Re-Imagining the Church: Implications of Being a People in the World
Robert J. Suderman
Wipf & Stock
Pastoring the French-speaking Mennonite Brethren church in Winnipeg for five years, I realized that pastoral leadership can be one of the most difficult responsibilities one can have. There are several reasons, but one is the fact that there is little consensus on the matter of the church’s identity and mission. In Re-Imagining the Church: Implications of Being a People in the World, Robert J. Suderman aptly articulates a clear understanding of the matter.
The author and the book
In the book’s introduction, Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld refers to author Robert J. Suderman (known as Jack) as a school teacher and principal, professor and seminary dean, missionary, denominational executive leader, conference lecturer, consultant, scholar, father of three sons and three daughters-in-law, and a passionate servant of the church. Because he is someone who teaches and writes from personal experiences, Suderman enjoys great reputation and credibility within his own denomination, Mennonite Church Canada, and within the entire global Anabaptist community (which he has served on the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) Peace Commission). He has been a trusted resource for international faith-based organizations like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Yoder Neufeld writes, and is well known and respected within ecumenical circles such as the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC).
Re-Imagining the Church is a collection of previously written papers. It was edited by Andrew Gregory Suderman, Robert’s son, who serves as assistant professor of theology, peace, and mission at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., and as secretary for MWC’s Peace Commission.
The nature of being the church
The church is the realization of God’s desire to form a people who would deliberately choose to live under his kingship. Through this people, God would carry out his mission to restore and save the world. Therefore, the church is to be identified as a people (nothing to do with a particular territory). By its very nature, it is missional.
The church is a kingdom – God’s Kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus, the Son of God – where the citizens live according to kingdom rules. This makes the church not only spiritual, but also political. What constitutes the gospel (i.e., the good news proclaimed by the church) is the fact that God’s Kingdom has come into the world and is being lived out within a special community: the church.
Suderman points to Paul Minear’s discovery of 96 images in the Bible that describe the church as “a community of believers constantly guided by the Spirit of Jesus toward greater knowledge and commitment to the purpose of Jesus.” The church’s purpose is to propel God’s people to mission and ministry, making available to others the same grace God shares with them. The church has a sacred calling that requires our best energies, our brightest minds and our most creative imagination.
Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), for Suderman and Anabaptists in general, is a three-legged stool: Kingdom, Jesus, church. The relevant church is a living, breathing, visible organism demonstrating the Kingdom of God that is already among us but yet to be fulfilled.
Contrary to common assumptions, the church has no leadership vacuum, Suderman suggests; only the purpose of leadership needs to be clarified: to lead the church toward understanding its identity as a peoplehood essential for God’s redeeming purposes in our world.
The question is not “what leaders?” but “leaders for what?” Depending on the kind of leaders in place, the church may or may not have the potential to unite its divisions. Missional boundaries need to be expanded and missional insularism debunked. This will not be an easy task. The church must prepare to face its difficulties.
The church has a special two-fold vocation: to act in ways that are worthy and to think clearly about what is honourable, pleasing, commendable, excellent, true, just and worthy of praise (Philippians). “The essence of the church,” according to Suderman, “must be found in its missional vocation which is to align with God’s mission to restore, reconcile, and save the world from its commitment to paths of sins that lead to destruction and death and to set it on God’s desired path toward abundant life in his kingdom.” The tasks of the church is to discern how the world would be in God’s Kingdom and enact this kingdom life by living according to this discernment.
The leader helps the church discern and implement its purpose by exhibiting imagination, anticipation of what is needed, trust, ability to put proper structure in place, capacity to inspire, space to lead and entrusted authority.
A people in the world
One of the challenges facing the church is how to be the church in the public square. As a people living Kingdom life characterized by peace, among other things, the church needs to maintain its position on peace, writes Suderman. The starting point can be difficult, but Suderman suggests we follow Jesus’ choice of nonviolence and his readiness to face deadly consequences. In the midst of violence throughout the world, the church has a unique role: proclaiming to and for all the Kingdom good news without turning a blind eye on injustice.
As an alternative to the world’s conflicts, Suderman writes that the church should promote what has come to be known as “just peace-keeping.” However, the church needs to understand that just peacekeeping does not rely on the rule of law. And “the gift of law” in the Bible is different in many regards from “the rule of law” in the secular world.
One thing related to the gospel is particularly important for Suderman. Contrary to what both the church and the world often assume, the gospel is not restricted to the matters of the soul only. The gospel is cosmic in its nature in the sense that it addresses all human needs. It aims at the total and entire well being (spiritual and social) of individuals, communities, nations and the world. Education, aligned with the priorities of the church, is one example of meeting both needs.
Through word and deed, the church promotes the apocalyptic shalom. In doing so, the church does not lose sight of the nature of evil while making every effort to understand the love of the enemy.
Suderman has often spoken about seniors and the church, and some of his work on the matter is included here. He understands that seniors form a particular and very important demographic in the local church. They too need to contribute to the missional mandate of the church. The church needs to develop an ecclesial vision for aging – to provide ways for seniors in the local church to contribute to the expanding of God’s mission in the world.
In Re-Imagining the Church, Suderman is clearly visualizing something that has not yet been. Many local congregations function as a place where like-minded people gather for mutual support and for a worship service according to their preference. While this is part of the raison d’etre of the local church, it can lead to forgetting about the missional mandate of the church. As Suderman puts it, these congregations are more about “in-reach” than “outreach.” In this light, Suderman’s book is enlightening, eye-opening, thought-provoking and challenging. It is very important for each local church (a smaller, particular and geographically-rooted expression of the wider and universal church of Christ) to remember that they constitute a special people, a holy nation, distinct from the rest of the world. It should be clear to the world that church people live under a totally different set of rules – the rules of God’s Kingdom.
Re-Imagining the Church is a must-read for anyone intrigued by the identity and the mission of the church. Those who dream of a church living up to its identity and fulfilling its mission would find an important ally in Suderman. It was a privilege for me to review this book.
[Arisnel Mesidor serves MCC Manitoba’s refugee programs and CHAI, a ministry to immigrants.