This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Opinion: Loss of the agrarian church leaves denomination poorer

This summer I made a road trip with a former Northern District Conference minister. We visited the sites of 10 rural churches in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, all formerly affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church. Two had closed, and in one case only the cemetery and a marker remained.

Only one of the 10 was still affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, and that affiliation will end when North Central Conference leaves the denomination. The other seven survive, and some even thrive, appearing to carry on a vital ministry in dying rural communities. Only two of the seven retain the Mennonite name as independent congregations. Many of the others call themselves “Bible” or “community” churches.

Prairie Bible Church, formerly Hutterthal Mennonite Church, Carpenter, S.D. — S. Roy Kaufman
Prairie Bible Church, formerly Hutterthal Mennonite Church, Carpenter, S.D. — S. Roy Kaufman

These congregations may no longer adhere to mainstream Anabaptist theology. They frequently support parachurch ministries like Child Evangelism Fellowship. Their pastors are often part-time and called from a wide variety of theological perspectives. Yet several of these congregations supported Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service and other Mennonite institutions and ministries.

Despite the loss of the Mennonite name, it appeared these congregations had a sense of their Mennonite ethnic heritage. One mission of the agrarian church is to preserve the generational wisdom of the agrarian culture and the ethnic diversity of the human family.

Who needs who?

During my ministry in four rural communities, I have witnessed the passing of the agrarian church. It is evident in the demise of one rural congregation after another.

The community where I live, Freeman, S.D., has seen the death of two rural Mennonite congregations in the past 20 years. But the passing of the agrarian church can also be seen in the marginalization of rural congregations and their exodus from their conference and the denomination.

As the denomination and its conferences increasingly assume the urban cultural ethos, rural congregations, rightly or wrongly, feel disenfranchised. Eventually, they withdraw and become independent.

I think the denomination needs these agrarian churches more than they need it. They go on being the church in their local place quite well without the denomination, though constrained by not availing themselves of denominational resources. But how will the denomination ever replace the loss of the agrarian church? A great depth of wisdom, experience and understanding of church and Christian discipleship is being lost with the passing of the agrarian church.

The agrarian church doesn’t really do theology very well, if at all. But that’s precisely the point. When the denomination no longer listens or pays attention to the agrarian church, we no longer have our ears tuned to the theological and ecclesiological significance their practice of church might have.

Differences defined

What is an agrarian church, and how does it differ from the dominant urban church that MC USA has become?

Agrarian churches:
– Reflect cultures shaped by agriculture, the practices and ways of life that grow out of living on the land;
– Are local, rooted in the land where the community resides;
– Have a strong ethnic heritage, the repository of generational wisdom about how to live sustainably on the land;
– Live close to creation, within the seasonal and daily rhythms of natural life and the constraints of nature;
– Have a keen sense of the divine manifested in the world of creation; and
– Are communal, marked by face-to-face relationships.

The urban church is called to live as a contrast community within the dominant urban culture as it draws isolated individuals into a new community. But it also reflects the ethos of the urban environment.

Urban culture:
– Is shaped by the humanly constructed artificial environment of the city;
– Is one of anonymity, requiring the structures of societal institutions to cohere;
– Is individualistic, focusing on personal fulfillment and the rights and privileges of the individual;
– Is multiethnic yet requires cultural uniformity;
– Is marked by the commodification of nature and human life, consumerism and the deification of economic growth and progress; and
– Is obsessed with technological achievements and progress.

We are in a time of transition. Climate change, energy crises and economic fragility are a global reality, to say nothing of the oppression and exploitation involved in our technological and consumer addictions. The industrial food system is particularly vulnerable, increasingly inadequate nutritionally and devastating in its negative ecological and social impact.

We may in the next decades regret our lack of concern over the departure of the agrarian church. We may need to reclaim the mission of the agrarian church for the sake of human survival.

Urban intolerance

I do not mean to exonerate the agrarian church for its responsibility in breaking fellowship within the body of Christ. As someone who has lived all my life in the context of the agrarian church, I can attest to the narrow-mindedness and ethnocentrism that has too often characterized rural congregations, some of which I have shared.

Preserving one’s ethnic heritage — a legitimate function of agrarian culture — should never devolve into a defensive ethno­centrism or prevent collaboration with other communities.

Nor do I wish to excuse rural churches from making space for the diversity of human life found in every community.

I am someone with a foot in both worlds. I am an agrarian person and a passionate advocate for agrarian culture. I also affirm the movement of MC USA into urban culture.

But I wish the urban church, despite its claims to be open to diversity, was not so intolerant of the agrarian church. I wish it was not so resistant to what it might learn from these communities.

The urban and the agrarian church need each other, so that together we might fulfill the mission of representing God’s rule of love in our own contexts.

S. Roy Kaufman is a retired pastor living in Freeman, S.D. He is the author of Healing God’s Earth: Rural Community in the Context of Urban Civilization (Wipf & Stock, 2013).

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