It seems like the last few years within Mennonite Church USA, ever since Conrad Kanagy’s statistical study of the status of the church, Road Signs for the Journey, was published, there has been a lot of panic about church numbers. Kanagy’s study highlighted what some congregations and individuals perhaps already suspected: Mennonites aren’t having children as rapidly as they used to, young adults are not as likely to stay within a particular church or denomination, and especially rural and white congregations are shrinking and aging (urban congregations of color represent one bright spot of growth). Christian Piatt recently wrote several widely read lists of why young adults quit church, and in general, it feels like congregations across the country, not just Mennonite ones, are panicking and trying to think of creative ways to reinvent church so that it’s relevant to a generation who sees themselves sometimes as “spiritual but not religious” or “religious but not spiritual.”
In the midst of this climate, Gerald Mast has written his book, Go to Church, Change the World: Christian Community as Calling, which gently but passionately exhorts people of all ages to go back to church: not because it is a perfect community that meets all of our needs, but because being a part of a Christian community is a key part of what it means to be a faithful Anabaptist.
Mast writes, “…The Anabaptist idea of Christian calling urges us to make our membership in the body of Christ the first point of reference for all of our actions in the world, at work, at home, in church or in the ballpark. It assumes that in the life of the church we learn habits and practices that will shape our decisions and our conduct in every aspect of our lives.”
Written in very accessible language, and drawing on narratives, a variety of theological sources, Anabaptist and otherwise, and personal anecdotes, Mast puts together a list of five concrete practices that Christians can cultivate in order to become better conduits of God’s grace to the surrounding world. These five practices include:
- Word – Discovering truth through attending church, reading the Bible and cultivating a global awareness of the world around us, which is “part of the book we read for signs of God’s truth.”
- Water – Join the church, pursue baptism, an act which “recalls for us that we are wonderful creations of God”, and find ways to love the world
- Wine – Cultivate practices in service of others, including giving regularly to the church, sharing in the Lord’s Supper with fellow Christians, and commit to serving the world. Mast writes, “The miracle of the gift unleashed in the Lord’s Supper is not only for us in the church. It is, like the mission of biblical Israel, a gift for the world.”
- We – Commitment to living well with others in community, by being willing to “yield” oneself to the church, through singing together and being an active participant in what another Mennonite theologian, J. Denny Weaver, calls a “socially active alternative community.”
- Witness – Mast suggests that Christians should be willing to sacrifice themselves, and to “give themselves to the mission to the mission of the church,” while simultaneously offering public praise to God and making visible God’s reign on earth through our daily activities and ministries.
The book is set up to invite readers to engage in dialogue about these practices and what it might take to implement them. Each chapter has follow-up questions that could easily be discussed within a small group setting.
Overall, as a sort-of-still-young adult who has chosen to work within church organizations and to include church attendance as a regular (or at least semi-regular) part of life, I affirm a lot of Mast’s celebrations of church. I believe there is value in being routinely supported and challenged by a community of believers who are willing to struggle together with questions of what faithfulness looks like when it is lived out. I would recommend the book as a helpful way to start conversations about what spiritual practices look like, and how we can root social justice and service projects in a faith tradition.
The one critique that I might offer is that throughout the book, themes of sacrifice, yieldedness and subordination to a community and to Jesus Christ are prevalent. In ways similar to John Howard Yoder’s descriptions of a “revolutionary subordination,” Mast advocates a “baptism-empowered submission to brothers and sisters in Christ who have discovered in one another the delight and liberty of true friendship” and to offer “a living sacrifice, a celebration of the life that has been given to us through Christ’s resurrection, and a refusal to protect with violence what has been given with grace.”
I realize that as a feminist, who has scoured the book Proverbs of Ashes many times, and read enough horror stories about women, people of color and queer individuals being asked to sacrifice or “bear the cross of Christ” by living with oppression or abuse, that I feel highly suspicious of any language about sacrifice or subordination. I agree that in “the west”, with our focus on the rights of the individual and consumer culture, this narrative of yieldedness can offer a helpful counter-narrative that invites us to rethink the ways we engage each other and the world. However, for people who have already sacrificed so much and been forced into submissive postures, I can’t help but wonder whether these narratives are helpful.
To be fair, in his book and in personal conversation, Mast makes it clear that he is aware of the baggage that this language carries with it. It’s not necessarily popular or politically correct to talk about sacrifice today. But Mast also believes that there is the possibility for a middle road or space when it comes to sacrifice: that it is possible to talk of sacrifice that doesn’t reinforce traditional oppressive structures, but that calls people to yield themselves to the call of Christ and the collective wisdom of a faith community that operates with love. To read more on these ideas of sacrifice and kenosis (self-emptying), you can read another article by Mast here.
I would invite you to pick up this book, to read it and to wrestle with the questions it poses in community. In this way, perhaps Mast’s book will serve to build the very kind of community he is exhorting people to join.
What is your definition of church and community? If you participate in a church community regularly, what draws you in and makes you stay? If not, what has kept you from church? What do you think about the language of sacrifice? Is it helpful? Can it be redeemed?