Young adults were given 90 minutes of discernment time with delegates at the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Abbotsford this year. As the session flew by, the breadth of our responses quickly narrowed, mostly in response to some very insightful questions from the delegate floor. As one of 5 young adult panelists, the challenge for me was to focus my answers to represent voices I’ve heard again and again from young adults in the Mennonite church. Given the width of the questions, focusing answers on key thoughts was not easy.
If I were to sum things up, I would say the focus became, “Why is the present heart of the Mennonite church in today’s culture being labelled an issue of young adults and the future of the church?”
The session was led by MC Canada executive staff and began with an introduction to generational characteristics, then moved on to interaction with the panel of Canadian young adults. These 5 young adults were asked to reflect on what relationships meant to them, what gives them passion, and what community means in relation to church. Clips from the newly launched BikeMovement documentary and a radio interview with Sarah Thompson of Mennonite World Conference Amigos were also included.
Congregational delegates of all ages who came forward to speak on the floor shared that the concerns of practical application, hospitality, openness, and integrity in faith are not only young adult desires for the church; they are characteristics that are part of a living, growing, and thriving church. They are characteristics that people of all ages yearn for in church.
Delegates were asked to affirm through raising of hands, that they did think young adults and their inclusion in church was a necessary and vital component to the life of the Canadian church. But conversations following the affirmation showed that delegates had more on their minds than generic affirmations….
Conversations after the session and through lunch were intriguing and it has taken me a few days to recognize a pattern. There were conversations with people who offered general affirmation of our willingness to “get involved” with the assembly sessions and with church life.
Secondly there was a theme of apology. We received multiple apologies for the generic nature of an affirmation statement that could have been affirmed by anyone anywhere in the church. Some delegates were sincerely sorry that this affirmation statement did not address what they thought was the heart of young adult concern about church community.
Thirdly we heard from those in the church who themselves feel disempowered and who saw this event as a space for marginal voices to be heard. I was surprised by the passion and the diversity of discussion as people of various ages privately shared their frustrations or feelings of alienation from the church. Together we created a space where people felt safe to share their concerns about church and topics such as Mennonite political involvement, sexual orientation, aboriginal representation, and women and power in the church.
What does all of this mean and what do I take from this assembly experience? I think we are a church wondering how to reconcile our diverse theological identity with a cultural identity that has, and continues to quickly move away from Russian/Swiss/North American Mennonitism to a global Anabaptist/Mennonite reality. Some in the church have been in a place of ambiguity for a while and others claim that the church has nothing to do with ambiguity.
As North American Mennonite young adults meeting and talking about these concerns, I think that we have created breathing room for those within and without the structure of the church to hear others’ voices and to be heard themselves. Perhaps we can hear each other with respect and find a unified way forward that continues to create a space where one cultural voice or agenda is not championed over another.
A safe space like this could free our imaginations…do we dare imagine that, beyond having a plan for the church, God has dreams for the church?
Maybe a small breathing space in the church will offer freedom for the Spirit to move, and maybe all of us will be surprised at what eventually evolves in the ambiguity. I for one need to realize that it’s OK to let go of personal agenda and admit that I don’t really know where this conversation will lead.