the numbers game: a cranky opinion

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?

Comments (12)

  1. dan

    But the most thriving (Mennonite) churches I know of are also the ones which have the most marked Mennonite identity and theology.

    Can you expound on this a little more? What kinds of jobs do those members have, and what would you consider a strong Mennonite identity and theology?

    I totally agree that growth in members doesn’t translate into faithfulness. It seems to me the exact opposite – the megachurch “main and plain” message that is all about personal salvation with very few ethical requirements in return seems not very faithful to me. But it works to bring people and money in the door.

    I think the sad truth is that a message heavy on service towards others or justice for all requires a lot from people, so it won’t ever be very popular. I wonder if witnessing to the “justice-seeking” community would bring more people in the door than trying to bring in people who are just looking for an easy path to heaven. In other words, being more radical and committed to social justice and service will not only cause us to be less watered down in our message, but also attract people in the door that will help us follow through.

    The thing to worry about with this approach is losing the spiritual center when advocating too strongly for justice, peace, service, etc without the theological backing required to sustain it.

  2. Brian Hamilton

    I’m going to go out on a limb and actually advocate a return of head coverings for women and plain coats for men. OK, maybe not really, but wouldn’t it be so much of a help, wouldn’t it remind us so much who we are? It would separate us from the “easy path to heaven” seekers, but also from the justice seekers who think the church is only about relieving suffering and granting freedom and never about requiring suffering or demanding obedience. I go to a school where monks and nuns are in regular attendance, and I’ll be honest: I often long for a gown of my own to wear.

  3. Lora (Post author)

    Dan, my favorite churches (whether they’re thriving or not) are definitely ones which are able to combine an emphasis on personal piety and social action. That said, there’s a reason why I used the words “cranky opinion” in my title–it’s purely my own observations. When I was writing this I was thinking of a sort of “best practices”–like a church in Ohio that has a youth read a story from the Martyr’s Mirror each Sunday. Churches that actually preach on issues of peace and living counter-culturally, and build up the space to discuss hard issues (not seeking to have everyone agree). “But we’ve always done it that way” are the words of a dying church… As far as jobs, the church I was specifically thinking of has had many people who’ve done MCC or served with mission boards; some members work with environmental organizations or with immigrants. Not everyone can do that, and really, we need good people, people with integrity, doing whatever they do. But some of these churches have offered unused space during the week to local organizations, have sought (in however small a way) to meet needs they see around them.

    Brian, as far as head coverings, the reason I really can’t bring myself to advocate for them is because my father grew up in the black bumper conservative Mennonite church, my mother has plenty of Amish relatives, and I have too many associations about what head coverings has meant for women. Women may have a lot of implicit power in those settings, but I’m guessing many of us have seen ways in which those power differentials can be quite harmful. My other issue with head coverings is that in the conservative Mennonite churches, women are made to bear the brunt of the differences (I can usually pick out a conservative Mennonite man just on sight, but I would guess most people wouldn’t be able to do so). Of course, if you’re ready to don your robe, then that takes care of the latter part. *Smiles*

  4. TimN

    Laura, thanks for this challenging look at the realities of church growth.

    This summer at a Mennonite gathering I encountered the term “Seeker-friendly” for the first time (I know, I’m way behind the times). The idea is similar to what Lora described above. That is to make sure your church would be a comfortable place for anyone who walked in the door. The idea sounds nice, but most of th people who mentioned it at the gathering talked about the concept with clear frustration. They saw it being used in their congregations to prevent innovation or anything that would rock the boat. After all, just about anything can be seen to make a seeker uncomfortable.

    Interestingly, the top results for seeker-friendly on google all seem to articles written by traditional Christians who see it as “unbiblical” and “sin-friendly”.

  5. MJS

    I happened on this blog. Incidentally, I grew up in a conservative Mennonite setting in Nappanee. For those of you who are advocating a return to headcoverings, let me assure you that being stuck in a conservative setting & being treated like an archaic museum piece everywhere you go is NOT a picnic–it feels more like a prison. I’ve attended a non-denominational church for almost 2 years & I’m still trying to break away from the Mennonites. I have hundreds of relatives & friends who are absolutely horrified at the simple thought of me not wearing a covering, let alone wearing pants. While the Amish & conservative Mennonite churches are losing a lot of their youth & others, there are 2 main reasons that many stay: 1) They’re brainwashed, & 2) They know they have to face all kinds of rejection, condemnation, & a complete upheaval of their life & possibly even friendships if they leave. Consider yourselves fortunate that you don’t have to deal with the huge cultural divide between conservative Mennonites & others. It stares me in the face every day.

  6. Pingback: Response to MJS on Coverings and Conservative Mennonites » Young Anabaptist Radicals

  7. Shawn Lazar

    Hi, my name is Shawn. My wife and I did not grow up Mennonite, but are increasingly headed in a Mennonitish, or perhaps, more of a generally Anabaptist direction.

    It seems clear to us that the Bible commands head coverings for women (my wife is actually much more convicted about it that I am). And tradition, if tradition can be put forward as evidence, would seem to back up its propriety. Though several people on this post mentioned that they did not believe in headcoverings, I was wondering what the theological rational was for rejecting them? (I hope no one says its because Paul was teaching a temporary truth for that particular culture)

    Cheers, Shawn

  8. Heather

    Shawn, while I won’t say Paul taught headcoverings as a temporary truth, I think it’s important to remember that women at that time who went without a covering were, to put it rather bluntly, prostitutes. So, by looking at that angle, we could say that the issue is really more about modesty than a statement of some sort.
    HOWEVER, people of the Mennonite tradition have used things such as head coverings and plain coats as a way to mark their separation from the world. And as far as that goes, I would say it’s a very sad thing that we have quit wearing them, as it signifies, to me, a greater issue of Mennonites becoming more/to much assimilated into the popular culture.

  9. DevanD


    I think Mennonite culture is getting assimilated/ subordinated into popular culture. I don’t think Mennonite discipleship is. And I think head coverings have much more to do with Mennonite culture and less to do with discipleship. They are a sign of mutual cultural understanding rather than faith.

    When I visit conservative Mennonite churches I notice the head coverings are pretty much all the same, lacey with pins on them. I don’t think Paul had that design in mind (though I don’t think he had much fashion sense). So who is really advocating temporary truth (i.e., taste) over permanent truth? Surely most conserv. Menno’s would gasp at a woman coming to church with a bandanna on, yet it does cover the head doesn’t it?

    Perhaps I haven’t encountered variations in head coverings though. Anybody else?

    1. Theodore A. Jones

      “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” ROM. 2:13 Paul teaches that too. But I’m not aware of any contemporary religious teacher who does not disagree with him.

  10. Skylark

    Devan, I’ve seen all kinds of head coverings. Yes, there are those lacy types you’ve seen, but here’s the variety I’ve observed:

    1. The bonnet. The same thing Old Order Amish women wear.
    2. Lacy doilies with pins.
    3. Plain doily-size coverings with pins.
    4. Bandannas.
    5. Bandanna-style coverings made at home.
    6. Scarves.

    Nowhere does a baseball cap count, from my observations. (I tried pulling that one on my parents when I was 9 and going through this phase where I wore this blue hat everywhere.)

    I’d bet the same people who would be aghast at someone wearing a T-shirt would object to anything other than a particular style of head covering. It’s not about the covering per se. It’s about preserving the tradition. And, there may be an emphasis on wearing a particular style of covering to church, when it may not matter so much what style a person wears around the house or running errands.

  11. Skylark

    FYI, Devan, I just found this website:

    That has pictures of most of the styles of head coverings I described in my previous post.

    The first thought that came to mind when I saw the site was, “Did Amish women pose for that, or are they English?” You may be familiar with the Old Order prohibition on photographs. Although, in my experience, the Swartzentruber Amish are more serious about that rule than the OO.

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