Does it matter if we’re Mennonite? (a serious, in-house, question)

[This article first appeared in The Weekly, a publication of Metamora Mennonite Church, on Sunday, March 1 – only church was snowed out, so nobody saw it. So I’m posting here and on our church website.]

Does it matter?

I’m knee deep in transcribing interviews, coding survey data and writing (Dmin thesis). It’s a bit like herding cats, only the cats are ideas and insights that have to be captured, and written down, and put into a coherent form.

In the midst of all that, a question popped into my mind. It’s one that I will explore further, but today, I want to ask you the question:

Does it matter if we are Mennonite or not?

The question comes out of a series of observations.

  • A very strong majority of people, in both surveys and interviews, say being Mennonite is important as a distinct, or different, way of following Jesus.
  • That same, very strong majority, think Mennonite theology and practice plays an important role in the world.
  • That very same strong majority says it is important to welcome and include new people in the life of the church.
  • Yet, that very same strong majority says it isn’t important if new people, coming into the church, are or become Mennonite (either theologically or communally).

This is curious to me.

On one hand, we acknowledge that the Mennonite name is often misunderstood outside of our congregation. We also recognize that, to some degree, this misunderstanding hinders our outreach in the community.

On the other hand, we acknowledge that Mennonite faith – properly understood and practiced – is distinct and needs to continue. That involves successfully reaching out to our non-Mennonite, non-Christian, neighbors.

On the other “other hand” (if that were possible), we are not intentional about leading others into the Mennonite way of faith and practice. For example, it’s common to hear Mennonites say that we are not trying to make Mennonites out of others. What matters is that we are Christian.

Two questions

If being Mennonite is important, both theologically and institutionally, then why don’t we intentionally make Mennonite disciples of Jesus?
If being Mennonite isn’t important, either theologically or institutionally, then why in the world would we keep the name – which we believe hinders outreach?
Either it does or it doesn’t matter if we’re Mennonite. Which is it?

Feel free to talk among yourselves about these questions, or give me a call. We can sit over a cup of coffee and talk. I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can also email me or comment below.

Live long and prosper | The death of Leonard Nimoy and my imagination

A while back I was listening to local talk radio. The question they were discussing was, “Is there a famous person, that you don’t know personally, that – if they died – you would cry?” I’ve had some interesting conversations with people around that question.  At the time, I couldn’t think of anyone in particular.

Then Leonard Nimoy died.

While I didn’t exactly cry, I have found myself grieving over the death of Leonard Nimoy.  I have been a huge Star Trek fan as long as I can remember. I was born in 1968, right at the end of Star Trek’s three-year run on TV.  I watched Star Trek after school when it was in syndication. My favorite character was, of course, Spock.  I had Star Trek toys. Spock action figures (that we’re really dolls).  I had a Spock uniform. I’ve seen every Star Trek movie multiple times (even the first one which was long and a bit overblown).  I’ve watched Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn more than I can count.  I’ve loved the new reboots with Zachary Q as a young Spock.  Spin off series, too. When it comes to Star Trek I’m all in (although I’ve never been to a convention).

My older brother, who was a little more sports minded then me, still complains that when we were kids he could never get me to put down my Star Trek and Star Wars toys long enough to get me to come outside and play basketball.

With all of that, however, I still did not know Leonard Nimoy the man. And it’s pretty clear that someone else can play Spock, so I won’t lose on that front either. So, what am I grieving when I grieve the death of Leonard Nimoy?

My hunch is I’m grieving the loss of my own youth, my own childhood, a more simple time when I could kick my imagination into overdrive and escape to distant planets and far off places and spaces and people and aliens…   It seems to me that when we are young the world is wide open and full of possibility.  But choice by choice what was once wide open becomes a bit more constrained.

Seems like the art of living is learning to find joy and meaning and purpose as life becomes more constrained. Or, perhaps, cultivating spaces where we can still kick that old imagination into overdrive again.

According to the Mars One website, over 200,000 applied to join a mars colonization program. They literally applied to embark on a one-way mission to Mars for the purpose of setting up human colonies.  Why?  I think it’s because there are so few places for grown ups to take their imaginations out of neutral.

So perhaps, instead of grief over the death of a man I really didn’t know at all, the death of Leonard Nimoy can be an encouragement to dust off my imagination.

Something to think about (I’m sure my therapist – if I had one – would find all this fascinating)

Live long and prosper!

Quote of the Week

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs—acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

- President Obama, 2015  National Prayer Breakfast

What is Evangelism?

[This article first appeared in the February 1, 2015 edition of The Weekly. Read article one here and article two here.]

In weeks one and two, I answered the questions “What is the gospel?” and “What is service?” As stated previously, my answers are not the right answers or the only answers or even the best answers – they are my answers.

What is the gospel?

“The gospel is an announcement of good news” and that announcement is that God has acted decisively in human history, in and through Jesus the Messiah, AND the unstoppable restoration of all things has begun!

What is service?

“Service is participating in the gospel.”

That leads to our third question “What is evangelism?”

To me, evangelism is inviting other people to believe the good news, to submit their lives to Jesus in response to the good news and to participate in the good news by serving others.

Early in my Christian walk, I was taught that evangelism was getting people to agree with me about certain propositions concerning God, Jesus, heaven, hell, sin and salvation. Equipped with a formula, a set of steps, a bridge diagram and a sinner’s prayer, I was taught to approach complete strangers and ask them intimate questions like, “If you died today, where do you think you would spend eternity?” This would set up the evangelistic event that could lead to their salvation.

Praise God, I’ve seen many people come to saving faith in Jesus as a result of the Spirit using that approach. And, yes, I do believe that such an approach is still appropriate today. It’s just less effective. The challenge is that even a simple question like “If you died today…” carries many assumptions that aren’t common assumptions today (post-Christendom) like they were before (Christendom). It assumes that people believe they will spend eternity somewhere, that they believe we have some say as to where that will be, but, that ultimately there is a God, of some sort, that will have the final say. In post-Christendom you have to do some work to get to a place where questions like that make sense to people.

In my experiences within post-Christendom, it is still easy to start a discussion about Jesus. He’s very well respected and almost universally affirmed when stripped of his institutional religious garb. This openness to Jesus provides a pathway to further discussion about who he is and what it means to follow him. This leads to opportunities to invite people to accept Jesus’ invitation into the Kingdom and to demonstrate how we live in submission to Jesus in that kingdom through serving others – even our enemies.
There is also a strong connection between service and evangelism. They go together. If we proclaim that Kingdom without modeling service, the proclamation will lose its power. If we model service, but don’t proclaim the Kingdom we are no different than any number of secular service agencies. As Christians, service and evangelism go together and come out of gospel.

Do my ears itch? | An exploration of the use of 2 Timothy 4:3

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

- 2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV)

2 Timothy 4:3 is often pulled out in the church in discussions over contentious social issues.  The charge is often leveled that, “you are just doing what the culture wants instead of standing for sound doctrine.”  No doubt, if you’ve been around churches when things like the inclusion of gay people, or women’s role in ministry, or the age of the earth, you’ve likely heard one side, or the other or, perhaps, both sides say this.

In my experience, the usual direction of this comment is from those who occupy positions of power within the status quo towards those that are suggesting some change, or loosening, of current understandings and practices.   For example, it is more common for a straight Christian who opposes LGBT inclusion or gay marriage to say to those who don’t, “You’re just going with the culture.”  I’m not judging that in any way, just using it as an example from my experience.

It’s meant to be the ultimate insult.  In effect the comment says, “You don’t care about sound doctrine, the Bible, Jesus or God…you can’t possibly have a well reasoned theological basis for your decision…of course you haven’t discerned the Spirit correctly because I doubt you’re even really a Christian…you are just doing what YOU want to do and caving to popular pressures from the world.”

That’s pretty heavy…”judgey”….stuff when you get down to it.

Here’s my question, which springs from an online discussion about a Nashville Evangelical Church (GracePointe Church) that came out as fully inclusive of LGBTQ people. Not too far down in the comments, someone pulled out 2 Timothy 4:3. This person accused the church – of which he’s not a part – of “simply tickling itching ears…”   Having recently, over the past year, spent some time – not a lot, but some – in Nashville, I found this comment odd.  To me, when it comes to Nashville, GracePointe Church is doing the exact opposite. Most of the ears I met in Nashville have no affinity for gay inclusion in the church.  So, who’s ears are being tickled? Where’s the upside to full gay inclusion in Nashville? Seems to me like near universal scorn would be the result in that community.

So it brings me back to the text.  Who are the ones that won’t put up with sound doctrine in the text?  Is it the people outside of the church (i.e. teachers are tempted to play to the world over and against sound doctrine?)  or is it the people inside the church (i.e. teachers are tempted to play to the church over and against sound doctrine?)?  According to the text, it’s the latter. It’s people within the church that no longer suffer sound teaching. They just want to hear what makes them feel good, or “in”, or certain that they are right.  The want teachers who will speak from a position of authority and echo what they already believe to be true. No challenge. No change. No discernment. No deeper exploration. People want to land at a church that reflects back to them what they already believe.  That, my friends, is having your itching ears tickled.

So the question, for me, isn’t “Is church A or church B just teaching what people want to hear?” That is a never ending process of judgment and finger pointing.  A better question is,  “Am I the kind of Jesus-follower that can’t tolerate anything that I don’t already believe to be true?”  If I am, then I’m holding God hostage to my already believed stuff about God.  Then I’m the kind of Jesus-follower that seeks teachers who will itch my ear?

I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to being that kind of a teacher. I don’t want to be that kind of church.

What is service?

[This article is article 2 in a 3 week series. It first appeared in print in January 25, 2015 edition of The Weekly, a weekly newsletter of MMC. You can read article one here]

In last week’s article I answered the question: What is the gospel? As I stated in the article, my answer is not the right answer or the only answer or even the best answer, it is my answer. My answer is this: “The gospel is an announcement of good news and that announcement is that God has acted decisively in human history, in and through Jesus the Messiah, AND the unstoppable restoration of all things has begun!

 

That is good news to all things, including you and me. A personal response to the gospel is submitting to Jesus as your Savior and Lord. It happens when a sinner recognizes his or her need and submits to the unstoppable restoration of Jesus for their life. But it goes beyond that because we are submitting our lives to the one who came, not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. That shapes how we live as we submit to His Lordship. We don’t just take what we need from Jesus, we submit to Jesus as become like him by giving our lives in service to others. That leads to the question in this article.

 

As simply as possible, what is service?

 

Service is participating in the gospel.

 

I participate in the gospel when I submit my life to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Moreover, I participate in the gospel when I join God as God restores all things.

 

Consider this example. All around the world people are suffering in various ways for varied and complex reasons. Seeing the needs created by this suffering, people of faith create an organization called Mennonite Central Committee. MCC works to alleviate suffering around the world in the name of Jesus. A group of local Mennonites from various Mennonite/Anabaptist expressions decides they want to support that work of restoration. They decide to have a relief sale (i.e. a sale that provides relief to those who are suffering around the world).   A group of people at a particular church decide they can contribute 100 pies to sell, with all the proceeds going to MCC. So, folks organize the pie baking, the pies are made and delivered, they are sold and the proceeds to to MCC. What is happening? The person rolling out pie crust in a church basement is serving those who suffer. Yes? And by doing so, they are also participating in the unstoppable restoration of all things.

 

What is service? It is seeing a need and responding to help meet that need. That is an act of restoration. That is what God is doing in the world in and through Jesus. Therefore, as you serve in the name of Jesus, you are participating in the unstoppable restoration of all things. In a tangible way, you are making the gospel real to the person you are serving.

A soft rant (delivered in love)

I hesitate to say this out loud, but it is something that bothers me every time it happens.  My words here are an honest reflection on how a particular comment I receive (semi-regularly) feels.  My words are not meant as a slam to those who make this – or similar – comments.  Those who say it are sincere.  I love them.  It’s just that, I’m not sure they know how disheartening their words – meant to encourage – really are.

Let me back up.  I serve as pastor of an awesome church, filled with many of the best Jesus followers I’ve ever met and spent time with.  They worship, lead, give and serve tirelessly and accomplish more for others than churches 5 times our size with 5 times our budget.  BUT…we are an older, getting smaller, rural, Mennonite congregation.

Over my almost 20 years at MMC, I’ve witnessed people who were raised by this congregation leave here as they head to the congregation(s) down the road(s)  The music is hipper, more people my age, varieties of programs a smaller church can’t accomplish, and so on and so on.

Here’s the comment:

Pastor, I just want you to know that I still consider Metamora Mennonite my church home.

It’s not always those exact words, but the sentiment is nearly always that.  “I still consider Metamora Mennonite my church home.”  Those seem like encouraging words.  Sometimes they are – especially when the person saying it lives in another community or state or country.  But when the person saying it lives near by, and they are choosing to go to another congregation, the positive sentiment is down-right frustrating.

When I hear it I often want to scream, “THEN COME HOME!”  There are a lot of people at home that would love to throw you a welcome home party.  They are the same people that changed your diapers when you were in the nursery, taught your Sunday school classes, played games with you at VBS, taught you the hand motions to “Deep and Wide”, led you on service trips, introduced you to Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah, Jonah, David, Mary, countless others and – most importantly – Jesus.  They are the same people that pledged to have your back when you were baptized. And, by the way, you said you would have their back too. They still have your back and would welcome you back.

I guess I wonder what the sentiment accomplishes? “Pastor, I want you to know that I still consider MMC my church home.” To me, that would be a lot like me saying to my wife, “Melissa, I want you to know that I still consider you to be my wife,” as I leave her.  And, to make matters worse, reminding her of that every time I happen to run into her. I think we’d all be better off just telling the truth.  I’m choosing to be somewhere else with someone else.  Yes, such truthfulness inflicts a deeply personal wound. But the wound is no less deep by pretending it isn’t happening.   Why can’t we do that with our “home” church? Own the reality.  Sometime I think the sentiment is intended to cover up the fact that leaving a church also inflicts a deeply personal wound.  It is a way of pretending that it isn’t a big deal – but it really is.  It would have a lot more integrity to say, “Pastor, I’m choosing to be somewhere else with someone else.”  Then I could say, “I’ve noticed. We will miss you deeply.  I wish you God’s best, and hope you are an engaged member of your new community for the glory of God.”

In the end,  a faith community is not a group of folks that consider that community their home, but a group of folks that make that community their home by their presence.

“We’re not your parents church!”

I got my start in vocational Christian ministry in 1993.  Back then people who started new, seeker-driven, contemporary churches would say, “We’re not your parents church!”

That’s a perfect message to Baby Boomers who had experienced the institutional church as dull, with nothing to say and an old way of saying it.

We’re not your parents church!

The new, seeker-driven, contemporary church approach worked to some degree.  Baby Boomers did return to churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback and all their local incarnations.  Now it is there children and grandchildren who are finding their parents (and grandparents) church as dull, with nothing to say and an old way of saying it.   They are more critical of churches with professional stage lighting, fog machines, hi-tech video screens, and worship auditoriums with a platform or stage instead of a sanctuary and a pulpit.  I often talk to young people who ask, “Is that – the whole big event show type worship service – really what Jesus had in mind?”

Pastoring a small, rural, Mennonite church that is pleasantly irrelevant (to me) by the world’s standards, I never thought I’d get to say, “We’re not your parents church!”  But, alas, I think we can say it with some integrity.

If you parents attended a modern, contemporary, seeker-driven church we are decidedly NOT your parents church. I think that’s a good thing.

Quote of the Day

…it would be perfectly possible to change the entire contents of our beliefs without altering the way our beliefs function.

Take the example of someone who identifies as an evangelical Christian and for whom that belief acts as a type of emotional crutch.  Let us imagine this person growing up in an overtly religious environment in which evangelical belief functioned primarily as a means of defining oneself over and against others.

If this belief is later rejected in favor of some other religious or political system, it might look like a fundamental change has taken place.  However, at a structural level, these different beliefs will operate in broadly the same way as the old ones.  Regardless of which view might provide a more accurate description of reality, we discover that the new set of beliefs also functions as a security blanket, a tribal identity, and a means of coping with the sense of cosmic insecurity.

Christianity, as a religious system, does not aim to transform the way we believe, but strives to mold and shape the content of our beliefs.  What is judged here to be of prime importance is the actual belief that one affirms. So those who agree are deemed ‘saved’ and those who disagree are at best heretics, or at worst ‘lost’.

 – Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician, pg. 169-170