In Europe last fall, I observed a development among our churches that got me asking: What binds us together? How do we know where our “home” is?
Home is that settled place where we feel most comfortable. Our environment, our activities, and our people are familiar. We have expectations. We have freedom to challenge, argue, and push each other. We can be relaxed, and offer grace and second chances. There’s love, smiles, embraces. There can be silence…or speaking. We can be angry and frustrated – but always feel we belong.
These things apply to the church environment, also. But church is different because the origins of our group come from a faith decision and voluntary association, not birth. So other dynamics are in play.
In Europe, one church within the conference felt at odds with the others. They had argued over certain points already for several years. Despite going over these points many times, the church leaders didn’t change to adopt the conference character and values. They seemed to have a closer affiliation with people and churches from other theological backgrounds.
While I was there, this congregation issued an ultimatum: they would leave unless there were changes from the others. This situation is currently playing out – we’ll see what the outcome will be.
So I thought – where was “home” for this congregation? And what elements constitute “home” for a local church and a conference of churches?
I suggest that 2 elements would be essential: Convictions and Community.
There may be more, but I’d be happy to achieve consistency and unity on these two alone!
Broadly speaking, Convictions would be defined by our Confession of Faith, and our capacity to engage with it. The Mennonite Brethren “community hermeneutic” allows us to continually refresh what we believe and our commitments to that set of beliefs. Over time, by testing if there’s room for discussion, room for change, and a match of convictions between one another, we may continue to feel comfortable…or not.
Community is defined by the character of our fellowship – the elements noted above that point to being comfortable. We can feel comfortable in a church for a long time, but discover that a number of issues rub the wrong way. Over time, by testing reactions to our struggles, and whether there’s love and relationship, we may continue to feel comfortable…or not.
What I saw in Europe was a conference having a discussion about convictions. One with a good witness to their community did not feel at home with another church with an equally effective witness. They were disagreeing on both methodological and theological issues.
From what I heard, the dissenting church felt more at home with some other evangelical churches, and decreasingly with the Mennonite Brethren conference. They fellowshipped and developed community with other groups “of like mind.” Their “home sense” was moving away from their denominational family.
It didn’t surprise people that there was an ultimatum; though such things are always a shock when they come.
One theory emerged about why this happened. The church had been planted “generically” some 30 years ago. MB identity was downplayed. People were evangelized to “follow Jesus, not a denomination.” The church was taught to view itself firstly “evangelical” and “free” – much less part of the MB family.
This meant the classic “conviction set” of the Mennonite Brethren was not conveyed. During that era, the MB Confession was viewed more as a “set of distinctives” – what separated us from everyone else. Perhaps it was understandable that denominational identity was hidden.
The fruit, however, is that this church didn’t know who they were. So it was easy to seek fellowship with others – not that it’s wrong! But eventually the “home sense” came through affiliation with others, with loss of the sense that Mennonite Brethren character and convictions were “home.” Thus they felt free to issue the ultimatum.
To the credit of that conference and the church in question, there had been enough social and ministry affiliation to sustain years together. Eventually, however, the “DNA” – essential nature – of the dissenting church shows.
Community and Convictions are isomorphic. They are so inter-twined it’s hard to separate them. That also makes them very powerful drivers of belonging…or disaffection.
I believe this issue is very important, and complex. I hope to blog more on this subject.