Workshops, plenary sessions attract diverse crowd
By Karla Braun with reports from Connie Faber and Barrie McMaster
Listen to Alfred Neufeld's opening plenary lecture, posted by the Canadian Conference Media Center.
“After 150 years, you’d think we’d know who we are,” one participant noted at the Renewing Identity and Mission (RIM) consultation. Held July 12–14, RIM was part of Celebration 2010, an event marking the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren church.
Pastors, historians, and seminarians presented 30 papers in 15 workshops, examining facets of MB history, theology, and practice. Scholars and laypersons—young or old, well-versed in the subjects or encountering ideas and histories for the first time—responded in roundtable discussions and question and answer sessions. More than 300 participants attended RIM, a pleasant surprise to the planning committee that anticipated 200.
Diverse influences on the movement have always raised questions about what it means to be Mennonite Brethren. But they have also formed the denomination into an entrepreneurial community of believers with a strong commitment to evangelism, biblicism and a personally experienced faith. These themes were repeated, but assessment of how well we actually live out the values professed was largely absent. “I heard you say you are people of the Book, but I noticed very few of you carrying the Book,” Danisa Ndlovu, president of Mennonite World Conference, remarked at the binational session.
The mostly Canadian presenters spoke on the history and successes of the MB church in the past 150 years, and plenary presentations given by international brothers highlighted the global nature of the MB family. American perspectives, however, were under represented at this binational event. Only six presenters out of 30 were American, not including the BFL session which had equal Canadian and U.S. representation.
Alfred Neufeld’s plenary address Monday night set the tone. “Denominations are not abominations,” Neufeld declared, urging hislisteners to consider denominations a gift, a reflection of the diversity and beauty of creation. Not merely “cheap relativism about revealed truth,” denominations are a picture of how with “humbleness and even gratitude for the historic perspectives and special gifts, every church is able to contribute to the wider body of Christ,” said Neufeld.
Neufeld, a theologian and leader in the Paraguayan MB Conference and Mennonite World Conference, surveyed 16 commentators’ assessments of the birth and development of the denomination. Not to “lead us to a proud hagiography,” he said, but to “the consciousness that God has entrusted to us some precious jewels, some considerable talents, so that we might multiply them and do things better in the future.”
Renewal is a feature of the establishment of the MB church, said Neufeld, but he encouraged the church to recover its “apostolic and prophetic origins” in living out its mission today. Invoking MB anthropologist Paul Hiebert’s concept of critical contextualization, Neufeld urged that, as in the 1860s, the MB church should be critical not only of the broader cultural context, but also of its own current practice, in order to be a true community of covenanted disciples expanding the kingdom of God.
Audience response zeroed in on ambivalence about identity, particularly at the local church level, where some worshippers at “community churches” are unaware their ecclesiastical home is Mennonite Brethren nor what that “MB” means. In his official response to Neufeld’s paper, Canadian Mennonite University president Gerald Gerbrandt affirmed Mennonite Brethren’s “intuitive” passion for evangelism and mission but challenged the denomination to measure the lines we draw against the New Testament body of Christ.
Mission was on the tongue of each international presenter at Tuesday night’s plenary. John Sankara Rao of India and Nzuzi Mukawa of DR Congo spoke with gratitude about the first missionaries who risked safety and comfort to spread the gospel in foreign lands, “so that today, we might have Jesus,” said Mukawa. Today, Indian and Congolese Mennonite Brethren risk their health and security to bring news of the gospel to their neighbours.
César García of Colombia added an account of suffering in his own homeland, but spoke of opportunity for further mission through “traditional” methods (the Colombian church has sent missionaries to Peru, Panama and Mexico), and migration, a method dating beyond 1860 to the New Testament church.
The MB church in Germany, comprised largely of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, has seen the migration phenomenon as well, said Johann Matthies, mission development team leader for MBMS International in Europe. These “Umsiedler” struggle to connect with a culture that sees the church as a bridge to nowhere.
Participants affirmed the vision of holistic mission presented by international guests and identified challenges: helping without being paternalistic, a healthy distribution of finances, fear and uncertainty about engaging a culture that doesn’t believe in truth and awareness of need in our own backyard. “The glut of information is paralyzing,” said Randy Klassen of West Portal Church, Saskatoon, but “profound humility” is our starting point.
RIM workshop presenters faced the same challenge as the plenary speakers—addressing an audience that ran the gamut from professional church historians and theologians to interested church members with limited knowledge of MB history and theology. The papers were academic and favored the former group, but the lively discussions following each presentation made room for all.
With two presenters per 90 minute session, each was allotted about 25 minutes after introductions; half an hour was given to questions from the floor. Three sessions in each timeslot were organized loosely around themes: MB identity, MB theology and MB mission. Some of the workshop pairings were only tangentially related to each other, so facilitators either dealt with the papers separately or moderated question and answer periods that ping-ponged from one topic to the other.
The majority of the 10 workshop papers presented in Track 1 explored questions of identity in the context of Mennonite Brethren history. Presenters were primarily educators from a variety of disciplines, although historians dominated the line-up. They frequently spoke of the inherent difficulty in labeling MB identity and theology.
“There is virtual consensus that multiple influences impacted early Mennonite Brethren and that this convergence of influences was controversial at the time and still is today among MB historians,” said Bruce Guenther. “Few debates have been more vigorously debated than how best to categorize this new movement. Despite the fact that the movement claimed to associate with Anabaptists, in many ways they intentionally borrowed from others.” Guenther called this amalgamation a “new way of doing Mennonite.”
Baptists influenced the early MB’s understanding of conversion, said Andrew Dyck, in his paper on conversion and spirituality. The influence of Pietists can be seen in the songs favored by Mennonite Brethren, said Larry Warkentin. Gay Lynn Voth’s paper explored the implications of the willingness of early Mennonite Brethren to borrow theology, among other things, from various groups.
The significant influence of Pietism was noted in several sessions, including the opening paper by historian Abraham Friesen. The conversation following Friesen’s paper was lively, as participants criticized Friesen for being “too hard” on the Pietists and for not providing his audience with a clear definition of Pietism.
The difficulty of defining Pietism was acknowledged by more than one presenter, but unlike Friesen, some attempted to do so anyway. Harold Jantz noted that the Russian Mennonite Church was very formal and the MBs “wanted life in the church and to encounter Jesus and that’s what Pietism was for them. It also opened up their world to missions and other Christians.” Larry Warktentin offered five characteristics of Pietism that emphasized the Bible and Bible study, godly living and hope of transforming the individual, the church and the world.
The influence of evangelicalism, specifically the current trend among U.S. and Canadian MB to describe themselves as both evangelical and Anabaptist, was also explored in this track. Guenther argued that MBs have always been both evangelical and Anabaptist. “This dual identity is a huge advantage to us,” he said, because it allows Mennonite Brethren to draw selectively and critically from both streams.
When asked why the evangelical and Anabaptist aspects of MB identity have interacted as “oil and water,” Guenther responded: “I don’t think they are polar opposites. The reason the traditions came together is precisely because there is such compatibility between them that it works.”
Other papers presented in this track explored a specific aspect of Mennonite Brethren identity in North America.
- Valerie Rempel explored how Mennonite Brethren have “officially” told their story and how the decisions made in the storytelling process have helped to form the denomination’s identity. Harold Jantz used life stories of four Canadian leaders to point out strands of MB identity recognizable to this day.
- Survey findings: Sam Reimer reviewed the Canadian Evangelical Churches Study, noting that the identity of Canadian MB churches tends to be strongly evangelical, less Anabaptist.
- Lynn Jost outlined trends in preaching and changes in MB identity revealed by a bulletin survey of six U.S. MB churches from 1955 to the present.
- Myron Penner outlined the popular view of intellectual history and then countered that understanding with an explanation of how philosophers themselves understand the role of reason in demonstrating that belief in God is intellectually viable. The session ended before Penner made the connection between MB theology and identity and philosophy but the question and answer time showed that his material engaged participants.
In Track 2, each session highlighted the importance of community hermeneutics—the discipline of working together at theology. Of course, conflict was an underlying theme in these workshops. Tim Geddert and Doug Heidebrecht’s papers explicitly asked the questions the other workshops danced around: How do we figure out what the Bible says – together – and what is the role of the MB Confession of Faith in that process?
The MB church has always valued biblicism, said Geddert, but he cautioned against inadequate understanding of cultural factors, both for our own reading and in the original audience. Geddert challenged his listeners to bring a discerning mind to every promise and command recorded in the Bible.
The Confession of Faith is both a descriptive and a normative document that points back to the Bible even as it attempts to lay out our understanding of it. “It’s important not to lose our engagement with texts and the Confession,” said Heidebrecht. “The Bible is always right, but is our interpretation correct?” Geddert asked. Thus, “we must engage with people – it makes our theology better.”
The papers in this track showed how working together at theology plays out in a variety of scenarios.
- Jericho Ridge Community Church navigated the waters of the contentious women in ministry leadership issue by using a multilevel, inclusive discussion process to come to congregational resolution. In keeping with their view that the process is as important as the decision, pastors Brad Sumner and Keith Reed did not reveal their conclusion but showed how the method of coming to consensus allowed all members to feel heard, to gain instruction on the issue and learn how to disagree respectfully.
- “Church life is more an emotional journey than a theological one,” said Dan Unrau in his paper on the role of family systems in conflict within the church; “when we know our families, we know ourselves.” With a healthy understanding of ourselves and each other, we can “learn to walk toward conflict.”
- According to J Janzen, Canadian Mennonite Brethen have lacked a robust peace witness. Mennonite Brethren have neither wholly rejected the use of force, nor fully engaged in social activism, nor managed interpersonal and congregational conflict well, he asserted, citing the emphasis on evangelism and personal peace with God as major factors. Janzen challenged Mennonite Brethen to reach a more holistic understanding, erasing the line between good works and good news, relocating individuals within a community of faith and accountability, and above all —“be humble.”
- In a report on his organization’s theological orientation, Don Peters explained that Mennonite Central Committee is working intentionally to be “on the same page” with ICOMB, recently adopting a statement of faith (“Shared Convictions” of the Mennonite World Conference) that jives with the ICOMB Confession.
- Questions about jurisdiction dominated the Board of Faith and Life question and answer session, as did topics that need discernment. At the end, US BFL chair Larry Nikkel’s question still hung in the air: “Should the BFL be more prophetic in its leadership?”
Speakers and delegates affirmed that a heart for missions and a desire to reach unsaved people “is in the DNA of Mennonite Brethren.” Over our 150-year history, missionaries have thanked God for providing knowledge and guidance to carry out the task with amazing results. But there are always challenges. Track 3 provided an overview of 2010 mission realities—what’s new, what’s still true, and what’s to do.
- The sweeping reach of media: Satellite TV, radio and the internet are producing fruit in previously unreachable parts of the globe. It’s probably “the most exciting single change” at work in missions today, said Randy Friesen.
- The emerging generation: The digital world is “messing with our minds” and has “changed how we do life,” Jules Glanzer explained, making it all the more important for Christians to be present, face-to-face people.
- Holistic church planting: Meeting physical human needs while ministering spiritually is a major success story in this period.
- Partnership – with the local church to support media and material outreach, and between national conferences: ICOMB’s work to develop confessional unity among its 19 conference members is building a “global sense of what it means to be MB,” said Abe Dueck.
- Interculturalism: Canadian society is increasingly multicultural but the church is lagging behind. To truly make a place for others, churches must go beyond the peaceful coexistence of multiculturalism, learning “self-critique” and “empathy” for those who are different, said Ken Peters.
- Suffering and persecution: The greatest growth in the church is under “authoritarian and oppressive regimes.” Those on the edges of society may have less to lose, and thus experience fewer impediments to accepting a life-changing gospel.
- The gospel: Some people groups – Quebecers, post-secondary students – seem indifferent to religion, but Eric Wingender reminded his audience that the incarnation still resonates. Faith communities who model the life of Jesus and invite others to join engage the irreligious.
- A missionary impulse: Former MB mission fields (DR Congo, India) are larger in membership than Canada and the U.S. and are sending their own missionaries abroad. North American members comprise only one-sixth of the global population of Mennonite Brethren.
What’s to do?
- Understand and engage young people: The 18–30 age bracket is the first group in our culture to take its own importance for granted, Gil Dueck explained, yet many are still searching for identity in a pluralistic world. They associate adulthood with stagnation, feel chronically in transition – and are underrepresented in churches. Rebecca Stanley reported that University of B.C. has 47,000 students but only 500 of them are involved with any Christian club on campus.
- North Americans may have a sense that western missionaries are no longer needed, but Randy Friesen noted that in such a rapidly changing field, western mission workers still have an essential role to play.
- Using the NASA space program as a model, Terry Wiseman explained how the expensive, outmoded models of the past need to give way for innovation and return to the basics. “Embrace the unfamiliar” and “give yourself away” he urges church planters.
The final word
Kicking off the closing session of the consultation, BFL chairs Lorraine Dick of Canada and Larry Nikkel of the U.S. responded on behalf of the listening committee. “I pray these discussions will result in work ” both for the BFL and local churches, said Dick. “To only think about a subject is not enough…. How will I allow God to transform mission in my life so that I will continue to serve faithfully where God has placed me?”
Identifying change as a thread through the fabric of our history, Nikkel said “we should work creatively in managing change instead of resisting.” We must continue to ask “who are we?” but “continue to be dedicated to walking in (Jesus’) way as we best understand it.”
As befits a consultation, RIM participants had the last word, discussing their experience around tables then presenting their findings to the larger group. They still had questions about boundary making with the Confession of Faith, how to do mission and how to value and engage the voices of young people in the church. They felt they had only scratched the surface of all there was to learn and discuss on the many topics with the many people. But there was also plenty to affirm, and excitement for what had been learned over the three days.
There were some cautions, too. “MBs must guard against spiritual arrogance and exclusivity,” said David Gibson from Sardis Community Church, Chilliwack, B.C.
“We need enough face time together to understand what we mean by words we use,” urged Edith Dyck from Crossroads, Winnipeg.
Several others wondered, “Where was the time spent praying together?”
“The local church is like a nuclear family,” said Tor Norris of Country Bible Church, Orland, Calif. He summed up his experience with an analogy and a prayer for the MB church of the future. The needs to hear stories about the past, but realize it’s not the same as in the past, said Norris. Family changes as children grow up and bring home spouses. “Each new culture enriches us, makes us more complete. We’re going to be losing our current identity as we give it away. In return, we’ll take on more and more the identity of Jesus Christ.”