This post is the second in a series we're calling "Resurrecting the Church," which assumes the church institution we've encountered in Europe is in a time of transition as it figures out what it means to function in a post-Christendom, post-Modern society *. (CLICK HERE to read the first post)
Just over a year ago, when we first arrived in Barcelona, our son Asher was on the threshold of walking. He had been surfing furniture when we left Phoenix and, just a couple of weeks later, he was taking small, uncertain steps. Here's an adorable video:
The three of us affectionately refer to Asher's "stink feet," which he thoroughly enjoys: the little guy (rightly) has no shame when it comes to them getting a little dirty or smelly.
As you could see by the end of the video, Asher now navigates like a pro. He's running, jumping off of things, dancing, skipping while making horse noises -- he's walking...with zazz! But sometimes Asher still falls. And 95 percent of the time, it's because he gets in his own way. His huge, over-sized feet take him places he's never dreamed...but also land him on the ground.
Have you ever tripped over yourself?
When the Church Stumbles
This spring, we had the opportunity to take our church's young people to participate in the European Mennonite Conference's international gathering in Montbéliard, France. While worshiping with folks from over 18 different nationalities, I was struck by something: the Mennonite church's commitment to its history and heritage is both profoundly beautiful and also where it tends to trip and land on its backside the hardest.
Here's what happened: We were engaged in an evening celebrating beautiful expressions of cultural-Mennonite art. There were dramatic reenactments, video interviews, choirs -- an incredibly-executed cultural showcase. And then, for the finale, the host thanked the choir director and invited her to "take her place for the last surprise." Our headset translator implied the final song would be familiar and was participatory.
The choir director gave the group their starting pitches, started the singing, and then turned around, faced the crowd, and proceeded to conduct us in singing a hymn in its original German.
As I panned across the crowd, I saw two things:
- Many folks singing with a fervor and joy coming from deep within their hearts.
- Others standing silently, also looking around at the beautiful spectacle they had no way of participating in.
It was stunning and heartbreaking at the same time.
Those moments when we turn around and expect or assume a shared cultural connection are simultaneously the most unifying and divisive moments we have experienced in the church, because in these moments new/unorthodox folks can go from feeling included to feeling like spectators. It can be easy to forget that some cultural hurdles are impossible (or inappropriate) for some people to overcome and, without ill-intention, we may foster an environment where folks are continually confronted with the reality they can never fully enter our community.
This is a problem, because Christian communities must accommodate and integrate outsiders.
Meeting Us on Our Terms
I already can hear a chorus of keyboards dismissing such an assertion: "But they're the ones coming to US, it's on THEM to integrate into the community. They'll learn to appreciate these cultural components."
Some will. Many won't.
While this sentiment is totally understandable, it also comes from a place of being an insider.
The past several years abroad have taught us a lot about being outsiders. During those moments in which we've most longed to belong, I can say with confidence this "meet us on our terms" attitude has been a barrier to our participation in dozens of groups and activities. And while, as examples, the Lithuanian music scene and Catalan culture are certainly allowed to function however they'd like, I would argue the church has a responsibility to remove any barriers that come between people and their ability to connect with Jesus and Christ-centered communities.
This requires a difficult exercise in empathy and in placing yourself in the shoes of the other.
I remember once hearing the Mennonite tradition of four-part-acapella singing described as "breath-takingly beautiful" and "elitist" by the same person in the same conversation. Personally, I love singing old hymns this way, but I can't disagree with the assessment. Not everybody has the ability (or desire) to learn a new way of singing, nor will they connect with centuries-old songs that function very differently from the sensibilities of modern music. As a worship leader, I'm accustomed to adjusting my expectations in terms of what I expect to get out of church worship. Not every moment and every song are for me personally, but I've learned to rejoice and worship knowing that others in the community are (hopefully) connecting with God. I don't think it's fair to expect this type of understanding and spiritual maturity from newcomers who maybe are just starting their journey of discovering what it means to be part of a faith community.
Sentimentality in the Realm of Ministry
To be very clear, the example I gave earlier was not meant a critique of the MERK conference, which was incredible (and we can't wait for the next one)! I believe the choir at MERK shared something very beautiful to those in attendance and, if any place would be appropriate to break out what many insiders would consider a "Mennonite standard," it would be at a Mennonite conference!
No, this is not about chastising people for doing something so innocent and with such good intentions. It's not even about saying what happened was "right" or "wrong." This about the institutional church needing to look very closely at how our beautiful traditions sometimes cause us to stumble over ourselves. To be fair, it's harder to name communities we've encountered that don't stumble over themselves at least occasionally (and I'm sure sometimes we've unintentionally been a part of the problem). This is our humble attempt to hold a mirror up to those moments we become blind to the dangers of our own sentimentality in the realm of ministry.
Our perspective has been that the Anabaptist faith tradition, which the Mennonite church uses as its foundation, can be very significant in bridging the gap between folks disenfranchised with the idea of organized religion and in advancing the kingdom of God. However, this past year has taught us that fear of change and lack of self-awareness often creates barriers too high for people to crossover. We're tired of seeing people drawn to Mennonite churches because of the beautiful theology and eventually leaving because the church's culture prevents them from experiencing said theology fully within the context of the community.
Our traditions aren't bad and shouldn't be forgotten, but the moment preserving them becomes more important than making people feel welcome is the moment these traditions become idols.
Of course, getting rid of traditions altogether isn't the answer, lest we want to throw out the baby with the bathwater and lose our identity and much-needed beauty in the process. But if our understanding of Anabaptist faith places hymns, quilts, and pot lucks (for example) in the same space and at the same level as:
- reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus
- radical love of neighbors and enemies
- the belief we are to function as salt and light in a dark world
...then it will be only by the grace of God that our communities can continue to shine and embrace those who need it the most.
To those still reading this, we encourage you to reflect on either what are the things you or your community hold onto that may also be a barriers or what have been barriers to you entering in a community. Naming such things is an important first step in deciding what to do next.
* Many folks in the United States may not understand why this is a need, but the landscape is different in Europe. Just looking at all the cathedrals turned into museums and declining church attendance is proof enough the old model doesn't work anymore. CLICK HERE or HERE to learn more.
Every now and then, people ask us what we've been up to. While our hope is to start updating this blog more frequently, our goal is to continue using it more as a reflective space rather than a place where we share about our day-to-day experiences.
That said, we love two-way communication, too! Contact us if you would like to Skype or do some other type of video call.