Through the amazing world of Twitter, I started a conversation across a couple of boundaries yesterday that yielded some interesting fruit. And it’s rather interesting that this conversation took place on Menno Simons Day, January 31st, which marks the date of this man’s death. Why is this interesting? Because through that conversation, I caught a glimpse (albeit limited to 140 characters at a time), of a rather broad spectrum of folks who trace their theological roots back to this one man.
If you listen to the different Mennonite denominations that are out there (and yes, there are more than one), you might get a rather vague impression that there is only one true “Mennonite” denomination and the others are all pretenders. Not that this is explicitly stated, but you see, I grew up pretty much in Mennonite Church USA and it’s prior incarnation before the merger of the MC and GC in the late 90′s and I quite honestly didn’t hear much about other Mennonite groups except for the “strange” ones like the Amish and the other more “plain” folks (and those are those weirdo outliers who, obviously, are too stuck in their ways to see the truth… please note, this is sarcasm… I misplaced my sarcasm font, though). But it turns out that there are other groups in the US who revere the writings and teachings of Menno Simons (and the other Anabaptists of the 16th century) and so take their name from this man. Who knew, right?
As it is, the two groups that were part of yesterday’s Twitter conversation were Mennonite Church USA and the US Mennonite Brethren. It started with a question by myself to Justin Hiebert where I asked “So, what is the difference between MCUSA and USMB”? And you know what I found?
Not a whole lot.
You see, they both follow Anabaptist teachings, they both trace their roots to Menno Simons, they both have a very Anabaptist view of scripture and the mission of God. So, really, they aren’t that much different… except for one thing: emphasis.
Generally speaking, MCUSA as a denomination has a strong emphasis on service and community and of peace and non-resistance as a way of life and has a tendency to downplay evangelism. USMB has a strong emphasis on piety, morality, and evangelizing in their communities but they don’t tend to teach or emphasize the peace perspective and how that plays out in community. Both are good, Biblical, Anabaptist ideas of what it means to be a follower of Christ. But it’s amazing how these two groups with similar roots can end up with these two rather different views. In fact, if you think about it, this is actually they way the Christian church in the US has basically divided itself. On one side, we have folks who are about social justice, peaceful living, and serving the poor and needy, emphasizing a social gospel. Some might call these “liberal” churches. On the other side, we have folks who are about bringing people to Christ, converting the lost, and saving souls. Some might call these “conservative” churches. And we, as Mennonites, have the same split.
Now, again, I’ll give the same disclaimer I gave the other day that these categorizations and generalizations of the two bodies of Mennonites do not give witness to a broad spectrum of representation within the two groups. For example, within MCUSA, I know, personally, of two congregations who, within the same denominational body, have these two different views. One focuses primarily on social justice issues, one focuses on evangelism. So, put down your torches and pitchforks…I’m well aware of the nuances.
I’m going to brag for a second on my own home congregation, New Eden Fellowship. You see, you cannot get involved in that congregation and say that they don’t have a heart for saving souls. There are numerous people within that church who have been “rescued” out of a life lost to the power of sin who have found the true freedom that is in Jesus and in following him. Just listen to Franklin some Sunday morning and you know that evangelism is part of the church.
But then listen to the other stories of that congregation and you hear stories of people spending time reaching the lost youth in our community, ministering to men and women trapped in the prison system, feeding the poor in the community, spending time with drug addicts and people battling depression, etc. Social justice is certainly an important part of that congregation. Everyone feels the need that their life in Christ is not just a personal lifeboat. They realize they are saved to actually be God’s Kingdom.
For whatever reason, within the Christian church in the USA (played out in the microcosm of the Mennonite denominations), there is this dichotomy between serving and evangelizing. Perhaps it is the same in other countries, I don’t know. But the church is certainly split in two on these topics. We talked about this in Sunday School the other morning using a video series from BlueFish TV called “No Plan B” where the history of this split is discussed. It’s sad, really, how the church has divided over this issue, especially since there is no apparent division on this in the Bible.
I have talked about this frequently here on my blog, about how we need to be both about teaching who Jesus is and how faith in him is vital to salvation as well as how a biblical faith must be played out in working within our communities to serve the lost, poor, and needy around us. The church, as Todd Philips put it, is God’s “Plan A” for the world… there is no “Plan B”. And it is this church based on Jesus, not on some sense of “being good people”, that is to bring about hope for the world. A hope in being able to change lives and rescue souls as well as a hope to be able to feed the poor, give sight to the blind, and free the oppressed prisoners. This is what “missional” is about. God’s mission is a holistic mission interested in the body, mind, and soul of every human being on this planet and we as followers of Jesus are on that mission.
To this end, I would like to put in a plug here for an event that I think is important to this conversation. I am not sure I’ll be able to make it for various reasons but the conversation is starting in the greater Christian church in the USA as to what we need to do, as followers of Christ, in the new mission field of North America. Coming up in April, there is a conference in Virginia sponsored by Missio Alliance called “The Future of the Gospel”. A number of the people involved are big name folks in theology and mission, but they all have a heart for being this holistic witness of Christ, focused not just on the soul and not just on the body, but on the entirety of the human experience.
Personally, I’d like to see more Mennonites involved in things like this. With our Anabaptist roots, our history of living on the fringes of the mainstream, our witness of what it means to live a life following Christ in all areas of our lives, we have an opportunity here to bring our heritage into the conversation and add our flavors to the whole. But we also need this for ourselves. We are split within our own Mennonite denominations, within our own congregations even, between these two seeming opposite poles. We need the healing that can come from these sorts of conversations as much as they need us to bring our own ideas to help heal others.
So, to answer the question at the title of this blog: No, we can’t. We need to serve the communities around us, living out the very real heart for the poor and lost demonstrated not just through Jesus but through the entire story of God. And we need to, in the process, show people how to connect to God, through Jesus, so that they two can find this same freedom to act, freedom to live, and freedom to serve that we enjoy. James said in his letter that faith without deeds is dead. I think other places in Scripture would affirm also that deeds without faith are equally dead. We need them both, building off each other, to truly be the embodiment of God’s Kingdom.