I was recently at a conference around using business as a tool for change, surrounded by life-long activists and advocates for peace, justice and equality, and in many ways I felt like the expression and language echoed that of my Mennonite community of faith.
I engage a similar group of people in an MBA program focused on sustainability and ways that business can work in support of people and planet, rather than an exploiter of labor and environment.
My classmates are values-driven leaders with an average age of 30 who are devoting their lives to the common good. I am hopeful about the future of our broken planet whenever I’m around them.
There is one notable point of tension for me in these communities—they’re decidedly (sometimes even hostilely) not Christian.
I’ve pondered why, and done a bit of digging, and the clearest answers are some I want to share with you. I don’t think many people tend to do “exit interviews” when leaving communities of faith, and we have a lot to learn from their experiences.
• Christians are widely perceived as judgmental and close-minded. For many in the circles I’ve encountered, this has included a personal rejection (at best) to downright condemnation and expulsion (at worst) from a community or a relationship over sexual orientation, political beliefs or lifestyle, among other things.
• Christians are perceived as thinking they have superior spiritual practices to others and they over-spiritualize things. The discipline I’ve observed among friends practicing Buddhist meditation, however, and their quiet attunement to the word of the divine for their lives is on par with some of the most devoted Christian practices I have seen.
• Christians are perceived as self-righteous. But I’ve met as many (maybe more?) generous, values-driven, loving Buddhists, Jews and Muslims (to name a few) who are putting their religious convictions, talents and resources to work for the common good as I have Mennonites.
• Christians are perceived as focusing on who doesn’t belong, rather than welcoming others into a life-giving and loving experience around experiencing God’s love, transformation and sustaining power in the world.
• Christians are perceived as having wacky ideas focused on afterlife rather than on how to meaningfully live life as we know it on this finite and precious planet.
I’m going to be honest: I don’t proclaim religious beliefs very often or tell many people that my husband is a pastor.
When I’ve ‘come out’ as a Mennonite Christian, I have experienced layers of perception and judgment that are hard to undo and are counterproductive to relationship and collaboration.
I have grown to prefer to have my actions speak louder than words anyway—particularly around love for neighbors and how I choose to deploy my privilege in support of those in need. It is worth noting that I find actions trumping words common with my non-Christian and non-religious friends as well.
Perhaps not surprisingly based on my comments, I am a member of a local church that has been a welcoming congregation for LGBTQ individuals since our founding over 20 years ago. Thus the discussion that is raging within conferences and congregations is a non-issue in our church. Instead, we are stronger for the diverse community of faith we have become. We use that strength to focus on the gospel of love, and ways to deploy resources in loving support of our neighbors and the world.
I believe we can do this work more effectively and powerfully in common. I also believe that the only Mennonite churches that will grow in the future are those that are welcoming and focused on the prophetic and counter-cultural word of love.
I pray that my fellow Mennonites will follow the path of love and help change the negative stigma that Christians have in the world today.
Jessica King is a member and pastoral spouse from Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster (Pa.) and has had leadership roles at various Mennonite-affiliated organizations including ASSETS Lancaster, Union Project, Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience and Gospel Herald.