It’s time to change the Mennonite name

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “Mennonite”? I immediately think of Mennonite Central Committee relief sales, quilts, suspenders, prayer coverings, farmers, borscht, shoofly pie and Mrs. Yoder’s Donuts (a local favorite). I also think of nonviolent peacemaking.

If I ask non-Mennonites what comes to their mind when they hear the word “Mennonite,” they are likely to say: the Amish, the Mormons or an Old Testament tribe. The name “Mennonite” has more cultural connotations than theological connotations, and more misleading associations than accurate ones. That’s a big problem, which is why I think it is well-past time for Mennonite Church USA to change its name.

I love Mennonite theology and I love being a Mennonite, but as an urban pastor and former church planter, I have always found the name to be an albatross around my neck. Sure, the name is an advantage when Mennonites move into town and are looking for a Mennonite church, or when someone in the neighborhood has a vague memory that granny used to go to a Mennonite church, but otherwise the name has little appeal or even recognition for outsiders. If it is our mission to bring the good news to our neighbors, then we need to face the fact that our name is usually getting in the way.

Not only does the name “Mennonite” have several unhelpful connotations for a missional church, it’s also theologically offensive. We have this name because this was the label placed on us by our opponents, referring to one of our early leaders. The name does not associate us with Jesus Christ or the content of the good news, but with a relatively unknown person; it suggests a shabby personality cult rather than a Christian faith.

Many individual Mennonite congregations and church plants have responded to these deficiencies by not using the name Mennonite. But this also has serious problems. When we do not use the name of our denomination, we more easily become distanced from the denomination, and when we become more distanced from the denomination, we tend to lose the distinctive theology of the denomination. Mennonite congregations that cease to use the name Mennonite all too often cease to be Mennonite. They become more influenced by Americanized conservative evangelicalism than by historic Anabaptism.

For this reason, I believe it is essential that the denomination itself change its name. Those branches of the Mennonites who wish to retain the cultural connotations that come with the name “Mennonite” should continue to do so by using that name. But Mennonite Church USA, a denomination committed to being theologically-centered and ethnically and racially diverse, should change its name.

So what should the new name be? We could choose a positive biblical image as the basis for our name. For instance, we could re-name our denomination Deep Water Church (a reference to Jesus telling Peter to put his nets into the deep water for catching fish in Luke 5:4). Using biblical images for naming churches and church organizations is popular, but the drawback is that our theological distinctives may get watered down.

We could choose a theological name. For instance, we could become Anabaptist Church USA. Such a name puts the emphasis on our theology rather than on particular cultural connotations or an early leader. But “Anabaptist” has two problems. First, few people know what Anabaptist means. It’s a Latin term referring to rebaptism, but I have met several people who thought it meant “anti-Baptist.” The other problem is that, once again, this was a label imposed on us by our opponents; it assumes we are guilty of rebaptizing people when, from our perspective, a believer’s baptism is fundamentally different from and has more integrity than infant baptism. Also, believer’s baptism, now that it has been accepted by many denominations, is no longer what makes our theology most distinctive.

This brings me to what I believe is the optimal name for our denomination: Peace Churches (U.S.). This name prioritizes what is most distinctive and central to our theology: at the heart of the good news is God’s nonviolent, self-giving love, embodied in Jesus and in the church, creating reconciliation in all relationships. No one word better encapsulates that message, and our historic stance of nonviolence, than “Peace.”

I have made “Churches” plural in order to suggest our variety. It also acts as an invitation for existing independent congregations that are committed to peacemaking to come and join us.

I have changed “USA” to “(U.S.)” in order to downplay national affiliation while acknowledging that our denomination functions within the United States. Also, our acronym — PC US — would then be distinguished from the acronym for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is PC USA.

Peace Churches (U.S.) lets outsiders know immediately what is central for us. It also helps us to maintain our historic stance of nonviolence — a stance that many Mennonites have been letting slip away.

If this were to become the name of our denomination, local congregations would be free to incorporate this new name or retain the name Mennonite. Lombard Mennonite Church could become Lombard Peace Church. First Mennonite Church of Richmond could become First Peace Church of Richmond. Congregations that have opted not to use “Mennonite” in their name might be interested in using the new denominational name as a tagline; for instance, Garden City (a church plant emerging in my city) could become Garden City: a Peace Churches (U.S.) congregation.

The drawback of changing Mennonite Church USA to Peace Churches (U.S.) is that we may become a bit more distanced from our nearly 500-year history. Mennonite history roots us and informs us, so we must continue to study it, teach it and not forget it. But the new name will also theologically energize us and free us to become more than a cultural artifact.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois.

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