Pull up a chair

Art installation, Olga Lah (“compline,” 2011)

Art installation, Olga Lah (“compline,” 2011)

 

The joy of borrowing (and conversing) across denominations

Does my MB church follow a high church liturgy or worship to electric guitar? Do we reach the community through relief kits or revival meetings? What about sharing circles or children leading worship? How do we view the work of the Holy Spirit?

Mennonite Brethren have a history of gleaning from other church traditions, but deciding what to glean hasn’t been easy or unanimous. 

Sharing gifts

MB Biblical Seminary professor Andrew Dyck believes that answering “What can we use from another tradition?” requires getting around a table with its followers. “Are we what’s in our confession of faith, our publications, the failings in our history?” asks Dyck, “or are we what’s happening in our churches right now?” 

Each church has its own blind spots and flaws, and each brings its own gifts, says Dyck. “There’s a danger of narrowing down our [denominational] definitions so tightly that we lose sight of our failings and the gifts others bring. What’s lost is humility. We do well to remember ‘how unsearchable are the ways of God’” (Romans 11:33). 

Dyck offers the example of the Reformed movement: its gift is an emphasis on God’s grace and the reminder that God’s reign touches every part of life. Similarly, he says, Anabaptism reminds the global church of our responsibility to live out that grace: “Anabaptists are unashamed about discussing what it looks like to ‘work out salvation in fear and trembling’” (Philippians 2:12).

Considering churches in context

Andrew-DyckIn Dyck’s Congregational Mission and Evangelism class, students interviewed the leaders of 12 diverse Christian ministries, six of them MB: the C2C Network, The Meeting Place, Philadelphia Eritrean Church, House Blend Ministries, LaSalle (Man.) Community Fellowship and Eastview Community Church. The other six were from other denominations: Calvary Temple (Pentecostal), Spirit Path United, Springfield Heights Mennonite (MC Canada), Winnipeg Centre Vineyard, Indigenous Family Centre (Christian Reformed) and Trinity Presbyterian

“When I sat with these leaders, it confirmed that God intended each church to be a rich flavour, a buffet of choices,” says student Arisnel Mésidor, pastor of Église Communautaire de la Rivière Rouge (MB), Winnipeg. “More than ever, I’m optimistic about [denominations]: differences are good.”

Mésidor, and classmates Freda Klassen, a Red River College chaplain, and Jason Friesen, a youth leader at The Meeting Place, observed how each church’s context shaped its ministry. 

With its population of recent immigrants, Philadelphia Eritrean Church saw a need to help their children hold onto Jesus as they transition between cultures; out of that need grew the practice of involving their children in leading worship. As a volunteer at a mission in Winnipeg’s core, Klassen was touched by the Ethiopian-Eritrean gathering’s testimony: in Africa, they’re enemies; in Winnipeg, they’re the body of Christ.

Indigenous Family Centre raised questions about how far a church can go in adapting to its context. For some students, IFC’s practice of incorporating Aboriginal spiritual symbols into Christian worship was new and uncomfortable. Dyck encouraged them to ask, “Would an Aboriginal person walk in and say, ‘There’s something so different here, this is not aboriginal spirituality, this is Jesus?’”

After seeing how each church’s practices grew from their own contexts, as a chaplain, Klassen is more determined to encourage college students to critique, rather than blindly accept or discard, the culture they’ve inherited. 

“Each practice has flaws, but some of them are necessary correctives,” says Dyck, referencing the way churches like Eastview Community borrowed two decades ago from the seeker-sensitive movement to become more welcoming to non-believers; now the pendulum is swinging back toward greater focus on discipling believers. Dyck says, “We need to keep living in humility.”

Even churches with similar practices had different underlying theologies: Klassen notes that art at the Vineyard, an inner-city church that doubles as an emergency shelter, is a shared activity that fosters belonging. At The Meeting Place’s middle-class gathering, Friesen says, art is more professionalized: it’s an opportunity for musicians and painters to lead worship with excellence.  

“I’ve done away with the idea that I can read a book, go to church, apply it and have it work,” says Friesen. At each venue, the pastors reflected heartache and humility over the ways their results differed from what they set out to accomplish. 

“When you’re leading people,” says Friesen, “you can’t predict what they – and the Holy Spirit – are going to do.” 

Mésidor agrees: mission is not about our strategies, he says, but paying attention to how the Spirit is at work in our context.

Partnering on mission  

 “I’m not as fearful if something isn’t Mennonite Brethren,” says Friesen. Observing that some churches hold structures loosely, he wonders, “[Is] there more we can borrow from other traditions than what we think, [without] losing what’s really good about our MB distinctives?”

“I began to see it wasn’t just about thinking ‘This could apply to my ministry,’” says Klassen, but about asking “How can I join with what God is doing at each of these 12 ministries?”  

The course also encouraged Mésidor to keep his eyes open for opportunities for his small church to partner with others. “Not one church or denomination should be doing everything” was a liberating realization. “It’s okay if we only have resources to do two or three things; the whole body together – the church in all its locations – can do everything.” 

“The whole life of the church is about participating with God on mission,” says Dyck.

Growing from our roots

“I look at what makes people stop and listen to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” says Mésidor, not at which denomination is practising it. “If the Salvation Army or Catholic Church has the best strategy, I’ll use it.” We’ll always be different, he says, but “the mistake would be to let something we don’t agree on prevent us from working together in areas where we do.”

If what another group emphasizes rings true with our shared “roots” of Scripture, then its emphasis is ours too, says Dyck. As co-heirs with Christ, “we can claim any Christian spirituality that is faithful to the biblical witness and centrality of Christ as our inheritance” writes Erwin Klassen in Direction Journal.

“All our roots come from Jesus,” says Dyck. “Mennonite, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic – we’re always growing from our roots.” We study our church’s journey, not to reclaim some golden era, but to move forward. 

“Our roots are living,” says Dyck.

—Angeline Schellenberg

About the artist:

Olga Lah is a second generation Korean-American who lives  in Long Beach, Cal. She holds a B.A. from the University of California at Riverside, and an M.A. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Her interest in the relationship between theology and art led her to an art practice exploring these themes in site-specific installations and sculpture.


“Compline” is the hour of prayer before sleep in the tradition of Praying the Hours. “I wanted to create a dream-scape that reflected this hour that prepares one to enter into the unknown,” says Lah. “The chairs on the beach represent a relationship between the real and metaphysical, an incongruous situation that points to transcendence.”

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