Not long ago an evangelical friend who had recently moved into the area commented on the challenge of finding his way into a Mennonite congregation. "Everywhere I visit," he said, "people are extremely friendly. But it doesnt take long until I seem to bump up against a barrieran awareness that I somehow just dont quite fit."
The barriers he described were not doctrinal in nature. In fact, it was his extensive reading in Anabaptist-Mennonite theology that made him so enthused about coming to the area in the first place. Rather, the deeper issues seemed to be a set of unspoken cultural assumptions that kept him perpetually off-balance. "Mennonites have such a wonderful sense of community," he said wistfully, "but how does someone from the outside actually become a part of that community?"
In fairness, my friends experience should not imply that the congregations he visited were obviously at fault. After all, living communities are sustained not just by ideas but by the fabric of relationships forged over time. Intimate relationshipsthe kind we all craveare almost always grounded in a history of shared experiences, commitments, and routines. In a society of instant gratification, we should not be surprised if the bonds of commitments that anchor us amid the fragmentation of our culture should take time to build. But as Will Schirmer insightfully argues, Mennonites have a powerful tendency to set the standard for community membership extremely high. Too often, acceptance in Mennonite congregations requires adherence to a set of unspoken rules that are rooted less in the Sermon on the Mount than in the subtle nuances of a German ethnic subculture.
In clear and forthright languageenlivened with numerous examplesSchirmer challenges Mennonite congregations to reach beyond their "comfort zones" in welcoming newcomers into the church. Along the way, Schirmer does not hesitate to name the stereotypes, cultural blind spots, and outright hypocrisies he has encountered in his lengthy sojourn among the Mennonites. His goal, however, is less to chastise than to transform. His vision is a Mennonite church in the twenty-first century that is "missional" at its very core.
Which leads to a fascinating and profoundly Christian paradox: churches will become truly missional only if they are both inviting and also clear about the countercultural, life-transforming nature of the gospel that they seek to embody. This means our congregations will always be living in a dynamic, spirit-filled, joyful tension, one that
commits every congregation to be a safe haven for broken people, yet alsoas Schirmer reminds uswill not hesitate to challenge members to move beyond their "comfort zones;"
does not confuse a living faith with community boundaries, yet recognizes that the gospel calls us to become a new people whose shared commitments will inevitably bring us in tension with the culture around us;
acknowledges with Schirmer that you do not have to be Mennonite to be a Christian yet also avoids the illusion that you can be a "generic" Christian, since faith is always embodied in particular theological and ethical commitments;
celebrates the unique gifts and insights of each new member while also asking newcomers to affirm a tradition and a level of commitment that is larger than any single individual.
The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf has described one of the Christian virtues as the gift of "double vision"that is, a capacity to see the world simultaneously through the lens of our particular setting and from the larger, universal vantage point of God. Schirmers book offers readers this gift of "double vision." It will challenge Mennonites to look at themselves afresh, both from the perspective of a richsometimes exclusivetradition of doctrine, ethics, and community life; as well as from the transforming perspective of the Holy Spirit and the surprising movement of God in history. The result will be a more faithful, more missional, church.
John D. Roth, Professor of
History, Goshen (Ind.) College; and
Reaching Beyond the Mennonite Comfort Zone orders:
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© 2002 by Cascadia Publishing House