Linford Stutzman, Director, Coffman Center, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA
If Conrad Kanagy’s statistics on the profile of congregational leaders are accurate, the average Mennonite leader reading this article will remember, some even with nostalgia for a time when rebellion against the “establishment” was cool, the words of the Five Man Electrical Band’s hit song in 1970 – “Signs, signs, everywhere a sign.”
Yes, according to Kanagy, there are plenty of warning signs out there, and just as in the 70s, those of us who notice can view the signs in a variety of ways. For some of us, the signs that warn of an aging and shrinking Mennonite Church are “blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind.” We wish they were not there. For others, the response might be more like the final lyrics of the hit song, as we look the other way, “thank you Lord…I’m alive and doing fine.” But because Kanagy’s signs are carefully researched, reflecting both current reality and future implications, neither resenting nor dismissing the signs will likely help change the course of the Mennonite church.
The Mennonite Church USA is rapidly aging. There are clear signs of significant current and future decline that is only partially offset by those parts of the Mennonite church that are growing. These areas of growth are primarily the so-called “ethnic/racial” congregations, and new church plantings growing on the denominational margins.
Conrad Kanagy has made a number of vital recommendations in his book. From my perspective within Virginia Mennonite Conference, I would like to add some of my own observations.
My perspective includes the experience of helping to start Immanuel Mennonite Church some 13 years ago, a visionary congregation in Harrisonburg that brought together ethnic/racial, non-cradle and traditional Mennonites into one exciting, chaotic and, in some ways, radically Anabaptist group. It includes the struggle of planting a church in Munich, Germany more than 20 years ago, a diverse group that included young, alienated and marginalized new Christians, while trying to connect to the historically-rooted German Mennonites at the same time. Currently, as a professor of mission and culture at Eastern Mennonite University, my perspective includes the experiences of leading and listening to young Mennonite adults on learning expeditions in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, far from the constraints and safety of their heritage. It includes teaching a course this past fall entitled “The Church in a Changing World” to 30 young adults, both Mennonite and from other traditions, who share a deep interest in the church, while not being very satisfied or involved in the church they grew up in.
So how should we respond to Kanagy’s signs? Are these signs of hope or warning? Or are they both, depending on how one looks at them and where one is looking from?
Let’s look at the implications of one of the clearest, most disturbing signs that Kanagy’s study points out – the rapid aging of the “cradle Mennonite” members of the Mennonite Church. This decline is offset only partially by a sign of hope – the significant growth of non-cradle Mennonites.
If there is both a pronounced decline among cradle Mennonites on one hand, and significant growth among racial/ethnic and other non-cradle Mennonites on the other, then profound, even radical change, is inevitable. The Mennonite Church as we know it today will not exist in the future. It will either continue to decline by mistaking the inertia of its rich heritage as progress and seeking to continue the trajectory of the past. Or it will be revitalized by experiencing a demographic, cultural, ecclesiological, theological and spiritual revival. Neither scenario is comforting for everyone, especially for those who are custodians of the heritage, leaders who have worked diligently and faithfully, who have invested their lives into achieving positions of influence in the denomination and who, as stakeholders in the denominational status quo, are keenly interested in maintaining and extending it.
While considerable effort by denominational leaders may be directed towards managing the resources from the institutional center of the denomination, it is the edges that are the most exciting, that have the most potential for either authentic renewal or colossal failure, just like all faith movements in Scripture and history demonstrate. Whether the Mennonite Church experiences slow death, rapid failure or sustainable renewal depends on the ability of denominational leaders to respond to the current and potential growth on the margins.
The margins include young adults who have grown up in the Mennonite church and attended its schools, who love Jesus and are committed to following him, but find the denomination irrelevant and even unfaithful in its successes and cultural conformity. The margins include non-Mennonite people with a growing interest for Anabaptist ideas and commitments, such as Shane Claiborne, Shane Hipps, Greg Boyd and students and professors at places like Fuller Theological Seminary. Within Virginia Mennonite Conference there are people like Ron Copeland of Our Community Place, racial/ethnic congregations, new congregations being planted and Emerging Churches, some with Mennonite identity and affiliations like The Table. These are signs of hope, but only if we heed them.
Hope in the time of denominational decline lies in the capacity for denominational institutions to seize the opportunity to change, to begin or continue to decentralize, to shift control of agendas and resources from the center of the denomination toward the margins. It means investing in young adults (according to Kanagy, persons 18-35 are three times more likely to start a new congregation than persons over that age bracket) and non-cradle Mennonite leaders, empowering them to participate in missional leadership opportunities in the world. It means accompanying young adults and non-cradle Mennonites as they take risks of change, giving them the genuine leadership responsibilities they seek and the freedom to experiment with ways of making the good news attractive, relevant, credible and powerful in the post-modern world. Paul did this at great personal risk. The Anabaptist leaders did this. They made mistakes, but the church grew with hopeful, energetic, creative and confident young leaders.
We Mennonites might fear denominational decline and death, but we are not on a dead end road. We are on the road toward the Kingdom, toward the future, through the world. The biblical story of faith is one where the people of God move toward the promise. The early church moved through the Empire toward the promise. The early Anabaptists moved through Christendom toward the promise. That is the road we are on but it is up to us to move on it.
That is the journey of faith Jesus calls us to. Jesus calls us to move with him, away from our edifices of modernity, our bulwarks of security that have become our prisons. Jesus calls leaders to follow him into the world, into the future and to take others with us. If we do so, we may well move from maintaining a denomination with modern institutions and assumptions, to an Anabaptist movement and network that is more authentically Christian and less culturally Mennonite. We may become an Anabaptist movement and network that innovates in mission and education, that creates decentralized and flexible structures that exist for the primary purpose of helping local congregations make the good news of the Kingdom visible, credible, relevant, attractive, prophetic and sustainable everywhere.
May we lead, educate, work and live toward this mandate, this promise and this vision. May the Mennonite Church in North America not only read the signs, but become a sign of hope, a sign of the Kingdom. May the church always move toward the future, into the world, with confidence in the risen Lord.