Michael A. King, Spring Mount
Some of us are living at the end of ethnic Mennonite subcultures. How we analyze or address our situations will differ; what I see in my contexts may not apply in others. But I find myself forced, as pastor, husband and father, to wrestle with the transition from ethnic Mennonitism.
Several factors have heightened my sense of needing to address this transition. Foremost is my experience as pastor at Spring Mount Mennonite Church. I was called to the congregation in 1997 as an interim pastor whose role, it was thought at the time, might include helping the congregation bury itself with dignity. Years of challenges had weakened the congregation, but as often as we discussed burial in those early days, the congregation refused to die, probably partly because having its back to the wall generated new urgency to work at turnaround.
It was unlikely this primarily Swiss-German congregation could again thrive by drawing more Swiss-German Mennonite members. We would somehow have to welcome participants from our local communities or die.
But how? The story is still being written. Yet at least two moves seem to have been essential to generating growth of community participation to the point that some Sundays a majority of worship participants were raised in settings other than Mennonite.
One factor has been strengthening connections with community networks. A key move here has been to hire Don McDonough, himself raised in and part of such a network, as associate pastor.
A second factor has been working at discerning this: What aspects of how Mennonites “do” church are rooted in Swiss-German ethnic heritage and so should not be imposed on participants of different ethnic backgrounds—many of whom start out thinking Mennonite = horse and buggy?
What aspects are part of the gospel core as viewed through the Anabaptist tradition that shaped but preceded the Mennonites who took their name from Menno Simons—the Catholic priest turned Anabaptist? To echo the Gentile versus Jewish discernment the apostle Paul enaged, what are the beyond-ethnic-culture factors with potential to be good news for persons of any background?
The need for such discernment was underscored again when I helped teach a course on Anabaptist history and theology offered in Pennsylvania settings often populated by Swiss-German Mennonites. At the outset I held up a copy of The Merging: A Story of Two Families and Their Child (DreamSeeker Books, 2000) by Evelyn King Mumaw. The cover shows my grandparents, Irvin and Cora King, in the classic plain clothing they wore throughout most of their lives. Beneath them is my Aunt Evie, also in plain dress.
Just looking at that cover draws me back into still-living memories of growing up in that plain-dressing culture and all that such clothing symbolized. The cover plunges me back into images of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a community set apart, different, viewing those within its boundaries as members of the faithful remnant. The cover reminds me of being a young boy once so socialized into an alternate Mennonite country that I asked my father when I would get my own plain coat.
I invited Don to supplement my lectures with his perspectives as an Anabaptist who became Mennonite after growing up Lutheran. He is more strongly committed to being Anabaptist than whatever it means to be Mennonite. The world of my aunt’s book cover is not in his bones.
We expected the Anabaptist class that day to be maybe half ethnic Mennonites, like me, and half adult-choice Mennonites, like Don. I held up the cover as a doorway into my world and expected Don’s recounting of how a Lutheran became Mennonite to be a doorway into his world. Then all of us would ponder what it means to work in congregations mixing persons raised in Swiss-German ethnic Mennonite settings with those raised in other communities and ethnicities.
To our surprise, no students had been raised in Mennonite families. They knew about that plain-dressing separated world, but they knew of it only as what seemed to be a bygone age. We had to refocus our presentation. What does it mean to be Mennonite if being Mennonite involves no Swiss-German markers or memories of a set-apart community?
This is a question I’ve also pondered closer to home. In the 1970s, while friends were marrying other Mennonites, I married Joan, an American Baptist who has become a committed Anabaptist-Mennonite but, like Don, from outside my subcultural community. I, who had registered as a conscientious objector just before the Vietnam War draft ended, was adopted as in-law into a family which not only experienced its Christianity as blending nearly seamlessly into larger American culture but also included veterans of military service. They learned to love me often despite rather than because of my odd beliefs and Swiss-German love for shoo-fly pies.
Our three young adult daughters were raised in that mix of subcultures and attended both public and Mennonite schools. They have attended Mennonite churches all their lives. They have worshiped among Mennonites who still dress plainly. They have experienced learning through family funerals where parts of their extended family, even young people, still dress plainly. They’ve heard my stories of growing up in that different country. Yet even as they understand that country better than those who have never visited it, it’s not fully their own. Like the Anabaptist class in which no students were from Swiss-German Mennonite backgrounds, when my daughters visit my country, they are tourists respectfully studying it, not citizens fundamentally shaped by it.
Where then from here? Any answer requires discussion, not just proclamation. But a strategy that seems compelling to me is this: At least in some settings in which Mennonitism has become overwhelmingly intertwined with ethnic cultural practices, we may need to move from Mennonite to anabaptist values.
C. Norman Kraus, in “Anabaptist or Mennonite? Interpreting the Bible” (Using Scripture in a Global Age, Cascadia, 2006), says that “Anabaptism with a lower case ‘a’ is . . . an attempt to adapt and adopt the insights and values of 16th-century Anabaptism as a guide to the interpretation and use of Scripture in our 21st century American culture.” Kraus points to the many cultural forms global Mennonitism has taken and ways generic anabaptism can provide distinctive and unifying ways of viewing the Bible and world amid a dizzying array of shifting Mennonite cultural practices. Something like that is what I find myself working at implementing as pastor, husband, father.
This is not to suggest ethnically influenced Mennonite practices lack value. It is not to disrespect Mennonites, past or present, whose plain dress has meant to convey faithful following of Christ.
It is not simplistically to flee the name “Mennonite.” It is not to suggest that any congregation or individual exists above or outside of culture. Nor is it to insist that making “Mennonite” a more culture-bound term and “anabaptist” a name less tied to culture is the only or even best way to conceptualize matters; I experience these matters as a yet to be solved riddle.
Nevertheless, there are basic differences between those of us who grew up in my Swiss-German Mennonite world and those raised in their many alternate settings that must somehow be named and worked at. Sometimes to be Mennonite is too easily equated with joining not only a way of understanding faith but also the subcultural expressions of that faith as they have emerged in tightly-knit communities of persons sharing similar immigrant backgrounds, histories and often generations of inbreeding. Then it’s important to find ways to speak of core faith commitments that disentangle from ethnic expressions.
This is why in my various roles I often find the vocabulary of a generic anabaptism helpful. Such a vocabulary can help those raised in settings other than Mennonite to grasp what aspects of becoming Mennonite involve commitments to faith values rather than optional ethnic practices.
This is why I often feel impelled less to address Mennonite concerns intertwined with a particular ethnicity and more to ask Anabaptist-tinged questions like these: Where is right living to be found in today’s complex moral crosscurrent?
What does the body of Christ look like for those who find it more meaningful to commune in Facebook or MySpace than Sunday morning worship services?
What does it mean to believe “But I say to you, love your enemies” as we view terrorists or war in Iraq?
And what might it look like to ask such questions from within ordinary lives planted among many subcultures, not only from within that country behind my aunt’s book cover?
Reprinted by permission from DreamSeeker Magazine, where this article first appeared (Winter 2007, pp. 18-22)
Todd Saunders says
I’ve found a wonderful part of the Body in anabaptist and Conservative Mennonite congregations in my area. I see your concerns about the overly ethnic-laden parts. I’ve not come across any ethno-cultural irrelavancies yet in my contact here but I can sympathize with what you’ve been through in your tradition laden youth, love your very constructive thoughts here on it, and believe your concerns can only help in the shaping of a more vigorous anabaptist (and Mennonite) biblically inspired community of believers and worshippers. I look forward to viewing the rest of this website and future thoughts here during the process of growing my own perspectives on this encouraging body segment of believers we both love. Thanks. Todd