by Emerging Voices Initiative
We are not the future of the church. As we toured the country, hosting eleven different conversations on the Mennonite Church Canada transition process, we were often praised as such. We’re grateful for that, but given what we’ve learned, we believe it’s more important to see all generations as part of the church now. We all hold the church’s future together.
We are encouraged by the work we’ve done. Our purpose of gathering feedback for Mennonite Church Canada transition leaders led to a rich journey of sharing and collecting stories across the country. To find our way forward, we need to tell stories. Stories are how we share meaning; how we name where God is at work in our lives, and invite others to do the same. We hope to keep storytelling central as we consider a re-structured church. To give focus, we’ve named seven major themes from the workshops:
1) Anabaptist/Mennonite Theological Identity (Kathleen Bergen): This theme was not frequently named as such, but it permeated many of our conversations. There were many questions raised like: how do we maintain national identity without a national body? There were also questions and concerns about what happens when we disagree on theological principles. Is theology up to the individual church or the whole body?
We heard a strong cry to stay Mennonite; to continue our commitment to the things that make us who we are as a denomination. These include emphasizing peace, and functioning as a community of believers rather than a hierarchy. Several young adults in Saskatoon cautioned and challenged us, saying we should continue to examine our practices and beliefs so they remain faithful and useful, not just traditional. We also heard across the country that, while a Mennonite theological identity is important, maybe we need to change, or let go of, ideas about an ethnic identity, which tend to exclude more than they include.
We also heard that our Mennonite theology should inform this transition process and how we do church together. Congregants challenged leaders—and all of us—to listen to all voices, reach for the marginalized, and centre on Jesus.
2) Youth (Katrina Woelk): There is a desire to see younger generations participate and invest in the work of the church, local and beyond. It seems power needs to be equalized among all ages to give similar weight in decision-making. In Ontario, one participant said young voices are valued in theory, but don’t have voting capacity. In Edmonton, it was suggested that power needs to be transferred to young people in order for them to truly make an impact. If youth felt they had more impact, would they engage more readily? Would a change in policy allowing more youth votes per congregation encourage equal distribution of power?
In Winnipeg it was recommended that youth be given more involvement in local congregations. In Ontario, ecumenical gatherings for youth, and mentorship programs for emerging leaders were recommended. Somehow, the church needs to engage younger generations more intentionally.
3) Church Structures and Cultural Trends (Anika Reynar): Across the country, people are asking: can cultural, financial, and generational challenges really be addressed through a new structure? One participant in Winnipeg said: “the church needs to mitigate against [cultural] trends towards atomization and individualism.” Some people see the Future Directions proposal, which focuses on congregations as the central unit of the church, as helping resist atomization. Members from Lethbridge Mennonite described their congregation as being vibrant because of the emphasis placed on sharing stories across different experiences. This storytelling has encouraged them to participate in a wider ecumenical network in their community, while continuing to connect into Mennonite Church Canada.
In every workshop, individuals and congregations expressed the desire to be a vibrant, generous, and Christ-like presence in the world. I also heard many express a deep concern that focusing primarily on the congregation apart from a national church would result in further isolation and division. In placing the emphasis on the congregation, do we run the risk of each congregation becoming atomized—responsible only to themselves?
People recognize that restructuring is only one aspect of addressing cultural, financial, and generational challenges. In Ontario, one person said: “We shouldn’t be asking ‘what kind of church can we afford?’… but, ‘who do we want to be?’ and let the structures form [based on] our values.” So maybe the central question is: “How do we be the church together?”
4) Diversity (Anneli Loepp Thiessen): On July 9, 2016, I tweeted: “Only men in line for the open mic, only men responding to questions. I’m calling it out. Your voice is equal, women.” What we experienced on the EVI tour was vastly different. At Saskatoon 2016 we saw mostly men answering questions, and mostly men asking questions. At our Waterloo event we had four women on stage answering questions. The first seven people to speak were women, many of whom were young adults or youth. We do not lack engaged women or youth. Our job is to find the most effective ways to engage them.
We heard people asking why there weren’t more new Canadians at our events. We lamented that most of us were of European descent, while celebrating those with us who were from other cultures or new to Canada. One of the biggest concerns we heard was how we engage churches of other nationalities. Clearly this topic is one that churches will continue to ponder and collaborate on. Area churches that have resources for mission and outreach will be an asset to some of the smaller area churches.
5) Hearing Each Other (Jonas Cornelsen): Our national church has often been thought of as a public voice. I feel this is shifting. Right now, there is a desire for a national church to maintain healthy internal conversations. In Ontario, we heard that it’s important to name and know what keeps us together, and what divides us. A participant in Edmonton dreamed of being able to talk and pray across belief lines in the church.
We were encouraged to listen for voices from the margins, but this label was used in multiple ways. Many groups are underrepresented in the broader church. Some are uncertain if they’re welcome. Others feel they are being pushed out. Can a new structure be flexible enough for all to participate?
With such a delicate balance to maintain, I wonder if our national church will become less of a public voice, and more of a network for relationship-building. A participant in Winkler suggested EVI consider podcasting as an accessible, relational way of telling stories to each other. Whatever the method, we clearly need space to be candid.
6) Neighbours (Laura Carr-Pries): The Mennonite Church in Canada carries a deep concern and care for our Witness programs, and what it means to love our neighbours. We heard people concerned about the future of MC Canada’s Witness program, as many lives have been impacted by these stories. While there is an overwhelming sense that loving our neighbours is key to who we are, I’ve heard more questions than answers on what that looks like. I wonder: how can we best engage with our international partners as we seek justice together?
As people talked about engaging neighbours, they began to think about ways to build relationships in local contexts. From friendships with our Indigenous neighbours, to hosting “How To…” nights with the community, people are brimming with creative ideas of how we can both witness to, and build relationships with, our local neighbours.
At the root of the discussion of engaging with our neighbours is Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbour. May this call to join our spirituality with our work for justice remain at the centre as we experiment how to best live out this command.
7) Leadership (Madeleine Wichert): The main critiques of MC Canada’s leadership we heard are familiar. These included concerns about the “white men club,” or lack of diversity in the highest levels of leadership. Other concerns dealt with accountability and transparency. One challenging question that surfaced often was: how can trust in our leaders be maintained, and be restored where it has been broken?
Congregations across the country place high value on consultation and engagement in decision-making. Who is responsible for consultation, and for ensuring that congregations are informed about what’s happening at regional and national levels? Who can be trusted to represent diverse congregations and regions at each level of the church, in a way that holds us together? The church needs unity and diversity to be held together in and through its leadership.
We heard calls to remember that structure and money are not everything; to remember that faith is central to the church. The hope is that faith will be the centre of leadership as well.
Leaders are human and fallible too. Workshop participants voiced many times: “We care about you and want to support you.” One way this could happen is in the form of specific prayer requests from leaders. There is gratitude for the work our church’s leaders have done and continue to do.
Conclusion: We need a new church structure, but it shouldn’t be our end goal. Our hope for the church is that we learn to collectively tell the story of God’s work in the world, and to embrace our unique roles as individuals, congregations and wider church families.
For our part as EVI, we plan to expand on the seven themes above, focusing on personal reflection and storytelling rather than formal reporting. You can follow these reflections right here on our blog.
May conversations on how to strengthen our common life as Mennonites in Canada continue well beyond this October. We are all the future of the church.
This post was written collaboratively by seven EVI members, all of whom co-led at least one workshop on tour. You can also download this reflection as a pdf – this version will be available at 2017 area church delegate gatherings. There’s also a detailed tour round-up by Canadian Mennonite.
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