You might say that I’m a dreamer. Well I’m not the only one.

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mouthSomething I quickly discovered about myself when I became part of my Mennonite fellowship is what a blathering loudmouth I am.

Friends have responded to this observation mostly with a heartfelt: “Duh.” So, yeah, as an adult I’ve had to periodically face the fact that my own opinions are not golden coins showering from heaven on grateful fellow humans (marriage also has a way of bringing this into clear detail).

But previously, I never considered facing this fact to be an act of discipleship.

Mennonites try to be really good at conversation. Careful listening is critical to spiritual growth and community life. Lots of time at church is spent listening to each other. We’re encouraged to keep our mouths shut if someone else has something to say. We’re encouraged to not do that thing that people do – that I’ve developed as a practiced skill – to listen at half-attention while preparing my next statement for whenever I can make an interruption.

This revelation may seem like simple manners, but growing up in the church this had never been presented to me as part of the Christian life. “Letting others speak” and “being respectful of other points of view” were far down the list of Christian virtues, far behind “making sure you have the right answer” and “making sure everyone knows it.”

earPROCLAIMING THE TRUTH was our highest call in communicating, and I remember many people cut off for the sake of God’s supposed need for Christians to be constantly proclaiming stuff and never listening. I was rewarded for that kind of behavior – until I became the one asking the wrong questions, and being shut out of conversation.

So I’ve been enjoying cruising the archives of Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed. I’ve revisited last January’s posts about “Conversation” (part 1, part 2, part 3). He explains why emerging Christians value genuinely open and listening conversation in exploring faith, as opposed to the one-way didacticism many of us are familiar with.

But the “art” of conversation can’t be learned in such a context when everything is dominated by right vs. wrong or when it becomes whoever knows the most becomes the teacher. This isn’t conversation; this is lecture or information exchange.

I believe that the emerging movement wants “conversation,” and I believe evangelicals by and large are nervous about it because it has not learned to converse.

I see this as another intersection between the way of life in the Mennonite church and the kind of spiritual life many emerging Christians are looking for.

The Mennonites are not particularly fond of “committees.” But one committee structure involved in difficult community decisions is the “listening committee.” These committees are not engaged in controversy to debate opinions, but to pay careful attention to what people on all sides are saying. Then before the conversation moves toward resolution, everyone turns to the listening committee for their report: they simply report what they heard.

They tackle the most controversial issues in this way. There are listening committees for homosexual concerns, immigration issues, Catholic-Mennonite relationships, congregational diversity, or any kind of topical exploration dealing with multiple perspectives.

We live in hope.

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I was thrilled to discover this month that one of my favorite emerging bloggers, Tall Skinny Kiwi (whose identity I still don’t quite understand beyond “some really smart shane bookBaptist dude with a blog everyone reads”) gave a positive review of menno pastor Shane Hipps’s book, The Hidden power of Electronic Culture.

I discovered the book this fall and it rang all my bells. Shane Hipps has a background in marketing and advertising, and left it all behind to follow the call. But he took with him his expertise in applying Marshall McLuhan’s genius for media studies to the life of the church.

Since I teach communication and digital art at a Christian college, this book is a treasure of insights and challenges for my classes, my students, and my own professional development. All the better that Shane Hipps understand emerging church and the cultural forces shaping and being shaped by the movement from within a Mennonite context. And this guy went to junior high with Tony Jones? What’s that about?

I plan a more extensive series of blog posts about Shane’s book and his Web site, and how this might all connect with Mennonite theology. So I’m thrilled the book is getting more exposure. I think it’s important.

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old car jpeg

“Speakerguy” is that guy who came to speak at the Christian college where I am on faculty.Because Speakerguy and I are old friends, we spent a lot of time together catching up during his visit to campus.

In the local coffee shop, I asked him about the evangelical leaders he knows: celebrity authors, megachurch pastors, evangelists and non-profit CEOs. I wanted to know what he’d observed doing so much traveling to churches and colleges and religious organizations around the country.

I’m going to try to paraphrase what he told me. This isn’t an exact quote or transcript, I didn’t record our conversation or even think about writing it down. But now a couple weeks later, this is the best I can recall the gist of what he said:

“Dave, people with the theology and commitments like the students you’ve described, people who worship a perfectly loving God who wants them to be radically devoted to making the world a better place, people who aren’t afraid to change their theology to a theology of love and hope – those people are the future of Christianity in the West.”

When I expressed skepticism, because those in power at influential churches and Christian colleges and publishing houses seem devoted to a way of expressing our faith that seems narrow, exclusionary, vengeful, and uncritical of things like empire. He responded by saying,

“The best horse drawn carriages were built after the invention of the automobile. Many people looked at these new cars and laughed them off – they couldn’t possibly represent the future of transportation. But we know how the story goes. You and me and your students are the cars in this story: right now we’re a mess, and we’re loud, and we keep breaking down, and we don’t know where to get gas. But we’re the future, I’m as sure of that as I am that I’m sitting here.”

The statewide MC-USA “conference” (regional association of churches) our fellowship belongs to is an old conference, with close ties to some of the oldest conservative Mennonite leadership structures in the country.

Most of the other Mennonite churches we’re affiliated with are made of middle aged and senior citizens folks. They are comfortable in a traditional congregational church structure: a head pastor and pastoral staff, board of elders and deacons, a gentle mix of hymns with a few praise choruses on Sunday morning, sermon-focused worship service. Steepled building. Parking lot.

But my congregation is different, both in demographic and ecclesiastical practice.

  • First of all, we don’t meet Sunday morning. We gather for worship late Sunday afternoon.
  • Our chairs are arranged in a close circle, surrounding some kind of reflective visual element: a bowl of sand, candles, a vessel of water, or maybe just a brightly colored cloth-draped table.
  • hymnalWe sing from the Mennonite hymnal, a.k.a. “The Blue Book,” like many other menno churches. Singing is very important to us, and the congregation picks the songs ourselves, calling out page numbers and then accompanied by guitars and violins.
  • We have no pastoral figure-head.
  • No sermon.
  • Our prayer is kind of liturgical, incorporating visual and tactile artistic objects.
  • The young children stay with us until contemplative prayer time, crawling from lap to lap, making a fuss, or not, and requesting songs or asking for explanations for what we’re doing.
  • We discuss together. We read a scripture passage, or magazine article, or look at a projected slide show, or listen to a personal testimony. All voices are invited to respond if they have something to say.
  • Our building is a dilapidated storefront. Our money is spent mostly on mutual aid and service projects. We’re mostly in our 20s and 30s; the eldest is 50, the youngest are infants.

So what does the rest of the conference think of us – the state leadership, men in their 60s and 70s, and the other congregations with traditional worship services and conservative dress, still influenced by “ethnically mennonite” history and identity? How do they treat our ragged band of misfits and experimenters?

They have ever only been 100% affirming, supportive, and deeply encouraging.

At multi-church gatherings, they ask us to share our ideas or lead worship. They encourage our college students to go on to seminary and take leadership positions, especially our young women. They visit us and participate in what must seem to be weird ways of doing church. We’re invited to conference events. Leadership never offers advice unless asked. We feel welcomed and mentored.

Since joining with the Mennonites as a last try at organized religion before maybe giving up on it altogether, I’ve been inspired by the number of white-haired, plain-dressed, sometimes slightly baffled (by me!) church people who let me know that if I’m a follower of Christ working for Christ’s kingdom, they’re glad to have me and seek my growth and maturity as a reconciled child of God.

How is it that this very, very old tradition is a welcoming place for me and my friends and our kooky new ideas? This is a holy mystery.

Still reeling a bit from “Speakerguy’s” visit to the Christian college where I work.

Have had some great conversations with a group of students who recognize that his purpose in hitting the road to speak at colleges like ours is to (in the words of Heather the biology major), “Call us to work for justice for the poor and oppressed, DUH!”

Unfortunately, some here continue to call for rejection of his message and, ultimately, of him– apparently believing the wrong theology somehow disqualifies him from speaking about Christian mission as a call to radical service and counter-cultural living.

I’m still kind of stressed out about this, but instead of blogging my anger against this narrow, exclusionary religious perspective, I’ll instead praise the invitational and welcoming perspective of the Mennonite church I’m part of. I’m working on a post and will hopefully get it up tomorrow.