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?” Continue reading “What makes a Mennonite?”