Responses to Amid declining membership and loyalty, do denominations matter?

Bulletin editors invited several alumni from across the country who are engaged in ministry to respond to Roth’s article, to think about how their own lives and faith have been impacted by persons from other denominations, and to give their current thoughts on denominations.

Sue L. Conrad ’92, Associate Pastor, East Chestnut St. Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pa.:
        When I began looking for my first pastorate, I made a list of criteria that I needed in my new church. One important criterion was a strong Mennonite identity, firmly rooted in Anabaptist theology and beliefs. I’m grateful to say that I found that and thoroughly enjoy that aspect of congregational life. I welcome the opportunity to preach and teach unapologetically from a Mennonite perspective and to encourage discussion on what it means to be a Mennonite. Some of our best discussions at church have been based on what it means to be a Mennonite who actually lives out that identity. I find it exciting and energizing and am glad that we have a set of defined beliefs to guide our journey, but also the flexibility to determine how those beliefs affect how we live the journey.
        One of the things I find most challenging is when the denomination is not consistent with itself. As a female pastor in Lancaster Conference I found it ironic that at San Jose 2007, delegates were discussing the role of conference discipline on congregations that do not adhere to the current denominational Confession of Faith. I wonder, how do we as a denomination deal with conferences that do not follow the current Confession of Faith of the denomination, but congregations within them do? It is one of the challenges of denominational life and one I hope we as Mennonites can think about and address in the near future. Sure, some times it would be easier to throw our hands up in the air and say, “I don’t care!” and make ourselves independent. But I do not believe becoming an independent church will help anyone. We are called to accountability and I believe that denominations help us be accountable to each other. I hope, however, within that accountability, we can learn to live with differences of opinions and acceptance of a variety of ways of understanding the Gospel message.

Joetta Schlabach ’80, Pastor, Faith Mennonite Church, Minneapolis, Minn.:
        My interaction with other denominations began during my elementary school days when my public school classmates and I would talk about what we did in church. From those early discussions I realized that there were various ways that people worshiped and expressed their faith. Because I valued and trusted those friendships I think I always believed that they worshiped “in spirit and in truth” even if their truth didn’t always match with what I learned in the Mennonite Church. As an adult I have had deep spiritual friendships with persons of other denominations—Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal—and I did masters work in theology in a Catholic institution. I received many gifts and insights from these tradition as well as the opportunity to better articulate and appreciate the gifts that the Mennonite Church has for the larger body of Christ.

What about your own denomination do you hope to share with others?
        Rather than “what I hope to share” my experience has been “what others invite me to share.” When I introduce myself as a Mennonite, particularly now as a pastor, I am often greeted by “We need you!” It’s almost embarrassing because people often have an idealized image of Mennonites that we don’t necessarily live up to. Yet this invitation prompts me to recommit myself to practicing, and helping to develop within the congregation I lead, the unique gifts that Mennonites have to offer the larger church.
How has your understanding of your denomination changed during your life?
        When I was younger I had a somewhat competitive view of denominations, as in Who has the greatest edge on the truth? We always celebrated when someone moved from one denomination into our own and lamented when someone left us for another. Today I see denominations from a more collaborative perspective: What can we learn from each other? How can we mutually support one another? I trust that Mennonites who have migrated to other denominations will plant seeds of peace and discipleship in those places. I know that our congregation is blessed by persons who were raised or have sojourned in other denominational settings and bring insights and spiritual practices that nourish us.

Conrad Mast ’79, Co-pastor, Scottdale (Pa.) Mennonite Church:
        Denominations matter as organizations that allow persons of like mind to gather in Christ’s name while focusing on particular practices and priorities the commission from Jesus to tell the story to all peoples. But there is a downside to denominational structures and distinctions. Have you heard community members sometimes refer to other denominations as being a religion? That misunderstanding of the Christian tradition points to the divisions we have manufactured and maintained. It should encourage a move toward one communion. It is a reminder to clearly and repeatedly focus on Jesus as the one we serve. Over-emphasis on peace or service, education or theology, mode of baptism or community discernment, Mennonite, Presbyterian or Coptic, are all ways that we lose focus.
        As a child, I was aware and appreciative of other Mennonite congregations who were supporting our group, a church plant in Ohio. There were many late return trips from activities with our sister churches. These were the people who were concerned about expanding the territory of the Mennonite church. People who still represent what it means to be a part of a supporting denomination. But being the only Mennonite church in town, meant that we were welcoming members from a broad range of church traditions.
        As the son of a church furniture salesman, I was regularly exposed me to a wide array of traditions and experiences. As a pastor, I have been the recipient of care from clergy of other traditions. In various communities and settings around the world, I have sought out church communities to worship with. And found the experience enriching. I have learned much in that interaction and sometimes feel freer to express my beliefs in those settings than I do within my own denominational environments. Odd, but is a reminder that we often embrace other traditions more politely than we do our own members.
        Do Mennonites do it best? Not always. We emphasize a segment of the biblical story. We follow Jesus and seek to share his story with those around us through the testimony of a lived faith. Our emphasis on individual humility keeps us unduly quiet. However, our desire to make a constant application of the Bible story in our lives encourages us to say Christ is our Lord and then demonstrate it as a community. Our emphasis on peace has made us trusted neighbors. It’s the tradition that has molded my understanding of how a church should best operate, but I have seen enough in other traditions to be quite confident of the presence of authentic Christian witness there, also.
        John Roth refers to a passage that also moves me, the Revelation testimony of the nations gathering in united praise. I have difficulty reading that particular phrase in public without tears, because of what it says about Christ’s authority that will bring peace over all things. Every wall we have created to mark the territory we have claimed as ours will be removed. It will be a glorious correction to all forms of division and separation. I hope we can remain humble about the importance of a denomination. It’s a collection of people sharing a similar story and understanding of what it means to be Christ’s disciples. The more we devote energy and time maintaining or more correctly defining those distinctives, the more we risk creating an institution that desires to serve itself rather than Christ.
        An article in Mennonite Weekly Review by Michele Hershberger (6/9/08) gives voice to thoughts related to this question of denominations. Her words resonate deeply with me. There are questions related to the specific thoughts around restructuring. I, too, am discouraged, by the thought that a correct restructuring of our denomination will create a more dynamic church, while recognizing that organizations must go through periods of change at times.

Rachel Ringenberg Miller ’02, Associate Pastor, Portland (Ore.) Mennonite Church:

How has your faith been impacted by other denominations?   
        My faith has been made stronger through friendships I have had with people of other denominations. Two friendships in particular stick out to me when I think about other denominations. Growing up in a small town where there are about 15 Mennonite churches in a 20 mile radius one would think that my best friends in school would have been Mennonite like me. But no, one was Catholic and the other Methodist. In middle school the three of us would go to each others vacation Bible schools where we learned about Jesus, played games, and ate snacks. When we enter high school the serious conversations began to take place. Why did Mennonite believe that you shouldn’t fight? Did Catholics really believe that you were eating Christ’s body during communion? Although we argued about our denominations, we also learned about each others and I think in the end gained a respect for our differences.
        These conversations made me reflect on why I am Mennonite. I began to study the Bible and read Mennonite historical books, along with asking questions to my parents, Sunday school teachers, and youth sponsors. I think it was during that time I really began to “own” my Mennonite faith. It just wasn’t something I was born into, so therefore I am; instead these conversations got me excited about being Mennonite.

Do you celebrate or lament the changes in denominational structures? Why?

        Changes are bound to happen, especially when two conferences join and become one. It is just like a marriage. No one totally knows what they are getting into. They know they love each other and want to be together, but no one can predict the future and what changes, sacrifices, joys, surprises will happen along the way.
        I don’t celebrate or lament the changes in denominational structure. I do feel structure is important. It helps us as denomination to know where we are coming from and to give direction to the future. Changes are hard, but if we are trusting in the Holy Spirit than we know that God is with us in our changes and is helping to guide the decision making process.

Rafael Barahona ’96, Associate Director, Mennonite Education Agency’s Hispanic Pastoral and Leadership Education office, Goshen, Ind.:
        Coming from Latin America, I was not born a Mennonite, but a nominal Catholic and I didn’t know any difference, until I became a Christian. Therefore, I had a conversion experience of getting to know the Lord in a very personal way. My coming to faith began in a small group started by an immigrant pastor no tied to any denomination, however, somewhat evangelical. After a couple of years of experiencing with the evangelical denomination we were cut off because of some allegedly particular doctrines not accepted by said denomination. Then we met the Mennonites, they opened their doors and hearts to us not pushing the denomination, but letting us appreciate their understanding of the Scripture, which resonated very much with our own understanding.
        I agree very much with John’s analysis, and I think that we as human beings have a particular expertise to complicate things that are simple and straight forward; we like to find special twists and digressions to make faith particularly ours, which may not be bad in many other matters, however, when it comes to the essence of God’s intentions, we mostly end up around or far from it.
        Denominations are important whether we recognize it or not, because our sense of identity is there, and when people are trying to claim some bogus denomination, generic Christianity, or even non-denomination, as John point out, to me is the poorest excuse to avoid commitment and responsibility.
I think that the declining church attendance in North America is the result of the large variety of choices/options/tastes being offered as the truth and the subsequent misunderstanding of what church means according to Jesus.
        On the changes of our denominational structures, I both, celebrate and lament. I celebrate changes for they are needed in order to grow personally and as a community of faith, to see with the eyes of God, to reach new milestones, and ultimately as a preparation to the change from the mortal into the immortal. And I lament our blindness, deafness and inability to understand the will of God on all this. I think that we want to equip buggies with jet engines… I think that many things need to change, and we need to seriously seek the wisdom of God on it.

Debra Hansen ’74, Formerly in children’s ministry at First Presbyterian Church (Boulder, Colo.) and now at Calvary Bible Church (Boulder and Erie, Colo.):

How has your faith been impacted by other denominations?      

        Raised Presbyterian, I became aware early on of differences in beliefs, practices, and terminology during times at other denominations’ Vacation Bible School. Especially I remember discussions in regard to altar calls, baptism (sprinkling vs. immersion, infant vs. professing individual), and age of accountability.
        In eighth grade, I attended a summer church camp that brought Presbyterian and Catholic youth and clergy together for a week. During high school I went with my best friend a few times to mass. The protocol of worship was significantly different and the guitar to accompany hymns was an intriguing new practice. During my SST experience, the Baptist pastor and those who came to visit from the United States as short-term missionaries tried to convince me that it was necessary to be baptized a second time by the Holy Spirit. I had never heard of it! Also, while I attended Goshen College, my cousin was serving in Viet Nam. Being in a pacifistic environment created tension for me, but also prompted thoughtful dialogue as I sorted out what I believed.
        When my family lived in Saudi Arabia for three years (1984-87), we participated in an “underground” church composed of a Lebanese Christian, an Orthodox Christian from Ethiopia, several Anglicans from England, a Mennonite family from Paraguay, a Catholic, and Baptist families from Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. We found common ground in foundational beliefs, broke bread together and shared fellowship on Fridays (the Muslim holy day). Although it was illegal for us to meet together for worship, we used the guise of a meal to give legitimacy to our meeting. The love and prayer support of those friends was invaluable in that environment.
        More recently I have been introduced to labyrinths and centering prayer by Episcopalian friends. These disciplines enable me “to be still and know God” without my own agenda being a priority.

What about your own denomination do you hope to share with others?
        Interestingly, I am beginning a new job as Director of Children’s Ministry in another denomination, an Evangelical Free Church next week. The conservative Presbyterian church I was employed with before and this new church generally align in beliefs.
        I would anticipate that baptism could become a topic of conversation. Since Presbyterians cite solid theological rationale for seeing children as members of the “visible” church, we baptize children of professing believers who are heads of households. The validity of the sacrament of baptism is rooted in God’s promise. It is not based on an individual’s testimony to some new spiritual reality.
        Another topic to share might be practices that shape my reverence and love of God, piety. Reformed piety points me to both the spiritual graces and to the practices that instill those graces. I value communion with God and would be interested in exploring how other denominations understand knowing God and experiencing God.

Do you celebrate or lament the changes in denominational structures? Why?
        I more lament than celebrate the changes in denominational structures. One example that mega churches or seeker churches have brought is a change in what constitutes worship. In the Presbyterian Church I appreciate the belief that corporate worship is regulated and limited by God and His Word based on the second commandment and on Leviticus 10. I also welcome that circumstances to accomplish the elements of worship (preaching of the Word and administering the sacraments) are not biblically regulated and are free to be ordered according to human insight and common sense. The expectation is that Scripture will be a major part of worship. It has been sad for me to participate in worship in which the worship team seems to be entertaining the congregation or the preacher gives a synopsis of the latest book he has read.
        I prefer the back and forth of dialogue between God and the congregation. God call us to worship and we respond by entering God’s presence and confessing sin. Next, God assures us of His pardon, and we praise God in prayers and songs for forgiveness. Then, God speaks to us in Scripture, and we respond in thanksgiving and with offerings. God sends us back into the world with His benediction. We expect to serve others with love.

How has your understanding of your denomination changed during your life?
        The Presbyterian Church’s historic involvement in missions was not so evident in the church I grew up in. Only one missionary ever came to report on what she was doing on a college campus to share Christ with others. Since then I have been a member of a church which supports over 30 missionaries with funding and other support as well as sponsors a Missions Awareness Conference annually. I have participated in a short-term mission trip to India to a teaching hospital founded by a Presbyterian pastor/doctor over 100 years ago. I know that the SST experience that I had at Goshen sensitized my heart in ways that I feel the need to be hands-on.
        The kinds of stands the Presbyterian Church as a whole would take on social justice issues sometimes annoyed me. I especially remember in the late 1960s, the support for Angela Davis. I relate much better to opportunities in my own backyard or that I can own in a personal way. I have been part of an outreach through Kids’ Hope USA to a local elementary school in providing mentors for at risk children and events to support the community of teachers and families. Our family also supports a child in Tanzania through Compassion International. The International Justice Mission is another organization that I have become acquainted with through my church denomination. Being able to hear the passion and the stories of God’s intervention from both Wes Stafford of Compassion International and Gary Haugen of IJM have made the difference in my motivation to take action in issues of social justice.

What major factors are most influencing, shaping or changing your denomination today?
  • Decline in regular attendance due to many circumstances: families split by divorce and joint custody of children, not setting worship as a priority, sports events or birthday parties on Sunday mornings, discretionary income for vacations or second homes that pull families away on weekends
  • Loss of members to “nondenominational” churches
  • Preferences for particular worship formats or worship music
  • Social and theological trends that divide liberal and conservative ranks; causes some congregations to lose trust in denominational causes and align with independent ministries
  • Expectation of entitlement to church programs by individuals without the desire to serve or give back
  • Church shopping; no sense of identification with a particular community of believers