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A Hunger for Conversation

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Confession of Faith study explores diversity of understanding in the MB community

In the words of Brad Sumner, there are three things that hold us together as Mennonite Brethren, ‘shared convictions, shared relationships, and shared activities.’ Our shared relationships and activities come from a variety of places including events such as National Assembly, PCO, and EQUIP. Our shared convictions on the other hand, directly point to our MB Confession of Faith. Our shared confession expresses our shared identity, vision, and witness, with an assumed common understanding and function within the church.

But with such a broad landscape of churches, pastors, and congregations across the country, is it safe to assume everyone understands and applies the Confession in the same way? Sumner, along with other pastors, were asking this question and it led to a study that explores how Canadian MB congregations are currently using the MB Confession of Faith to shape and guide their theological identity, biblical interpretation, and how they live out their Christian faith.

The study’s biggest outcome shows that there is in fact a wide-spread understanding and application of the confession. But knowing this wasn’t the sole purpose of the study. The purpose of community based research goes beyond answering the question.

Executive Director of the Centre for Community Based Research, Rich Janzen, was asked to  assist in this research and shared what community based research means:

“How do you answer these kinds of questions in a way that’s collaborative? In a way that brings people together,” Janzen explained. “You’re not only answering those questions, but you’re also trying to then move those answers into some sort of collective action. It’s community-driven, it’s participatory, and it’s action-oriented.”

Sumner and Janzen brought together a research team and an advisory committee from across the country to help facilitate the study. These teams included MB pastors, educators, and national leaders.

Pastors and leaders from 17 Canadian MB churches took part in interviews. Pastors and churches were selected with the goal of having as much diversity as possible in categories such as geographic location, size of congregation, theological leanings, and gender and age of the pastor.

“I would say we were successful in getting a real sense of breadth across the country. What we were doing is essentially like drilling for water,” said Sumner. “You keep taking different core samples until you hit water. When all the water starts to taste the same and look the same, where you hear the same themes running underneath you, then you know you’ve got a good sense of breadth within the study.”

Sumner and Janzen stress that the study is in no way a quantitative picture of the entirety of pastors and congregations across the country. This study was an ‘exploratory qualitative study’.

“We’re not suggesting that this is comprehensive in its scope, but we did hear reoccurring themes again and again,” said Sumner.

The interview responses were consistently inconsistent.

“What we learned is that, for the most part, the average congregant is not very familiar with our Confession of Faith,” said Janzen. “It’s maybe not surprising, but worth seeing that even among pastors, there’s a range of some who really go deep and some who just put it in a drawer, and a bunch of stuff in between.”

Part of the study asked questions around how churches were using the confession. The responses varied greatly with some churches merely using it as a pamphlet during their membership classes, with no in-depth explanation of its importance. Sumner shared that although he was not surprised by the diversity of how churches were using, or not using, the confession, he was surprised by which churches were responding with less-conventional use.

Sumner suggests that our identity over the years has relied less and less on relationships and shared activities, leaving our shared beliefs to bear the weight.

“I think as the shared relationships have frayed, we’ve sort of switched the narrative a bit and asked the confession to do more of the heavy lifting,” said Sumner. “You start to ask, ‘Is this a document that can hold the weight that is being asked of it with the identifying space?’ And I don’t think that it can, because we’re not all actually using it in the same way.”

There is a document available through the conference called The Nature and Function of the Confession. This document walks through how the confession functions within the local church, but what is laid out here is not what Sumner and Janzen were hearing from pastors.

“Clearly either people are not reading it or they’re not understanding it in the same way, because what our research has found out is that people have very different understandings of the nature and the function of the Confession of Faith,” said Janzen. “There is work that needs to be done in communicating what the Confession of Faith is, and some consensus around how it is to be used.”

Not all the outcomes of the study were diverse, Janzen shares that pastors are on the same page when it comes to community hermeneutics, meaning how the church comes together around scripture to listen, discern, and interpret with the Spirit’s guidance.

“They know that when we get an interpretation it’s not because one or two people behind their desks told us how to think, but we do this by gathering and grappling together as a community to come up with our interpretation,” said Janzen. “So there was general affirmation that the confession affirms that and that people were affirming that.”

All of the outcomes that came out of the study are less about answering questions and more about asking new questions. Why are we seeing these patterns? What does this mean for us? Where do we go from here?

“The hunger for conversation is really one of my big takeaways here, but our lack of structural mechanisms to have those in productive ways seems to be a challenge in our current landscape right now,” said Sumner. “The diversity is not narrowing. It’s not shrinking. It’s not going away. We need to figure out mechanisms for us to talk about how diverse we are and what the implications are of our increasing theological diversity in the Mennonite Brethren Church in Canada.”

“Hopefully this study is a spark,” shared Janzen. “This study is not the end of understanding the Confession of Faith. It’s helping to frame a conversation that’s much needed.”

A more in-depth look at this study and the findings that came from it will be released in an upcoming issue of Direction. If you are interested in diving deeper into the study today, you can read the summary report here.

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