I spoke at a small Church of the Brethren congregation in Napannee, Indiana last Sunday. The church seems to be an older congregation, which was interesting mainly because in Sunday School, a somewhat skeptical older gentleman turned to me, and out of the blue, said that while the numbers of non-denominational churches are rising, the Church of the Brethren (and, he presumed, the Mennonite Church) is shrinking. He asked me why I thought that was. I didn’t say that I think it’s dangerous to assume that growth is always the best indicator of the health of anything (take obesity as a prime example). But here are a few observations:
First of all, as our society as become increasingly individualistic, I think it’s become too easy to get away from the stuff of church. I’ve become less a fan of the “priesthood of all believers” mentality lately–and this is the same critique theologians have of the Anabaptist/Baptist strand of theology–because to some extent, it allows people to think that whatever they’re doing in their church that feels right must be right, and then to act accordingly. (Unlike the Catholic, Orthodox or even Amish traditions, which have a much broader sense of what constitutes “the church.”) The church is made up of humans, so it’s going to be messy, and I don’t think people are always prepared for what that means. So if there’s a conflict over new carpet, or the denominational position on homosexuality is getting too liberal, it’s really easy to find a new church or make a new church where things are much more black and white.
Second observation, particularly as it relates to young adults: The pew theology in Mennonite churches seems to be, “God is nice, and we should be nice, too.” We’ve lost much of the distinctiveness of Mennonite identity, and while I’m in no way advocating for a return to head coverings for women, the fact is that as we’ve lost those things we haven’t done a great job of simultaneously telling the stories and passing on the whys of our theology. I see many churches actively pursuing growth and outreach, and in an attempt to be welcoming, downplaying the most of what distinguishes us from the rest of Christianity. But the most thriving (Mennonite) churches I know of are also the ones which have the most marked Mennonite identity and theology. They may or may not have a lot of members who were raised in the Mennonite church, but they’ve found very distinct ways to affirm what they believe and how they can carry it out. Many of the members actually work in jobs which underscore what they believe as Christians and as Mennonites. They’re churches which have found ways to thoughtfully and meaningfully engage the world around them, to demonstrate faith lived.
I couldn’t answer the question with any real assuredness, but I’d be interested in hearing the opinions of others. The posts in the past week have been really interesting, and looking at the questions of who we’ve been and we are, for me, also begs the question, “Who will we be?” What do we want the future to look like, and how do we start shaping that now?