Drew Hart, pastor, blogger and doctoral student, addresses a full chapel during Pastors Week at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., January 26–29. Photo by Jason Bryant.
Answering the question “What is an Anabaptist Christian?,” Pastors Week participants at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., pondered metaphors of rhizomes, a flame, a midwife and mestizos, and they heard challenges to trust God more fully and to share authority more widely.
The biblical text from I Corinthians 3:11, declaring Jesus Christ as the only foundation, became the theme for the January 26–29 annual gathering of pastors and church leaders.
In addition to answering the question of what Anabaptists are today, five presenters, three preachers and 200 event participants also explored the issue named in the Pastors Week title, “Where culture blurs theology.” Presentations and discussions mixed both affirmation and critique of the Mennonite Church and the neo-Anabaptist movement.
In the opening session, Janet Plenert, vice president of Mennonite World Conference, suggested the image of a rhizome for the worldwide Mennonite Church. A rhizome, she pointed out, is an extensive root system that sends up shoots to create new plants that share a single genetic code.
After referencing numbers of Mennonites around the world, she noted, “The growing edge of our denomination seems to be new immigrant groups or new models of being the church. If we are to see an Anabaptist expression of Christianity flourish, we need to embrace a rhizomatic understanding of our ecclesiology. It will be less homogeneous and it will be robed in a greater variety of cultural expression, language and richness.”
Greg Boyd, best-selling author and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., spoke from the point of view of someone new to the Anabaptist faith.
“We have to accept and even celebrate that the face of Anabaptism is going to change and to change in some radical ways,” he said. “The challenge is to lighten the grip … to welcome people who are going to look very different.”
“Where the Spirit of God is at work, the walls of Babylon will come down. Diversity is an intrinsic kingdom good; in fact, it’s an intrinsic kingdom necessity.”
Boyd emphasized, however, that Mennonites and other Anabaptists must never give up what is distinctive about their faith, including the centrality of Jesus in the Bible and in life, bearing witness to Christ with faithful living, and loving enemies.
Emphasis on the centrality of Christ pervaded Boyd’s two presentations, including an evening lecture to a full-house crowd at College Mennonite Church, Goshen. He described the new emerging Anabaptist groups as “a Jesus-looking God raising up a Jesus-looking people.”
Drew Hart, an African-American pastor and blogger, focuses his doctoral studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia on Anabaptism and Black identity.
He called on the Mennonite Church to put less emphasis on traditional names and families and to loosen its hold on power and authority. “Can we enter into a mutual relationship in which people who come into the church actually shape and change and transform who we are collectively? That’s what hasn’t happened. In the Mennonite Church there still is a colonizing way of being, expecting everyone to assimilate. People of color have been willing to come in and receive, but it doesn’t seem to be functioning both ways, so that what is Mennonite should be changing constantly.”
Hart also said, “I fear large portions of the Anabaptist movement are turning their eyes to the most privileged and turning away from the most vulnerable.” He continued, “We need to be open to receive others as a gift. The Mennonite Church needs the Black church more than the Black church needs the Mennonite Church.”
“As Anabaptists, we were the mestizos of the 16th century,” Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, moderator of Mennonite Church USA, said. “We were a mixed group of people with diverse beliefs coming together to seek Christ.” Because of that history, she explained, “We have danced all the dances, from isolation to accommodation to assimilation.” Naming some of the concerns that come with this assimilation to North American culture, she said, “The culture of violence has found its place within our churches; we have created enemies among each other.”
Soto Albrecht, like Hart, called on the church to embrace people of color with more integrity. “We are given the blessing, but we are given a script that says ‘This is the way we do it here.’” She explained that although the church says, “‘Bring your colors,’ we cannot be ourselves.”
David B. Miller, associate professor of missional leadership development at AMBS, challenged traditional Mennonites to be more vulnerable as they relate to people of color and newcomers to the church. “Guess what? We’re going to get it wrong,” he said. “We might need to be forgiven—by persons of color, by women. In which case, we will be honoring them as priests. When I take the risk of getting it wrong and the other person can correct me, they become my teacher; if I need to be forgiven, they become my priest.”
Miller’s presentation, along with several of the sermons during the week, challenged the church to trust more fully in God, reflecting the theme that Christ is the church’s foundation. “I am praying that God is going to fill you with the love that you cannot control or contain,” Miller said. “So every time you get to that place where you say I don’t know how to make this work, God be praised, because we are about to learn something.”
Another sermon, shared by Meghan Good, pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church, compared the Anabaptist faith to a flame. She acknowledged, “It’s a candle burning in a deluge, defiant and vulnerable. The spiritual vigilance it has taught us is one of the gifts we offer to the wider church.”
However, she added, “I believe we have a chance to help midwife the next great movement of God. We need to be really clear: the midwife doesn’t own the baby. The Spirit is giving birth here and it’s not going to take our name. And it’s not going to look a thing like us. It is going to look like Christ.”
Malinda E. Berry, assistant professor of theology and ethics at AMBS, focused a sermon later in the week on the question of identity. “I want to be able to say, ‘An Anabaptist Christian is …,’ and then finish the sentence with something smart and compelling. But I can’t, and neither can you. That’s not just good news; that’s great news.”
Hyun Hur, copastor of Mountain View Mennonite Church, Upland, Calif., called the church to view unity as an essential part of its identity and witness and to trust God. Using a text from I Corinthians 3, he emphasized, “God lives in community, and this Father, Son and Holy Spirit are holding this church.” When you are struggling with division or issues of morality, he said, “Still the tri-union God is holding this church.”
The capacity crowd included 29 first-time attenders. Worship leaders were Marilyn Rudy-Froese, pastor at Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship, Goshen, and member of the planning committee, and Lane Miller, 2014 AMBS graduate. For the final worship service, Miller wrote a hymn that reflected the central Scripture text and the themes that emerged during the week.