Sparking Renewal and Becoming Undone: What I’ve been up to recently

For the last few months I haven’t been as active on Young Anabaptist Radicals as usual. Aside from my normal work doing web design and work for Christian Peacemaker Teams, I took a class on Anabaptist History and Theology. I’ve also been part of organizing a gathering in conjunction with the US Social Forum in Detroit. It’s called Becoming Undone: a gathering of Christians drawn to Anabaptism and the continuing work of Undoing Opressions. Follow the link for more details. There’s still room if you register now!


I’ve also been very involved in a movement called Spark Renewal.

For many years, I’ve been fascinated (and disturbed) by the way that institutions tend to drift away from their original mission and towards self-preservation. I started writing about it in back in 2004, but the decision by Goshen College to start playing the anthem got me thinking about it a lot more. Around the same time friends started sharing their concerns and frustrations with the “Joining Together” campaign to build a new Mennonite Church office building on the campus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. I started noticing some of the connections between the different issues. In all these situations it seemed like institutional reasoning was central with other was of thinking and being revolving around bureaucracy.

Bonsai and Moss

Spark Renewal was initially made up of people in Elkhart, so I joined in as I could by email and conversations on Skype. I was impressed how quickly the group organized itself using email and a wiki (an on-line collaboration tool for documents). It involved young and middle-aged folks, women and men and white people and people of color. There was also something different about their meetings. It wasn’t just a group of people sitting down to organize. When I listened to the recordings of meetings and heard the notes I heard prayer, worship, reflection. When I finally got to attend my first in person meeting, I discovered hula-hooping and singing were on the agenda as well. This was not a group that just gave lip service to being spirit led.

As I was drawn further into the energy and hope of Spark Renewal, I joined them for a meeting with with leaders of the “Joining Together” campaign (the meeting I alluded to“>in this post). Again, I was struck with the vision of institutional vehicle focused more on its own maintenance then its mission. I was also aware of how difficult it is to challenge that vehicle. Dissent can so easily be dismissed or marginalized by those in the center of institutions. Which is why I have been so amazed by the resiliency and energy of Spark Renewal. Again and again they have been told to give up in the face of the inevitable.


Yet the movement has steadily grown and blossomed, with dozens of people coming out of the wood work to share about their own experiences of frustration and hurt caused by the “Joining Together” process. Listening and watching to the stories flow, both publicly and privately, has deepened my commitment to this movement. Joining together for the future of the Mennonite church means listening to the voices on the margins, and not just those in the center. For me, that’s what it means to be the body of Christ.

As the Mennonite Church Executive Board meets this coming weekend, I pray that they will listen to this river of stories and decide to pause this process and take time to reflect, heal and change.

Ferns and Birch

Comments (5)

  1. Joseph P

    Tim, I really enjoyed the window into the inner workings of Spark Renewal. Imagine opening all church business meetings with a bit of hoola-hooping!

    On one level I feel very much in league with that group and on another level not. I affirm their goals of good stewardship and mission, but I sense a tinge of irony in combining anti-institutionalism with a focused effort to define and influence the institution.

    As I’ve read your commentary on instutionalism and bureaucracy, Tim, I keep mulling over a theme from John D. Roth’s book “Stories.” He describes church history as a cycle of spirit-led renewal movements springing up, then forming structures to give them stability and keep them from going a hundred directions. The structures, Roth says, are necessary for keeping a movement alive but eventually can become ends in themselves. When the structures (institutions) betray their original mission, renewal movements spring up again and the cycle repeats. I don’t know where MC USA is at in this cycle.

    Another issue that institutions face is maintaining a clear and consistent purpose amidst an increasingly diverse constituency. In this particular case I understand that a lot of money has already been donated to the building project from constituents who support it. How do board members balance the voices of protest with the voices (and dollars) of affirmation?

  2. TimN (Post author)


    Its interesting to hear that Roth talks about this issue in “Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be”. I hadn’t heard of the book until you mentioned it. I’ll have to see if I can find a copy.

    I think you name the role of dollars as decision makers very well in your last paragraph. One specific story along those lines: after the economic down turn, the planners knew they needed to revisit the project. But the people they talked to were the major donors. The planners said that they trusted them because they were philanthropists with lots of experience giving to big charitable projects. So the frame work used to evaluate people’s worthiness as decision makers at that point in the project was based on access to capital.

  3. Paco

    Tim, great article. occasionally looking on from a far leaves me very little positive hope about the whole affair or the vast lumbering institution itself. But this article and the work of Spark Renewal has challenged my jaded opinion about it all. Keep at it and keep writing good stuff as you have been of late.

  4. Samuel

    I am interested also by the tendency of organizations to self preservation, and I’ve been enjoying the philosophical reflections you provide. I wholeheartedly agree that it is really important to pay attention first to the organization’s values, and then to self-preservation, and the voice from the margins is key to the health of any vision.

    But I do wonder about the ways in which you speak from the margins. As you mentioned, Spark Renewal started in Elkhart, one of the core locations of Mennonite Church USA, not in the periphery either socially or geographically. The primary spokespeople for spark renewal, those Mennonite media have quoted on the subject, are not really marginal figures-they are famous names of influential Mennonite leaders-people I recognize as employees of AMBS, contributors to the Mennonite, and Leaders in the Global Anabaptist movement. In fact, I’d argue that part of Spark Renewal’s appeal is because of who is doing the shouting now, and their very much non-peripheral status.

    In terms of what the margins actually think, I remember when the Delegate Assembly approved having the new denomination centered in Elkhart in Nashville in 2001, and overwhelmingly reaffirming a building there as a delegate body since then, including at the delegate assembly in Columbus. This building plan has been in motion for a long time, and has involved a lot of people. It is hard to change now, because of how many people have said yes, and how few have said no. This may be a ‘vast lumbering institution’ as Paco says, or it could be a tiny institutional structure reflecting the will of a very small denomination facing a number of dissidents who are honored for their wisdom, listened to carefully, but also faithfully and prayerfully disagreed with.

    I too have been in meetings with silliness, prayer, and singing in the institutional structure of Mennonite Church USA.

  5. ST

    I think that you’re right in the sense that some of the reason that Spark Renewal is being listened to is because of who we are and the work that we’ve already done. We know we’ve had access to varied experiences; perhaps more than others…PERHAPS.

    We don’t claim to represent any age group or demographic, but it is because of the many interactions that we have had, and the times that we have felt/been on the margins feel compelled to speak up.

    Your last paragraph of the “yeses” and “nos” seems variant to some of the histories that we’ve heard, but it is good to read yet another version. Maybe this was “too little” “too late” as Nekeisha said in her blog post on But it was/is worth it. I’ve learned SO much.


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