A Church Alive
It is widely recognized that energy for organized religious activity is waning. People are seeking sources outside of the church to direct their energy and interest as well as looking for answers and community in new places. This reality impacts churches across the US, regardless of denomination. The North American church is faced with what seems to be a new faith landscape and is therefore impacted by a changing culture with new needs.
Though we face a numerically declining faith community in the US, the future of God’s reign here on earth is not bleak! We see growth globally, fresh and vibrant vision in many local communities, and a Church that is alive and adapting to new challenges.
Communities of faith must continue to adapt its means and methods to remain fresh and vibrant. The New Testament directive of being counter cultural witnesses to “light in darkness” has not changed and remains a relevant vision for Christ’s disciples today.
Between 1905 and 2000, eventual and current ACC congregations were involved in planting at least 50 churches from North Carolina to Massachusetts. This era, particularly the 1940s-1980s, was a time of enormous motivation to have a Mennonite presence in the region’s rural and urban communities. Rural churches were often started by congregations with families willing to relocate. Urban church plants tended to follow the clustering of Mennonite professionals. God’s Spirit was clearly on the move through that phase of our history and produced vibrant congregations — many that thrive today. However, the dynamics that motivated this movement are not as prevalent today; church planting, at least on much of the east coast, has not been a priority in recent years. Other methods of meeting present needs seem to have come and gone, each with its good fruit and perfect time, from the widespread sending of missionaries abroad to the apparent usefulness of church bulletins.
Today, congregations are finding new and different ways of living out their vision and mission. Congregations experiencing the cyclical nature of decline and revitalization have found new and inventive ways of adapting how they extend God’s love and welcome members into their faith community.
Conestoga Mennonite Church
CMC recently affirmed a core vision for existing “to benefit others” through which leaders evaluate each of the congregation’s ministries. This way of evaluation is paired with a change to their constitution. Anyone with a vision for a new ministry, as well as the integrity to lead it, receives an automatic blessing and partnership from the congregation to pursue the proposed vision.
Reflecting on these changes, Pastor Bob Petersheim notes that “The above foci led to several dynamic ministries that has made CMC known in the community. CMC is seen as a place deeply invested in meeting relevant needs such as our food pantry that feeds on average 140 households a month; a no-cost counseling center that brings persons through the doors that would not open a church door for any other reason — let alone a Mennonite church door; a network of safe houses that has rescued woman and children out of domestic violence, etc.”
Forest Hills Mennonite Church
At FHMC, leaders have been intentional about creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere for those without a “cradle Mennonite” pedigree. Pastor Jon Carlson notes his own lack of a “clean, lifelong Menno connection.” Even though he embraces Mennonite faith and identity for himself, he does not hide the fact that he had not heard the term “Mennonite” until age 14. “By being there and being transparent about my lack of deep ethnic Menno heritage, I think I’m helping to create a space that says “being Mennonite does not require being ethnically Mennonite.”
Becky Degan, pastor of worship and faith formation at Forest Hills, is another non-ethnic Mennonite. She leads worship for a congregation that still has a deep appreciation for Mennonite Hymnody along with various other genres and styles. Making space for the spectrum of worship preferences has taken work. “I think one of the most important ways we have navigated this as we’ve welcomed more families with preferences outside the ‘Menno hymns’ tradition is through conversation and relationship,” said Degan. A recent Sunday School elective series focused on inviting individuals to choose a song for the group to sing and then to share why it was important to them. “To hear someone share why a song or genre is important to them – to put a name and face to a song – went a long way in helping people to accept and participate more fully in different kinds of music during worship. Also, giving people a voice to express why Mennonite hymns (or contemporary music) are important to them helped them feel heard and valued.”
Blossom Hill Mennonite Church
Sharing God’s love by pursuing change in our world is a central aspect of the outward ministry of BHMC. “Our work against injustice is based on the greatest commandment of loving God, self, neighbor and even our enemies,” says Michelle Dula, lead pastor at Blossom Hill. “It is this kind of love that Jesus emulated as he reached out to people on the margins. The basis for what we do always has to be love.”
Recently, Blossom Hill shared this love through collaborating with a few other Mennonite communities around the country to raise an almost $12,500 bail fee to help release a Nicaraguan woman from a detention center so she can work on her asylum case.
There are many issues that remain for the Church to address including a fractured denomination and a decline in numbers in many congregations. Some aspects of how we “do church” will need to die or be remolded. The good news, however, is that Christ promises that his body will do more than survive. We live in an era of (constant) change and must continue to adapt the “how” of loving our world, meeting its needs in dynamic ways, and making disciples. ACC congregations, each with its own unique identity and vision, continue to embrace and bring about the upside down Kingdom.