September 2007


A friend (someone who isn’t a Christian and doesn’t work in academia) asked why I feel so much stress and anxiety working at an evangelical Christian college, since:

  1. I grew up an evangelical Christian,
  2. went to Christian college,
  3. and have an energetic and unapologetic love for Christ.

Trying to answer her was helpful for me in the clarifying process of putting a lot of jumbled thoughts and feelings into words.

My unease is generated by the question “What is theology for?”

In much of my experience of religious communities and organizations, theology (i.e. “beliefs”) is useful to the group by identifying and enforcing boundaries. Beliefs identify who is within and who is outside the criteria bounds for group membership. Boundaries aren’t crossed only by how someone acts or what someone does. They’re also crossed by what people think, what their opinions are, and what they believe.

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For me – and all of my colleagues – Jesus is at the center of my spiritual life. We’re all in the game because of Christ’s love for us, because of the transformational new reality this love creates in us, and because of the love we have for Christ in return.

But there are many other religious beliefs a Christian might have, apart from being saved by Jesus. You know, there’s stuff to believe about the Bible, free will, evil spirits, miracles, economics, etc. Stuff related to Jesus, but not the same as Jesus. That’s why, even after we join the exciting journey of following Christ, there is still plenty of other theological work to do. The universe is a big place and we can ask theological questions of just about any part of it.

I worry that my personal take on these other theological ideas will serve the purpose of limiting my inclusion in the group. (What’s exclusion look like? Being endlessly argued with and judged, blocked in the college promotion process or, worse, eventually refused tenure – i.e. fired.)

One reason this is so frustrating for me is because I work out my theological ideas specifically to help me keep Jesus at the center of my life.

Theology model 2

I guess I don’t think theology saves me. I think Jesus saves me. Obviously this is a theological idea, but Jesus isn’t a theology.

And I guess my Christian mission is not to follow some theology. My mission is to follow Christ. This mission is supported by theology, but the mission itself isn’t theology.

That’s why, when people imply I’m not a very good Christian because I have the wrong theology of [whatever], I don’t know how to respond. It’s in those moments I realize we are not even in agreement about what theology is for.

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German sociologist Max WeberMax warned us about “the increasing tendency toward rationalization.”

Max Weber, the 19th century German sociologist, called the results of modern social organization “the iron cage” (or something close to that phrase in German). It’s a way of understanding the rational structures of human society as unmalleable, non-negotiable restrictions, that ultimately perpetuate their own existence rather than serving any legitimate human needs or desires. Chillingly, he insisted that the iron cage is inevitable.

This is what Mennonites and emerging Christians are afraid of.

The Mennos have loose hierarchical structures, distributing authority througout the congregation and doing a lot of theological work on “the priesthood of all believers.” Anabaptist history includes frequent run-ins with both Protestant and Catholic institutional structures, often resulting in drowning, burning, and chopping up the faithful.

Emerging christians are also very leery of authoritative pastoral figures and church hierarchy. Many of them are reacting to the worst expressions of rigid institutional structure in evangelicalism and the mainline. This is why emerging congregations sit in circular arrangements for worship, and make so many decisions through dialog, active listening, and consensus.

My own Mennonite fellowship (notice how for this post I even avoid using the word “church” in this sentence? Yes, Dave’s got baggage!) is just now struggling with how to organize leadership structures. Our numbers have grown, which led us to occupy our own building, which leads to further growth, which leads to a need for organizing ourselves in order to complete the additional tasks that come with more people and a building.

How do we do this?

  • Do we ordain one of our members and put her in charge of stuff?
  • Do we need a board, or a bunch of committees with chairpersons?
  • Who’s responsible for sending out email updates with important information?
  • Who has to make sure the building gets swept and locked up?
  • Who plans the worship meetings?
  • Who decides if we’re going to do a service project making blankets for North Korea or assembling health kits for HIV/AINDS clinics?

This is causing a lot of anxiety for many of us who recognize the need to be organized, but fear Herr Weber’s caution about how the structures we build to serve our needs eventually demand our service to perpetuate them.

Bureaucracy is scary.

“Mennonite Poster Boy and Baptist Girl” is a comic strip by Mel Pritchard, a Southern Baptist college student who ended up at a Mennonite university, and made the comic in response to her culture shock. The story follows the cartoonist’s alter ego and her love/hate affair with the earnestness and contradictions of Mennonite youth culture.

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Evangelicals and Anabaptists are equally skewered by Pritchard’s satire over the 3-year run of the strip which appeared in Eastern Mennonite University‘s campus paper.

I won’t spoil the end of the allegorical plot for you, but yes, the 2 iconic characters have to eventually make a decision about their irresistible mutual attraction. These strips are © Mel Pritchard, and I think it’s funny stuff.

As I’ve spent the last several years learning about and trying to orient my spirituality toward Jesus through Anabaptist theology and church life, I’ve become more and more convinced that recently emerging, counter-cultural expressions of Christian life can be a good fit with what Mennonites are up to all over the United States.

But wait a minute… some of these new movements (Emergent, New Monasticism, etc.) are pretty feisty, even radical. Does that really fit Anabaptists? Aren’t Mennonites more simple folk, the “quiet in the land?”

These days simple living and relating to the land with some quietness can be pretty radical. So can opening your home to strangers, advocating for social justice, living among the poor, praying a whole lot. You know, stuff Anabaptists have been doing for 500 years.

Check out this guy, Mark Van Steenwyk (he blogs here). He lives in Minneapolis and made a small church with some friends. Better yet check out the church’s Web site. Here’s Mark describing the “new monasticism” many use to describe how he and his friends live:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7WCv-TZetg

What Christian tradition are these kooky people affiliated with? Some zany social-gospel branch of Episcopalianism? Urban Pentacostalism gone wild? The Franciscans?

Nope. Mark’s a Mennonite pastor, and this radical little church is seeking affiliation with MCUSA.

Mennonites in the U.S. and Canada are starting to wake up to the fact that some of their most deeply held ideals of peace-building, community, service, hospitality, contemplative life, listening, and consensus building are being discussed and taken seriously by the emerging church.

From a MC Canada press release last spring:
“When participants gathered in suburban Philadelphia, for the 2007 Emergent Conversation, they were surprised at how many Mennonites were a part of the group. For Jess Walter, who works with Franconia Mennonite Conference, the reason was obvious …. ‘I told them,’ said Walter, who helped to coordinate part of the gathering, ‘You are on our turf!'”

Here’s something we do at my church: we pray with more than our mouths and minds.

I remember in the earliest days of our fellowship, prayer time was fairly typical to my past church experiences. In our circle (we always worship “in the round”) we would toss out “prayer requests” – you know, someone is sick, or broke up with a girlfriend, or is considering taking a new job, or wants to be a better person. Then we all hang our heads and squint our eyes shut, and stay like that until each of the requests had been prayed for aloud.

This works fine! I’m not trying to put down this style of corporate prayer. But we started to feel that the reason we prayed like this is because that’s how we did it at youth group or home bible study growing up. Was there a form or style of prayer that made sense for us now, for who we are and where we’re at?

We talked together over many weeks about what prayer is about, why we bother praying at all, what ways of approaching God fill us with hope and meaningful thinking about our faith. Turns out that, not surprisingly, many of us feel most moved and connected when encountering art and other sensed experiences – looking at things, holding things, hearing and even smelling things (more on taste later when I write about communion).

In fact, many of us feel the least connected to God and to each other with our eyes closed listening to abstract verbal recitations of information (“We want this, we are thankful for that, etc.”). As a teacher, I’m a fan of the abstract, but moreso I’m a fan of the abstract in the context of the concrete.

So now we pray together in a variety ways, and we usually try to have something tangible to encounter as expression of our prayers.

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Often we light candles for each of our prayers, so that we can watch the light from our prayers gather together and illuminate our space.

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Or we’ll take a stone out of a bag and add it others, feeling and hearing the clatter of our prayers piling up in the midst of us.

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We’ve immersed our hands in a bowl of water as we speak our prayers. We write them down sometimes. Sometimes we don’t say the prayers out loud, but let the silence speak for us. Once we set seed pods afloat. Sometimes we sing to each other between each spoken prayer, or pray aloud while someone else sings.

We’re pretty intentional about thinking and talking through why we try something. It’s important to us that we not try this stuff because it’s new or trendy. If it doesn’t seem to make sense for who we are, then we drop it or change it up for the next time.

OK, here’s the deal.

I started this blog September 11, 2007, but it was a personal exercise, private, hidden from public consumption. So I guess it was kind of fake blogging. But it was fun, and probably a bit therapeutic.

So now, as part of 2008’s “New Year Resolutions Surely to Cause Dave Trouble,” I’ve decided to switch the blog to hosting on WordPress.com, and post more consistently, hopefully as part of a more public conversation.

Unfortunately the whole enterprise was hosed in my attempt to switch over. So I’m left with a bunch of unformatted text files on my hard drive to manually enter into this new blog site, one post at a time. My plan of course is to just keep posting several a day until I get caught up, and then continue blogging from there, “in real time.”

After just a couple of days into this “plan,” a few people have already somehow discovered this blog and started reading it (hi guys!). I know this because I’ve received a couple comments and e-mails. So I figured I should post an explanation for why the newest posts are from last September!

The summary is that I’ll be adding a few posts a day from fall and winter until this new blog is caught up, so please bear with me while I finish posting the archive. Then I’ll continue with new posts in ’08.

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These are strange and exciting days for the small Mennonite fellowship I’m part of. We finally have a building of our own.

I suppose we are about 10 years old, though we’ve taken many rapidly mutating forms over that decade. The group was first brought together by a student from the college where I’m on faculty, as part of an internship for her major. She was a Mennonite herself (rare at our evangelical school) and studying Christian ministry. She teamed up with a faculty member who’d been commuting 70 miles to a Menno church in another city, and formed a small home fellowship.

After this student graduated, the handful of college faculty, staff, and students kept meeting each week, moving from living room to living room in their own homes, singing a few songs, saying a few prayers – basically just making it up as they went along. Members came and went over the months and years. My wife and I started showing up for the Sunday afternoon worship services when numbers averaged around 20 or so, split evenly between students and older adults.

It’s now 7 or 8 years later, and we are up around 45-50 people, long since too big for anyone’s livingroom, and starting to outgrow the small room we’ve been borrowing in a friendly local Methodist church building. In addition to a ballooning population of students, there are several more families, a bunch of little kids, even babies.

So last week we signed papers to rent a village storefront on Main Street.

It’s a former dance studio, which is kind of cool, but in pretty cruddy shape. Last night 15 of us got together to give the whole place a solid cleaning before our first meeting in our new location. Afterwards, a few of us “oldtimers,” who remember when the whole congregation could fit on a folded-out sleeper sofa, sort of looked at each other and wondered, “What have we done?!”

What’s it mean that we now hold possession of a structure of our own in which to gather? Will we lose the comfortable ease of sitting cross-legged on the floor around a makeshift lawn-chair altar? Will we start forming committees in order to keep the floor mopped? Will everyone tithe enough to pay rent and utilities? What’s next? A church board? An authoritarian pastoral staff? Schism over what color to paint the gymnasium?!

We talked honestly and openly about our hopes and anxieties around this big step in our life together.

Our conference minister, an old school Mennonite who really knows what this stuff is about instead of just playing at it like I sometimes feel I’m doing, has been overseeing our congregation and enjoying our enthusiasm and odd ways for years. I think he sees us as an energizing force, breathing new life into a conference of churches with falling numbers and traditional ways.

He’s advised us to “Hold lightly to what we take on, and hold tightly to each other.”

This sounds like a very Menno thing to say, and I’ve been wondering what it might mean for us.

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