I came to the Anabaptists (or what theologian James McClendon refers to as “baptist,” with a little “b”) through quite the convoluted personal journey. I was raised in a largely non-religious household and family, but grew up going to a United Methodist church almost every Sunday in my small Ozark hometown. My great-grandfather had been a Methodist preacher for most of his life, but none of the rest of my family were adamant churchgoers, and we didn’t talk about religion much. During my time as a youth in the Methodist church, I was swept up into that neo-Evangelical movement of Christian worshipers who proclaimedthat what we really needed to do was get rid of all that ol’ tradition stuff (which shocked the members of that little high liturgical church) and replace it with music that you could really feel, music that you could groove to. I was into bands like Jars of Clay, Third Day, and David Crowder. I became a walking, talking billboard for “hip” Christianity, with my edgy t-shirts and saying “I know that’s right” instead of “amen,” and calling God “Daddy” or “Papa,” instead of “Father” (or even just “God”) because I picked it up from some youth pastor who I thought was cool. And then I became a youth pastor myself, at the ripe old age of 19. It was one of the most difficult jobs I’ve ever held in my life. After several years of struggling bitterly with the church bureaucracy as a youth minister, I was finally laid off (along with the children’s minister and the music minister) during the financial collapse in 2008. Immediately following, I visited Methodist churchafter Methodist church, and typically found that I was either unwelcome there, or I saw through the shiny veneer and was too disgusted by it to stay for too long. I became horridly cynical, anti-bureaucratic, anti-Church Christian, and preferred the company of those who sought to subvert the Church by “creating a new society in the shell of the old,” as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin once put it. I felt severed from my roots, unwanted by the very church that I had spent my entire life up to that point building an identity with.
Since then, I have spent time attending Cooperative and American Baptist churches, Episcopal churches, led worship regularly for a Wesleyan church, and eventually even made my way into a Quaker meeting. I’ve swung from high liturgy to contemporary worship to no liturgy and no worship.
My choice to become a Mennonite was admittedly borne less from a love affair with the theology and more of a matter of community and practicality. When my wife Alyssa and I moved into the Kansas City, Kansas, area last year, our current church was the closest church to us. We hadn’t been committed members of any particular church since we got married (the last church I was a member of—aside from my default membership at the Methodist church I worked for—was my home church), and we were really just ready to find a community that we could embrace, and one that would embrace us, as well. Aside from getting to have a really cool beard, though, I am currently growing into the theology. I had read some Yoder and Hauerwas in college, but now I’m beginning to pile it on higher and thicker as I become more fully acquainted with the tradition.
As a Mennonite, I can appreciate the icons, high liturgy, “smells and bells,” and the rich shared history carried on today by the Roman church, as well as the personal religious freedom touted by the Evangelical movement. But the Mennonites (at least, those at my church and those I have recently met from other similar churches) offer that appealing “third way” that is neither this nor that, but instead the quiet grace of the middle—my friend Leroy refers to it as the “radiant center.” This attitude is the historical Mennonite approach—while Luther and Calvin and Zwingli were throwing their (sometimes violent) theological tantrums in Germany, France, and Switzerland, Menno Simons—a Roman Catholic priest—was quietly struggling with the Church’s practice of infant baptism and the doctrine of the “real presence” in the Eucharist. In Simons, I saw something of my own need to quietly wrestle with the Church without washing my hands of it altogether. This Mennonite commitment to the eternal peaceful struggle has appealed to me more than any other faith tradition—just read the story of Dirk Willems to get the picture of what drew me in.
When it comes right down to it, the reason I have chosen to self-identify as a Mennonite is because 1) I am deeply convinced that the peace tradition of the Anabaptists most resembles the Reign of God of any church I have ever attended, and 2) I just love the community. At many churches, you can slip in the door, be a face in the crowd, listen to the pastor/priest affirm what you already believe, and return home without being challenged or experiencing growth. At other churches, a person can speak their mind and create a disagreement in the church that ultimately destroys the community (I’ve seen it happen). With the Mennonites, there is room for disagreement, there is a theology of nonviolence, and there is community of worship—I couldn’t ask for more.