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Something old, something new

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My Polish extended family has a tradition that shows up every time we get together for a wedding, anniversary, or birthday. At some point, my uncle will spontaneously stand up and start to sing (very poorly – we don’t have a musical bone in our bodies): Sto lat, sto lat, Niech żyje, żyje nam.

All my other aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents will rise to join in, until a loud chorus of voices fills the room (or drowns out the wedding MC). Loosely translated, the song wishes someone a hundred years of life and good health. Our family celebrations wouldn’t be the same without “Sto Lat.”

In every family, certain traditions and customs get passed down through generations. Our Mennonite Brethren family is no different, with those traditions and customs evident at

Gathering 2012

No, brother Jake didn’t get up from his seat and start singing “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” But we definitely showed a preference for doing things a certain way.

1. We still like to discuss and decide things as a group (although our 8-year-old governance structure may not allow for this to the degree many would like).

When executive director Willy Reimer invited consultant Terry Mochar to publicly share his “Four messages from the Lord” (see Outfront, July), there was a visible shifting in seats. Some delegates were thrilled. Some were moved to tears. Some felt uncomfortable.

Perhaps Canadian MBs aren’t accustomed to hearing bold, prophetic words spoken from the front – or perhaps just not from a guest. Whatever the reason, our MB community hermeneutic kicked into full gear – with several affirmations, questions, and comments coming from the floor. In the end, the board of faith and life was asked to take a closer look at Mochar’s report and his four prophetic messages.

From my vantage point, the process seemed to be a healthy “testing of the spirits” (1 John 4:1). For some (the pragmatists, perhaps) there was too much conversation and not enough action. For others (the analytical folks, perhaps), there wasn’t enough conversation or wrestling with details. However you look at it, it was the body of Christ at work.

2. We’re all pretty passionate about evangelism. It’s in our blood. (And it’s the reason delegates affirmed a sizeable national budget increase – we’re more than happy to support church planting!)

Historical Commission executive secretary Andrew Dyck reminded delegates of MBs’ historical commitment to evangelism in a short, poignant video featuring the late Henry Schmidt (long-time president of MB Biblical Seminary).

“The major challenge for the church and leadership,” said Schmidt in the video, “is to be far more intentional about evangelism and mission. I tell people if you can get through my classes without being infected with a heart for evangelism and the mission of the church, then either I’ve missed it badly, or you’ve slept through all my classes. Because our concern is for the larger mission and for reaching people, we must do something! How do we move beyond our four walls and reach out more?”

Narrowing our focus

The question is how far will we take that passion? Do we dare to hope – as Terry Mochar challenged us – for the salvation of all Canadians in the next decade?

The executive board is asking churches to deliberately hone in on an evangelistic, missional agenda. All conference programs and initiatives are being filtered through the lens of the great commission. In short, our executive is encouraging us to offer neighbours something more than feel-good, social programs.

Why? There’s a clue in a July 2012 New York Times article by columnist Ross Douthat regarding the demise of liberal Christianity. “The leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism…. What should be wished for is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence.” According to Douthat, this “religious reason” equates to belief in a “personal transcendent God… the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption, and the importance of Christian missions.”

Our Canadian executive is hoping we’ll avoid the same weaknesses as liberal churches by focusing on Jesus and his mission. This means talking more about the need for personal redemption and salvation through Jesus.

Will we rise to the occasion? Will we have the grace (and community sensibility) to allow individual churches to live out this call in different ways? And who will we choose to partner with in this mission?

At the end of Gathering 2012, delegates realized we are facing the beginning of something new. As we move forward, we must keep talking to each other, continuing to hold high our traditions of community and evangelism.

Seminary president Bruce Guenther summarized it well in his keynote address: “Could we work more eagerly at keeping the unity of the spirit? We do have differences among us. Some are theological. Some are regional. Some are just because we do things differently. These differences don’t mean we’re not unified. Let’s not withdraw from conversation.”

 —Laura Kalmar

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