ELKHART, Ind. — Pastors Week participants at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary pondered metaphors of rhizomes, a flame, a midwife and mestizos as they heard challenges to trust God more fully and to share authority more widely.
The biblical text from 1 Cor. 3:11, declaring Jesus Christ as the only foundation, became the theme for the Jan. 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 “where culture blurs theology.” Presentations and discussions mixed affirmation and critique of the Mennonite church and the neo-Anabaptist movement.
In the opening session, Mennonite World Conference vice president Janet Plenert 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.
“The growing edge of our denomination seems to be new immigrant groups or new models of being the church,” she said. “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.”
Lighten the grip
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.”
He noted that diversity is a kingdom necessity but also emphasized 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.
The centrality of Christ pervaded Boyd’s two presentations, including an evening lecture at College Mennonite Church in Goshen.
Drew Hart, an African-American pastor and blogger who focuses his doctoral studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia on Anabaptism and black identity, called on the Mennonite church to put less emphasis on traditional names and families and to loosen their 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?” he asked. “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.”
He fears Anabaptists are turning away from the vulnerable.
“We need to be open to receive others as a gift,” he said. “The Mennonite church needs the black church more than the black church needs the Mennonite church.”
Mennonite Church USA moderator Elizabeth Soto Albrecht said Anabaptists were the mestizos (descendants of mixed races) of the 16th century.
“We were a mixed group of people with diverse beliefs coming together to seek Christ,” she said. Because of that history, “we have danced all the dances, from isolation to accommodation to assimilation.”
With assimilation to North American culture has come a culture of violence.
“We have created enemies among each other,” she said.
Soto Albrecht, like Hart, called on the church to embrace people of color with more integrity.
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.