Why is the MB church still growing when many others are shrinking?
Change is constant. It’s everywhere we go. It always has been. We either cope with it or it defeats us. But rarely do we remain ambivalent or unaffected.
We prefer to see the least amount of change in the church. In the midst of constant societal transformation, we long for and hang onto what we hope will be a changeless church.
However, a church without change is a dying church. It simply doesn’t meet the contemporary needs of its people.
Reflecting on more than 30 years of involvement with Mennonite church history, mostly Mennonite Brethren, I note that historically our denomination has easily been one of the Mennonite churches most willing to change and accept change. The reasons for this go back to our very beginnings.
As a reform movement within a church that had grown static in 19th century south Russia, the emerging Mennonite Brethren church was highly responsive to new ideas. Its early adherents were in tune with the changing times. This caused the older church to shudder with alarm and fear. The surrounding world fomented new ideas, fresh hope, and novel ways of expressing a relationship with the incarnate Christ.
Many were disturbed, not only by the fact that these ideas were heavily influenced by the Lutheran Pietist movement, but that there was an emphasis on a personal, intimate relationship with God in Christ. This ran counter to the traditional theology. It threatened to break up the corporate understanding of following Jesus in discipleship.
If each person could have a personal, intimate relationship with Christ, the authority of the corporate church, which also functioned as the de facto civic authority, was in jeopardy. How could leadership function in an environment where it no longer had direct control over its membership and their thinking? The old church failed to realize that a personal relationship with Christ did not negate the peoples’ need for community.
Today we know that when the old church in south Russia rejected and tried to contain the 1860 reform, it did so at its own peril. In the old established colonies, only the land-owning elite could vote and have a voice in community and church governance. This was a concern for people who didn’t own property. When the church failed to address this major social and economic issue, members of the new church often moved away to form separate colonies. The new colonists included landless entrepreneurs of the day – radical people who became the early Mennonite Brethren.
The old church lost people because it was reluctant to engage and embrace the changing societal and economic demands of the people. This culture of unwillingness to work with a shifting environment significantly affected the old church. And it propelled the new church to behave much differently.
Today’s Mennonite Brethren carry this same radical spirit. Our congregations are changing from being predominantly German/Russian immigrant communities to new multi-ethnic communities. We embrace each other. Today our Canadian churches welcome more than 22 different language groups. We love each other.
We also accept theological change. Initially we were a people who focused on studying the Bible diligently to make sure we had the “correct” theology and embraced a high moral and ethical standard, often to the annoyance of others. Today we’ve become a church with a less literal view of Scripture. We’re bonded together by a more flexible theology and willing to embrace a broad range of believers. At times, we even treat our confession of faith as negotiable.
Are these changes good or bad? Opinions vary considerably. Some will say we’ve lost our way and our theological direction. But as Mennonite Brethren, we’ve figured out a way to survive and thrive in the midst of constant change. In a fast-paced world where business, government, and societal structures are hard-pressed to stay meaningful and relevant, for nearly 150 years we’ve offered a place of worship and service that invites all people into a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. Our churches are alive and active. Our congregations embrace the changing world and see it as a place of opportunity – not a cauldron of chaos over which to despair.
Where other churches are dwindling, our churches are growing. Overall we’re bucking the national trend and becoming significantly larger each year. I believe our historical Pietist/Anabaptist Mennonite Brethren willingness to change has positioned us to do just that. And it’s still our theological direction.
I thank God for the privilege of serving in the Mennonite Brethren church. I’ve enjoyed working with people in our congregations to help them understand our rich Christian legacy. I hope whatever I’ve done has provided a better road map for the future.
Thanks for giving me the privilege to serve, worship, and walk with you all.