Recently I was in Sarasota, Fla., due to the forces of what church historian Phyllis Tickle describes as the church’s every-500-year rummage sale. Tickle’s words in her book The Great Emergence have continued to be an important guide for me in this tumultuous time of church reconfiguration.
The Great Reformation of the European church 500 years ago had global implications, though it was primarily a Euro-centric event that happened at the same time as the rise of colonialism. Today’s Great Emergence is global as well.
This topic came up with my Lyft driver in Sarasota. He’s United Methodist and grew up Episcopalian. He talked about the United Methodists’ upheaval this spring as their global body made decisions that counteracted much of what the U.S. base of the church would have preferred. The United Methodists are a global community with no separate international structures. The global church’s voice played a key role in upholding more traditional practices of marriage and ordination than many North American and European leaders would have chosen.
My driver, who has lived in Sarasota for 20 years, was surprised to learn that Mennonites are struggling with the same tensions. To an outsider, the stability of local Mennonite businesses and institutions, coupled with the visible presence of more plain-dressed Anabaptist groups, suggests there’s no change or tumult within. Those of us on the inside know better.
The current upheaval within the church has deeply affected the continuity of our congregations and communities. My home community in Johnstown, Pa., was once a single district of Allegheny Mennonite Conference. Now, the churches are affiliated with three different networks of Anabaptists, and a more plain-dressed community has grown up alongside. Several congregations have closed. More charismatic expressions of Anabaptist communities have spun off on their own.
Meanwhile, the Church of the Brethren, which is a larger presence in that area, has remained more stable and solid, though it’s experiencing the effects of post-Christendom’s diminished churchgoing and engagement.
Where there used to be one expression of what it meant to be Mennonite, now there are many affiliations. We know that even in the past each congregation was, in many ways, an expression unto itself. But now the different affiliation networks make that more obvious. The institutions begun by Mennonites in the later part of the 20th century are left to find their way — schools, retirement communities, camps. The same is emerging in Sarasota.
My Lyft driver asked again the name of Tickle’s book as we left. He wished us peace as we do the work of the church in our time of upheaval. He reminded me of the significance of that work as it affects institutions and economic livelihoods.
I’ve trusted Tickle’s conclusion that, despite all the upheaval, the patterns of change every half millennia have resulted in the Good News going out in new ways to new people. The message of Christ’s redemption, joy and peace is what I’m holding on to in the midst of all of our change. I’m also holding on to the hope, as Tickle did before her death in 2015, that the church will be reformed as Christ would want it.
In the European Reformation, even traditional Roman Catholicism was reshaped and changed. Now, as then, reforming may not get us any closer to perfection. But it invites us to move deeper into faith and into practices that create new possibilities for the old story to become fresh and vibrant.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.