Category Archives: Church

Being comfortable with complex unity and honest about theological diversity

Conflict by Dawn Hough Sebaugh

Over the course of the past several years, conversations about sexuality, gender and membership have risen to the forefront of Mennonite Church USA conversations, as they have for many other denominations. In the past few months alone, Mennonite periodicals have been filled with articles and editorials about sexuality: there was Pastor Joanna Harader’s explanation of her rationale for performing a same-sex marriage ceremony; a letter from many pastors asking whether the issue of sexuality was worth splitting over; a response from another group of pastors suggesting that sexuality has implications for a broad range of church issues; and news that Central District conference would not suspend the credentials of Pastor Megan Ramer, who had recently performed several same-sex marriages, and that some churches might leave Central District Conference over this decision.

This news is clearly a mixed bag, illustrated the conflicted nature of the conversation and the broad spectrum of understandings about inclusion throughout Mennonite Church USA. This conversation is one whose roots go back many, many years, and the denomination has put out a variety of statements. According to Loren Johns, of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, conversations about human sexuality first rose to national denominational consciousness in the mid-1970’s. Statements released in 1986 by the former General Conference and Mennonite Church denominations in Saskatoon and Purdue respectively both emphasize that sexuality is a good, beautiful gift from God. They talk about sexual ethics beyond simply homosexual relations. And, perhaps most importantly, both statements emphasize the importance of inter-denominational dialogue. They state, “ We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance. We promise compassion and prayer for each other that distrustful, broken, and sinful relationships may experience God’s healing. We covenant with each other to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and for openness to each other.”

Later, in 1995, we a statement on how to agree and disagree in love was released, which offered tools for Mennonites to use when conflict arises. This document emphasizes that conflict is a “normal part of our life in the church” and emphasizes a process of dialogue and community discernment which suspends judgment and avoids “labeling.”

Also, in 1995, the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was published, which included a statement, in Article 19, that reads, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” However, in the introduction to this document, it states clearly that this statement gives an “updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times,” but that it also is subject to the authority of the Bible and is meant to help guide discussion around Mennonite practices and beliefs. It is not meant to be a final word or creedal statement.

The last five years have seen a rise again in the intensity and frequency of these conversations throughout the denomination. In many conversations that I have had occasions to have while visiting Mennonite Church USA congregations, I sense a growing anxiety from people on both sides of this issue. The question of whether we can remain together as a church with this ideological gulf seems to weigh heavily on many people’s minds.  There are fears that churches on both sides of this issue will leave, and that our denomination might never be the same. This fear pervades our conversations with each other, and hovers in the background of each of these articles/editorials and the comments that follow them.

Several weeks ago, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board released a statement in response to this growing conversation surrounding same-sex unions. In this document, the Executive Board wrote, “The board owns the understanding of our confession of faith that sexual union is to happen between one man and one woman who are committed to each other for life in holy marriage.”

This statement is nothing new and seemed to echo what the board has been saying over the course of the past few years. This particular statement understandably drew both affirmation and strong critique from members across the church.

In response to a call from some pastors to respond with disciplinary actions towards pastors and conferences who were permitting same-sex unions to take place and ministerial credentials to remain intact, the Executive Board states, among other things, that they affirm the understanding laid out in the Confession of Faith. The letter goes on to say, “The board has no plans to suggest that the church should change its current understanding and commitments.”

 Unfortunately, and perhaps unintentionally, this statement seems to send the message that the church itself is unified on questions of sexuality and inclusion, and that those with opinions different than the Confession of Faith are outliers. This statement seems troubling, given the fact that there are many committed members, staff, and leaders of Mennonite Church USA who would hold opinions that differ from the statement of the Confession of Faith. And this language, whether intentional or not, does seem to set up an “us vs. them” paradigm which does not serve to enable the dialogue that the church has been calling for since Purdue/Saskatoon to continue.

However, the statement does not stop there.

Later, it states, “The national conference of Mennonite Church is composed of conferences and congregations. The national church does not have the authority to control the discussion or decisions at these levels. Congregations decide on their members and conferences decide on member congregations. Ministerial credentials are held at the conference level and thus minister’s accountability is to the area conference rather than the national conference. We are aware that our polity creates some differences in the practice of church discipline from conference to conference.”

In my mind, this simple statement does have some hopeful emphases within it. Anabaptist polity is not set up to grant high levels of centralized power. Indeed, our denomination uniquely privileges the discernment processes of local communities, at both the congregational and conference level.

This may mean that people on both sides of this issue, and those in the middle, will have to live in a transitional, border space for awhile. We are stuck in a liminal moment, where our denomination bridges a wide range of opinions. This is the same process that occurred as women were allowed into ministry (as one of my professors says, “Churches don’t know how to free everyone at the same time: it happens in chunks.”).

Over the course of the next era, we may need to define our idea of what it unity means. It is no longer a simple, clear-cut concept. We will need to decide if we can truly value and see our theological diversity as a gift that enriches our conversations, just as we value diversity of many other kinds. We will need to determine whether we are willing to remain at the table with one another even though we don’t always agree on the rules that govern it. We will need to decide whether we are willing to broaden and expand our definition of “unity” from simply an integration of difference into a cohesive identity where distinctive, different parts are subsumed, to a complex unity that celebrates diversity and collaboration across difference.

I believe that a complex unity is marked by a commitment to remain in conversation and relationship with one another, sharing a common, unified Mennonite identity, while still celebrating and understanding the diversity of identities and opinions that exist throughout Mennonite Church USA.

Together by Josefina Aguirre

It seems to me that there are few denominations that whose polity would allow for such a flexibility and diversity of opinion to exist. If we Mennonites can take seriously the call to be engaged faithfully with discernment in our own local communities, as well as respectful dialogue across the denomination, we could be leaders for many other Christian groups who are struggling to figure out what it means to live together with such varied ideas of community ethics. But to really take this process of discernment seriously, we cannot deny or try to hide the theological diversity that is pervasive throughout our denomination, and we cannot pretend that the church holds one, unified theological opinion on sexuality.

As Parker Palmer writes, we will need to learn to “hold tension creatively” and to understand that, as process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead notes, greater complexity also lends itself to deeper beauty.

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Naming Sexual Violence

This week, on The Femonite blog, we are going to be focusing on themes of sexual violence. I hope you will join us for the ongoing conversation, and add your own questions, stories, and insights.

  • Every 2 minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted
  • Throughout their lifetimes, 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual violence or assault
  • 44% of sexual violence victims are under the age of 18

These stats are horrific. I’m sure none of us read through these statistics and feel untouched or unaffected. In fact, what these statistics are saying is that 20% of all women are affected by sexual violence, which means that, even if you are like me and you are lucky enough to have not experienced this form of violence directly, you have friends, family members and acquaintances who have, whether you know it or not.

During my recent stint as a juror, I was interviewed for service on a case that dealt with four cases of sexual assault, rape and battery with a deadly weapon. The jury selection process took two full days, because the judge and lawyers were hoping to find “impartial jurors,” which they defined as people who had not been affected by sexual violence themselves, or close to anyone who had been. They interviewed 106 jurors before they were able to find 12 who met that criteria.

But perhaps the most startling statistics of all are not about the acts themselves, but the silence that shrouds and protects them.

  • 54% of all sexual assaults are not reported to the police
  • 97% of rapists are not sentenced to any jail time

And perhaps nowhere is this silence more deafening than within church walls. In the past year, my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has been rocked by not one, but two allegations of sexual abuse at our secondary education institutions in Pennsylvania and  Oregon. Over the course of the past few years, there have been accounts of pastors perpetrating sexual abuse and members of MCUSA have bravely come forward to share their own stories and accounts of sexual violence. And in an ironic twist, one of the most iconic Mennonite writers and peace ethicists, John Howard Yoder, was embroiled in a scandal regarding sexual harassment of many women during his tenure at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a legacy that sometimes gets swept under the rug, but can still leave some women, myself included, feeling squeamish about using his work.

And yet, Mennonite Church USA as a whole, along with many other Christian denominations, has not made many strong statements naming sexual violence as a reality within our congregations, and condemning it. The church does provide resources for helping a church to deal with sexual misconduct when it arises, but these documents are tucked away in the “polity” section of the MCUSA website.

As a historic peace church, MCUSA spends a lot of time talking about justice issues and condemning violence on many fronts: we’ve made statements about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we host large scale relief sales to support development work in countries that have been ravaged by war, we advocate against unjust immigration policies and condemn violence in many other forms. For this pacifist stance to maintain its integrity, it must advocate against injustice in all forms, including sexual violence.

And even if the church that you attend does not have a strict pacifist stance, I cannot think of a single Christian congregation that would not emphasize the importance of love. It is the key component in Jesus’ two largest commandments, after all. But as Margaret Farley notes, not all loves are “good.” In order for a love to be good, it must also be just. As Farley notes, if sexuality is to be “creative and not destructive,” we must always be asking whether our expressions of love are also just.

Too often, we may feel like we are protecting or even loving ourselves or others by remaining quiet. But silence can often be conflated with complicity. It is time to make space for victims of sexual violence to speak and to share their stories, if they wish, but also to begin having more public conversations about what it takes to create communities where women, children and all people can feel safe and secure.

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Anabaptists, Ecclesiology and Community

Yesterday I reflected on the ways that the movie, Lars and the Real Girl, offers us a vision of ecclesiology that is founded on radical love for the individual and for a whole community. Love that is both fluid/adaptable and inherently particular.

John Howard Yoder

The Mennonite and Anabaptist faith tradition also takes seriously the particularity of each church body. In his book, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World, seminal Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, addresses the diverse and evolving nature of Christian communities. Yoder notes that congregations must see moral discernment as an ongoing process. He writes, “Just as a wisely written constitution for an institution or government provides procedures for amendment and for decision making rather than immutable prescriptions, so the Christian community is equipped not with a code but with decision-making potential.” He goes on to emphasize that communities must take their social location and overall situation into account when developing ecclesiological standards. Yoder writes, “Any full system of goals and procedures which could be adequate to guide the obedience of Christians in one specific situation, would by that very fact have to be out of date or out of place in other situations.”

Yoder’s ecclesiological practices are similar to  Marjorie Suchocki’s process ecclesiology, which I discussed yesterday. Both emphasize

Marjorie Suchoki

that the ways love and justice, the guiding principles of the church, manifest themselves and will need to be discerned within each individual church community. This may seem obvious. The various Mennonite congregations that I have had occasion to visit all have different ideas about what it means to be church, and their ministries reflect these distinctive callings. Congregations full of middle-class professionals in Goshen, Indiana will support each other in different ways than a congregation in the midst of a rapidly evolving agricultural area in Pennsylvania or than the congregation full of first-generation immigrants to the United States in the middle of Los Angeles. Although there are Mennonite and Anabaptist congregations that fit each of these very diverse distinctions, and the majority of these congregations identify their work as growing out of the legacy of Jesus Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and love, each of these congregations interprets their call to ministry very differently. 

Yoder also describes the process of moral discernment and the discovery of community standards as a community process that must be inclusive of all members of each church or group. Building on the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth, written out in the Bible, Yoder emphasizes that “everyone has something to say.” The emphasis on the priesthood and participation of all believers is one of the distinctive elements of traditional Anabaptist and Mennonite ecclesiology.

In the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective, one attempt to represent the key beliefs of Mennonite Church USA in this current moment, it states, “In making decisions…all members of the church listen and speak in a spirit of prayerful openness, with the Scriptures as a constant guide…In a process of discernment, it is better to wait patiently for a word from the Lord leading toward consensus, than to make hasty decisions.” This focus on consensus-building and the inclusion of all members’ voices is important. Although the church has often fallen short of privileging the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and others, the underlying principle of the church emphasizes the importance of including as many voices as possible in a decision-making process. In fact, due to some unfortunate circumstances surrounding Yoder’s relationships with other women (which could certainly merit a whole other series of blog posts on their own), he himself was at one point asked to submit to the broader church’s discernment and communal discipline.  In fact, one could suggest that an Anabaptist ecclesiology implies that the broader the swath of voices included, the more integrity a decision-making process has. 

This focus on equality and inclusivity is also compatible with Suchocki’s process ecclesiology. It seems logical that any ecclesiology that emphasizes love and justice as guiding ecclesiological principles will care about equality and inclusivity. Suchocki emphasizes the importance of both the individual and the community. She notes that it is the community that brings an individual into being, but that in return, the individual contributes to the life of the community. She also emphasizes that the church can only “manifest holiness” through its communal structure. Individuals within each church are bound together by a common identity in Christ, and are therefore each called to participate in the communal work and ministry of the church.

Clearly, the ecclesiology espoused throughout Anabaptist history is much more radical and inclusive than we perhaps believe and/or live out today.

So, how does your church fit within this picture? What does the idea of church and/or ecclesiology mean to you?

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Ecclesiology in Lars and the Real Girl

“We need never ask, ‘God, what should I do?’ Because the Lord has told us what to do. Love one another. That, my friends, is the one true Law. Love is God in action.” – Reverend Bock. From the movie, Lars and the Real Girl

A few years ago, I watched a small indie movie that stuck with me. The film follows the story of Lars, a young man (played by Ryan Gosling, now of infinite feminist Tumblr fame) whose mother died while bringing him into the world. He is left to grow up with his older brother, Gus, who struggled to finish school and leave home as quickly as possible, and an increasingly distant father. These experiences early on in life leave Lars traumatized about childbirth and unable to build intimate and meaningful relationships with other humans, even his brother and sister-in-law. However, despite his limitations, Lars is kind, soft-spoken and caring, and he is a well-loved member of his small town community and the local congregation that he regularly attends.

One day, Lars announces to his family that he has met a friend, Bianca, on the internet, and that she is coming to visit. But when Bianca arrives, to everyone’s surprise, she is not a “real girl,” but instead is a life-like doll that Lars has ordered from an “adult website.” Concerned for his mental health, Lars’ brother and sister-in-law take him to a local doctor, who diagnoses him with a delusional disorder. But her prescribed treatment is surprising: she suggests that Lars’ family and friends should get to know Bianca and to treat her as a real woman.

The film that follows traces the story of Lars and his journey to healing within a loving, caring community. As the film progresses, members of the community and his family, because of their love and care for Lars, accept Bianca as one of their own. She begins to be invited to volunteer events, she is given a makeover by some of the local women, and she is accepted as a companion for Lars in public spaces like church. Slowly, in the awareness of this loving and caring community, Lars is able to process the events of his childhood and to replace Bianca with new, real relationships. 

Lars and the Real Girl paints a picture of a community that is willing to adapt and respond to the particular needs of community members, no matter how obscure or odd. Instead of responding in judgment or fear, members of the community reached out to Lars and loved him back to wholeness. As the quote above illustrates, for the community that Lars is a part of, love is the guiding and binding principle.

Although the film centers around the actions of an entire small town, and not simply one church or congregation, its themes can certainly be extrapolated and applied to ecclesiology more broadly. According to Philip Clayton in his book, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, ecclesiology raises questions about the nature of the church and the ways that it is distinctive and different from its surrounding society.  The type of ecclesiology embodied by this film suggests that the guiding principles of the Christian church are commitments to love and justice, which must necessarily manifest themselves differently in each unique church location and should be lived out and interpreted in consort with the voices and experiences of all members of each given community.

For me, in ways similar to eco-feminist theologian Sallie McFague in her book, Life Abundant, it is important to understand God as a being concerned primarily with love, in all of its many manifestations. As McFague writes, “If, however, God is the love that creates, sustains and transforms everything that is – if God is the declaration that reality is good – then all is changed. It is not, then, so important that ‘I believe in God’ as it is that I align my life with and toward this reality.” Although McFague is speaking as an individual, this statement can be extrapolated to include churches (the lived reality of ecclesiology) as well. Therefore, I see myself and the church as agents of that love, enmeshed and intertwined with the world and the communities around us and engaging all parts of creation with love. 

In her book, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki describes a process ecclesiology. Suchocki echoes this belief that the work of the church should be focused on the pursuits of deeper senses of love, and she expands this definition to include justice (an expansion that I appreciate).  Suchocki describes the church’s fundamental purpose as such: “The church is called, by its identity in Christ, to be love and justice, to be openness and mutuality, and in the living dynamism of these qualities, continually to move into deeper forms that manifest these qualities.” This is both a fluid ecclesiology, and an ecclesiology that is inherently particular and meets the needs of the individual. For example, because of Lars’ particular historical experiences, and his need to work out human intimacy in a safe space (visibly represented by Bianca), his community needed to extend their love not just to Lars, but they needed to find ways to affirm his experience and Bianca’s existence, as well. Bianca was real for Lars, and the community took this very particular, and perhaps odd, reality seriously.

If you haven’t seen the film, I’d highly recommend it. It’s lighthearted, but also points to the very real challenges that churches face when they try to figure out how they will relate to members and to those outside of congregational walls, as well.

Tomorrow, I’ll be exploring ideas about Anabaptist and Mennonite ecclesiology. But in the meantime, share your thoughts. What does ecclesiology mean to you? How can communities responsibly care for one another in extreme situations? How do communities make space for healing?

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Still Being a “Rich Christian in an Age of Hunger”

Yesterday while out running errands, I made a stop at Target, that great hotbed of middle class consumer delight. I have to confess that there is something about Target – whether it be the colors, the creative ways things are displayed, the easily affordable products (the $1 spot people!), etc. – that always makes me spend more than I intend to. This time, as I walked from my car to the store, I was stopped by a woman holding a sign that read, “Hungry. Please help” and pushing a Target cart with her small toddler daughter in the seat. She made eye contact with me, glanced down at my growing belly and said, “Please help. You know what it’s like to be a mother.”

I was quite taken aback, but old habits die hard so I quickly mumbled something about not having any cash (which was true), averted my eyes and tucked my purse under my arm more tightly as I rushed into the store. About 15 minutes later, when I emerged from Target with purchases in tow and a Starbucks Frappucino in my hand, I could still see her across the parking lot, talking with other customers.

Most of us have probably had experiences like this one, and if you live in a city, it’s probably actually not a very uncommon occurrence.  There are a laundry list of cynicisms or advice for “dealing with” situations like this one that I have heard throughout the years:

  • If you give this person money, it will probably be squandered, perhaps on drugs or something else. It’s better to offer food or nothing at all.
  • Just don’t make eye contact. It’s important to become desensitized, because you will see this all the time.
  • There’s too many people and we can’t help them all.
  • This is a systemic issue, and giving money or food to someone begging just perpetuates the system. Find other, more helpful ways to work towards alleviating poverty.
  • These people aren’t our responsibility.
  • People who are out asking for money likely are actually making quite a bit of money, perhaps even more than I make at my job. (Yup, I’ve heard this one)

This list could go on, and you all could probably add your own list of concerns, but all I know is that, yesterday, I was profoundly struck again by how dehumanizing poverty or need must be, and how terrible it must feel to stand with your child in a parking lot and to be passed by and ignored over and over by people carrying bags of merchandise or $4 coffees to their car. I don’t know this woman’s story, and some people might see the statement that she made to me about motherhood as manipulative. But as I thought about it afterwards, driving home from the store, it seemed that maybe it was really just a plea for me to see her:  to relate her experiences to my own in some way.

Now I certainly don’t have a strategy figured out for the next time that I see someone. I have at times offered money or food to someone who has asked, and I often do at least try to make eye contact and smile. Last week, I read a blog by Erika Morrison who told about ways that her family is trying to include a “plus one” at every meal that they eat, by providing food for someone who might not have had access to it before.

And it’s easy to look at these solutions and suggest that they are inadequate. It’s true: they are not necessarily addressing all of the forms of brokenness that led people to this place. Offering food or money is not helping to treat mental health conditions, addictions, looking at unfair labor conditions, disparities in access to education, and a whole set of systemic issues that social services can sometimes help to address. But I think that sometimes it is not enough to simply see the system: We need to see each of the people and unique individuals who get caught in its gears, and we need to acknowledge them. What having a conversation or offering some food or acknowledging someone can do is to simply name a person as a person, and to acknowledge them as a person with dignity and worthy of respect.

 

Dorothy Day

This semester, I had the opportunity to study Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who spent much of her adult life living with and amongst the poor and homeless. Today, the Catholic Worker movement is still centered on a firm belief in “the God-given dignity of every human person.” There are 213 Catholic Worker communities around the world who are committed to “nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken.”

These are communities that seek to be a space for people to come and to feel at home and human. We need to take this call seriously in each new encounter, because it is as Dorothy Day herself said, “I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.”

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Every Woman Strives to Keep it All Together

Anna Yoder Schlabach, another Mennonite in a little black maternity dress

Guest post from… Anna Yoder Schlabach graduated from Goshen College in 2007 and from Iliff School of Theology in 2011 with a Master of Divinity. Anna and her husband Brian currently live in Albuquerque, NM , where they serve as leaders for Mennonite Mission Network’s Service Adventure program. They currently live with four teenagers, four chickens and one dog. They’re expecting twins in August.

The other day I received a Thirty-One catalogue from my sister-in-law who was hosting a Thirty-One party (think Mary Kay but with tote bags instead of make-up). Since I’m about six months pregnant, I flipped through the catalogue hoping to find an affordable diaper bag. And although I didn’t find what I was looking for, the content proved to be a surprising source for a little self reflection. Each page of the catalogue had a catchy slogan on it, certainly created not only to inspire women to buy bags, but to inspire women themselves. Phrases like “Smart virtuous women have goals, right?” and “Be yourself, be confident, be independent” are splashed across the pages.  These slogans were ok, but the one that really got me thinking was, “Every woman strives to keep it all together.”

While every woman may strive to keep it all together, for me the task has recently seemed more daunting. Somewhere between moving to Albuquerque to lead and live with a group of four teenagers, weathering a house fire in December, and getting pregnant  and seeing an ultrasound with not one, but two babies on it, things may have spiraled out of my control. Some of these are challenges, and some of these are gifts from God. Either way, I can’t keep it all together and I don’t think a tote bag is going to help. I may have to ask my community for help. But I’m not happy about it.

A decade ago (when I at least thought I had things under control), I was a senior in high school and considering becoming baptized.  A huge part of what eventually sold me on getting baptized was the way I saw my community responding to someone who needed help. A person in my congregation shared one Sunday morning about a medical condition that would likely leave her in a wheelchair for life. People in the congregation got up and embraced her, creating a circle of support around her in a moment of communal despair and lament. That image compelled me to join this community – a community of people asking for and receiving help. Community is one of the things that Mennonites do best.  We are a people who believe in living out the life of Christ through

I think I'll need more than a tote bag to hold it all together...

our relationships with each other. I believe that the church is the perfect place to seek help, but then why am I so reluctant to appear weak or vulnerable or like I don’t have it all together, particularly in front of my church community?

I think part of what bothers me about asking for help from my congregation is that I like being up front at church, this is part of what drew me to seminary; I enjoy leading worship and being involved in public ways.  But I always like to be prepared when I’m going to be in front of people. I like to appear that I have it all together, not only because I think it makes the worship service flow better, but because I like to present my best self, which is maybe antithetical to what worship is all about. It’s not about me, it’s about God. And it’s about following Jesus, a man who probably didn’t give a lot of thought to how his hair looked when he was speaking to the masses, or about appearing “in control” when he washed his disciples’ feet.

The real Jesus never would have done this

Plus, Jesus was always receiving from other people. He was hosted in peoples’ homes all the time and he rarely shied away from people who clearly couldn’t keep it all together. As followers of Jesus, we are called to both accept hospitality from others, and to seek help, allowing the community to respond as Jesus would to our myriad needs. Come August, I hope that I have the grace to allow others to care for me (and forgive me for showing up to church with my hair unwashed and spit-up on my shirt). This isn’t shameful, this is what it means to live in a way that recognizes that we all rely on God, that we can’t do it all by ourselves. No woman can keep it all together by herself. Thirty-One suggests that the solution is just the right combination of tote bags and motivational quotes, but I’m trying to trust that the answer is more likely found in opening myself up to the care of my community, trusting that at some point, I’ll be on the other side of the helping again.

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Book Review: Go to Church, Change the World

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?

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