Our hopes and dreams for church

Hello YAR internet community,

A quick plug for “BikeMovement the Documentary — A young adult perspective on church” that will premiere at San Jose 2007 Mennonite convention and be available for sale on-line in about a week. For those of you who don’t know, BikeMovement was a group of young adults who biked across the United States last summer talking about young adults and church. (BikeMovement involves more then just this, including a recent biking trip through Asia, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on young adults and church in North America.)

BikeMovement has been asked to share 5-7 minutes during the delegate session on the topic, “What are hopes and dreams of young adults for the future church.” While we’ve conversed with young adults all across the country, finding an answer to that question is a rather daunting task since it sometimes feels like we are all over the board on that question.

So I pose the question to the YAR readers out there:

What is your visions and hopes for the future church?

If you are uncomfortable with the word “church” because of baggage associated with that word, substitute church for a community of people seeking to follow Christ in our 21st century context.

Second question:

Do you think the majority of young adults (who are seeking to follow Christ in our North American context) share this same vision? What would you put as overarching dreams of young adults?

While it’s an impossible task to speak for all young adults, here are a couple of scattered themes we have heard to get you thinking:

  • All community members valued regardless of age/race/sex.
  • Real — community that meets people where they are, and addresses real issues in our lives.
  • Vulnerability — to be real there needs to be a mutual sharing of who we really are, and real struggles and to support each other in that fashion
  • Accountability — a community of believers to hold us to our values
  • Church is a safe place — We do not have everything figured, and we can be vulnerable and receive grace. It should also be safe to ask hard questions even if they challenge traditional beliefs held by the community
  • Emphasize buildings and Sunday morning worship less and work at focus more on touching every aspect of our lives.
  • Less divisions between denominations and in churches — focus on common values and beliefs and a respect for differences
  • Reaching others — I’ll avoid the word evangelism because of the baggage associated with that word, but a way to respectfully share Christ’s love with others. I’ve seen the most diversity of opinion on this topic, some young adults are fairly passionate that we need to share our faith, while others, perhaps uncomfortable with the imposing way we’ve historically done this, seek to emphasis more of a mutual learning process where the “Christian” should be just as willing to learn from and respect the beliefs of someone who believes differently.
  • IS THIS THE WRONG QUESTION? A friend of mine challenged me to ask “Shouldn’t we be trying to figure out Christ’s hopes and dreams for the church instead of ours?” Shouldn’t we be willing to scrape our plans and instead follow God’s?

So this is a quick list of points that I’ve heard. What would you add what would subtract? Why?

Comments (11)

  1. Lora

    At the last Mennonite Assembly in Charlotte, Katie, Brian and I were three-quarters of a group that wrote a statement on that very topic, and I presented it to the delegates. If I had five minutes at San Jose, I’d have to say that I’d be ready to hit a bit harder this time. The conclusion that I’ve come to after more than three years of working on issues with young adults and churches is that if churches aren’t willing to take more risks and if Mennonite Church USA as a whole isn’t willing to address how power is used and retained within the church, then it’s somewhat useless to keep talking about our dreams for the church. My two rather cynical cents.

  2. Skylark

    How do you propose helping people become willing to take more risks and address how power is used and retained, Lora? How did we get so willing to do it ourselves? Are there other movements we can look at for ideas?

  3. Katie

    Since Lora mentioned that speech, I decided to look back in the old files of my computer and see if I still have it. After a bit of looking, I found it. I thought I would post it here so y’all can read it.

    Throughout the week, the young adults here have also found that we “can’t keep quiet.” Our conversations have grown more and more animated as we discover how many of our peers share a blossoming passion for this church, while at the same time struggle to understand our relation to it. At the initiative of several Goshen College students, a group of over 100 young adults gathered on Wednesday night to discuss their
    experience in transition and the vision that has arisen from that experience. Jim Schrag has graciously granted us a few minutes this morning to bring the same message to this delegate body.

    We would like to begin by saying that we feel a strong commitment and passion for the church and that has been nurtured in many ways. We have been given opportunities to serve and lead in many church settings.

    We have found that it is difficult to make a statement on behalf of young adults because the term young adult can mean different things. It is a nebulous identity that can relate both to age but also to an experience. Many of us have felt a sense of being neither here nor there. We identify strongly with the Mennonite church and yet we feel disconnected from our home congregations and new congregations because of our transitory nature. We want to be recognized as people with different needs and gifts than
    many but do not want to be thought of as “less than” full adults because we are in this stage of life.

    We have a common desire to be significantly involved in shaping the church’s mission but we find a lack of structural support for those roles.

    We understand that this is not a new issue. The church has been asking what can be done for young adults for a long time. There have been structures in place at all levels of the church for young adults but some of these structures no longer exist.

    We recognize that many of us are seen as idealistic and as wanting to challenge tradition as well as the wisdom of our elders and the authority of the church. We also recognize that many young adults have divested themselves from the church and these discussions because of apathy, and feeling held back by tradition and the authority of the church.

    However, our spiritual vitality and consequently our involvement in local congregations is desperately important to us. This community, of which we long to be an integral part, is one where a deeper relationship with God is fostered. When we become intimately involved in this community God’s calling on our life becomes more lucid. Conjointly with that calling, we eagerly anticipate your affirmations and critiques so that we can fully develop into the people that God, and ergo the church, want us to become.

    We are excited about what the church is, and excited about being a part of what it will become. We believe that many of us who have chosen to enter into these conversations will be significantly involved in the Mennonite church for decades to come. But we cannot walk this path alone. We understand the value and the importance of communal discernment. Now, more than ever, we need mentors. We seek to be a part of congregations which will affirm our gifts (whether pastoral or otherwise) and walk with us
    in these roles. We desire mutual relationships — both at the individual and congregational level — in which our faith in Christ and our rootedness in the church can be strengthened and grown, and where our presence will also strengthen and grow that in those around us.

    In the few minutes we have been given, we would like to encourage the young adults among us to get involved at the congregational, conference and denominational levels. We know that we sometimes must take initiative, must share our inner calling before it can be considered by the body as a whole. We also challenge all of you to continue working within the denomination to make room for intentional structural

  4. lukelm

    I was thinking about this questions today, especially in relation to the news about the Lancaster conference and ordination of women deal, and also (as I inevitably consider when thinking of the church) LGBT inclusion issues. I came to this thought of my hope/dream for the Mennonite church. It might be half-formed at this point, but I’ll put it out there because I really want to see what others think.

    My vision for the Mennonite Church is to step back and make a big shift away from trying to have the centralized and homogeneous doctrine we do now. Part of this would be simple recognition of reality – a very wide range of belief exists in the church, much wider than is represented in any church documents or teaching or “consensus.” The very tough part would be to recognize that we all have something very valuable to learn from those who differ from us in belief, even those who differ in very fundamental ways, and that the denominational church structure shouldn’t serve to hold up any certain side of those disagreements.

    There are beliefs or positions that run contrary to very foundational things about my way of seeing the world – the current ban on women’s ordination in the Lancaster conference, for example. Yet I am most sincere in believing I have all sorts of things about faith and life to learn from the churches and individuals who hold this belief. Here’s the really tricky part, though, and the one that keeps things from ever moving forward: it’s not on issues of gender that I feel like I have anything to learn. Rather, I recognize that such a different belief on that issue must be because those people have experiences of faith, life, and God that differ from my own. And probably they have developed their faith deeper and stronger in ways that I haven’t (as I have developed mine in ways that they haven’t.) And I could learn something from that. The problem is that if I feel they have a power over me or those close to me, and if they feel the same about me, we’ll never get to talk about the really interesting differences and ways we could learn from each other – we’ll just talk (argue, power struggle) over the surface issue that divides us.

    The analogy I thought of is the creationism/evolution debate. Maybe it’s a poor choice because in itself it contains a split which is similar to elements of split in the church. The analogy is the point, not the particular debate in question. I think those who believe in creationism and those who hold to evolution each have very valuable things to teach. The science of evolution teaches us a lot about our origins and the history of this creation. Creation teaches us a lot about our ultimate origin and end in the divine, and the apparent material world being subject to a deeper spiritual story. The promoters of creation have a very valid and necessary critique of evolution – that it promotes pure materialism and can’t explain the ultimate origin of existence, that it is unsatisfactory in addressing humans’ spiritual natures. I see this as a critical message for our society – our era in Western history has a terrible split between scientific understanding and spiritual understanding. Yet these two camps who hold two necessary keys to our understanding of the world and ourselves can’t come together because, rather than recognizing in each other the possibility of learning something new, they clash on the field of the surface difference, much to the creationist’s discredit, as it becomes a kind of mainstream science vs. psuedo-science debate and nothing of any kind of constructive dialogue.

    Can you get what I’m saying? It seems that Mennonite Church USA has gone down the route of being the arbiter of doctrinal issues and quellers of dissent rather than simply the structure that holds us all together so that we can have ways to hear from each other and learn from each other. This has had the result of focusing all of our energy on winning the power game over the surface issues that divide us rather than learning from the deeper differences. No one can just let go of their stands on these things – the only way to get past them is to remove one side’s power over the other side. I see a vast scaling-down of any promotions of confessional unity, except in the most basic statements of faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

    I mean, if we really wanted doctrinal unity, we’d just be Catholic, right? They’ve had four times the numbers of centuries to work out their doctrine; all their power structures have been established for centuries – there’s two millennia of reflection and sublime theology behind that authority. The strength of the Anabaptist tradition is that it didn’t try to ape the Roman church by establishing its own parallel power structures. They had an entirely new way of understanding one’s relation to God and to the authority of religious structures.

    What do you all think of this idea? I can foresee some critiques already (problems I have with it myself.) For one, there are some issues that involve oppression of a powerless minority, and to simply accept others carrying out such oppression might not be acceptable to some. Another problem would be if certain issues were seen to be critical to salvation – some might not be willing to accept others holding such belief if they believed that would undoing their possibilty of salvation. Finally, some things which are “issues” might seem just too critical to Mennonite/Anabaptist-ness to be able to let go of, such as pacifism and non-violence.

  5. Lora

    How do you propose helping people become willing to take more risks and address how power is used and retained, Lora? How did we get so willing to do it ourselves? Are there other movements we can look at for ideas?

    I’ve heard Mennonite church leaders (as well as young adults) question whether churches are less willing to take risks with young adults in leadership positions (ordination just being one facet of this). The pastor of the small church I attended in Indiana once commented that perhaps all leaders over 60 (which she was) needed to step down to make room for new leaders. There’s no guarantee, of course, that hiring more pastors in their 20s would change anything; many of us here seem to share a post-modern mindset, but I doubt we’re very representative. And there’s no guarantee that we won’t make the same mistakes. But I’m also convinced we’re on the cusp of a cultural shift in which church is becoming increasingly (if not almost totally) irrelevant to the daily lives of most people in the U.S., which makes us see things differently than perhaps our parents’ generation.

    But power, like privilege, is almost always more easily observed and noticed when one doesn’t have it. The nature of power is that it’s much harder to give up once you’ve got it, and therein lies part of the problem…

  6. Lora

    By the way, Luke, I love your idea. It’s one I hadn’t considered, but I’ve often longed for that space as well — true dialogue, where we don’t seek to convert each other to our side, but try and really learn something from each other. The main problem I see with this is that it seems easier to convince people who are more liberal (for lack of a better label) to engage on that level, while those who are more conservative or fundamentalist in their views see no need for it. For example, when I was at the ordination in Lancaster, I talked with quite a number of people and not one of them said, “Well, I really don’t believe that women should be pastors, but I am here because I believe that James Street Mennonite Church is also seeking the Kingdom of God and I want to support them in that.” Or is that too much to ask?

  7. folknotions

    I will have to echo Lora here. I can’t entirely speak in context to MCUSA; but pretty much every organization that I’ve been a part of that has tried to branch out and get a vision/direction while retaining the same old leadership and not opening up to let others execute a particular vision – those organizations have failed to make any change that could be taken seriously.

  8. Denver Steiner

    Thank you all for taking the time to respond. Luke, I think you are on to something.

    When I posed the question of “What is your dream for the future church?” in my local area, several said less divisions and more cooperation interdenominational. Also in BikeMovement, we talked a lot about creating safe places to ask questions and live out real faith (and can church be this). Behind both of these ideas (less division and being real with questions/struggles) there is this notion that we need to do a better job at having a certain respect for each other’s beliefs even when they may differ from one’s one.

    Thank you Luke for fleshing out what that may practically look like. I think you are right that on many divisive issues (pick your topic) instead of engaging in the power struggle of who is right/who is wrong on surface issues, we should instead focus on what we can learn from each other. And you did a good job of pointing challenges to this notion (oppressive differences and “salvation issues”).

  9. Denver Steiner

    Side question Luke, as I’m starting to process what you wrote. How does communal accountability (something that I personally have valued and heard others ask for) work with the idea of a respect for differences? Are we only accountable to each other for things we mutually agree on? When is it, or is it ever appropriate to tell fellow follower of Christ, “what you are doing in unacceptable”? Or dare to suggest, “I think you are wrong on this one and are distorting what Christ taught.”

    I guess I’m asking what are guidelines to differentiate inappropriate behavior/beliefs and respect for differences (with a Christian community)?
    Here are a few ideas, but I welcome more wisdom on the subject:
    1. “When the behavior/ideology is harmful to others,” but that can sometimes that can be arbitrary.
    2. On some gray areas, in the interest of not letting “a weaker brother stumble” suggest a communal standard on issues pertinent to that community, while respecting others who don’t hold to that. Example: alcohol, sex before commitment
    3. From a belief standpoint, my pastor would say that any belief that claims to be Christian but waivers from Christian dogma (God exists, Jesus was God in the flesh…) should be questioned. (within a Christina community that is, I don’t think other religions or those who are not ‘religious’ should be held to this standard).

    Perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions when we are talking about respecting different beliefs, and I immediately ask but to what extent? I look forward to hearing more insightful wisdom on the subject (even if it diverges from my original post).

  10. Miriam

    It’s a really interesting question, if you care for the future of the church, and one my pastor/mother posed in the car today: “Would the church be better off using good business practice to position itself for a niche market, or should it act more as a family or support group?”

    The former has been talked about in other threads here, the latter seems to be something along the lines of Luke’s proposal.

    I think either way the church needs to define more clearly what it exists for, and either way people will decide that that particular decision is not for them and will leave. This seems to be the main fear of most congregations, and I think the denomination as a whole. Keep everyone at all costs. As long as we can remain undefined, exactly how we are now, and not raise any issues, everyone can be happy.

    It doesn’t seem to be working, but it’s classic conflict avoidance which we’ve made an art out of since being killed en mass the last time we tried to raise any concerns in an established church.

    I think both options have merit – and maybe together: What if congregations acted with focused mission statements in niche markets, while the denomination acted as a support network without any hierarchical authority. This offers Luke’s desire for networking dialogue between churches with differing visions and without power dynamics, while satisfying Denver’s desire for a more personal system of accountability at the local level.

    But then, as I said, any change is risky – and I think Lora is right that the church just isn’t ready for that. They’ve put too much effort into bringing us all together into The One True Universal Mennonite Church USA, to let us go skipping off on our own just yet.

  11. lukelm

    Your concerns for accountability are very important, since something like accountability is at the core of any community. My thoughts on this (again, this isn’t a well-planned scheme of mine, just some notions I’m putting out) are the same as Eric’s – that accountability can never really happen outside of a circle of close, personal relationships. The place for such personal accountability belongs within individual congregations. The part about striving to learn from others despite differing beliefs on certain things (and not even necessarily “respecting” those beliefs) belongs more on the inter-congregational and denominational level.

    Like Eric brought up, this might serve to make the church a combination of many niche markets running in many directions at once. That doesn’t seem quite right to me either. There has to be some sort of shared momentum (I was a physics major in college, so I’m thinking of the individual molecules within a moving wind running in all different directions, yet overall sharing a common momentum.)

    Although I don’t see any hope for this model being officially adopted by the church any time soon, it does seem to be a strategy that could be enacted form the ground up. What if groups and congregations that were very divided on a certain issue got together in some way to share with each other things that were essential and valuable to them – the best and highest of what they felt they had to offer? What if everyone was mixed around to have discussions about the essentials of their faith and the best ways they have felt connected to God?

    The enemy of this would be the assumption that those central things (the highest and best of faith that we have to offer) already are the same, or the conviction that they should be the same. Like Lora, I’m afraid that some people invited to such a wide-open conversation would find it difficult (or dangerous.)

    The cynical part of me says that there just isn’t enough energy in the church for this kind of conversation to really happen either. A vague orthodoxy calibrated to keep the maximum possible people happy seems like the easier way the keep most of the church together. I think this serves to suck the spirit out of big institutional structures. I find the spirituality of a fundamentalist congregation much more engaging, challenging, and real than the kind of insipid mash of the “big church”‘s bland orthodoxy and “missionalness.” In fact, isn’t there something in the Bible about lukewarmness? Something right before all hell breaks loose?

    Oops… now maybe I’m saying too much.

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