Meeting the Church

I haven’t taken much time on this blog to talk about myself. I should say that I am an outsider in this church – my last name isn’t Yoder, Miller, Freisen, or Moshier.

I have only been a Christian for 9 months; the Mennonite congregation I attend (a beautiful place that I hope my new-found YAR friends can come see some day) was evangelical merely by their presence – they were spiritually formative by aligning speech and action and desire and vision. I would not want to be any place else.

I am writing from the convention in San Jose; I have been here since yesterday and will be leaving tomorrow (short time, I know, but I’m a busy guy).

I am coming to learn why it is frustrating to penetrate the Mennonite world: there are a lot of people who make money off of being Mennonite. Now, I’m not saying that they are money-grubbing, laughing in the corner like Wario or something with a treasure chest that they stole from some Indiana congregation. What I mean is that it seems (at least to me) that “modern” Mennonites have re-integrated this classic idea of “community” to fit within a secular capitalist context. So we got executive leadership in the conference, paid pastors, we got professors at Mennonite universities, we got MMA’ers making a paycheck.

I think this probably came up out of a desire to stay connected to the Church and a sincere concern for vocation within the Mennonite community. But just because you’re a banking consultant for a Mennonite institution working with a Mennonite constituency, does that REALLY set you apart from any other banking consultant? Just because you’re a Mennonite pastor preaching to a Mennonite choir, does that really mean you’re better than any other pastor, if you still practice the exclusion of those who don’t fit in your worldview?

So rather than having the Mennonite community where one guy is the blacksmith and the other guy is the cobbler and another guy a carpenter – we got professors, banking consultants, pastors, etc. And when Church and livelihood become married, the probability of being more conservative in your doctrine and thinking makes sense: you don’t want to jeopardize your job, your pastor salary or health insurance, and you certainly don’t want to be alienated from this community that has helped you find schools, find homes, find jobs.

Eric and I talked last night about “tradition”, and how that can often trump scripture and theology (including Anabaptist theology). Maybe this is part of the reason that tradition has such a focus: people who depend upon the church for their livelihood want to tread lightly, and many of those very same people hold positions of power.

If I left the church tomorrow (or was kicked out), I’d really not have much to lose. I could go to the United Church of Christ, the Quakers. My convictions are the same. It sounds like, for others, there would be a lot to lose.

Then again, I get the feeling (from some) that just because I didn’t grow up Mennonite, then I don’t know what it means to be Mennonite.

Comments (5)

  1. Art Kauffman

    Then again, I get the feeling (from some) that just because I didn’t grow up Mennonite, then I don’t know what it means to be Mennonite.

    Don’t believe it. From your writing, I would say it’s safe to say you understand Mennonites better than they [can or will] understand themselves. But don’t leave. MC USA needs people like you to stick around and be an uncomfortable thorn in their side if nothing else.

  2. Lora

    I’m with Art. My friends who have joined the Mennonite Church as adults have taught me a lot more about what it means to be Mennonite than all the years I’ve spent in church and being able to trace my genealogy back to Switzerland.

    I loved the line about how there are a lot of Mennonites making money off of being Mennonite. I’ll bet you’ve left a lot of folks sputtering at that thought.

  3. Skylark

    I make money off covering Mennonites’ actions when they’re newsworthy on occassion. Does that count? ;-)

    My last name isn’t Miller, Yoder, Steiner, Hershberger, Amstutz, Gerber or Troyer, either. I can trace my geneology back to Scotland, Germany and Norway, though.

    “What it means to be Mennonite” is going to vary person-to-person. To 89-year-old Alma Yoder living on a dawdyhaus in Lancaster, PA, “Mennonite” may be something different culturally and generationally than it does to a 25-year-old in Washington State who grew up in a vaguely theistic home but recently fell in with a dynamic group of Mennonites.

    There’s something about chosing your church for yourself that has distinct meaning. The most committed and theologically-consistent Catholic I know was raised Protestant. She doesn’t go around crowing about how horrible Protestants are or how she’s glad she left. She’s just happy to discuss why the RCC did this or that, or explain a particular doctrine. I’m dismayed when I see people just staying exactly where they’ve been their whole lives, never questioning much, just… there. Small towns are ripe for that–maybe someone who lives in a city can address the citydwellers’ propensity toward stagnation, too.

  4. eric

    I think you are on to something important Folknotions, and it was great meeting you out here and getting to talk about this in person. I’ve been working for a menno agency for the last year and a half – and this certainly implicates me. I’m not working there any more – and here are some of my thoughts about it.

    • Menno companies tend to hold a monopoly in their menno market, and act like monopoly-holding companies – leaving innovation (or prophetic voice?) behind in favor of careful survival and profits.
    • Careful survival is also a result of being customer owned, with a customer base that has not come together around the product, but around a fairly diverse faith. Being a monopoly in the market that owns you leads to a lot of bureaucracy and not much competition.
    • Add on top of that, as your owner the church wants you to be prophetic, but as customer the church wants you to be cheap with high returns and you’re in a bit of a bind. To make things better, everyone in the church is defining “prophetic” in different ways.
    • All that doesn’t lead to a particularly open and creative or innovative environment on the personal level either. And less inspiring work places tend to lead to less inspiring work

      When it comes down to it, my conclusion (at this point) is that mixing church and business is potentially just as dangerous as mixing church and state. I’m not proposing you leave your faith out of your business practices (or your politics) – but I’m suggesting the church institution should probably avoid owning businesses, just as it ought to avoid running governments.

      The problem isn’t Mennonites being college professors, but college professors working for the Mennonite church. There’s a potential conflict of interest there that Goshen College (and their employees) regularly deals with, and has been shut down over in the past.


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