Re:View: Are the changes helping us?
Thirteen people have occupied the driver’s seat at the MB Herald. Each person brought a unique perspective and a distinct voice to a particular time in the life of the magazine and the Canadian MB Conference. To celebrate our 50th year in print, “Re:View” welcomes back each of those men and women to reflect on their experience in the editor’s chair.—Eds
As I considered what I might write in this space, I thought of this church I love so much, the Mennonite Brethren.
I worry about her. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. I know that this is not an easy time to be a leader and shepherd of the church. We face great assaults from the world that surrounds us. Anyone who preaches and teaches into such an environment knows what challenges that poses. Our ideas about the church are influenced by many sources.
I write with hesitation because I know the people who have led us in the past decades have done so honestly and with good will. Their desire is to see the church healthy and growing. My fear, though, is that we have taken directions that are hurting us. In essence, I would argue we have been functioning less and less like a denomination.
This is happening in at least three ways. One has to do with the shift over the past three decades that moved us sharply away from making commitments to common projects. This is true both as provincial and national conferences.
Another has been the shift away from a strongly horizontal form of church governance, to one with a relatively small number of elected boards, a vertical line of authority, and a greatly enlarged conference staff.
The third has been the relative (I use this term carefully, because the exercise has not been entirely absent) neglect of work at bringing about confessional community.
Networking for mission
I was especially stimulated in my thinking about these questions as I read “Life in Those Old Bones,” by Southern Baptist Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today June 2010. Stetzer mounts a vigorous defence of denominations, in the face of the attraction that large, free-standing, independent churches have to the imagination of many who see them as the models for healthy and growing churches. But, writes Stetzer, be careful. Once you get past the hype, you often find that denominations, who do far less self-promotion, have been far more effective than we’ve given them credit for.
To Stetzer, two areas that denominations can put forward as strengths – or, need to nurture if they are to be strong – are “a rich sense of [their] theological and ecclesiological legacy” along with many, longstanding “cooperative relationships [that have been] networked for mission.” Another way to put it: the best denominations are those who share a rich sense of confessional unity developed over time alongside a willingness to commit to shared mission and ministry projects.
On both these fronts, we are struggling. I could cite any number of examples. A few years ago, we made the decision to place on the seminary the responsibility to raise its own funds. Our mission board has made all missionary candidates responsible to raise support for their work. A committee charged with nurturing a chaplaincy programs at B.C. universities was also told to raise the funds for it.
In my province, both MB Collegiate Institute and Family Life Network were instructed to incorporate separately, and committed funding to them was ended. Outtatown’s (created when Winkler Bible Institute closed) support ceased, though it more than fulfilled expectations.
Some 30 years ago, the Ontario conference made the decision to ask churches to decide before conventions how much they would commit to conference projects. Support for the work of the conference today is a fraction of what it was when that approach was first begun.
I do not write this to say that all these shifts are wrong, but they clearly identify a pattern. The question we must ask is this: what does it mean to be a conference of churches if not a willingness to commit to common ministries?
Unity in fellowship
Mennonite Brethren were birthed in an environment that drew on both historic Anabaptist teachings and the revitalizing influence of Pietism. The drafter of the first formal MB confession of faith (1902) noted he consulted earlier Anabaptist confessions, the historic creeds of the church, as well as Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, Pietist, and Eastern Orthodox confessions. The intention was to clarify both what Mennonite Brethren believed in common with all true followers of Christ and what distinguished them. It’s a task a denomination must constantly work at if its churches are to remain united in meaningful fellowship.
I recognize that we have had a number of gatherings in the past decade or so where we have worked at issues that relate to our common faith. These have involved our confessional statement itself (in Calgary), a conference on “gospel, culture and the church” (in Abbotsford), one that turned into an examination of the meaning of atonement (in Saskatoon), and still another on baptism and church membership (in Winnipeg). In virtually every case, they brought us closer together – that is, those who chose to participate. Lurking in the background was the troubling sense that some churches chose not to attend, quite strikingly some of the largest within the conference. Finding genuine confessional unity remains a great challenge for us, given our historic openness to vitalizing influences from without.
I won’t say a great deal about the major structural shifts we’ve made. It seems to me that a denomination whose roots are as deep within congregational governance as ours should be very cautious about moving as strongly from those roots as we have done. A Catholic observer in a Mennonite–Catholic dialogue process in which I participated once described our groups this way: he said, “We Catholics are strong at the centre and weak at the edges. You Mennonites are weak at the centre but strong at the edges.”
Mennonite Brethren seem to be trying to change that. We are trying to create a strong centre. But are we stronger in our churches as a result? I’m not sure.