In what way is Jesus “good news” for someone trying to “find” herself? Where can one find stories of redemption and grace for a neighbour unfamiliar with the Bible? How do you share the gospel with “a good person” who doesn’t feel a burden of guilt for wrongs done?
The theme of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba’s 2011 Assembly, Mar. 4–5, 2011, at Westside Community Church, Morden, Man., was “God’s rich vocabulary of grace: sharing the saving message of Jesus in ways people can understand.” Encouraging delegates to expand their vocabulary to explain Jesus’ redemptive work to friends and neighbours, seminary professor Mark Baker punctuated the conference with three addresses. Author of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, and editor of Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, the MBBS-Fresno professor of mission spoke on “images of grace for today.”
Images of grace for today
Baker took listeners at Friday evening’s open session on an imaginary journey to his prison Bible study, and told the story of the prodigal son through Middle Eastern eyes. He illustrated the costly love Jesus chose when he sided with the marginalized at the expense of ridicule and ostracism from the “in-group” of the day.
Borrowing a metaphor from Anabaptist author Scot McKnight, Baker urged delegates to use an entire “bag of golf clubs” Saturday morning to explain the gospel – choose the best “club” for a listener’s experience and situation. Examples: “Big Story,” InterVarsity’s James Choung’s explanation of how longing for a better world comes from and is fulfilled by Jesus; a broken mirror demonstrates how perception is fragmented and distorted without Jesus’s unblemished reflection; and language of disease shows how Jesus opened himself to the virus of wrongdoing to provide the antibody of salvation.
In the waning minutes of the convention, Baker raced through a study of ways the cross liberates people from shame: bringing new identity (Romans 8:16, 23) to counter shame for who you are, reconciliation (Romans 5:10) to address shame for the actions or status of your affiliates, and peace and love (Romans 5:1, 8) to remove shame for things you have done.
Baker called this varied vocabulary for Christ’s redemptive work “facets of a diamond” – all provide depth and different, beautiful perspectives on one saving gospel story. “Many Christians are looking for the one silver bullet,” one delegate reported from Saturday morning’s table discussion. “Mark is saying use everyday experiences where Christ is revealing himself.”
Having presented friends and neighbours with the gospel in ways they understand, Christians need to challenge them to “let go, repent, get off the treadmill.” Christians can provide a community, inviting friends to an “alternate culture” where “having the latest truck” is not all there is to life.
Hospitality. Relationship. Internal peace. This is the vocabulary of grace for three new churches officially welcomed into the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba.
- Connect Community Church reaches out to unchurched people, many on low incomes or residents of a care home in Winnipeg’s St. James neighbourhood.
- In a few years, Philadelphia Eritrean Church has grown from a handful gathering in a home to almost 200 worshipping in rented church space.
- Slavic Evangelical Church is a home away from home for Russian-speaking immigrants.
- Long-established churches have stories too: investment, not-done-yet, risk.
- Morden’s Westside Community Church has for six years been partnering with an agricultural ministry in Kikwit, DR Congo.
- Steinbach MB’s youth pastor Charlie Peronto has been teaching his youth that “the gospel doesn’t end with conversion,” and others are beginning to notice.
- Brandon’s Richmond Park MB had to take a risk or turn down what might be an answer to prayer when a local Hispanic congregation requested to use their building on a short timeline.
MB agencies also reported through story. Their grace vocabulary: possibility, attentive, freely, transformation, restoration.
- When volunteers in Mennonite Central Committee’s Circles of Support and Accountability walk alongside high-risk sexual offenders, 80 percent don’t reoffend.
- The impetus to mission travels like “spores,” from a West Portal Church missionary support team visit with MB Mission (formerly MBMSI) workers in Austria, to community prayer walks, to a young couple preparing to serve in a restricted access country.
- As Family Life Network became aware of the Roma community in Ukraine, an opportunity arose for Ukrainian FLN workers to partner with a Roma church leader.
- A challenge from the Canadian Association of University Teachers gave Canadian Mennonite University an opportunity to explain how academic freedom and honest inquiry fit into its mission and purpose as a Christian school.
- When raging forest fires turned away from Simonhouse Bible Camp at the eleventh hour last summer, the larger northern community took note.
The assembly accepted a 26-page employment agreement template drafted by the personnel committee and workshopped at October’s council of representatives in response to provincial employment standards. Moderator Harold Froese recommends congregations adapt the template to their church’s use, amending existing employment agreements to meet these requirements. MBCM executive director Elton DaSilva has been in conversation with provincial government representatives regarding a process to allow the “professional” designation to be applied to pastors (currently considered “employees”).
The assembly approved a change to Article 13 of the constitution, renaming it “faith and life committee.” The mandate of what was formerly the credentialing committee is expanded to include attending to theological and ethical issues faced by churches, and representing MBCM at the national board of faith and life. Members (conference pastor, national BFL representative, three members-at-large) are now appointed by the leadership board.
MBCM budgeted for a deficit in 2010 but ended up with a surplus of $24,186. The majority of conference revenue comes from the conference support fund (eight percent of receiptable revenue recommended). Though not all churches give eight percent, “the leadership board is pleased with the response from churches,” said Froese. The budget for 2011 anticipates a deficit ($49,092), in part due to the addition of executive director salary.
Though Simonhouse Bible Camp is now incorporated, MBCM’s annual capital grant of $35,000 continues, and the missions and church extension director continues to sit on the board. Congregations were encouraged to make corporate financial and personnel commitments to the camp as well.
A full slate of candidates was elected to board positions, including moderator Harold Froese, assistant moderator Gerald Dyck, and treasurer Glyn Allen. Outgoing moderator Ramsy Unruh was unable to attend the convention due to health concerns. (He was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour in November.) Responding to requests from MB members around the province, a love offering was taken for the Unruh family.
Two delegates from the floor encouraged the conference to continue to offer churches projects to work at collectively. “Let’s look ahead and see what we can do together,” said John Wieler of Portage Avenue Church, Winnipeg.
MBCM and CCMBC (Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches) officially introduced their new executive directors, Elton DaSilva and Willy Reimer, respectively, to the assembly. Both men spoke passionately about mission as the future for the church. “God is calling us to be ‘sent people’ to our world,” said DaSilva.