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.
- We 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.