Sara Wenger Shenk is President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.
I experienced a measure of euphoria as I watched some 600 participants in Mennonite Church USA’s Future Church Summit mixing it up in real time discernment July 6–8. Three features of what draws us to the Mennonite Church moved right away to the top of the list:
- strong sense of community, caring and mutual connection
- centrality of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ
- being a peace church: living out faith through service and justice
And participants added many laments and hopes into the mix. The summit showed that our aspirations for what we want to be as a people are sky high, which may be why when we fall short, our disappointment is keen and we’re so hard on each other.
Mennonites have sometimes been perceived as a tribal people, revered for our strong sense of community. Much of our communal strength came from the very things we are mixing up in unsettling and yet invigorating ways: strong racial/ethnic identities, music preferences, decision-making processes, ethnic foods, family configurations, worship rituals, leadership choices, favorite schools, biblical interpretations. You name it.
Whether these are scrambled haphazardly or in Pentecost fashion, we’re struggling to find new ways to be community together. We don’t know whom we can trust or whether our most cherished convictions and practices will be honored. Some of us choose to highlight differences and decry “those others.” We seem prone to retribalize along new fault lines as traditionalists, progressives, conservatives, rural folk, urbanites, people of color, feminists, white men, Pink Mennos, biblicists, anarchists, evangelicals, environmentalists ….
Folksinger Carrie Newcomer wrote a song that I turn to from time to time when I’m not sure I can offer another day of institutional leadership in these roiling times: “You can do this hard thing. It’s not easy, I know. But I believe that it’s so. You can do this hard thing.”
Each morning, with candle, Scripture and prayer, my spirit rallies and I come to believe again that we can do this hard thing. Together. From all tribes and nations. Joyfully. Compassionately. Justly. Honestly. Authoritatively. Publicly. The biblical, historical, spiritual and experiential evidence is resounding. Just a few examples: the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and exilic resilience in Babylon, radical reformers like the Anabaptists, the Underground Railroad, the Catholic Worker movement, conscientious objectors, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite publishing and schools, including Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
Why am I confident we can do this hard thing? Because I sense a deep and profound turning. Failures and fractures, paralyzing pastoral and theological conflicts, and mounting financial and leadership challenges are breaking us open to the Holy Spirit. Many of us still fiercely hold on to our own sense of rightness, privilege and desire that our tribe control the agenda. But more and more of us are ready to confess our sins — and to meet each other at the foot of the cross. More of us are ready to love, listen to and learn what the Spirit is saying through those with whom we disagree and yet who are also joyfully following Jesus.
What are the hard things we can and must do to rebuild community and rally around shared mission? Here are actions that fire my resolve as a seminary president:
- Relearn our mother tongue, the early church’s and Anabaptists’ language of faithful resistance to empire. We easily speak the languages of politics, profession, sport, popular culture and the market but stutter with our native language of faith. To speak with true authority to the powers, we must immerse ourselves in Scripture, prayer, confession, Spirited worship and story.
- Repent for the ways we use the Bible to harm each other. Learn to listen together with dumbfounded fascination to the millennia of diverse voices testifying to the Word, and give thanks for how their witness to God’s wondrous ways in the world has provided and continues to provide light in difficult times.
- Bring a gentle, persistent hermeneutic of suspicion to decision-making circles made up primarily of privileged insiders who focus on rules and boundaries rather than the fruits of the Spirit. Look for Jesus primarily among those who suffer and those on the margins.
- Name with deep repentance the ways in which those of us from the dominant culture have benefited from the forced removal of Indigenous peoples, slavery and the marginalization of fellow human beings. Rejoice in the cultural vibrancy, passionate voices and wisdom diverse persons bring to our shared fellowship, worship and witness.
- Transparently acknowledge that harsh, punitive words and actions by many in the church have hindered the development of a theologically grounded sexual ethic and a congregational polity that adequately cares for all God’s children. Our failure has driven countless LGBTQ persons from the church and exacerbated their vulnerability to suicidal loneliness, bullying, abuse and loss of faith. This is unconscionable. We can and must do better.
- Re-embrace holistic evangelism that flows from such irrepressible love and loyalty to Jesus as Lord and Savior that we will witness personally and publicly to the power of the resurrection to transform spirit, mind and body.
- As transformed followers of Jesus, devote ourselves wholeheartedly to lead and plant congregations of praise committed to reconciling enemies, restoring the environment, reforming prisons, dismantling racism, healing trauma and addictions, welcoming neighbors and immigrants, living simply and pursuing economic justice.
Following Jesus has never been easy. We may be smaller as a people, but our potency will be greater. Our theology will sing and go deeper. With daring, creativity and the Spirit, we will confront the principalities and powers and witness to the beauty of Jesus Christ and the reign of God. We will sow seeds of compassion, joy, peace and justice. As followers of Jesus, united by shared mission, we will become more resilient and our cultural diversity more vibrant.
I can do this hard thing.
You can do this hard thing.
We can do these hard things, together.
We can do these hard things together with the power and joy of the Holy Spirit.