In a fast-changing world, a slow-moving church will get left behind. But a church that doesn’t fear change has a chance to thrive.
Reviewing the year’s Anabaptist news, we see signs that Mennonites understand the need to be nimble agents of change. Business as usual can’t stand up against the headwinds of secularization. The comfort of tradition won’t reverse institutional Christianity’s decline.
Mennonites have a long history of resisting change. Which makes us like most churches, maybe just a little more so.
Could this be changing?
There are signs of hope.
One leader who’s pushing for change is Keith Weaver, moderator of LMC, formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Last March he said: “I have been sensing that the Holy Spirit is calling us to rethink our ways of doing things and move into a season of change.”
The call for change comes at a time when LMC is finding its place on the Anabaptist scene as an independent body with a new name. Among areas of recommended change for LMC, improving intercultural competency is one that all Mennonites need. “Embracing cultural diversity” is another way to describe this. In LMC, more than 40 percent of congregations are majority nonwhite. That’s positive change.
Another denomination in the midst of change is Mennonite Church Canada, which has overhauled its structures to downsize and decentralize. Its members heard a call last summer to move beyond structural change to spiritual change.
Elaine Heath, guest speaker at the national assembly, asserted that North American Christianity is at “the front end of a new Reformation.” Followers of Christ are learning to move away from perfectionism and judgment and instead to look at ourselves and others with Christlike compassion.
“I’m not afraid because things are changing,” Heath said. “The church has to change. Let’s quit hunkering down and feeling nervous” as if the sky is going to fall when we do things differently than in the past.
To pick one example of doing things differently: tattoos. This is not trivial. Vast numbers of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born 1997 or later) have body ink, which their churchgoing elders traditionally considered highly questionable, at best.
In the Dec. 9 MWR, Joshua Garber, who serves with Mennonite Mission Network in Barcelona, Spain, wrote about his tattoos. He literally wears his faith on his sleeve. Inked on his right arm is the iconic Martyrs Mirror scene of Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer. It’s the quintessential Anabaptist symbol of loving an enemy. Garber writes: “I’ve had the opportunity to tell the story of Dirk Willems dozens of times. Whereas it’s a safe bet most copies of Martyrs Mirror never leave the house.”
Making one’s sleeve a conversation-starter about faith ought to destroy any lingering Christian prejudice against people with tattoos. That’s positive change.
It’s also intercultural competency. Each generation has its own culture. For millennials and Generation Z, tattoos express a person’s identity in a positive way. Elders who are tolerant of cultural differences accept this.
Garber’s testimony offers one example of how new ways of thinking and acting can open doors for relationships and faith-building as cultural conditions change. If we filter present realities through old lenses, we can’t see the good that can come from doing things differently.