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It hinges on a hyphen

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V I E W P O I N T 

Let me be honest with you: I don’t want my kids to be evangelical Christians when they grow up.

It was only recently, in one of those rare moments of fatherly self-awareness, that I realized this. My teens are clearly not following my route into the Christian faith. Shouldn’t I be concerned about this?

I decided to be honest with myself: I wasn’t.

Being a parent means seeing our most closely held beliefs – even ones we’re not entirely aware we hold – played-out in front of us in our day-to-day decisions while taking care of those we love most.

Then this dad-epiphany blew open a second time: Shouldn’t I be concerned about the fact that I’m not concerned about this?

If I didn’t especially want my children to become evangelical Christians, what did this say about my own faith? Again, being honest with myself, evangelicalism had become not only something I couldn’t give to the people I love, but something I myself no longer loved.

This realization was shocking.

It wasn’t that I had arrived at a change of mind after careful, systematic analysis. It wasn’t that I’d emerged from the archives after discovering a commonly accepted error. It was just some instinct-level part of my being finally letting my brain in on a little secret: You don’t want that for your kids because you know it isn’t good.

Of course, I would like them to experience the love of God through Christ.

Christian faith is the source of everything that’s best and meaningful about my life, so, naturally, I’d like the same for them. Simple.

But, I don’t wonder if they’ve said the sinner’s prayer; I don’t worry they’ll go to hell; and I don’t manoeuver their social lives so their friends will hear an altar call.

Let me be even more honest.

I also don’t want them to head into the world thinking the people they meet are wrong to the degree those people are different from them.

I don’t want them to feel at odds with their bodies or someday be ashamed of sex.

Nor do I want them to feel like they can do whatever they want with the earth because God doesn’t really care about it.

I don’t want them to think the best they can do about people who are suffering is a passing prayer and an extra gush of gratitude for their own comforts.

And I don’t want them to stay in line with religious ideas just because a preacher is earnest and admired.

None of these feelings are unique to me. Outside of megachurches, the statistics for North America are pretty clear – for my generation and younger, there’s a rush at evangelicalism’s exit doors.

But there’s a second level to my epiphany.

This dad also happens to be an evangelical pastor.

Suddenly, things are not so simple. Because if I’m to be whole-souled myself, I can’t love my church in one direction and my family in another. I can’t coddle a status quo religion at work and hope at home my kids won’t fall for it. If loving my family means there’ll be none of that cozy banality so common in generic evangelicalism, what’s an honest evangelical pastor to do?

I don’t really have an answer for this, but I do, at the moment, have a way of holding myself together.

It hinges on a hyphen.

As Mennonite Brethren, we do indeed identify as evangelical, but that recently tattered adjective usually comes with a hyphenated second part – Anabaptist.

For me, this means we should follow Jesus in steady, practical ways, even when it’s unpopular or difficult or dangerous.

I’m not sure why Mennonite Brethren seem to have let this second half of our identity fade.

Maybe it’s just that Anabaptism is so relatively unimpressive, so seemingly less important, so, you know, simple.

Or – and now this is going to sound like a dad rant – maybe we’ve let ourselves get lazy, too caught-up with what our friends think is cool, too shy about just getting out there and being ourselves.

There’s hardly a more predictable evangelical manoeuvre than leaving when we disagree, so just finding another spiritual home feels counter-effective.

Maybe, to really come of age as Mennonite Brethren we don’t need to become less evangelical; we need to become better at it.

If we looked through Anabaptist eyes, we might just see again what’s most redeemable about the evangelical instinct.

That God can interrupt a backward life.

That we can’t just be born into discipleship – neither in 16th-century central Europe, nor in 19th-century Russia, nor even in a pastor’s home today.

These are things I continue to find compelling.

And that there’s something real, something – for lack of a less clichéd way of putting it – personal about the way God loves us, and that our faith is therefore life-giving and not just dry rule-mongering; well, that’s about as near the centre of the good news as I can try to express.

But without the hyphen joining it to Anabaptist, “evangelical” today has come to mean something entirely different, something more like the opposite of what I can honestly hope for anyone I love – either for my family, or for my church, or, come to think of it, for my neighbour.

That puts a lot of pressure on a little piece of punctuation, but, if I’m to be honest and whole, that hyphen needs to keep holding my faith, and me, together.

Paul Cumin

is senior pastor at Lendrum Mennonite Church, Edmonton.

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5 comments

Ryan October 6, 2019 - 20:29

Great post and I agree.

What is interesting to me is that I no longer find the MB denom to be Anabaptist but far more of the Reformed theology. But then I’m mostly familiar with the BCMB’s and not the Canadian conference.

Either way, thank you for the honest reflections. Appreciated. Also great to know there is a solid MB church in Edmonton to send my family to should they ever want to check out a non Catholic church haha.

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Paul Cumin October 7, 2019 - 23:48

Thanks for reading, Ryan, and for your comment. The not-so-Anabaptist / too-Reformed impression is not unique to you, for sure. I, personally, like good Reformed theology – don’t always agree with it, but it can be constructive and helpful in dialogue sometimes. On the other hand, what’s sometimes called “neo-Reformed” theology (though I’m not always clear what that means; sometimes just whiffs of re-branded fundamentalism) seems to me rarely much help. Keep pressing on.

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Brian Cooper October 7, 2019 - 14:21

This article raises what I think is a pressing question for MBs and Christians of all kinds. Which is better — to discard a label or term that seems to have outlived its usefulness and find a new one to replace it? Or to push back and try to reclaim terminology as we believe it ought to be understood, and lived?

While I resonate with the concerns articulated here, I choose to opt for the latter option. I believe in the power of the good news of Jesus Christ — as I know my brother Paul does — and I will struggle to not only defend but also demonstrate what good news looks like for people who are watching me. Will I fail? Yes, absolutely. But I will not abandon the quest and try to cover my depravity under a thin veneer of what I might call “grace.”

MBs have waited far too long to engage the sort of work that needs to be done to counter the trends identified in this article, and I am not sure that we will do enough soon enough to change them in our denomination. But I am convinced that what needs to be done can be done, and so I fight. In small ways, I fight. For my children, my friends, my students, and people who have not yet felt the warmth of the good news, I fight. And I know that Paul does, too.

And that is why I take comfort.

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Paul Cumin October 7, 2019 - 23:57

Love you, too, Brian. But tbqh you sound a bit… triggered? Am just an uncredentialed armchair psychologist so could be way off here but the brawly metaphor makes me want to dim the lights and ask soothing open-ended questions. Or, bro-to-bro, terminology-schmerminology, just a straight ask: what about Evangelicalism is worth fighting for?

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Brian Cooper October 9, 2019 - 00:38

Nothing about Evangelicalism is worth fighting for save the fact that some, including me, connect its meaning not to the -ism, but to the Evangel. It’s that part that seems worth fighting for. But in a nonviolent way.

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