Williams affirms Anabaptist vision, lists challenges to evangelism and church planting
Interview by Andy Johnson
Stuart Murray Williams, author of The Naked Anabaptist, is well-versed in mission and evangelism in post-Christendom culture and is regarded as one of the world’s leading advocates for and scholars on contemporary Anabaptism. In this interview, Williams talks about contemporary Anabaptism and the challenges of evangelism and church planting in post-Christendom.
Stuart Murray Williams, author of The Naked Anabaptist, was an urban church planter in East London for more than 10 years and is well-versed in mission and evangelism in post-Christiandom culture. Murray Williams, chair of the Anabaptist Network with a doctorate in Anabaptist hermeneutics, is also regarded as one of the world’s leading advocates for and scholars on contemporary Anabaptism. So when the CL learned that Murray Williams was slated to teach a five-day course at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, we asked Andy Johnson, director of seminary admissions and a freelance writer, to talk with the British strategist and consultant while he was in Fresno, Calif. When Murray Williams, who is from Bristol, England, was denied entry into the U.S. due to visa complications, the interview was conducted via video conferencing.—the editors
?CL: What is your experience with North American Mennonite Brethren?
SMW: I have worked with MB people several times: previously teaching in Fresno at the seminary, seven years before that in Canada and also through interacting with MB people at various events that have including people of different denominational backgrounds.
My perception has been that the people who have invited me to do things with the Mennonite Brethren have wanted me, as a self-confessed Anabaptist, to highlight some of the reasons why re-engaging the Anabaptist vision may be worthwhile.
CL: What are some of those reasons?
SM: I start with the historical reminder of Anabaptism in the 16th century. Historically the tradition represents a strongly missional, evangelistic, radical position that was deeply rooted in Scripture, that was determined to get back to Christianity and to challenge reformers not to be less biblical, but more biblical. In many issues they thought that reformers were being influenced by church tradition, or by political convenience, and were actually pushing for more radical biblicism.
In terms of contemporary Anabaptism, there is a degree to which the Anabaptist tradition appeals to many different people across the theological spectrum. I personally appreciate the openness and willingness to question and critique that I find within the Anabaptist tradition rather than simply settling for traditional interpretations. I think that is actually authentic Christian discipleship.
CL: You have written extensively about the end of Christendom and the move into post-Christendom. How do you define that shift?
SMW: Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story. The institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence as well.
CL: How would you encourage Mennonite Brethren people—who might not see Christendom ending in their world – of the value of Anabaptism for embracing post-Christendom?
SM: I’m not sure there is an easy way to communicate post-Christendom to people who don’t see it in their world. It may be possible for them to see that things are changing elsewhere—in Europe, in Canada and in other parts of western culture. The difficulty is beginning to understand and interpret what that might mean for their future.
What I’ve found in the last 10 years in the UK, (is that) the kind of teaching I’ve done on post-Christendom has made sense with very little difficulty. What I’ve often done is to provide people with a framework to interpret what they’ve already experienced. The frequent response I get is, "Yes, we recognize it, and we’re talking about numbers and language to describe it to ourselves and to others." I don’t yet find that always the case in the U.S. People in the U.S. can hear it and say, "Okay, that’s what’s happening over there," but I’m not sure it really makes sense yet.
CL: How can we think of the move from Christendom to post-Christendom, using the Anabaptist perspective, as an opportunity?
SM: I often talk about the opportunities in the post-Christendom world and of disconnecting from wealth, status, power and violence that have really characterized the Christendom period of Christianity. Yes, there were some good things in Christendom, and it is a sense of loss that it’s going, but there was an awful lot of collusion and compromise. Do we really want to continue with that? Can we imagine and envisage a way of being Christian that is more authentic, is more radical, is more faithful and that doesn’t involve the compromises over the centuries?
The vast majority of those that are being drawn to the Anabaptist tradition are Christians, but they are Christians in the throes of the transitions that post-Christendom represents, looking for resources with fresh perspectives. I think what attracts them is the discovery of a tradition that is not rooted in the Christendom framework. The historical traditions, the historical denominations, certainly in our context, seem to be so immersed in the Christendom structure, assumptions and expectations that they are really struggling to adjust and to adapt to a post-Christendom world.
Whereas I think the attraction of Anabaptism is that for 500 years we have said that Christendom wasn’t a very good idea, so we have been exploring alternative ways of thinking not only about church and state, but also church and society and theological and ethical issues that are no longer aligned with imperial Christianity. So this is a bit of breath of fresh air for people that Christianity doesn’t have to be associated with Christendom.
One of more intriguing things in the European context is that in several European languages, the words "Christianity" and "Christendon" are identical, so the level of intersection are so huge that it becomes difficult to tease them apart. I experienced that teaching a group of Danish and Swedish students – in both those languages, 'Christianity" is "Christendom When I was effusing about the opportunity at the end of Christendom, they became quite concerned. For me, that just illustrates the problem that for 1500 years in Europe and in western society we have assumed that the only way of embedding Christianity into society is through the Christendom framework. And one of the things that I think attracts people to Anabaptism is that it’s an alternative perspective that says that you can be followers of Jesus without being wed to this Christendom structure.
One example of someone from outside of the Christian faith who has found Anabaptism attractive comes from a phone call I had four or five months ago from someone I didn’t know who had attempted to contact me through the Anabaptist Network website. He described himself as an agnostic. He simply wanted to let me know that he’d been reading The Naked Anabaptist on a bus and he found himself crying in public. He wasn’t sure why, but it was something about the values, something about the way in which Anabaptism made sense to him that really resonated with him. He was quite embarrassed, I think, but he really wants to make contact with me.
So we are beginning to beginning to encounter a few people like him, who have no real knowledge of the Christian faith or experience of church, but somehow Anabaptism is making sense to them.
CL: What are the implications on evangelism in a post-Christendom culture?
SM: It takes time; it’s a process. If people are now to tell their own story of conversion, then they talk about process, they talk about journey, they talk about a number of encounters or occasions. That seems to be something we need to listen to carefully if we are to encourage people to have authentic experiences rather than the ones that fit nicely into our theology.
It’s also important to recognize that in post-Christendom people start a lot further back than they used to in Christendom in terms of their knowledge base. That has implications for our evangelistic expectations and strategies; it has implications for our church planting, because it is just going to take people longer to work out what they believe.
The issue on that for many of us is, "How do find a way of telling the Jesus story that actually communicates it." I believe we need to find a different way to communicate theology. It’s not about watering down the gospel, it is about finding the right communication points. It’s contextualizing, which is what cross-cultural missions has always done. What we are doing is applying basic mission principles to a post-Christendom culture.
I think also that the perhaps the concern that some of us from the Anabaptist perspective have is that there is too often a separation between conversion and discipleship. The emphasis is so strongly on the evangelistic moment, the conversion experience, rather than seeing whatever that is as set within the context of a journey of discipleship.
CL: What does discipleship look like in an Anabaptist, post-Christendom context?
SM: I think there are two aspects to this. First, Anabaptists have emphasized discipleship strongly—so strongly that at times legalism results, and they were accused by their 16th century contemporaries of returning to "works-righteousness." However, at its best, the Anabaptist tradition understands discipleship as "following Jesus" (nachfolge), which is relational rather than legalistic, and as something we do together rather than as isolated individuals—hence "the rule of Christ" (Matt 18) is an important process for helping us live as disciples.
Second, in post-Christendom there are fewer cultural supports for faith so we need to develop more resources for discipleship. We need to recognize that we live in a disciple-making culture, catechizing us into individualism, consumerism, etc, so our churches need to be communities of discernment and resistance. Congregational activities may be insufficient—we may need to introduce more intentional practices, such as mentoring, spiritual directors, accountability groups and practices drawn from monasticism.
CL: How do post-Christendom and an Anabaptist perspective intersect in church planting?
SM: I think we need to look at a 10 year time frame rather anything shorter. Which I think means we have to move to a different model where we are not talking about fully funding church planters at all, we are looking increasingly to bi-vocational ministry, or church planting the way in which Urban Expressions does it, which is through volunteers. That is inevitably going to be slower, because there isn’t as much time to put into church planting, but it gives us a chance to plant churches into the kinds of communities where the old model is never going to work.
CL: What are some ways that you would define success in a 10 year church planting model where the church is planted in a post-Christendom context?
SM: I think that is a key issue. I think we need to re-define what we mean by "success." I don’t think it means for church planters to become non-accountable. It is important that church planters remain accountable to denomination leaders, funders, mission agencies and other invested people.
Many pioneers indicate that they are being assessed by the wrong criteria, that they are being asked the wrong questions. It’s less about number of people attending meetings and more about the kinds of relationships, the depth of relationships, with people in the community. Perhaps better questions are: How are those relationships developing? What level of trust and friendship do you have in the community? What opportunities are there for sharing the gospel? It’s much more relational than programmatic.
I think it’s also important to ask: To what extent are you going to contextualize the gospel? To what extent are you discovering the words, images, the critical connecting points that enable you to share the gospel in ways that really communicate to people?
The image of kingdom, rather than church, is an important one. Many pioneers are much more comfortable looking for signs of the kingdom rather than the old Christendom measurable models of church. And, if church sustainability is to be measured, then we should ask questions such as, "To what extent are indigenous people taking responsibility?" So rather than simply everything being done by the team—and that may be more efficient and may produce quicker measurable growth—it may be better to go slower and help indigenous people to take on responsibility. So, I do think it’s a different set of questions and criteria. But, by comparison to the mega-church model it looks extremely slow.
CL: How do you see the intersection between denominationalism and Anabaptism, both in terms of challenges and benefits?
SMW: In the UK context, Anabaptism is not seen as denominational. It’s seen as a set of values, ideas, perspectives. The disadvantage for us, then, is that Anabaptism here can become something quite ethereal and idealized if it is not worked out sufficiently in faith communities. That is beginning to change.
One of the things that I appreciate when I come across to North America, or when I go across to other parts of Europe, is that there are congregations or denominations that have been around for decades, or much longer, where Anabaptism has been worked out through the ordinary ups and downs of community life.
I suppose that one thing that surprised me when I first started coming to the States to work with Mennonites was how little members of Mennonite congregations seemed to be interested in their own history. They might be interested in the history of their own congregation—Mennonites are strong on that—but there was little awareness of 16th century Anabaptism as the radical roots of their tradition. I find myself in a strange position as a Neo-Anabaptist trying to encourage Mennonites to become more Anabaptist. That’s been a consistent experience over the last 15 years or so.
One of the reasons of calling the book The Naked Anabaptist was to try to differentiate between the kind of perceptions of the Anabaptist tradition and the cultural clothing that so often may be difficult to see. But, I’ve said to North American Anabaptists consistently, "The book wasn’t written for you; it was written for British Christians." It seems to have connected to people who live the story of Anabaptism in American denominations as well. For some of them, particularly younger ones whom I’ve heard from through email, it helped them to pare back the layers of their own tradition to something they actually quite like and find radical.
I’m not in any way arguing for a disembodied Anabaptism. In fact, one of the valid criticisms of the title is that there is no such thing as a naked Anabaptist. And I fully agree. In fact, a friend said that before I wrote the book, and I said, "Yes, I agree with you. But, two things: First of all I think it’s a great title and I’m not going to give it up even if it isn’t true, and secondly, I still think the image is helpful because what’s it’s trying to communicate is that, yes, we may always clothe the Anabaptist tradition in cultural clothing, but there are different cultures, but we can tease out the differences between the cultural clothing and the core values."