Thursday, December 23, 2010

what is a Mennonite?

In engaging in conversations over the last several weeks with fellow North Americans living or traveling in southern Africa, I have been struck anew by the reality of a truly global church. Students of mission will have been aware of the global church, if they have not experienced it firsthand, through the writings of such scholars as Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh. Even so, those reminders cannot really prepare North Americans to comprehend the reality of a global church; only direct exposure over time can do that.

One of the evidences of my slowness of mind and heart to understand the global church is the field of images and connotations which come to my mind when I hear the word “Mennonite.” For if I truly understood the reality that the church is global, then my first associations with “Mennonite” would not include, as regards worship, for example, four-part hymnody, tightly-managed orders of service, and rather un-emotive preaching.

I spoke recently with a leader of the Mennonite Church in North America who was traveling on behalf of Mennonite World Conference on a teaching tour throughout the global Mennonite family. He spoke of his conversation with a pastor in a certain country who runs a “megachurch” which worships in a “state-of-the-art” stadium facility, is a “mover and shaker” in the civic arena, including with plans to “reclaim land from the sea” in order to build an alternative “Christian city”, complete with plans to attract a “Disney World” on the land—all under the name “Mennonite”. Though the resume sounds to my “Mennonite” ears more like that of a Charismatic or televangelist, to the people of that country it is that of a “Mennonite”.

The example is but one illustration from the globe that, from a North American perspective, we can no longer take for granted our definition of “Mennonite”. For millions of people across the globe, both insiders and outsiders to the tradition, “Mennonite” does not mean what North Americans with generations-old membership in the tradition take it to mean.

Much, in fact, that has been established in different “Mennonite” traditions may be distasteful one to the other. “Mennonites” from one reality may be more comfortable worshipping with Christians from other denominations whose religious culture seems more like their own. To take one example, I spoke to a North American worker last week who worships with a baptist congregation in Zambia rather than with the local Anabaptist (the broader tradition from which the Mennonites come) church. Yet, if all “Mennonites” have a stake in the name—as we do—we will be concerned about what kind of a witness we are giving for Jesus and the kingdom of God. That means that—in spite of the often vast differences between “Mennonite” cultures—we, as members of the global church, as members one of another—must push beyond our particular, cherished forms of religiosity to find the faith common to all that lies beneath the surface. Such pushing beyond will take commitment, time, and energy, and will entail many setbacks. But if we persevere, if we stay in relationship, if we give and receive counsel from the word of God, we will experience together life’s purest joy—the presence of God in our midst.

Here then is a call to cross the boundaries of human difference, to participate in “mission”, to engage the global church.

-Joe

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