments to accepting a life-changing gospel.
- The gospel: some people groups – Quebecers, post-secondary students – seem indifferent to religion, but Eric Wingender reminded us that the incarnation still resonates there. Faith communities who model the life of Jesus and invite others to join engage the irreligious.
- A missionary impulse: former MB mission fields (DR Congo, India) are larger in membership than Canada and the U.S., and are sending their own missionaries abroad. North American members comprise only one-sixth of the global population of Mennonite Brethren.
What’s to do
- Understand and engage young people. The 18–30 age bracket is the first group in our culture to take its own importance for granted, Gil Dueck explained, yet, many are still searching for identity in a pluralistic world. They associate adulthood with stagnation, feel chronically in transition – and are under-represented in churches. Rebecca Stanley reported that University of B.C. has 47,000 students, but only 500 of them are involved with any Christian club on campus.
- North Americans may have a sense that western missionaries are no longer needed, but Randy Friesen noted that in such a rapidly changing field, western mission workers still have an essential role to play.
- Using the NASA space program as a model, Terry Wiseman explained how the expensive, outmoded models of the past need to give way for innovation and return to the basics. “Embrace the unfamiliar” and “give yourself away” he urges church planters.
Kicking off the closing session of the consultation, BFL chairs Lorraine Dick of Canada and Larry Nikkel of the U.S. responded on behalf of the listening committee. “I pray these discussions will result in work ” – both for the BFL and local churches, said Dick. “To only think about a subject is not enough…. How will I allow God to transform mission in my life so that I will continue to serve faithfully where God has placed me?” Identifying change as a thread through the fabric of our history, USMB BFL chair Larry Nikkel said, “We should work creatively in managing change instead of resisting.” We must continue to ask “who are we?” but “continue to be dedicated to walking in [Jesus’] way as we best understand it.”
As befits a consultation, participants had the last word at RIM, discussing around tables then presenting their findings to the larger group. They still had questions about boundary making with the Confession of Faith, how to do mission, and how to value and engage the voices of young people in the church, and felt they had only scratched the surface of all there was to learn and discuss. But there was also plenty to affirm, and excitement for what had been learned over the three days.
There were some cautions, too. “MBs must guard against spiritual arrogance and exclusivity,” said David Gibson from Sardis Community Church, Chilliwack, B.C. “We need enough face time together to understand what we mean by words we use,” urged Edith Dyck from Crossroads MB Church, Winnipeg. Several others wondered, “Where was the time spent praying together?”
“The local church is like a nuclear family,” said Tor Norris of Country Bible Church, Orland, Cal., summing up his experience with an analogy and a prayer for the MB church of the future. It needs to hear stories about the past, but realize it’s not the same as in the past. Family changes as children grow up and bring home spouses. “Each new culture enriches us, makes us more complete. We’re going to be losing our current identity as we give it away. In return, we’ll take on more and more the identity of Jesus Christ.”
Karla Braun, with files from Barrie McMaster, Connie Faber.
Renewing Identity and Mission
MBBS-ACTS, Langley, B.C. July 12–14
Track 1: identity
“Mennonite Brethren: Anabaptist or Pietist?”
—Abraham Friesen, Reformation history professor emeritus, University of California-Santa Barbara
“Four early MB church leaders”
—Harold Jantz, former editor, MB Herald; author of Leaders Who Shaped Us
“Evangelical-Anabaptist? The perils and potential of a dual identity”
—Bruce Guenther, associate professor of church history and Mennonite studies, MBBS-ACTS
“Marking the boundaries: Mennonite Brethren, theology, and deviance”
—Gay Lynn Voth, former professor of theology, CBC
“Telling our story”
—Valerie Rempel, professor of history and theology, MBBS
“Christian philosophy and MB theology”
—Myron Penner, associate professor of philosophy, TWU, Langley, B.C.
“MBs in Canada: Findings from the Canadian Evangelical Churches Study, 2009”
—Sam Reimer, professor of sociology, Atlantic Baptist University
“The Word proclaimed: A bulletin survey of U.S. MB preaching”
—Lynn Jost, president, MBBS-Fresno
“Can the centre hold? Conversion in MB spirituality”
—Andrew Dyck, pastor, Highland Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C.
“The sound of faith: How hymns we sing reflect and shape our MB identity”
—Larry Warkentin, professor emeritus, FPU
Track 2: theology
“Reading and interpreting the Bible”
—Tim Geddert, academic dean, professor of New Testament, MBBS-Fresno
“Confessing our Faith: The significance of the Confession of Faith in the life of the church”
—Doug Heidebrecht, director, CMBS, Winnipeg
“Passing on peace? Canadian MBs and peacemaking”
—J Janzen, pastor at Highland Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C.; interim editor, MB Herald
“Radical ecclesiology: Reflections from a Colombian Mennonite Brethren perspective”
—César García, pastor, professor, and former president of the Mennonite Brethren churches of Colombia
“Discernment in the local church”
—Brad Sumner, pastor, Jericho Ridge Community Church & Keith Reed, associate pastor, Jericho Ridge Community Church
“Family systems and the church”
—Dan Unrau, pastor, Fraserview MB Church
Q&A—USMB & CCMBC BFLs
“The global MB mission movement: Some reflections and projections”
—Ray Harms Wiebe, global program team leader, MBMSI
“Mennonite Brethren at 150 and MCC at 90: Past, present, and future”
—Donald Peters, executive director, MCC Canada
Track 3: mission
“The MB church as global community: unity and diversity”—Abe Dueck, interim secretary, Historical Commission
“Modern mission movements: Learnings, applications, and areas of need”
—Randy Friesen, executive director, MBMSI
“The Mennonite Brethren gospel in Quebec”
—Richard Lougheed, librarian, ETEM, Montreal; chair of elders, Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal
“MB identity in a post-colonial, post-Catholic, and secular society”
—Eric Wingender, professor and vice president, ETEM, Montreal
“A faith I can call my own: Discipleship and identity formation among emerging adults”
—Gil Dueck, professor, Bethany College
“Pioneers once again: How one MB community is re-engaging with urban university students”
—Rebecca Stanley, church planter, Urban Journey & chaplain, UBC
“Sink or swim? An Anabaptist responds to the call for ‘Deep Church’”
—Brian Cooper, pastor, Northside Community Church, Mission, B.C.
“The emerging church: Lessons for us in identity formation”
—Jules Glanzer, president, Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kans.
“An intercultural approach to ministry in multicultural contexts”
—Ken Peters, pastor, Saanich Community Church, Victoria
“What’s wrong with this space shuttle?”
—Terry Wiseman, director of board of church extension, ONMB
Papers presented at the Renewing Identity and Mission seminars will be collected and edited, to be published by Kindred Productions in June 2011.