Engaging the Jesus Way

Are Anabaptists ready to rock and roll? Truly ready? We live in a time when the larger church is interested in articulating positions around peace, reconciliation, and simple living, among others. And that interest is driving people to check out Anabaptist-affiliated groups and churches.

But are the Russian and German cultural heritage pieces keeping people away? Is four-part singing keeping people from engaging at a deeper level? Is talk of Zwieback or Faspa keeping us from sharing the good news?

This past weekend I attended “Church and Post-Christian Culture: Christian Witness in the Way of Jesus,” a conference hosted by Missio Alliance that focused on the convergence of evangelical and Anabaptist thought and how we apply that theology to the concept of mission.

There were 10 excellent preachers on Friday, plus more speakers on Saturday, and a workshop each day as well. My mind is still churning with ideas, so what follows are a few of my takeaways and how they intersect with my work at MennoMedia.

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So many good conversations happened during this conference. Yes, there were a number of women present (including three of us from MennoMedia and Herald Press), but this photo from our booth doesn’t show any.

Cultural religious heritage

Greg Boyd, of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, encouraged Mennonites and other Anabaptists to stop putting so much weight into the cultural aspects of religion, such as four-part singing, and instead get ready to rock and roll in our churches. I don’t doubt for a moment that Greg is right. How do we make room in our churches to welcome newcomers? Music is certainly one part of what Mennonites need to work on to be more welcoming. So are potlucks, the weight given to certain last names, and more.

“As the rest of Christianity is discovering God’s peaceful kingdom, Anabaptists are trying to forget it.” Ouch. But again, Boyd is right. Many Anabaptist churches have tried to distance themselves from their historic peace position. And yet this is what is driving neo-Anabaptists to explore Anabaptism. From a publishing perspective, I know this is what others coming to Herald Press and MennoMedia are looking for and expect.

Kurt Willems, of the Pangea Communities in Seattle, spoke of his own Mennonite heritage and affirmed exactly what Boyd was saying earlier: Willems was a raised a cultural Mennonite but not an Anabaptist.

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Kurt Willems preaching about growing up culturally Mennonite but not Anabaptist.

He grew up with Mennonite foods, attended Mennonite schools, was part of a Mennonite family with all the right surnames, and yet he did not know the Anabaptist message of peace. He has a powerful story of being convicted about the gospel of peace not by other Mennonites but in attending an event where evangelical author Shane Claiborne spoke. Willems is now a church planter in Seattle and sharing the gospel of peace with those coming to the Pangea Communities.

Jesus-looking faith

A Jesus-looking faith does not mean complicity or following a stable leader without cost. A Jesus-looking faith is risky, willing to question what the Empire has taught. Over and over the speakers shared this message in different ways, and I believe people are hungry for books and resources that flesh out this message.

“Jesus wasn’t handing out tickets to heaven,” preached Brian Zahnd, founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. “He was re-founding the world … [Jesus] isn’t Lord-Elect; he’s Lord right now!”

We’ve often gotten that wrong, and thought of faith as forward-looking toward heaven rather than in the present tense.

Think, for example, of the story from Matthew 14 of Jesus walking on the water. In that story we often focus on Jesus pulling Peter from the water once he starts to sink—the act of Jesus “saving” Peter. But Meghan Good, pastor of Albany Mennonite Church, said that this emphasis causes us to miss an important point: “Most people think Jesus is the one who pulls us out of the lake, when in reality he’s the one calling us out onto it.” Good delivered a powerful sermon, with such excellent exegetical work around this story. To what is Jesus calling each of us?

Anton Flores-Maisonet is a full-time volunteer among immigrant populations in Georgia and co-founder of the Alterna Community. He shared the idea that Jesus is the “Good Coyote,” who provides safe crossing and knows how to make the outcast feel like the most important person in the room. His work among those without documentation is a powerful witness for what it means to have a Jesus-looking faith.

Time now for me to put these challenges into action, and to have conversations with possible writers to help bring these ideas into books and resources. What ideas here resonate with you? What ideas would you like to know more about in resource or book form?

9 thoughts on “Engaging the Jesus Way

  1. I would like to voice my respectful disagreement with Greg Boyd about the cultural aspects of Anabaptism. Even though I chose to leave my community, I am glad that the Amish culture is surviving (and thriving). And if they were to give up one cultural tradition at a time, at some point they would no longer be Amish.

    Who is to say there isn’t some value in singing in four-part harmony? Why is “rocking and rolling” in church better than honoring and perpetuating the rich traditions that have come down from our ancestors? It wasn’t rocking and rolling that our ancestors did in their prison cells to stay connected with one another… it was singing together from their separate cells, without any accompanying instruments — in their humble and austere way.

    Why is rocking and rolling more Jesus-centered than singing in four-part harmony? I don’t understand.

    And furthermore, what is the advantage of giving up the traditions? I am especially concerned about the long-time Anabaptist commitment to peace. Jesus taught us about love and peace, why not follow his example?

    Sometimes that good-old-time religion really is good enough for me.

    • There’s nothing actually wrong with traditional music.

      That counts for any form of worship in any church grouping – whether that’s unaccompanied 4 part harmony, hymns accompanied by an organ, choral forms, or any other tradition.

      Isn’t the issue that musical form is mainly a morally neutral aspect of culture (i.e. neither good nor bad, and potentially used for either good or bad) like beverages, or clothing styles, or languages, and as such allows for the creation of diverse styles historically and globally? When you visit other countries or cultures, all of these things are different, unfamiliar and fascinating.

      So, if we want people outside the church to join in following and worshipping Jesus, and people growing up within churches to feel that the music of their worship naturally reflects their contemporary tastes and personality, then the style of our music becomes an important issue in which we have to make conscious choices between morally neutral options.

      While older forms of music are completely fine and valid, and need to be preserved somewhere, if they end up sealing a church’s culture from the people living in the surrounding non-church culture, what we’ve done is make our historic church culture(s) into a barrier for the spread of the gospel, an issue in which we have put our preferences unlovingly above the needs of others, and at risk of becoming an idol.

      Thus preserving the old mustn’t be done at the expense of attracting current generations and cultures to the gospel of King Jesus.

      • This is a very rational argument. Can the Anabaptist commitment to peace be rationalized out of existence in the same way? And if so, aren’t we missing the essence of what Jesus taught?

        Where do you suggest the older forms of music should be preserved, if not in practice?

        What about the people who are drawn to the Anabaptist churches through the traditions that have been preserved… might those people become disillusioned? Otherwise, joining a Mennonite church will be no different than joining any other evangelical Christian church.

        I’m not understanding how the traditions get in the way of spreading the gospel.

        There is an interesting use of words in your phrase: “an issue in which we have put our preferences unlovingly above the needs of others, and at risk of becoming an idol.” Why is it our “preferences” and the “needs” of others”? If we are talking about music preferences, then it seems it should be the “preferences” of others.

        • Great questions about rationalizing, Saloma. I do think that reason can allow to rationalize just about anything, but we always need to ask ourselves what we are using as the plumb line or rule. To what rule are we holding our traditions accountable? Are we holding them accountable to the authority of the pastor? The bishop? Or are we holding them accountable to Scripture? To Jesus? I am catching up here on responses, and I just responded to Carrie saying I don’t think we should “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I don’t think Greg Boyd was saying we should all stop singing in four-part harmony. I interpreted his remarks, and those of other speakers, as a warning against Mennonites becoming too legalistic in our faith. Is our faith about wearing the “right” kind of covering or cape dress, for example, or is it about following Jesus? We certainly all express our faith in different ways and forms, and should make room for those expressions. The caution for all of us is simply that when we become too legalistic with any aspect of what it means to follow Jesus, then we aren’t really following Jesus.

      • Thanks for weighing in, Jez. I think your last line nails it: we must not hold up aspects of our faith out of a kind of legalism rather than being willing to follow Jesus. Part of what the early Anabaptists were rejecting about the church-state authority was because of this kind of legalism that the early Anabaptists believed kept them from faithfully following Jesus.

  2. I would love to see resources for youth around these ideas! As a lay leader with our youth, these are the messages we need to challenge our kids with. It’s time to get out of the boat and into the water with Jesus.

  3. In many ways I agree with much of what is often spoken of regarding Russian or Swiss Mennonite culture. It certainly can create an exclusive environment. Yet at the same time I’m quite aware that many have begun to attend our church (most in the under 35 age group) who very much value the historical depth and tradition that we have in our music and potlucks are a huge part of what draws us together as a community (of not only ethnic Mennonites). I wonder if perhaps what we are called to is openness and awareness to what makes those in our communities feel welcome. Perhaps in some contexts that means a thriving four part harmony, but in others something completely different.

    • Absolutely, Carrie. I don’t think it’s a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” kind of response here. I didn’t write about what Bruxy Cavey said, but he was warning us against becoming too legalistic in our faith. And if we become too legalistic with any aspect of what it means to follow Jesus, then we aren’t really following Jesus. So yes, I agree that it’s openness and awareness we need.

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