by Anika Reynar
Can cultural, financial, and generational challenges really be addressed through a new structure?
During the EVI listening tour, this question was often repeated. It’s a question that continues to be asked implicitly in many of the Working Group reports, and was recently addressed by John. H Neufeld, in his article Constants in the context of change. In all of these places, I hear similar answers: Yes. We can imagine a new structure that will address some of the challenges we’re facing. But, no, a new structure is not and cannot be our end goal. It’s only a part of figuring out how to be the church together.
Throughout the transition process, a new structure has been posited as one way, if not the primary way, to respond to growing cultural challenges. By shifting resources from the National to the Regional Church, the hope, as expressed in A Proposal for Revitalizing MC Canada & Area Churches, is that the National church will function “as a place of connection, communion across the country, identity,” enabling us “to serve and worship God together more faithfully and effectively.”
This sounds good in principle. And yet, I want to linger for a moment with the word “effectively.” We want to move our church structure in the best and right direction. We want it to be effective. We desire to follow the calling of God’s Spirit in a time where we are challenged by trends that often seem to be beyond our control:
- Individualism and a lack of commitment
- Impatience with diversity
- A shift to postmodernism (defined broadly by a distrust of objective certainties and absolute truths)
- Technological fragmentation
- Disillusionment with professionalized institutions
In light of these trends, what does our desire for an effective structure point to? What are we trying to accomplish? Let me test out an idea.
When faced with shifts that we feel are beyond our control, we try to find ways to be effective in the things we can exert control over, namely, the structure of the church. Yet, as we seek to take control of the direction of the church, our fears and anxieties about our lack of control over both the church, and the broader cultural trends surrounding us are also at play.
In the EVI listening tour, many people expressed a desire for control, and the feeling of lacking control over the direction the church is headed. These expressions might be split into two dominant and opposing postures: “Hanging on” and “Letting go.”
Those who are hanging on understand the National Church structure to be the best entity to mitigate individualism. Here, a desire was expressed that the National Church structure would continue to be the primary unifying body, functioning to:
- Minimize further isolation and division between congregational groups
- Maintain theological certainty
- Hold together a common Mennonite/Anabaptist identity
Those who are letting go expressed a desire to release the “professionalized,” “hierarchized,” and “bureaucratic” national church institutions. In this posture, the increased focus on the congregation (rather than the National Church) comes with a sigh of relief, insofar as:
- institutional and cultural identities can be held more loosely, recognizing, as one workshop participant stated, that “God is not bound by our structures.”
- each congregation has the freedom to do as they choose, provided others are allowed to do the same.
- Space is created for theological uncertainty.
Each of these postures carries its own dangers.
For those who are holding on, the desire for a stable Mennonite identity and an effective structure can quickly come at the cost of creativity and flexibility, and can effect the marginalization of those on the theological and geographical edges.
For those who are letting go, the temptation is to fall into a pattern of independence and toleration where each congregation lets the others do as they wish, seeking neither unification nor agreement. Here, the temptation is to avoid the differences that might make conversation worthwhile.
At the Mennonite Church Canada Special Assembly in October, these postures, as well as other postures, will be brought into the same space. As various perspectives intersect, I hope that each of us will be open enough to recognize that no one person has possession of truth. I hope that we will be humble enough to recognize that we’re not going to get the structure right. I hope that we are aware enough to recognize that whatever structure we choose, it is not going to solve the many challenges that we face in today’s time and age.
So where does this leave us?
I think it leaves us with the question that was appropriately posed by John H. Neufeld: “What is the core vision for the church which undergirds whatever structures we create and is foundational for the life of every congregation?”
I would suggest this: When we think about the core vision for the church, let’s remember that we all belong within the same story – the story of Jesus.
Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus taught his disciples to release all desires for power and control. Jesus continues to call us, the church, to form a new social body that is not enslaved to the powers, structures, and claims of the world, but rather is focused on the love of enemy, nonviolent resistance, repentance, servanthood, and so on.
This release of control, and commitment to the path of Jesus, is patient and vulnerable work. As we near the assembly in October, I hope that we will be wise enough to recognize, in the words of John Howard Yoder, that “the key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience.”
So let us be patient, seeking to listen deeply to the people who have already done incredible discernment work — the Transition team, the working groups, various congregations, members of EVI, and others – as well as to those voices who have yet to speak.