Renewing Identity and Mission: Mennonite Brethren Reflections After 150 Years

Renewing Identity and Mission: Mennonite Brethren Reflections After 150 Years
Abe J. Dueck, Bruce L. Guenther, and Doug Heidebrecht, eds.

This book includes 17 of the 30 presentations given at the Renewing Identity and Mission consultation celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren at Trinity Western University, Langley, B.C., July 12–14, 2010. The consultation, attended by some 300 delegates, was planned by the Centre for MB Studies together with the MB Historical Commission.

The evening plenary sessions provided a global perspective with presentations by representatives from Paraguay, India, DR Congo, Colombia, and Germany. Alfred Neufeld gave the plenary address and it is the first chapter in the book: “Recovering Apostolic and Prophetic Origins and Identity: Revisiting the Meaning of Mennonite Brethren Dissent in 1860.”

The book invites all MBs to reflect on who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re heading. The book is divided into three sections: Historical Reflections, Theological Reflections, and Missional Reflections. To acquaint you with the authors, I will first list them and the subjects they tackle; then, we’ll look at some of the provocative approaches these authors take and the question raised for our days ahead as local MB churches. Have we quietly been deceived and conformed to this world? Read on.

Content review

In the historical section, Valerie Rempel (associate dean and professor, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, Cal.) reviews four books that reflect seasons of our 150-year story, beginning with P.M. Friesen’s history of 1910. Bruce Guenther (interim president and associate professor, MBBS-ACTS, Langley, B.C.) explores our identity as evangelical and Anabaptist. We can use the “evangelical” designation when relating to other Mennonites and the “Anabaptist” one when dealing with other evangelicals, he suggests. Abraham Friesen (professor emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara) suggests that early MBs didn’t really know that much about our Anabaptist forefathers. Larry Warkentin (professor emeritus, Fresno Pacific University) points out that most of our original MB hymns were of Pietist origin and that, at present, we sing quite a mix in our churches. Jonathan Janzen (pastor, Highland Community Church (MB), Abbotsford, B.C.) points out that the peace witness of Canadian MBs is not all that strong.

In the theological section, Doug Heidebrecht (former director of the Centre for MB Studies, Winnipeg) analyzes and evaluates our MB Confession of Faith and the changes it has undergone through the years. Since it reflects how we understand Jesus and the Bible, Heidebrecht believes it should play more of a role in our churches than it does. Tim Geddert (professor, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary) wants us to keep working creatively at what it means that we want to be truly Bible-centred. He has some constructive suggestions as to how this can be done. Andrew Dyck (pastor, Highland Community Church, and chair, Historical Commission) deals with the elusive question of conversion. Besides being Bible-centred, he writes, MBs have always emphasized that every member should be able to testify of a “new birth.” What does this now mean to us? César García (general secretary, Mennonite World Conference, Colombia) asks whether we still believe what our Anabaptist and MB forebears believed about the nature of the local church. In the process, he asks some heart-searching questions. Brad Sumner and Keith Reed (pastors, Jericho Ridge Community Church (MB), Langley, B.C.) tell the story of how their congregation tried to practice community hermeneutics with the Women in Ministry Leadership issue.

In the missional section, Ray Harms-Wiebe (global program team leader, MB Mission), himself an MB missionary in Brazil for many years, reflects on how the international mission field is exposing strengths and weaknesses in our church theology and practice here at home. Lynn Jost (dean, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary) analyzes sermons preached in six MB churches in the U.S. between 1955 and 2009, and also evaluates a questionnaire sent out to 10 pastors, a few also from Canada. Sam Reimer (professor, Crandall University, Moncton, N.B.) analyzes a 2009 survey of outreach by evangelical denominations in Canada. MBs come out pretty well at all points compared to the other denominations. However, only 10 percent of our growth is by conversion, and our Anabaptist identity is quite weak in the face of a dominant generic evangelicalism. Richard Lougheed (lecturer, ETEM, Montreal) has lived in Quebec for more than 20 years and concludes that MBs’ role in Quebec will probably require some “radical rethinking” in the days ahead. We reached a high point around 1982 with some 1,000 attending MB churches (after a mass exodus from Catholic churches beginning in 1966). Since 2002, a significant waning has set in. Gil Dueck (instructor, Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask.) has studied trends among “emerging adults” aged 18–30, and wonders whether increased educational enrollment and delayed marriages, along with rampant individualism, isn’t poor soil for Christ’s call to discipleship – although he finds some hope in the new forms Delbert Wiens advocates that will recapture our MB longing for an “experiential faith.” Rebecca Stanley (pastor, Urban Journey (MB), Vancouver, and University of B.C. chaplain) reports on efforts being made to witness to the gospel and to gather a congregation among students. There are many open doors, but, as of yet, it remains to be seen what will come of it.

Prophetic exhortations

From these many themes, the subject of leadership elicited some particularly challenging comments, especially by Neufeld, García, and Harms-Wiebe. Unlike some of the more academic themes, this subject touches every one of the 37,000 MBs in Canada, connected to one of our 242 MB churches.

“Essential nature” of the church

Neufeld began the consultation saying the original MBs felt compelled to recover the essential nature of the church, the existential dimension of salvation, and the transcultural mission of the Holy Spirit. He ended his address by saying that if we are still pursuing these three passionately, the MB church has a future. But, this will be costly; for to be truly apostolic and prophetic, it will mean, once more, “denouncing the false gods of nationalism, consumerism, capitalism, a shallow health and wealth gospel, evangelism without ecclesiology and without ethics, intellectualism and emotionalism.” That is what it will take to be local churches “built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).

Neufeld admits, however, that although we began as a spontaneously spreading “movement,” we have since turned into a “denomination” – which means we have offices and hierarchies of boards and committees, etc. But Neufeld never raises the problem of “institutionalization,” nor does anyone else in the book. As we know, the early church ultimately suffered this fate, as did the Anabaptists. MBs would be totally unrealistic if we thought we’d be spared this future. By listening to the questions García and Harms-Wiebe raise, we’ll see what some of the issues are that we need to face.

Encouraging all the gifts

To keep the mission fires burning, we need not only more apostles and prophets, but evangelists as well, writes Harms-Wiebe. When these three kinds of gifts of Christ do not feel freedom within our local MB churches and in our outreach, then “the growth of God’s kingdom is seriously undermined.” Further, when the pastor-teacher is more than a function among us, but has the authority of a position/office, “the experience of God’s fullness in the life of Christ’s body is stifled.” But when local MB churches are reaching out to the world around them in love – using all the gifts of Christ – they will be the primary context for theological reflection and the discernment of such gifts regardless of their leadership structure.

Leaders who serve, followers who contribute

On the subject of worship in the local MB church, García says all are to participate in the worship and in edifying one another. A worship service needs to be “more than one mouth speaking to many ears, which is the tradition that has infiltrated many Mennonite Brethren churches.” What is especially striking among early Anabaptists is the “rejection of the preacher’s monologue” and an uncompromising emphasis on congregational participation. García’s point is well supported by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:26–33.

García also says “putting an end to clericalism [the unbiblical dichotomy between clergy and laity] is part of the saving work of Christ.” This doesn’t imply that a local church should not have leaders. “It implies that the structure of leadership has to be different from the secular models that facilitate authoritarianism.” Jesus, as we know, took a strong stand against authoritarianism and hierarchy: “It shall not be so [lording power over others] among you!” (Matthew 20:20–27, RSV, also Matthew 23:8–12). In the early churches, the function and gift of each member was placed at the service of the others. Each believer is gifted, and in the area of their gifting, is a leader. The role of an elder is to see that the gift of even the least in the assembly is not overlooked. This is how a local body is built up “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

Many will see these as prophetic exhortations to which we must respond. I would strongly recommend this book to all those who have the future of our local and global MB church at heart. As Jesus said to his disciples, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).

Herb Klassen is a member of South Abbotsford (B.C.) Church (MB), and a former history professor and prison chaplain.

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