Alexandra the Great's Private Papers

August 13, 2007

Outnumbered 400 to 1

Filed under: Mennonites — Alexandra The Great @ 8:42 pm

Yesterday was the annual pulpit exchange, meant, I suppose, to encourage healthy relationships between the town’s churches.  Our small parish attendance, which mysteriously becomes even smaller during the summer months, was especially small yesterday.  The timing of this pulpit exchange coincided with our youth group’s camping trip which meant that not only were all the kids from seventh grade up gone, but so were the three families whose grown-ups made the effort of orgainizing the affair.  The timing, if planned this way (it was not), would have been meant to unimpress. 

The visiting pastor, a kind and glowing man, was from the other side of town as well as the other side of the ecclesial world.  He pastors the large Mennonite Brethren  church in town which is the closest thing our small town has to a mega-church.  Now, the differences in theology, practice, worship, culture, ecclesiology, and history between the the Mennonites and the Episcopalians are well known to all.  To all, that is, who know what an Episcopalian is.  It seems that the acre of Christendom in which my parish is planted is dominated by Mennonites.  There are others, of course, such as Anglicans, but we’re such a minute concern, the majority neither looks twice nor gives us a second thought.  I had to wonder just what this kindly Mennonite pastor thought of us with our liturgical ways and meager attendance, accustomed as he is to preaching to a thousand or two on any given Sunday. 

Now, given that one cannot live in my acre and not know a Mennonite, I have to say that some of my very best friends in the world are from this bunch and I’ve learned some things about them, and on the whole, they fit into the category commonly called, “The good guys.”   

The first thing that one learns about Mennonites is that they are a clannish people.  Anybody who is familiar with the town Hobbiton in The Lord of the Rings and the intertwining relationships of its inhabitants (everybody is related to everybody else) might wonder if the Bagginses and Tooks are really descendents of Menno Simons.  For centuries now the Mennonites have stuck together.  It seems that religious persecution has a way of forging a strong sense of community and along with their clannishness comes a strong sense of identity.  A Mennonite does not just go to a Mennonite church.  He is a Mennonite, as are all his kin alive and dead going back to his great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather whose name he can tell you as well as a bit about him.

I used to not think much this clannish attitude.  A clan is a hard thing to break into after all if one wants to convert to their way.  But of late I have pondered the condition of the church over all, the protestant church that is, as well as the culture of the world this church must face.  Our world is rapidly changing and I’m not talking about politics or technology.  Our world is rapidly changing its clothes, its shoes, its job, its spouse, its neighborhood, and even its church.  It seems that much of evangelicalism has been infected with the attitudes of the surrounding culture.  With the rise of anti-denominationalism we see the increase of community churches with their gymnasium style worship centers.  These churches are typically faster growing than traditional churches and reach their city in far more imaginative and “cutting-edge” ways than the churches of our fathers and grandfathers do.

Whatever gains the modern ways are making for the kingdom, something of worth has been lost to the modern church.  I think the one word that sums it up is “loyalty.”  It used to be that an Episcopalian always had been and always would be an Episcopalian.  It used to be that a Baptist served the Lord in the same church his father and grandfather did and could expect that his son and grandson would do the same.  But that was before we had so many choices.  That was before the cultural shift from stability to mobility.  When this happened exactly I cannot say, but it has carried over into the life of the church and we have a generation of young Christians who don’t seem to have a strong sense of identity.  If they grew up in church, they probably floated with their family from one church to the next looking for some kind of fruit without bothering to first grow roots.

I think we can learn something from the Mennonites (and the died-in-the-wool Episcopalians too) about faithfulness, community and identity.  Without those things, how can we pass on a spiritual heritage to our children, or form them to stand against the wind like a tree, since without them we ourselves blow here and there like leaves?  I hope the Mennonites can continue as they are, even if they do outnumber us 400 to 1, just as I hope it’s true that there are some things that just never change.

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