What makes a Mennonite?

Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2013

It used to be that the question “what makes a Mennonite?” probably would mainly have confused North American Mennonites. A Mennonite was simply born into the family, church, and broader Mennonite fellowship. Now it’s true Mennonites practiced believers baptism with its implication that actually becoming a formal member of the Mennonite church required a choice, a conscious commitment.

So there may have been a bit of a tension between one’s birthright Mennonite identity and one’s official, based-on-church-membership Mennonite identity. But for generations the large percentage of those born into Mennonite families stayed in the fold—and few “outsiders” entered the church community. So to be a “Mennonite” was a straightforward, uncomplicated thing that had most of all to do with birth into the community.

The effects of Mennonite cultural assimilation

This has all changed in the past 130 years. As North American Mennonites have assimilated, this has meant that the boundaries separating the Mennonite world from the outside have become increasingly permeable. More people born into Mennonite families have left, more new Mennonites have entered the fold, and various theological currents from the outside have shaped Mennonite congregations.

People who track such things are worried about Mennonite demographics, especially in relation to the make up of Mennonite Church USA (and also, perhaps, Mennonite Church Canada as well as other Mennonite groups). As a rule, Mennonites are getting older. Due to smaller families and young people leaving the church often not to return, the overall numbers of church members are shrinking and those who remain tend to be older.

One way to speak of these dynamics is to say that more and more, being a part of the Mennonite community is a choice. People who are born into find it easier to leave and people from the outside find it easier to enter the community (at least to some extent). Fewer people all the time, it seems, are making this choice.

So, is there a future for the Mennonite tradition? One small part of reflecting on this question is simply to think about what a “Mennonite” is—or, as I ask in this post’s title, “what makes a Mennonite?”

The label “Mennonite”

Part of how we might approach this question is to work first at defining “Mennonite.” I suggest we can think of three distinct senses that a person might affirm the label Mennonite:

(1) Institutional—This sense is the easiest to measure. By “institutional Mennonite” I have in mind those with formal membership in a congregation that has membership in a Mennonite denomination—specifically, for the purpose of these reflections, Mennonite Church USA. These are the numbers that have been going down in recent years.

It would be interesting to know the percentages of institutional Mennonites who have been born into the community and who share basic Mennonite convictions, but the label applies to all in the congregations regardless of family background or beliefs.

(2) Genetic—By “genetic Mennonite,” I refer to people born into a family with Mennonite ties. These are the people for whom terms such as “ethnic Mennonite” and “Mennonite name” apply. After having been around Mennonites for more than three decades, I have learned most of the “Mennonite names.” When I encounter people with names such as Yoder, Friesen, or Swartzendruber, I tend to assume they are Mennonites or have Mennonite ancestors. Usually that is the case.

(3) Theological—By “theological Mennonite,” I refer to people who affirm core convictions of the Anabaptist tradition. What matters most of these convictions is, of course, contested. There have been various formulations. One of the most widely used summaries has been that offered by Harold Bender, now 70 years ago. In a much circulated article, he gave the central points of what he called the   “Anabaptist Vision”: First, “the essence of Christianity is discipleship”; second, “voluntary church membership based upon true conversion and involving a commitment to holy living and discipleship”; third, “the ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships.”

A more recent and slightly more detailed summary came from the Mennonite World Conference’s list of  “Shared Convictions”:

  1. God is known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator who seeks to restore fallen humanity by calling a people to be faithful in fellowship, worship, service and witness.
  2. Jesus is the Son of God. Through his life and teachings, his cross and resurrection, he showed us how to be faithful disciples, redeemed the world, and offers eternal life.
  3. As a church, we are a community of those whom God’s Spirit calls to turn from sin,acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, receive baptism upon confession of faith, and follow Christ in life.
  4. As a faith community, we accept the Bible as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance, in the light of Jesus Christ to discern God’s will for our obedience.
  5. The Spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all areas of life so we become peacemakers who renounce violence, love our enemies, seek justice, and share our possessions with those in need.
  6. We gather regularly to worship, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to hear the Word of God in a spirit of mutual accountability.
  7. As a world-wide community of faith and life we transcend boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender and language. We seek to live in the world without conforming to the powers of evil, witnessing to God’s grace by serving others, caring for creation, and inviting all people to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

Prior to the cultural assimilation of North American Mennonites, this threefold distinction (institutional, genetic, and theological) would not have made much sense to most Mennonites. Membership and birth went together. Most people born into Mennonite families at the proper time joined the church. Few came in from the “outside.” So, Mennonites talked little about their theological convictions because most of their theological was embedded from birth on up.

In our current circumstance, though, the distinctions among the three points has become crucial. One of the reasons, I would suggest, that the Mennonite tradition may not have a hopeful future is the difficulty in letting go of the “genetic Mennonite” dynamic and revitalizing the “institutional Mennonite” dynamic in light of clarity and passion about the “theological Mennonite” dynamic.

A historical challenge

I was challenged to think about these issues again (or still!) by an article I recently read: Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84.4 (October 2010), 507-549, even though the article itself was not addressing the issues I am thinking about—maybe it’s the fact that the article does not address these issues that stimulating my reflections.

This is a deeply researched essay that focuses especially on two characters who were “genetic Mennonites” who were directly involved genocidal activities as part of the Holocaust. Gerhard Rempel himself is identified as professor of history emeritus at Western New England College. His current status in relation to the Mennonite tradition is unclear. He appears to be a direct descendent of Mennonites who were involved in the terrible events recounted in his essay. But his own relationship to Mennonites is not stated.

Rempel’s use of “Mennonite” in his article raises many questions for me. He does does not say what he means by “Mennonite” as he tells about two individuals in particular who he identifies as Mennonites who directly participated in the Nazi-directed genocide of Europe’s Jews.

It seems likely that the two men discussed were “Mennonite” only in the sense of number two. One for sure had been born into a Mennonite family but had long before left the Mennonite community when he engaged in his genocidal activity. So, in what sense was he a “Mennonite” at all? Is a “genetic Mennonite” who is neither a member of a Mennonite congregation nor an adherent to Mennonite convictions actually a “Mennonite”? Would the fact that Hitler came from a Catholic family mean we should talk about “Catholics and the Holocaust” when we specifically have in mind Hitler’s role? I’d think not.

This is an interesting question in relation directly to Rempel’s argument and the discussion of Mennonites in Europe in relation to the Holocaust. That is an important issue, but it would take some careful discussion to have the discussion happen in a way that was enlightening about Mennonites. I’d think we would need to discuss Mennonite communities, not isolated individuals who had few if any direct links to those communities.

Clarifying “Mennonite”

Right now, though, I am more interested simply in the more general question about the meaning and usefulness of the Mennonite label. I believe that work on the third aspect of the label, “theological,” is essential if the Mennonite tradition is to have a future. My sense is that among the North American Mennonites I am most familiar with, this work is not a particularly high priority. Partly, they don’t like the category “theology” for reasons I’m not totally clear about. Partly, they aren’t that interested in self-reflection about deep-seated convictions, even if we can come up with a term other than “theology” for such reflection.

However, the institutions in the Mennonite world of North America may be calcifying and losing vitality. Some have lost their Mennonite identity, even giving up the name “Mennonite,” over time in the past 130 years. Institutions (especially those related to voluntary membership such as churches) require a vital sense of vision, purpose, and identity to be life-enhancing and sustainable.

The genetic sense of identity has lost most of its relevance. Notions of “ethnic Mennonites” and “Mennonite names” have actually become offensive to some of us who have voluntarily chosen to identify with the tradition (including joining Mennonites institutionally). It feels pretty strange and off-putting to see people who have actually repudiated their Mennonite identity and officially joined with other traditions treated as “Mennonite writers,” for example, while people who have joined Mennonite congregations and affirm Mennonite theology are at times treated as “other-than-Mennonite.” It’s as if the definition of “Mennonite” follows mainly from the lazy and superficial identifier of a surname that can be recognized as “Mennonite” regardless of the convictions and actions of the one bearing it.

However with the enlivening of the practice of theological reflection (that is, self-conscious reflection and conversation about the core convictions that shape faith and practices) it is difficult to imagine a very positive future for Mennonite institutions. The theology will not die, but how much will it be linked with this specific tradition?

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26 Comments

Filed under Anabaptism, Mennonite, Theology

26 responses to “What makes a Mennonite?

  1. Susan

    I really resonated with this reflection. Especially the observations: “It’s as if the definition of “Mennonite” follows mainly from the lazy and superficial identifier of a surname that can be recognized as “Mennonite” regardless of the convictions and actions of the one bearing it.” and
    “The theology will not die, but how much will it be linked with this specific tradition?”
    I also understand your criticism of G Rempel’s ambiguous use of the term, but I hope that it won’t take away from the more important point of his study, to show how we Mennonites are complicit in the holocaust story, or put another way, we need to stop acting like our designation as collective “peace church” has somehow released us from any accountability for the ways in which we were/are complicit in violence.

    • Ted Grimsrud

      Thanks, Susan.

      Part of my response to the Rempel article, though, was just in what sense the “Mennonites” he discussed are part of the “we” I am part of as a member of Mennonite Church USA and as an Anabaptist theologian. It’s a long article and I didn’t read it real carefully, but I got the impression that what made the two men Rempel focused on “Mennonites” was mainly their names—not that they were active members in Mennonite communities that condoned their actions.

      That said, I remember many years ago talking with a Mennonite friend from BC about numerous Nazi sympathizers among the post-World War II Mennonites who had immigrated to Canada. So, there is certainly something to be examined in the German and Russian Mennonite experience during the Nazi era.

  2. Lisa Schirch

    Very thought provoking. And thanks for the citation on the holocaust paper….

  3. This is a great post! I’ve often heard about this on going discussion mostly because I joined the Mennonite church and have no ancestry in this tradition. I have been very fortunate to always have been welcomed and included in everything, but I’ve also had friends who left very disappointed with the church because they were non-ethnic and felt like it was an “insider’s group”. I’m glad you chose to address this topic.

    • Ted Grimsrud

      Thanks, Deborah. My experience is mostly similar to yours—I have generally been welcomed by Mennonites, even to the point of being ordained for Mennonite ministry and hired by several churches and a Mennonite college. But, even so, it has been (and is) complicated.

  4. Gary Olsen-Hasek

    Ted, Some very thoughtful and accurate analysis. I refer to cultural Mennonites, rather than “genetic.” Some of those born into Mennoworld leave the church version, yet retain the cultural connection. Some are considered Mennonites even as they leave the Christian faith. They sing hymns, but don’t really believe many of the words. They are a form of Unitarian Universalist Mennonite or may be connected to the tradition by way of MCC fund raising and quilting or More with Less cooking. Mennonites are very much as Jews in this regard. It is hard to break in unless one enters through birth or perhaps, marriage. Those of us outside may be welcome, but from my perspective, it is like being an invited guest to a family reunion in many cases. I am welcome to be there, but I’ll never be part of the family.

    • Ted Grimsrud

      I appreciate your affirmative comments, Gary. I would expect you could identify pretty closely with what I am saying. Your imagery at the end of your comment certainly rings true for me.

    • Scott Holland

      So, Gary, after AMBS you planted an “Anabaptist,” rather than “a mere Mennonite Church,” in Cleveland, right? After all these years are you still connected to Anabaptism or do you suspect the theology of Anabaptism cannot be disentangled from the cultural, genetic or ethnic peoplehoods that produced it?

      • Gary Olsen-Hasek

        Scott, Nice to receive a message from you!
        I’m not sure I have continued to be connected to Anabaptism, although I have been a member of a Church of the Brethren and a Mennonite congregation in the past years. I say this because both of these congregations could probably fit into the mainline Protestant category in practice, with some remnant of Anabaptist thinking and practice thrown in. They, to some degree, maintain their cultural identity with their history and denomination whether or not that reflects Anabaptism. It is my experience that many, if not most, Mennonites and Brethren are products of their subculture which happens to be linked to religion. It is very difficult to join that subculture as an outsider. I have seen some people “convert” and have enough passion, endurance and patience to more easily adapt and conform to the subculture. I have never been successful at that. I continue to wonder if one can call any contemporary North American group in Christianity truly Anabaptist, nor do I believe it matters much. I am more interested in how the ecumenical church can live faithfully in the present and can learn from the many streams of historic theology and ecclesiology. I am more interested in encouraging the “peace position” within the larger church. I usually call myself an ecumenical Christian with Anabaptist leanings or, because of Methodist influence, an Anabapthedist.

      • Gary Olsen-Hasek

        Scott, I forgot to mention in the other reply that the church planting experience was after I graduated from Bethany. I had worked for Hyde Park Anabaptist Fellowship in Chicago as their Peace Minister during my time at Bethany. I was inspired by two historic peace church denominations forming a small congregation. It originally had some support from both the Church of the Brethren (Northern Ohio District) and the Central District of the General Conference Mennonite Church. The COB folks pulled out after one year. Maybe, I was a bit too radical for them. The goal was to create a congregation of house churches based upon a model described in Lois Barrett’s, BUILDING THE HOUSE CHURCH and the congregation she was pastoring, Mennonite Church of the Servant in Wichita, KS. After two years, the Cleveland church never made it beyond a core group that couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to at a year covenant. I was no longer going to receive funding at that time and so went back to graduate school. One lesson, among many, don’t try to start a Mennonite Church or COB congregation without an already committed group. Some of those should be historically linked to the denomination so as to more easily find support from other congregations in the district or conference. We had one “genetic” or cultural Mennonite in our group and few connections with other Ohio congregations who maintained any interest or support for ministry in Cleveland.

    • Scott Holland

      It’s nice to connect with you again, Gary. I agree with your analysis. Of course all religion or theology is “cultural” so I suppose attention to your signifier “subculture” to describe Mennonite communal dynamics is helpful. I remain interested in the public possibilities of Anabaptism. Like you, I’m also interested in ecumenical peace projects and possibilities. For the past dozen years or so I’ve been working internationally with the WCC’s programs which produced “An Ecumenical Call to Just Peace.” There is a growing ecumenical consensus, stated boldly in the Call, that the old doctrine of Just War has become “obsolete” and a fresh invitation into the paradigm shift of Just Peace. The Call seeks to move beyond both Just War and a sectarian or sub-cultural pacifism into the public possibilities of peace building.

      • Gary Olsen-Hasek

        Yeah, Scott, I have read about that and have seen your name mentioned in Bethany’s news regarding such. You likely are aware of Presbyterian Church USA’s current encouragement for their congregations to participate in a six-year process to see if they should leave Just War behind and embrace a peace position.

      • Scott Holland

        Gary, Yes, this Presbyterian conversation is emerging out of the Ecumenical Call…because we wrote it as a “call” or invitation for study and conversation rather than one more mandate out of Geneva. We wrote it on the ground in active conversation with church members and leaders from Bogota to Beirut and from Jos to Jakarta. Although some Historic Peace Church members were very much a part of this, we wanted the cultural-linguistic tone to be set by the global ecumenical church without the theological distractions of Menno Simons or Alexander Mack and their beards.

        Interestingly, relative to your comments about subcultures, some members of the Peace Churches seemed to express mild resentment that Presbyterians and the Orthodox were now claiming the nonviolent peace of Christ as their own!

      • Gary Olsen-Hasek

        Another frustration for me has been drawing attention to such ecumenical decisions and finding little or no interest among Mennonites here in Western Oregon. I brought up the Mennonite World Conference reconciliation with Lutherans and got the same lack of response. Some Mennonites, I believe, are most interested in trying to maintain an image of distinctiveness, even as it disappears. Mennonite Church can become Mennonite Preservation Society with qualities more in keeping with a lodge mentality, than a body of Christ.

  5. I think this is an important conversation, and would like to speak to it further.
    As far as I know I am genetically Mennonite (or Amish-Mennonite) as far back as they go, but having grown up in the diaspora (where there was not a Mennonite church nor community to worship with regularly) I had the opportunity to consciously and deliberately choose to be a Mennonite theologically and as a young adult made deliberate choices to live where I could connect to the church’s institutions. I think the Mennonite/Anabaptist convictions came about for a reason in their context, and there is something of value to them. Being Mennonite just for the sake of being Mennonite ? not for me. So, I resonate with your point about the theology staying on even if the tradition doesn’t.
    I have lived in several countries and related to Mennonites and their institutions across all spectrums (in this way I also understand/describe us as diverse as the Jewish community). I have found that even as a “genetic” and “theological” Mennonite I have also felt as though a guest at a family reunion, particularly when in geographical places where the congregations/conferences are made up of several large family systems (which I refer to as “tribes” on occasion, because of the power dynamics these groups can exercise within a congregational system and even conference system).The times when I felt a belonging was when I was with people who knew my parents, and it was through them that I had a “right” to feel myself an insider. I attribute this guest-like feeling to having taken on a non-Mennonite surname combined with not having been socialized (formation?) within Mennonite institutions, combined with the way my education has formed my beliefs and actions. When I’m at my best I find I can bridge the worldview of the “guests” and the “relatives” and facilitate genuine community between the two. A true “believers church” it would seem to me, and what I thought is Anabaptist theology, is that the church is a (new) family of believers together. How does the saying go, there are only first generation Mennonites ?
    If we could just focus on what theologically identified us as Mennonites, (not sure we can) I don’t really see this being helpful, yet, even if I think it is the best goal. We aren’t that clear on the theology, as I see it. I have been told that Mennonites are diaconally oriented, not theological, because theology somehow does not deal with what is real – it is arguing and tweaking metaphysical/irrelevant points, and consequently has no relevance to ethics (diaconal work) – an opinion I disagree with ! Is theology what we say we believe in as per the current version of the MCOF, or in the above listed core convictions, or in what we actually do ?
    I see people not accepted in a congregation, or by the denomination, because of their convictions around LGBQT equality while others welcomed in the church despite their choice to not share the pacifist convictions. I see people who have lived together unmarried for years being accepted because they are so and so’s child, while others who seek to have their relationship fidelity blessed by the church are told they are not welcome because they are “living in sin.” I have been at congregational meetings where an acknowledged atheist spouse of a genetic Mennonite congregant will voice a binding opinion over and above that of a faithful congregational member, and so on. I see congregations or pastors silenced because they don’t “abide” by the MCOF position on sexuality, while congregations who won’t consider taking a woman for their ordained leadership (or not even letting a woman lead) are not disciplined (even tho this also is in variation with the MCOF position on women in leadership). We send people to do conflict transformation around the world, while we ignore/deny the marital violence in our own midst – we even shun, shame, or discipline the spouse that dares to say “stop” to that and leave the marriage. And we all know this list of inconsistencies could go on forever…
    So, theological core convictions, perhaps, can be a solid starting point. But, which convictions and why ? That’s where we need theology !
    Speaking to how to be “Mennonite” amidst our vast differences of beliefs, I recently read a reflection on the diversity of doctrine in the United Church of Canada where the author discusses how it’s members can be in “essential agreement” while allowing for all the diversity that currently exists in that community. He shares a point made by Rowan Williams about seeking unity for the church as a whole, while allowing for much diversity of conviction within the denomination. I found the image very helpful, the goal of unity, but not sameness, and hope that in the best possible outcome, we Mennonites (whoever self defines that way) could perhaps start to organize our theological diversity in this way, rather than using our genetic, cultural, or institutional formation as the ruler, nor using the MCOF as a sort of creed-like checklist for who is in/out (as I have experienced/observed its usage). The image goes like this:
    “picture a meadow. In the middle stands a pole. Think of the pole as the core beliefs of the community, the community’s doctrine. Some can stand very close to the pole. Their own beliefs are highly congruent with those held by the community as a whole. Others will find themselves standing at varying distances from the pole. All are still part of the community.” In the case of the United church of Canada, one’s position in relationship to the pole does not necessarily disqualify them for leadership in the church or her institutions.
    This is an image of unity amidst diversity that I could get excited about. [http://creedalandlovingit.wordpress.com/2013/06/30/pole-dancing/]

  6. I consider this essay of the utmost importance as Mennonite churches face the future. Of course it has ramifications for denominational structures and associated institutions. But I find myself in the midst of the broader issue manifesting in a local church that involves all these dynamics including one worship leader who calls herself a “pretend” Mennonite. At this point, the critical issue is whether our congregationally formulated and adopted “Core Beliefs and Values” will have any practical application in the life of the congregation.

    Thank you Ted for laying the problem out so clearly and thank you Susan, for your clear articulation of so many of the dynamics comprised in this issue.

  7. Jason

    I think North American Mennonites will need to come to terms with the ethnic “Mennonite” phenomenon, which is powerful, pervasive, and can be subtle. After her family moved to Virginia in the 1920’s, my grandmother’s youngest sister, 8 generations removed from her immigrant ancestors, had trouble in school because her English was poor! But her parents would probably have found it strange to call their culture “Mennonite”; to them it was Pennsylvania Dutch, which included the “plain Dutch” Mennonites, Amish, and Dunkers (Brethren); and the “gay Dutch” Lutherans and Catholics. For Mennonites at least, the loss of the German language in the early 1900s was unfortunately played out in the church, the only institution the culture had. (And the “plain Dutch” concept became conflated with “Mennonite.”) The first attempt at forging an alternative identity was via emphasis on “plain dress”, which was not new in itself but the emphasis was, and which alienated many who didn’t agree. This emphasis waned coincidentally with the beginnings of a pietistic way of thinking (again not exactly new to Mennonites, but the emphasis was) — it wasn’t long after tent revivals that women started wearing pants. This emphasis, in turn, is being replaced by simple living/creation care emphases (again not new; as Roman Miller said, “We’ve always thought this way but we used to call it stewardship.”) This may be a bit oversimplified, but in my view, these are all efforts, at various times, of the community to define itself by drawing on strands already in its tradition.

    Those who have ethnic Anabaptist heritage (I hope Anabaptist will be less offensive than “Mennonite” would be here — there is no “Anabaptist Church”) should value that heritage as much as any Native American tribe or other ethnic group would value their heritage, but we have to recognize that it can be alienating to fellow churchgoers, a hindrance to the Mennonite Church as an institution, and possibly also to theological and spiritual development. I would say the converse is true as well: one should not let the church disenfranchise one of his/her ethnic heritage. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy shoofly pie and quilting if you’re gay, no matter what your church says about it. In the same vein, those “Mennonite writers” who are Mennonite In Surname Only are interesting perhaps because they pose the question of how possible it is to escape one’s ethnic identity. Some of the most vigorous criticism I heard regarding “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” was that the author passed off ethnic traditions of Russian Mennonites as “Mennonite”, which offended ethnic Swiss Mennonites. Trivial, but revealing.

    So I agree that we need to tighten up our thinking about the meaning of Mennonite all around, and sort out the components. We may find we need new and more specific terminology as well. Not only will this help the institutional and theological notions of “Mennonite” but it will also help those who have ethnic Anabaptist heritage understand themselves better and embrace that heritage.

  8. There is also Rudy Wiebe’s engagement with the theme/questions, not the least of his many excellent books is Peace Shall Destroy Many: http://chriscarrollsmith.blogspot.ca/2008/01/peace-shall-destroy-many-by-rudy-wiebe.html

  9. Holly Blosser Yoder

    I’m pondering this comment: “One of the reasons, I would suggest, that the Mennonite tradition may not have a hopeful future is the difficulty in letting go of the ‘genetic Mennonite’ dynamic and revitalizing the ‘institutional Mennonite’ dynamic in light of clarity and passion about the ‘theological Mennonite’ dynamic.”
    Yes, it is troubling that Nazis and profane academics are described or describe themselves as “Mennonite” while faithful church members with Anabaptist convictions are made to feel like tagalongs at a family picnic, but there is ALSO something beautiful and powerful (and probably essential) about the Mennonite Church having at its core families and communities who have nurtured new generations in Anabaptist faith across centuries, with implications for cultural heritage. Isn’t that sense of meaning and identity and having something worth sharing, worth passing along, the future of ANY movement that challenges dominant culture? I imagine historical and sociological perspectives would be just as important in addressing the “What is a Mennonite?” and “What hopeful future is there for us?” questions as are theological ones. And I am interested in a third question: “What about the Mennonite Church offers hope to the world?” That may be where any discussion of the future of the Mennonite tradition should begin.

  10. At least one way Mennonite identity is appropriated by individuals is as a self-concept, and it can certainly mean more than one thing, even to the same individual. In my case, given my upbringing and education (Mennonite town, EMHS, Goshen/EMC, AMBS, MCC) I recognized long ago that I would always be a “Mennonite” regardless of institutional affiliation or even theology (which at this point in my life I would probably characterize as “postchristian unitarian – but by gosh, I am unquestionably a MENNONITE postchristian unitarian, which I strongly feel whenever in the presence of other postchristian unitarians!) While I wish it well, I guess I am not so engaged anymore by the future of the Mennonite church per se, but I am very thankful that Mennonites and other Anabaptists over the centuries have taken the positions they have and dropped their special bit of flavorings into the human social stew of history.

  11. Gene Mast

    Is it possible, as some of us feel, that MCUSA is no longer the home to Anabaptist theology that it once was and this factor is what is leading to its declining numbers, not so much rejection of the theology?

  12. I have been thinking about this post for a few days. One point I’d like to ask about is how much is a declining membership in Mennonite Churches a part of the general decline in church participation in our society at this time? Declining participation is something experienced by a large number of Churches and seems to cut across such categories as liberal and conservative. The feeling that there may not be a future for a specific Mennonite group is one I have heard from a variety of Church memberships including Anglican, Methodist, and Quaker. Catholics in the U.S. have resisted the decline in membership in large part because of hispanic immigration; there is no comparable source for refreshing Mennonite numbers.

    My second observation has to do with the process of becoming a member. What you refer to as ‘genetic’ membership in a religious body contrasts with what I think of as an ‘elective’ membership. The strongest model for elective membership in Christianity is, I think, monasticism. To become a member of a monastic community requires a long process and a gradual increase in terms of explicit duties and obligations. I have a Buddhist background and it is instructive to me that the most stable Buddhist group has been, and continues to be, Buddhist monasticism. I am wondering if some of the features of this process of becoming a member might not be of use in non-monastic contexts, such as Mennonite and//or Quaker. Just a thought.

    Jim

  13. This conversation is interesting, but one of the characteristics of most of the Chicago Area Mennonite Churches is the lack of many “genetic” Mennonites. Along with this is some difficulty for the Chicago Mennonites to feel much of a closeness with the Mennonite institutions such as the Illinois Mennonite Conference and the MCUSA, but we have people who go to both of these tconferences and bring reports back to the congregation and the institutions are actively trying to include the New Mennonites. Our current pastor is a japanese-american woman not of Mennonite heritage.
    While “theology” is a significant part of being Mennonite, there is somehow also “Spirit” of connection. The Spirt connection is a sense that this connection is important enough to become a participating, supporting member of a Congregation and not just an attender. Often members peace concerns show up as involvement in “social” issues, prison ministry, homeless shelter, food kitchens, affordable housing and other such issues. Along with membership may come an interest in working with other spirit connected congregations, Mennonite and other churches. Some connections work with other Mennonite institutions.
    I’m glad to be from a heritage of Mennonites, and I’m glad to be in a church and fellowship where heritage Mennonites are a small minority and others from many traditions are accepted with joy. For instance we have some members with dual memberships with Catholic or Episcopalian institutions. We had a member who continued actively as an Episcopalian Priest for many years.
    I rejoice at all of the places in USA and the world where Mennonite churchs are growing with many new heritages. May God’s spirit continue to stir Mennonites into new service to the King of Glory

  14. I love the mennonite church with its radical teaching on peace and justice! My dream and vision is to combine anabaptist theology with charismatic theology, and work for peace and justice in the power of the Holy Spirit. I just wrote an article about charismatic theology among early anabaptists: http://holyspiritactivism.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/charismatic-theology-among-the-early-anabaptists/ I hope you will find it interesting.

    Blessings!

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