church life


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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.