Gerald J. Mast is Professor of Communication at Bluffton University and the author of Go to Church, Change the World: Christian Community as Calling (Herald, 2012). He belongs to First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, and serves on the Missional Church Committee of Central District Conference. He is married to Carrie (Roth) Mast and is the father of three children: Anna, Jacob, and Jorian. When he is not teaching, writing, or reading, he enjoys bicycling and photography.
“The fellowship is gone. This is the reason for distrust and tension within the church.” The man who spoke these words was Sanford C. Yoder, a delegate to the 1944 special session of the Mennonite General Conference—the denominational body of the “old” Mennonite Church. According to historian Paul Toews, this body nearly fell apart in the 1940’s over such differences as rules about wedding rings, enforcement of conscientious objection to military service, and the validity of life insurance. For example, some delegates believed Illinois Conference should be removed from denominational membership because of its tolerance of worldly dress.
Amidst the rancor and ill feeling that had come to pervade the session, Yoder’s speech called the gathered body back to confession and prayer, resulting in a spirit of forgiveness and humility that “gave birth to a new Mennonite General Conference,” as one of the conference delegates—Guy Hershberger—put it later.
I’ve heard and read various versions of this story over the years, including Martha Yoder Maust’s mention of it in her recent essay for The Mennonite on “Holding on to both ends.” The story has come to define the hope with which I attend area conference and denominational meetings, including delegate assemblies of Mennonite Church USA. I go to conventions looking for friendship and renewal—signs of the new church that God is birthing in our ruined and rancorous midst.
Unfortunately, I am also tempted to think of our church denominations and institutions as fortresses designed to save our Anabaptist faith traditions and convictions. Surely we need institutions and media products and mission projects and accountability structures that protect the precious faith once delivered to the saints.
While the concern to pass on the faith is valid, I am convinced that the fortress mentality that often accompanies this concern undermines the friendship and new life that are the main reasons for churchwide conventions. Such a mentality can also make our gatherings resemble the defensive and boundary-maintaining politics of the nations out of which we have been called. And this mentality forgets that biblical faith is always, like Abraham, seeking a better country and a city that God has prepared.
Menno Simons believed, along with many of our faith ancestors, that the church of Jesus Christ is the New Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven—a city whose light is the Lamb and whose gates are open to the nations. The politics of this city are the politics of Pentecost, where many languages are heard and understood and where the Spirit is making all things new. The politics of this city are those of the Jerusalem council—truthful conflict and public debate leading to a more bracing inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles of all kinds in the renewed Israel.
I have had numerous New Jerusalem experiences at church assemblies: two once-alienated church groups becoming reconciled in a new denomination; otherwise restrained Mennonites of European heritage singing and moving to hip hop rhythms with African roots; tradition-minded believers joining with Pink Mennos in beautiful four-part hymn singing; and delegates from the East and from the West sitting lovingly together at the table of God to share distinct understandings of scripture and of what the Spirit is saying to the church.
To be sure, I’ve also witnessed bitter quarrels, closed gates, and other signs that the “fellowship is gone” in Mennonite Church USA. But, like Sanford C. Yoder, I yearn for the return of fellowship and friendship and a unity founded on Jesus Christ alone. That is why, as a white heterosexual male with strong views that I’ve had many opportunities to express, I feel called these days to prepare for our church conventions not so much by rehearsing careful arguments but by engaging in the more contemplative practices of prayer and confession, seeking what Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley has called “cooperation with the promptings of divine desire.” And when I attend our church assemblies, I’m looking for friendship and rebirth in a city not built with human hands. I’m looking for a church to come, the New Jerusalem on the way, the city whose architect and builder is God.
This year, we encourage congregations to prayerfully identify those who will serve as Mennonite Church USA delegates prior to January 15. The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board plans to be in regular contact with delegates in early 2015, inviting them to respond to a delegate survey and engaging in a corporate study on scripture, spiritual discernment and faith practices prior to gathering in Kansas City. For more information on the delegate role and who can serve, check out our Delegate information guide.