church background


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.

church-chairs.jpg

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.