Written by Tim Wiebe-Neufeld
(Slide 1) Good morning. It is good to be worshipping with you this morning. In my role as Area Minister, I offer you greetings and prayers of support on behalf of the congregations of Mennonite Church Alberta. Today across Alberta, across Canada, and around the world people of the Mennonite Church are gathering as communities of faith to worship God, and to reflect on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We do so in solidarity with all who respond to the call to live as God’s people in our world today.
It’s a testament to the power of Christ’s message that the number of people who claim to be Christian is estimated to be in the billions. (Slide 2) The Anabaptist/ Mennonite church is a small percentage, but even it numbers over two million members around the globe. Many of you may be familiar with this map. It shows the membership of Anabaptist Churches, including population blocks in every continent. There are Anabaptist communities present in 87 countries around the world. And these numbers are growing substantially. The largest numbers are now in Africa, and some of the highest growth is in Asia. (Slide 3) Down in the corner, the map shows a remarkable increase in total numbers over the past dozen years or so.
(Slide 4) It’s remarkable that a story and scriptures from 2000 years ago should resonate so well in so many countries and across so many cultures. Yet as our own culture shifts and changes, we may wonder about how this message is resonating in our society today. While the church is growing substantially in places like Africa and Asia, in Canada the place of the church is very much in question.
(Slide 5) A few years back our family spent part of a sabbatical in Montreal. All around the city were prominent reminders of a rich church history; (Slide 6) yet on Sunday morning the buildings sat largely empty. Some no longer served as meeting places for faith communities—they had been repurposed into condos or business centres of various sorts. This one was now a spa. (Slide 7)
These images of the church in Montreal offer an analogy to a larger trend in our European-based society known as post-Christendom. (Slide 8) A lot has been written about how for hundreds of years the church has been centrally linked with the institutions and governments that have overseen our society’s direction. In our time that context is changing. Our society has become more secular—not only with our governments and schools, but also individually, with fewer seeing church as central to their lives. Competing demands leave less room for Sunday morning worship. A distrust of institutions in general has led some to dismiss the relevance of the traditional church and its structures. (Slide 9) Across Canada denominations of all sorts are facing challenges of declining membership, aging congregations, and reduced resources.
These challenges form the backdrop for a conversation that has been taking place throughout the Mennonite Church in Canada. (Slide 10) 5 years ago a task force was formed to ask the question, “What is God’s Spirit calling us to in the 21st century?” In light of the challenges of being the church today, they asked (Slide 11) “What are the best ways (the programs, structures, and strategies) for the church to thrive and grow?”
(Slide 12) What resulted was a package of proposed new structures for Mennonite Church Canada, Mennonite Church Alberta, and the congregations that make up these elements of the wider Mennonite Church. If you look at the insert in your bulletins, you’ll see a summary of a plan that will be voted on at a Special Assembly of delegates in Winnipeg in the middle of October. It proposes a more regional form of governance and representation at the larger-church level. Basically, congregations would focus on their provincial church connection, and the provincial Area Churches would give direction to MC Canada.
For some, discussion about church structures might sound as pleasurable as a trip to the dentist. It may all seem a little dry and lifeless. And yet, at the heart are questions about things central to what it means to be the church together. (Slide 13) While each of us is called to make a commitment to Christ as an individual, we believe that Christ calls us to something larger than ourselves, extending from our local congregation to the wider church beyond. Given the importance of larger church connections, these conversations have understandably stirred up passions for some, especially for those who see changes coming to things they have deeply valued. In any change there is reason to lament. There are things that are lost, even as there are new possibilities to grow into.
(Slide 14) My wife Donita tells a story from when she was quite young. She and her siblings knocked over a potted plant in their hallway. The pot shattered, the roots were exposed, and soil was scattered in every direction. She watched as her mom carefully salvaged what she could of the plant, and put it in a new pot with new soil. Many of the roots, stems, and leaves couldn’t be saved, and when it was done it looked rather limp and spindly. But within a few days, it had perked up immensely. The leaves filled out and new shoots emerged. It wasn’t long before it looked better than it ever had before.
(Slide 15) As we seek to respond to our changing world, how do we discern what to change and what to preserve? How do we sift out the essentials of what it means to be the church together in our context and in our world? What might enable us to grow more fully into the church that God is calling us to be?
(Slide 16) In our desire to get to the heart of what’s important, we may find resonance with Jesus and his ministry. Throughout the gospels Jesus confronts the laws and structures that had arisen in his context to guide the faithful life. We know that Jesus came to usher in a New Kingdom; doing so redefined what it meant to follow God. In our Matthew passage, (Slide 17) Jesus is posed with a question: which of the commandments is the greatest? It’s actually a good question. Evidence from the Rabbinic tradition of the time period suggest there were no fewer than 613 laws in the Torah. 365 of these were prohibitions—that’s a “don’t” for every day of the year. There were 248 commands– there always seems to be fewer do’s than don’ts. I suppose that adds up to working days only—you’d get weekends and holidays off.
(Slide 18) In typical fashion, Jesus cuts to the core. He readily recites the greatest commandment, then adds a second angle: Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus see these two laws as foundational, two principles upon which the rest of the laws are based. Jesus doesn’t overtly reject any of them, but rather redefines the central question. What’s important isn’t necessarily giving priority to a specific law or practice, but discerning what love means in our context.
(Slide 19) As we think about what it means to be the church together, perhaps Jesus’ words are a helpful litmus test. How do we ensure our focus remains on these central elements of faith? When we put church structures in place, how do we ensure they help address these core requirements that Jesus defines for us?
It’s important to note that in his response to the Pharisees, Jesus is careful to place these two principles together. Love of God is like love of neighbor, and vise versa. They are inseparable, (Slide 20) two sides of the same coin. And yet in many ways they are also vastly different. With these two perspectives Jesus addresses both the divine and the human, the vertical and the horizontal, the macro and the micro, the forest and the trees. In love of God, we are drawn into a direct encounter with the transcendent divine. In love of neighbor we experience the imminent nature of God in those around us. Jesus equates these two differing perspectives. Together they make up the whole.
(Slide 21) Bringing two competing elements of life together isn’t easy. In our ever-changing world, there are a number of such areas that are in constant tension, resulting in the need to adapt as we re-examine what it means to be the church.
There’s the tension between the global and the local. (Slide 22) International travel, world-wide communication networks, and our multicultural mix emphasize the global nature of the world in which we live. At the same time, we see a trend towards a local emphasis. Some of this is a reaction to problems of globalization—the need to reduce our energy consumption, or to protect local jobs. Some is a yearning for a more personal connection. Some is wanting a firmer sense of belonging and identity when there seems to be so much uncertainty.
(Slide 23) Another such area is the emphasis on the individual and the community. Our society highlights personal choice, whether it be at the grocery store or in our systems of belief. We’re encouraged to see ourselves as the centre, limiting our sense of belonging or mutual accountability.
This situation can lead to identity confusion as we seek both independence and belonging. (Slide 24) I think this Calvin and Hobbes comic helps point out the paradox:
–begins with Calvin watching TV and saying, “Nowadays, ads don’t just sell a product, they sell an attitude! Look at this one!
–“Here’s a cool guy saying NOBODY tells him what to do! He does whatever he wants and buys THIS product as a reflection of that independence!”
–Hobbes replies, “So basically, this maverick is urging everyone to express his or her individuality through conformity in brand-name selection?”
(Slide 25) –To which Calvin says, “Well, it sounded more defiant the way HE said it!”
It’s amazing how often it seems that people show their rebellious nature by doing the same thing as all their friends in order to show how different they are.
The church exists in a society that struggles with these and other competing emphases. Congregations have other areas of tension as well: (Slide 27) There’s the need to nurture longstanding relationships even as we are called to welcome newcomers into our inner circles. There’s the need to strengthen the core of who we are as a faith community even as we are called to engage with our neighbours as we seek to further God’s Kingdom in the world.
(__) Changing church structures won’t automatically solve the many challenges congregations face. However, sometimes models need to change to help address particular needs. With the Covenant New proposals and the discussions that have led to it, it is hoped that placing more emphasis on the provincial church structure will nurture a greater sense of connectedness between congregations. Perhaps this will help give a greater sense of belonging. Perhaps there are ways we can nurture these relationships and offer each other more direct support and encouragement.
(Slide 27) It is hoped that MC Canada’s decision to restructure will lead to strengthened congregations with increased vitality so that they increasingly become centres of Christ’s missional activity. In many ways our churches are already serving this function well, but by other measures we are needing to be challenged and supported to shift in response to our changing world. This new way of being the church together anticipates a strong larger church body, with a nimble structure that adapts to changing needs and the leading of God’s Spirit as it supports the ministry of the church.
(Slide 28) If Matthew gives us two commands central to the mission of the church, 1 Peter offers some interesting imagery of what it means to be the church together. Peter’s letter was written into a world that faced challenges similar to our own. Rome had established an economic and military empire that brought many different cultures and religions into close contact with each other. (Slide 29) Old religious institutions were losing strength—in fact by the time of this letter the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Jews and Christians alike found themselves scattered throughout the known world. The early church was struggling to maintain a sense of God’s presence while the world around them was growing increasingly antagonistic to their faith perspective.
In the face of doubts and feelings of despair, Peter’s words offer reassurance and encouragement. (Slide 30) He uses the image of “living stones” to describe the community of faith. The context for faith had changed. There was no central stone building to embody the presence of God like there had been before. In this new reality, it is the people themselves that make up the spiritual house. (Slide 31) It is the community of faith itself that has become the dwelling place for God.
n addressing the challenges of his time, Peter offers a powerful new image, a vision meant to encourage and reassure the faith community. It also offers an interesting way of thinking about what it means to be the church together. The building block image preserves a sense of individuality while being part of a greater purpose. Each brings unique characteristics that give shape to the larger whole. It’s also a dynamic image. Things that are alive grow and reproduce and change. That’s the definition of life! The result is something greater than the sum of its parts.
(Slide 32) In giving some background to the restructuring process, former C.M.U. Professor Gerald Gerbrandt wrote a paper where he takes this organic image one step further. Gerbrandt writes, “congregations are the integral units of that larger body, they are “cells of an organic whole.” He goes on to write, (Slide 33) “…Some kind of organization is needed to give flesh to this larger church.” And then he outlines some of those functions:
(__) 1) To be a visible sign of that larger church, with the potential for dialogue with other parts of the church;
(__) 2) To be a setting within which conversation (e.g., discernment, discipline) can take place, representing a more diverse community than commonly present in a congregation;
(__) 3) To support, encourage, challenge and inspire the local congregation;
(__) 4) To initiate and administer programs too large for a local congregation.
(__) In a response article, former MC Canada Executive Secretary Jack Suderman builds on this image. He adds, “cells in an organic whole” both feed and are fed by the whole. …Sometimes the congregation can inject vitality into the larger system. But at other times, the larger system needs to inject energy, possibility, and vision into the local congregation. The channels must be open in both directions. “
When this back and forth is going well, it’s amazing to see examples of God’s Spirit moving in our world, providing small glimpses of God’s kingdom.
–(__) I managed to experience one such glimpse this past summer. The city had removed a tree from our front yard and hired a landscaping company to replace it. The day for planting was hot and sunny. As I approached the worker who was digging the hole, I asked him how it was going. He said, “It’s difficult, because I’m fasting. No food or drink until sundown!” He then pointed to the sign on our front lawn—some of you may be familiar with it. It reads in English, French, and Arabic, (__) “No matter where you are from, we are glad you’re our neighbour.” He said he was from Algeria, and could read the saying in all three languages. He expressed deep appreciation for the message he read there. We talked about what it means to welcome others, and how challenging it can be in our society, that at times emphasizes division more than ever. He wondered about where the signs came from, and I told him how they were an effort from my larger church to express Christ-like love and welcome for those many have come to reject. It was a quick encounter but a meaningful one. In addition to the tree, who knows what seeds were planted that day?
While this was quite an amazing story, what was perhaps more amazing were the sequence of events that led to this encounter:
(__)–in January pastors from Ontario attend Pastors Week at AMBS and see that local churches have begun a “welcome neighbour sign” campaign
(__)–in February, MCEC printed 200 of their own signs with the slogan in French, English, and Arabic.
(__) At February MC Canada meetings, David Martin mentioned the signs to me and other Executive Ministers. Shortly after, members of First Mennonite Edmonton’s Service and Outreach committee heard of the US sign campaign through their own personal Mennonite contacts. They decided they would like to promote this, both at FMC and at the upcoming MCC Sale at the end of May. Their chair, Karl Blank, asked me if I know anything about these signs. I put him into contact with David Martin.
(__) –Near the end of April, Karl headed to Winnipeg to pick up his son from CMU. He also picked up 50 of the signs. Len Rempel of Mennonite World Conference had traveled to Winnipeg from Ontario at the same time, and brought them from MCEC.
(__) –The signs were sold at FMC after church. The signs were also sold at the MCC Summerfest Relief Sale in Sherwood Park at the end of May.
(__)–Our family bought a sign and set it up on our front lawn, where the tree-planting worker observed its message of welcome in an increasingly divisive world. It’s a message made possible through the connections and relationships built among the larger church body.
(__) While structures may shift and change, our calling is clear as followers of Jesus. We are united in Christ by our calling to love God, and love our neighbor, whomever that neighbour may be, whether across the street or around the world. We are equipped with different skills and perspectives, which collectively allows us to respond to differing contexts and perspectives within our changing world. We are empowered to live out our calling by surrendering our lives to the Master Builder, who builds us as living stones into a dwelling place for God. In this way Christ’s followers are part of one living body, a body that extends beyond ourselves, beyond our local congregation, even beyond the world-wide church to all whose lives give witness to Christ’s coming Kingdom.
May it be so. Amen.
Focus Statement: The structures we use to be the church in today’s world should encourage and empower us to live out Christ’s command to love God and love our neighbours.