On a Sunday several weeks ago, my family and I had several neighbors over to a “goodbye party” for our next-door neighbor, John, who had decided to move to an apartment closer to his son’s family after suffering the sudden loss of his wife in October. As we gathered together, we ate hoagies and Tandy cakes, and had pleasant conversation about what was happening in our neighborhood and in our lives. At 4 p.m., we awkwardly hurried the neighbors out the door to make room for our small group from church. For a few minutes, our neighbors and our small group shared the same space, one group cleaning up and moving out and the other group waiting for a space to move in and sit.
What struck me about these two gatherings is how similar the conversations were in the two groups. There were neighbors suffering from struggles in professional and personal relationships. Church members maxed out by frenetic schedules. Everyone in need of supportive community.
In thinking about supportive communities, a press release I read several weeks ago following the Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board meeting came to mind. Buried at the end were several sentences about the board counseling staff to include a new overarching priority within The Purposeful Plan that emphasizes a commitment to outreach, evangelism and church revitalization. The board recognized that many congregations are struggling with identity and many Mennonites are not comfortable with evangelism, and so the board urged staff to give greater time and energy to these initiatives. Reading about this new priority raised both excitement and anxiety.
I thought back to something I heard Andre Gingerich Stoner, MC USA interchurch relations coordinator, say at one of the recent conventions: Mennonites tend to love service, flirt with peace and are allergic to evangelism. I think this description mostly fits my orientation to faith, as well as many in my congregation.
In my neighborhood, people identify as Muslim, Hindu and nominal Catholics — others claim no faith at all. They know I’m a pastor, and especially with those who have negative perceptions of church, I don’t want them to associate my family or Mennonites with strong-armed evangelism. I notice in conversations with these neighbors how sensitive and deliberate I am in talking about my experience of Christian faith. On Sunday, even though the stories my neighbors and small group shared were not all that different, the way in which I shared my own was.
This summer the delegate assembly will discuss a resolution on forbearance, an attempt for the church to remain united in the midst of our disagreements. I confess my spirit is fatigued by the seemingly never ending discussion on LGBTQ inclusion. There are days when I’m not sure I want to be in relationship with people who don’t have the same views as me. Yet, I don’t believe division is our destiny. Forbearance is more than a solution for how we can live together in this difficult season of the church. It can be a signal to our world that we believe the church does not only exist for those who are already a part of it, but for those who are yet to come. It can be a statement that rather than being driven by asking who is most right, we are driven by a vision of creating a community where people of all nations, backgrounds and beliefs are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It can be a statement that difference and diversity are a blessing in Christian community, rather than a curse.
Whether it’s with my neighbors or small group, most people are not looking for community that is consumed by the quest to be right, but rather one that cares deeply about one another, even when it’s difficult. Division is to follow the “course of this world” as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2. Neither my neighbors nor my small group need further polarization and divisiveness in their lives. Our families and communities are divided enough already.
I support forbearance, not because I doubt or want to compromise my own conviction, but because my neighbors are just like you and me. They experience all the joys and hardship that life brings. Just like you and me, they deserve to be invited into the healing power of transformative Christian communities that give people the opportunity to experience faith, hope and love.
If all across our denomination we would make it a priority of inviting people to be part of our communities of faith, hope and love, perhaps we too would remember the potential for the uniting love of the church that’s been there all along.
Joseph Hackman is lead pastor at Salford Mennonite Church and lives in Harleysville, Pa. This ran first on Franconia Conference’s blog.
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