I watched this talk (see below) by Greg Boyd titled “From Baptist to Anabaptist” with great interest. He converted to Christianity through the Oneness Pentecostal movement (as did I). He transitioned into a Baptistic form of American Evangelicalism (as did I). He finds himself engaging with Anabaptists now (as do I).
Much of what he said resonated with me. I haven’t come to the point where I feel comfortable identifying as Anabaptist (even more so, Mennonite) because in some sense it feels as much like engaging a new culture or ethnic group as it does engaging a new denomination or branch of Christianity, i.e., it is hard to adopt an identity that is perceived to be something earned by birthright. (In many ways I remain far more comfortable discussing Christian theology with Pentecostals and evangelicals.) While I have come to appreciate much of what the Anabaptist tradition has to offer I was particularly taken by Boyd’s observation that Anabaptists (as whole, not every local Church, per se) have become accustom to being marginalized and therefore to being cautious of outsiders. Now that many people are beginning to investigate the Anabaptist tradition in light of the perceived collapse of Christendom in Europe and North America it seems as if many Anabaptist communities are not quite sure what to do with this attention.
I think as an E/evangelical exploring Anabaptism Boyd says some important things and he does a fine job of framing the challenge faced by Anabaptist as regards opening their arms and embracing some of the change that will come with welcoming those who are not born and raised Anabaptist. There are those who have been exploring this somewhat foreign tradition, and while we find much to affirm, we are still a bit unsure of some things (he jokes that he thought Anabaptists/Mennonites were “liberal Amish,” which incidentally was my perception as well). If you get a chance to watch it let me know your thoughts. If you have come to embrace an Anabaptist tradition or you’re exploring Anabaptism I’d like to hear your story. Here is Boyd’s talk:
(FWIW, I appreciate that the local Church that hosted this event has aimed to find a way to remain distinctly Anabaptist while also embracing the catholicity of the Church. I admit that one of my great concerns with Anabaptism is sectarianism. I don’t mind a group living by their convictions. I do care to see some humility as regards the work of the Spirit across denominational lines. This was part of my disgust with Oneness Pentecostals: they claimed to be the only true form of Christianity. I can’t buy that. I have very loose allegiance to any particular group because many stripes of Christianity—be it Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, the Methodists, the Baptists—each of these groups emphasize something with which I agree or something I find valuable and worth considering. When one group declares a monopoly on the Gospel (whether by word or deed) it worries me deeply because my own experience has been that the Spirit is working among all these communities and beyond these communities.)
This was an excellent sermon/talk. I grew up United Methodist, and over the course of the last five years found myself identifying with a wide array of traditions—Wesleyan, Episcopalian, three different kinds of Baptist, and even Quaker. But upon attending a Mennonite church, I was immediately overwhelmed with the sense that I was “home,” theologically, socially, and ethically speaking.
I only have two main critiques of the Mennonite church, and I assume these issues are present in the wider Anabaptist tradition, as well: 1) As you briefly touched on in your post, there is a definite bias toward “ethnic Mennonites” as opposed to us mongrel converts, although I have never been anything but welcomed and accepted at my particular church. 2) In my particular church, we often favor social liberalism over strenuous theological or intellectual reflection. I have been frustrated a lot recently with our church’s preference of Sunday morning “book studies” and “novel readings” rather than Bible studies and theological discussions. Because of our historical commitment to nonviolence and social justice, I find that Sunday school far more often than not engages nonfiction journalistic texts about race and incarceration in the U.S. rather than studies in cruciform hermeneutics. However, this may not be universal in the Mennonite church, let alone Anabaptism, and perhaps this is all just one Bible student calling the grapes sour because my Sunday school class doesn’t like to talk about the same things I like to talk about.
That being said, I never wanted to officially “join” a church until I began identifying as a Mennonite. I’m at home now, and regardless of my criticisms, I feel committed to my new identity.
Indeed, there has been a lot to affirm. Thus far my three concerns these: (1) Though our Church, like yours, emphasizes a sort of social liberalism that I appreciate, it can be an extremely narrow “Anglo-activism” if you know what I mean. In other words, we talk about helping the oppressed, and most people in our Church do so, but then there is confusion as to why a Church in downtown San Antonio seems unable to attract Latinos. In part, it is the Mennonite “liturgy” if you will that doesn’t resonate with many people outside the tradition. As I said, I came into Christianity via Pentecostalism, and though I don’t need a full choir and a band, I do find myself wondering if we can at least add a guitar and maybe sing one or two Hillsong songs just to mix it up a bit!
(2) Back to the social liberalism, we might be labeled “middle class Episcopalians” if you will. There is more of a commitment to some of the core doctrines like the resurrection, incarnation, and such—things Episcopalians seem to be setting aside as important—but our Church does book studies as well rather than engaging all that much with the theology of the Church catholic or even Scripture as we ought. This year the MC (USA) is having a “Year of the Bible” and maybe it is the evangelical in me but I thought, “What the hell is that? What do we do the other years?”
(3) Finally, yes, I think “ethnic Mennonites” remain unsure of those of us who are suddenly showing up in their worship gatherings. There seems to be some fear that we’re going to want to change the name to something more marketable (which is why I can see how many Mennonites are unsure of how to engage Boyd and his megachurch), spice up the music, use technology, and all the things white evangelicals do. That said, going back to my (1), there reaction against white evangelicalism often is an accidental denial of other peoples who may not be white evangelical but who don’t resonate with some of the aesthetics of Mennonite worship if you will.
Brian wrote “ I have very loose allegiance to any particular group because many stripes of Christianity—be it Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, the Methodists, the Baptists—each of these groups emphasize something with which I agree or something I find valuable and worth considering.”
@Brian, I could not agree more! I can find many things about most Christian denomination admirable and true. About declaring a monopoly on the gospel, I try to be objective, which means as critical as complimentary. Since every denomination has picked up some facet of the faith Jesus taught and therefore worthy of praise, it’s reasonable to suggest that each denomination has also missed other elements (or all denominations would look exactly the same). Accordingly there should be no harm in applying as much critique as praise (in the name of objectivity).
With that said – I find ‘labels unfortunate. The nice thing about ‘no labels’ is that it is liberating. Our consciences have no labels so I see no reason to be bound by them. When the Messiah returns it will not be based upon our labels that we are saved or not but upon our faith in his redemption and the strength of our obedience to his sovereignty.
I attend one of the regional sites of The Meeting House, the church that hosted this series kicked off with Greg and just finished up. Particularly the first time they did that series, focusing more on theological diversity (this time more on ethnic diversity), was a huge help to me as I found myself firmly in the Anabaptist camp but not wanting to disregard the many great things about other traditions.
My story is a bit like a less dramatic version of Greg’s, and a large number of people at The Meeting House are similar. I grew up in a church that while in Canada’s most liberal denomination – aside from Unitarian Universalists if you still put them in the realm of Christian – was very evangelical and conservative. I went from there to a moderate Baptist (Canadian Baptist) while in university, back to a liberal United Church of Canada for a couple of years during my Master’s around the same time that I became comfortable calling myself a (neo-)Anabaptist. Like Greg, during the time in a Baptist Church I could agree with the bulk of it theologically but had a hard time with certain attitudes. That came largely through encountering The Meeting House teaching and realizing that Anabaptism was about radical discipleship – an idea given lip service in my Baptist circles (interestingly, my pastor from that church is not pastoring a Mennonite Brethren church) – rather than being separatists who hated their country.
Ideally, yes, I’d like to live in a no label world as well. Inevitably though even the lack of a label gains the label “non-denominational,” which has its own stereotypes as far as being kind of “Lone Ranger-ish” and elitist. Independent Churches can be seen as having the same arrogance as denominations. While denominations consist of groups of Churches that think they’ve got it right, or at least closer to right, independent Churches seem to think they are so correct that they have to go at it by themselves. This is an overgeneralization, and I’ve been part of independent Churches that I appreciated greatly, but my experience was that we remain alone, isolated, and our fellowship with others was often hindered rather than enhanced by our decision to be an island to ourselves.
Brian, I really appreciate this article in its questioning posture. Very helpful to see someone who has an obvious appreciation for Anabaptism wrestling with the particularities of its expression. The comment by Joshua Paul Smith was also very helpful, his 2 critiques are absolutely valid and can’t be overlooked.
Your question is fantastic, “The Mennonite Church (USA) and other Anabaptist groups are receiving more attention these days, but do they know how to handle it?”
This is the very question I find myself living into in Houston. It needs to be asked, answered, and asked again in so very many contexts right now! The insistence that everyone with slight connections to anabaptism label themselves “Mennonite” will continue to bring heartache to sojourners like yourself and ruin to our church/es.
There is enough interest in Houston that I’ve started, with others, to explore and dream about creating an alternative gathering space for Anabaptists that is outside the Mennonite system. I’d love your thoughts on:
* What will be the primary roadblocks in pulling something like that off.
* What should we do when we get together (theologizing, book study, faith formation, worship, table fellowship, mission, etc…)
* What’s the draw for others like yourself who might be “not-quite-Anabaptist worshipping with Mennonites exploring Anabaptism” ? What would excite and engage this crowd of folks turning towards Anabaptism?
Again, thanks Brian.
My journey is similar to yours Brian (and Boyd’s). I came to faith through Pentecostalism, but it was trinitarian. Then I spent a time exploring Presbyterianism. (That part is a little different from you) But Boyd went to Princeton where he recounts in other talks a season when he was immersed in Calvinism and had to reckon with the Reformed tradition. And after that I attended, and fellowshipped, with several types of Baptist churches. I’ve since, like you and Boyd, begun to identify with many Anabaptist convictions. I like to consider myself a “naked Anabaptist” the way Stewart Murray describes that phenomenon in his book by that title.
As we’ve begun planting a new congregation in Boston, several churches have been influential to our ecclesiastical approach. Some of those you’re probably familiar with: Renovatus Church (Jonathan Martin), Word of Life (Brian Zahnd), Sanctuary Church (Efrem Smith), Mercy Church (Shel Boese), and Eucharist Church (Ryan Jones). Each have a combination of traditions working together to form a really beautiful expression of unity in diversity. I like how Eucharist Church describes their approach: “Sacramental at the altar, Evangelical in the pulpit, Charismatic in the pew, and Anabaptist in the street.”
Thought you might identify with that 🙂
I do appreciate the message of radical discipleship. I will say that many of the Mennonites with whom I worship are far more dedicated to the day-to-day social implications of the Gospel. They do great work among the poor and marginalized. Their is concern for being ecologically sustainable which signifies a commitment not only to caring for creation, but to simplicity and moderation as well—both virtues. Where I struggle as someone who has a deep interest in early Christianity and a historical-critical, yet faithfully engaged reading of Scripture is that these things are sidelined. I think in an effort to avoid the dangers of biblicism or being doctrinaire there is such an emphasis on “practice” that I often don’t know how to connect it to the “big story.” For someone who is not an ethnic Mennonite the “big story” for me has little to do with Menno Simmons and the Anabaptist struggle. I want to know how the Anabaptist worldview connects to the vision and mission of incipient Christianity. I feel a bit alone in this desire.
Let me see if I can suggest some things:
(1) I think the primary road block might be familiarity. I would not have gone to San Antonio Mennonite if I had not been connected to someone through a mutual friend. I’ve done to graduate degrees in seminary, but my understanding of Anabaptists and Mennonites was stereotypical and ignorant as I noted in the post. Also, our website is terrible. Once my wife and I visited we found ourselves quite comfortable there (mostly, I’ve noted some concerns in the comments section), so we stayed. I know this is cliché, but Anabaptist concepts were delivered to me through the writings of Stanley Hauerwas first. He mentioned J.H. Yoder a lot, so I got the idea that he was influenced by a Mennonite, and I liked what I was reading, but I didn’t imagine that I’d connect with Mennonites anymore than I’d connect with Quakers or the Amish—both groups whose actions are praiseworthy at points. So, I said all that to say this: as annoying as evangelicalism’s marketing might be to us the Anabaptist have an equal yet opposite problem: no marketing. No one knows they exist!
(2) Though I imagine a local, forming community would have to decide these things for themselves I do think the “liturgy” of the Mennonites can be broadened a bit. In some of the above comments I noted how hard it has been for me to get with the worship which is often old, old songs with lots of meaning for Mennonites, but lacking meaning for me. They don’t have to abandon their traditions, or evangelicalize, but maybe a few modern songs, a guitar? Our Church is in downtown San Antonio and we attract almost no Latinos. I am married to a Latina and I can tell you that though this is a bit of a stereotype there is something true to the observation that Latinos may not find much resonance with a bunch of middle aged white people singing acapella. So there needs to be a willingness to be Anabaptist while at the same time being flexible enough to allow the local community to contribute to the Church’s identity.
Also, I am not Catholic or Orthodox, but I find eucharist/communion to be so meaningful. We do it once a month. I wish we did it once a week. Nothing brings me toward unity like the reminder that I am part of a community because Christ died to bring us together—not because I need a social club on Sunday morning.
Finally, yes, engagement with the theology of the Church catholic. Anabaptists should be able to read everyone from Augustine to James Cone, I think! Also, we need to be willing to engage Scripture more, a lot more.
(3) What excited my wife and I was the following. There was a conscious effort to separate the God of Christianity from the national deity. I don’t care if someone is patriotic, but I do care if they make God the exclusive property of the United States. Anabaptism does a fine job of reminding people that God is the God over all the nations. Also, in a world of violence, sexism, and classism Anabaptism has the opportunity to offer radical peace initiatives and egalitarianism, inviting all to be involved and reconciled, which is needed. I think Anabaptists do a great job of living in community, something Evangelicals are just now trying to explore after the demise of the megachurch trend (not the megachurch per se, but the trend where ever pastor wants to pastor a megachurch). Anabaptist are unified and they do care for each other (which may be the result of not being overly doctrinaire or embracing aggressive biblicism). The hermeneutical emphasis on reading the Bible Christologically is attractive too. Those are the things that come to the forefront of my mind.
I love that final line. Yes and amen to it. I am familiar with Martin, Zahnd, and Smith. If I lived near Martin’s Church I’d be happy to re-identify with some form of Pentecostalism since they exhibit the type of Pentecostalism I dreamed of when I was younger. In some sense my former Church in San Francisco (Lighthouse) reminds me a bit of Renovatus. I miss that group, but I am interested in exploring either what it might mean to be Anabaptist with some Pentecostal flavoring (since though I have long abandoned the Pentecostalism of my youth I have not abandoned a strong Pneumatology).
@Brian A fair critique on the overemphasis on social action sometimes resulting in missing out on the big story. Reading N.T. Wright has greatly helped tie the two together for me. The Meeting House used to be more like that – sermon series covered a range of tough topics and its Anabaptist affiliation didn’t come up very often – but has really moved toward a simplified practical emphasis in the past year or two. I’m ok with that simple practical emphasis as long as that isn’t all there is to it. That’s where reading more like N.T. Wright, Greg Boyd, and Brian McLaren – to name a few of my bigger influences – along with studying a lot of church history in seminary, have helped to go deeper.
Indeed, it doesn’t need to be like a graduate level seminar, but there does need to be more balance. I understand that for some a simple, practical sermon is best. For others though there needs to be a bit more directed as the life of the mind. I hope we strike a balance. We’ve got some very bright people in our congregation, and our pastor is a strong theological thinker, but I think this may be another example of avoiding being “too evangelical.”
Brian, excellent conversation here. I’m going to be posting on it later today (later this morning for you all) as well. I can relate to both Greg and your assessments. I had no qualms calling myself an Anabaptist until I encountered the Schleitheim “confession” purists and then the points you made about ethnic Mennonites made sense. The two sort of converged into this type of clarity where I realized I was probably NeoAnabaptist.
I had worried that the label “Neo-Anabaptist” was going to become as annoying as “Neo-Reformed” (i.e., neither “neo-” nor “Reformed,” but rather some sort of pop-Fundamentalism) with “Neo-Anabaptist” becoming the E/emerging C/church redux. That said, there is something to the critique that lest one is born Anabaptist it is hard to be a real Anabaptist, so many the clarification is necessary. I know many of the Missio Alliance crew (http://www.missioalliance.org/) call themselves “Neo-Anabaptist” like Scot McKnight (kind of, since I think he is now Anglican as well), David Fitch, Geoff Holsclaw, and others.
As I said in this post: the Anabaptist tradition appears to have something to offer European and North American Christians now that Christendom has collapsed around us, but I’m not sure that traditional Anabaptists know how to welcome these pilgrims without demanding total conformity, even in aesthetic matters. We’ll see.
Jeez. I step away from the conversation for just a few hours and look what happens! Sorry I’m just now getting around to responding to your response, Brian, but it sounds like your experience with your church very closely resembles my experience with mine. We have a congregation of about 150-200 in a pretty blue-collar neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas. There is a highly concentrated Latino and black population round these parts. And yet we are 99.9% white and middle-to-upper-class (although I would exclude my wife and myself from that—we’re definitely on the lower end of the middle-class). Most of our congregation commutes between 10-30 miles for Sunday worship.
We do a pretty good job working with the neighborhood (the local neighborhood association is actually based out of an office in our church, I believe), and yet there are very, very few who live in the neighborhood and attend our church.
We have a kind of “comfortable liturgy” that is reminiscent of my experience growing up in a liturgical small-town United Methodist church. It’s not smells-and-bells and pomp-and-circumstance, but it’s not “anything goes” worship, either. There is order. There are responsive readings (although some of them are a bit too hippy-dippy for me).
So I guess I’m really just more attracted to the radical Anabaptist theology than I am to the church itself (although, don’t get me wrong, I love the community here dearly). I’m drawn to James McClendon, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, etc.
If only there was a way to put such radical theology into normative practice. It’s for this very reason that I have considered planting a Mennonite church myself—something that I never in a million years would have thought I would ever want to do.
Our communities sound so very much alike. We are smaller. I’d say we range from 50-60 during Sunday gatherings. We don’t have smells-and-bells liturgy, but as you said there is order, and yes, sometimes we sing songs and do responsive reading that make no sense to me (“hippy-dippy” is a great way of putting it).
Our building sits near one of the most affluent neighborhoods, but it is near downtown as well, and there are many predominately Latino parts of town nearby but little indication that they know we exist. We have a Spanish language Mennonite Church that shares a building with us, but they are quite small, and to be honest, San Antonio has many, many third, fourth, and fifth generation Chicanos whose language is primarily English, so a Spanish language group isn’t their niche anymore than it is mine (for example, my wife is a Chicana with deep roots in the United States and she doesn’t speak very good Spanish through she can understand what we might call “ecclesial Spanish” pretty well).
As with you I like (1) our local community more than the “Mennonite” aspect of it, per se, and (2) much of what the Anabaptist tradition has to offer, though as I’ve said ethnic Mennonites or those who are essentially cultural Mennonites—while warm, friendly people—don’t make a lot of sense to me in many ways as someone coming from a predominately America E/evangelical background and Pentecostalism before that (which by the way is the quickest growing expression of Christianity globally and has had much success amongst Latinos).
Is it because Anabaptist don’t even “think” that anybody else would even be remotely interested in joining their church.
I think there is a growing interest in Anabaptism now. In the past the Anabaptist message was taboo, especially for the post-WWII generation, but now as Christianity in North America faces the aftermath of The Religious Right, two Iraq Wars, the War in Afghanistan, and now we sit ready to strike Syria, many people want to know if there is a tradition that embraces a prophetic stance in the world that has some roots. Anabaptism offers that very thing.
I am from the Anabaptist background, but neither Mennonite nor Amish. I have a friend that has recently asked to join our community. I was surprised at the interest he has shown in wanting to be an Anabaptist, I must say. I was also pleasantly surprised to stumble onto this blog. I have to thank the peace pastor for it. I’m very interested in what will aspire on this blog. Thanks for addressing this issue. Have a blessed day.
I’m not certain that it has to be a pedigree. After all, the original Anabaptists were not “born” into it, but they did of course choose to be re-baptized as they saw that as embodying what it meant to be discipled into Jesus. That being said, I think the pedigree didn’t come until later, when the Mennonites and other groups were engaged in the flight/separate/colonize cycle.
There are a few of us who are trying to define ourselves before others do.
If it’s of any interest, my family identifies itself as anabaptist pentecostal.
We do have a blog.
Praying Yeshua blesses you
Michael and Elizabeth
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