For years there was an easy alliance in America between God and country. The Christian church held a privileged place in our culture. As this is breaking down, people who take Jesus and the Bible seriously are seeing Jesus and Christian faith with new eyes. Mennonites and other Anabaptist denominations seem to be especially able to connect with evangelicals who have often initially encountered Anabaptism through theological writings.
Greg Boyd and the Woodland Hills Church he founded in St. Paul, Minn., are an example. During the buildup to the Iraq War, his study of Scripture led him to clarity that the way of the cross is in stark contrast to the way of the sword. He preached a sermon series on the kingdom of God and eventually published a book, The Myth of a Christian Nation. Hundreds of people, if not more, left his large church. But his preaching, teaching and writing made him an important, articulate advocate for peacemaking in the evangelical world and brought him into conversation with Anabaptists.
Boyd will be one of the speakers this September in Carlisle, Pa., when Anabaptists, neo-Anabaptists and interested evangelicals will gather at a conference, “The Church and Post-Christian Culture: Christian Witness in the Way of Jesus.” The event is sponsored by Missio Alliance, with Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren and Mennonite co-sponsors as well as Woodland Hills Church.
Mennonite and Brethren in Christ speakers will include Anton Flores, Nelson Okanya, Bruxy Cavey and Meghan Good. Evangelical voices will include David Fitch, professor at Northern Seminary, and Frank James, president of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa.
Presentations and breakout sessions will be organized around three themes: a fresh encounter with Jesus, a radical approach to community and a subversive journey in mission.
The two-day gathering will be more than an opportunity for Anabaptists and evangelicals to be in conversation. It will also encourage relationship among various streams of Anabaptism. Mennonites, Brethren in Christ and the Church of the Brethren share much in common. Yet there are significant differences, which have developed in part through varied engagement with American evangelicalism and mainline churches.
This event can also be an opportunity to take stock of where we are as an Anabaptist movement. Our history was initially closely connected to the struggles of European peasants for social justice. Our deepest roots are with Jesus, who called the Samaritan “good” and regularly crossed the Sea of Galilee to “go to the other side.”
But the Anabaptist denominational streams in the U.S. have a long legacy of living as small huddles of Swiss-German relatives in isolated and rural settings. Even as we have entered the cultural mainstream and largely made our peace with American consumer culture, our Anabaptist denominations have not yet fully embraced the cultural and racial diversity of our own churches and our current context.
As a reference group and planning committee for this conference, we struggled mightily with the temptation to overlook these challenges. But if we want to be relevant in a post-Christendom era, we must take them on.
When we gather in Pennsylvania later this year, we must explore what it means to celebrate our gifts but also honestly acknowledge our failures.
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.
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