Mennonite Church U.S.A. Members Turning Away from
Think Core Mennonite Values Barriers to
Unchurched, Historian Says at CMU Lecture Series
By Conrad Stoesz and Ken Reddig
WINNIPEG, Man. — For John Roth, Mennonite Church members in the U.S. are in
a paradoxical moment in time.
Never before, he said, have Mennonites enjoyed such credibility and support
from other denominations—in ecumenical circles, Anabaptism is seen as the
“darling child,” with interest, support and acceptance of traditional Mennonite
distinctives such as peace and service. Even the emergent church movement, he
predicts, will one day start looking to Mennonites for authenticity and
But it’s a different story within many churches in Mennonite Church U.S.A.,
said Roth, this year’s speaker at the November 6-7 Canadian Mennonite University
(CMU) John and Margaret Friesen Lectures. While other Christians are embracing
core Mennonite theology, Mennonite Church members in that country are turning
away from their historical beliefs, he stated.
Basing his observations on visits to about 150 Mennonite Church U.S.A.
congregations over the past eight years, Roth, Director of the Mennonite
Historical Library and professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana, said
he was encouraged to see congregations embracing the missional church
concept—reaching out to friends and neighbours. But, he said, many people seem
to think that Mennonite church beliefs and traditions are barriers to the
unchurched, with the result that some downplay Mennonite beliefs and identity to
become more generically Christian.
Referring to the 2006 Mennonite Church U.S.A. membership profile, Roth noted
that fewer than a third of members had strong denominational loyalty. This
concerns him; Mennonites, he said, have been given a gift and are stewards of a
distinctive theology and practice that other denominations now appreciate.
Roth went on to note the number of pressures impacting Mennonites
today—things like mass media, individualism and freedom of choice. The church,
he said, is becoming fragmented and members are becoming consumers of faith;
many people today, he observed, go church shopping to find a church that meets
their needs when, where and the way they want it.
This omnipresent market mentality has become idolatrous within society, and
in the church, he stated, with even people of faith buying into the logic of
production and consumption when it comes to choosing a church. Without a clear
theological centre other than self-interest, he suggested, the church will
continue to be haunted by fragmentation.
Roth concluded by stating that there is a need for clarity of Mennonite
identity in the future, and a renewed commitment to the body of Christ. He
pushed hard the idea that the future identity of the Mennonite Church needs to
be grounded in a renewed faith, rooted in a renewed commitment to local
congregations—places where relationships are nurtured and which are rooted in a
love for the world.
Roth concluded his series with a rather surprising appeal for a recovery of
worship. He lamented that worship has often been pragmatic and consumer
oriented, rather than the kind of worship that transforms people, and added that
it might also be appropriate to understand baptism and the Lord’s Supper in more
Arguing that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not just symbols, Roth
suggested that they should be seen as acts of remembering and re-membering—that
is, acts of beauty and holiness that not only bring together the shards and
splinters of the broken soul, but also a public activity that gathers Christians
together to restore what has been divided, separated and torn asunder in the
For those who heard him, Roth’s words were challenging, stimulating and
worshipful—which is not usually the way people might describe an historical
Conrad Stoesz is an archivist at the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies
and the Mennonite Heritage Centre; Ken Reddig is Director of the Centre for
Mennonite Brethren Studies in Canada.
Posted November 17, 2007
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