The landscape for church membership is constantly changing. A 2007 Pew Research Study revealed significant changes in church participation. The United States is quickly becoming a marginally Protestant country. It is characterized by diversity and fragmentation. According to the study, there are more people disaffiliating with churches than affiliating. The trend continues today, as fractured relationships around social, political and economic issues multiply.
In recent years, immigrant Christians with a vision for developing communities of faith in North America have made an impact on denominations. Marginalized people born in North America are looking for a faith community that provides spiritual grounding in our diverse culture.
People sense that something is missing, but many have not found it in the traditional church. They ask, “What is Jesus doing?” not “What would Jesus do?”
In the Mennonite church, immigrant Christians and religiously disenchanted folks are connecting to an Anabaptist understanding of the gospel. Our perceived focus on the Beloved Community — where Jesus is the center of our spiritual, social and economic lives together — propels such interest.
Conferences and clusters of congregations are exploring ways to develop new expressions of faith that speak to changing Mennonite and Anabaptist circles. There are many challenges. The most significant is to speak into diverse cultures with the message of justice and peacemaking without losing the core of the gospel of Jesus.
Worshiping communities of faith established in diverse communities need to be spiritually, politically and socially relevant. The context in which the gospel is established will give shape to theological expressions. How people have previously experienced Christianity shapes their understanding of God and a “third way” of living in community. A pivotal question is, “How are they understanding the gospel?” It must be spoken and lived so that religiously disengaged or “seeking” people can experience, understand and accept the reconciling message.
We believe our understanding of Jesus’ reconciling message breaks down walls that sharply define cultures.
The religiously disengaged and seekers ask, “How do you understand Jesus? Does he support bigotry and injustice?” These questions can threaten what we believe. I often say, “What we think and believe depends on where our loyalty is. Are we with the oppressed?”
Our theoretical understanding of Jesus often collides with current reality and is a hindrance to unity.
When cultures clash, we build walls to protect our belief systems. For our new faith communities to be relevant, our understanding of Jesus’ message must take precedence over oppression and dehumanization. God’s resurrecting love is stronger than our self-centeredness.
Ministering in diverse communities uncovers tension between Christian and cultural identity. Many are beginning a fresh exploration of the gospel as we focus on new faith communities. The message of Jesus tears down the walls separating us.
Where are we as ambassadors of The Way in this exploration?
Will we stand for justice, not “just us,” as we embed the gospel of truth in diverse communities?
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.