Questions and Answers

One of the great privileges of my job is walking with young adults as they process their faith, discern their vocation, and explore what it means to live a life of integrity. As you might expect, this journey is filled with questions. What do I do with the Christian faith that was given to me by my family? Is there a church or faith community that will accept me as I am? Is it possible for the Christian faith connect with my politics and social convictions? What do I do with politicians who came to be pro-life and then advocate for carpet bombing anyone who is declared an enemy? Aren’t issues like climate change, food-justice, police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, immigration reform, and race deeply Christian issues? If so, why don’t we hear about this from the pulpit? This is just a small sampling of the questions my staff and I face on a regular basis. There is never an easy or simple response. I worry that too many church leaders have spent too much time trying to simplify Christianity. As a church leader I understand this temptation. I am not sure if Christianity was ever meant to be simple.

As humans we are complex. We have the capacity to be brilliant and foolish in the same moment. We know how to sacrifice and how to be selfish simultaneously. We can open our pocketbooks for starving children around the world and callously watch the evening news as children died while trying to escape terror and war. We know how to forgive and hold grudges in the same moment.

When young adults come to me complaining about the church, people of faith, and the hypocrisy, I don’t move into defensive mode. When I am confronted by hypocrisy in my life it can either make me angry and resentful or become space of growth.

If the church is going to survive and play an important role for the emerging generation of adults it will have to confront its own hypocrisy. If done well the church will survive and remain a critical voice in a culture looking for moral leadership.

23 years of being pushed, challenged, and prodded

November is an important month for me. It is my New Year. In August of 1994 I joined the ranks of the unemployed. Three months earlier I had submitted a resignation letter to the church where I was working. As I look back on that time it seems clear now I wasn’t being very strategic. My wife was pregnant with our first child, due in September. She was employed, so we would find a way to figure things out. Finances would be tight but we would make it. That plan made sense until September when Rita received notice that she was going to be laid off. By October we were new parents of a baby boy and unemployed. It was a stressful time. On November 1, 1994 the local DOOR board hired me as the new DOOR Denver director. I never imagined staying at DOOR for more than 5-7 years. Here I am 23 years later, still at DOOR. Both our boys have only known me as a dad who works for DOOR.

For me November is a month of reflection and evaluation. When I look back over the two plus decades I have been at DOOR there are a number of reasons why I have stuck around.

I get to work with a group of people who are always challenging me to reexamine my stereotypes and religious prejudices. DOOR’s staff and board leadership come from all kinds of backgrounds. We have the “decent and in order” Presbyterians, the peaceful Mennonites, a Quaker or two, a few Pentecostals, some inspired Lutherans, and more than a few folks just trying to figure out where or if they fit into the denominational landscape. That is only one way to describe DOOR. We are women and men; Americans and immigrants; theologians and artists; gay and straight. We also hold many racial identities- African American, White, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Caribbean, and Asian.

One of the major benefits of working in a diverse environment is the inherent permission to examine, reevaluate, and question my faith perspective. Prior to DOOR, I was a pastor. As a pastor one of the unwritten requirements is to have a solid unshakable faith. While other people could question God, it was my job to be the steady reassuring voice. Over time this began to destroy me. My primary reason for resigning in 1994 was a complete loss of faith in God.

I came to DOOR because I needed a job and the bills needed to be paid. What I have received has been so much more than a source of income for my bills. DOOR became a place where God became real. There is a freedom in pursuing a faith and a God who has no respect for my stereotypes. Working alongside people who do church differently (read: anyone who is not Mennonite) has been enlightening. Praying, laughing, and crying with people of different sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds, and theological perspectives is a contestant reminder that at best I see through a glass dimly.

For too long people of faith have confused “one way” with “everyone better go the same way.” What I have begun to uncover after 23 years is that each of us is a unique individual made in the very image and likeness of God. And God, in God’s grace and mercy, has helped me to walk my path, my one way.

My way or the highway

I am a follower of Jesus, an Executive Director of a national ministry, a student of theology, and an occasional pastor. For the last two decades my underlying motivations and curiosities have revolved around two biblical ideas. The first, Jesus’ prayer that the Kingdom of God could be a reality on earth as it is in heaven. And second, that God so loved the world. As it turns out these are attractive ideas and passages for most Christians. It could be argued that the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16 are the most universally recognized parts of scripture. The attractiveness of these ideas begins to fall apart once we start asking questions. What does the world, and particularly the church, look like when it lives in such a way that heaven and earth are the same? Who is all included in this world that God so loved?

I doubt that it is possible to fully answer these questions in one blog, especially when the church has been trying for 2,000 years. The journey towards loving the world that God loves and living on earth as in heaven can be painful and upsetting, mostly because God doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for our values, rules, or theology.

One of the ways that people of faith have dealt with these passages is to “help” God with the definitions and procedures. It usually goes something like this: yes, God sent God’s Son for the whole world, but if you really want to be included then you need to pray the right prayer, believe like we do, and follow our rules for being a Christian. Living on earth as in heaven means you have to accept “our” understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

I understand why we create rules for living and statements of faith. It helps us to make God more palatable and manageable. Quite frankly it is simpler to be together and worship together if we are all the same. This need to define and contain God is an ancient practice. In John 8 the religious leaders bring a women caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment. Their motives were pure, they wanted a faith that honored God and followed the rules. Jesus just didn’t have the same need for rules designed to control God. For the most part fundamentalism grows out of an honest desire to do right by God. The problem with fundamentalism is that it quickly leads to a “my way or the highway” mentality.

I am part of a denomination that is working through its understanding of sexual orientation. There are those who say if you don’t agree with me, then you are wrong. This is just another way of someone saying I have figured out the box that God belongs in and if you don’t agree with me than you clearly don’t know who God is.

This brings me back to the Kingdom of God on earth and the world that God loves. Whenever people of faith have attempted to define and limit what this is they have gotten themselves in trouble. The truth is that the image of God that we all reflect presents a pretty diverse portrait. Like the apostle Paul, all of us are looking at the Kingdom of God through a glass dimly.

I make no claims to fully understanding who is and is not included, but I suspect that living on earth as it is in heaven means that I need to be open to including, worshipping with, and loving even those with whom I disagree.

Looking for Grace

Later this week Mountain States Mennonite Conference, the conference I am part of, will be hosting its annual assembly. This year’s assembly will be closely watched by Mennonites from across the USA and around the world. Depending on who you ask we are either prophetically leading the church to a new reality or we have come as close as a conference can get to committing the ultimate sin. In February 2014 we licensed an openly gay pastor. In the Mennonite world licensing is the first step on the path to ordination. This decision has pushed our conference to the very center of the Mennonite world. Whether you are a Mennonite of not, the discussion itself is familiar.

On the conservative side it goes something like this:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.”

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”

And on the more liberal side we hear:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.” (I know, both sides claim this one.)

“God created us with particular orientations and desires; let’s celebrate and support these differences.”

“Love is the only biblical orientation.”

So there is a sense in which everyone is claiming to have the moral high ground. Like everyone else I have a bias in this discussion. That is not what I want to talk about.

Is there a way for everyone to back off a bit? I was part of one discussion where someone was so worked up that they began to tap me on the chest with their fingers. Quite frankly once we achieve that level of anger, it is safe to say that the conversation is no longer about the Christian faith.

I have heard people say that more often than not conversations about orientation and Christian faith quickly descend into irrationality. An irrational conversation is frustrating for everyone.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to choose grace over the need to be right. Back when I was in college the popular book Evidence Demands a Verdict was making the rounds. The idea behind this book was to prove to everyone who didn’t hold a certain set of convictions and beliefs about the bible that they were wrong. It took years for me to learn that arguing people to my convictions and beliefs rarely works.

What I have discovered in the last 20 years is that choosing grace is a much better approach. One, it leaves space for me to be wrong and two, it allows the other to be wrong! When we choose grace then it becomes possible to live and worship with those who are different.

There are many people predicting that the Mennonite Church USA is going to split over the sexual orientation controversy. I hope our leaders and the rest of us find the courage to be graceful with each other. It will not always be comfortable or easy, but it might be the most Christian decision we can make.

History

The other week I was at a conference. One of the speakers challenged us as church leaders to “be on the right side of history.” He then went on to reference women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation. I have been thinking about his challenge ever since. On one hand I like the idea of the church being prophetic, creating spaces for those who have been excluded from the table. From a distance it seems heroic. There is also that other hand. I am part of a church tradition that was once referred to as the “radical reformation,” the Anabaptists. Five hundred years ago one of the few things that the Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could agree on was that the Anabaptists should be burned at the stake. Looking back on that period, it is now easy to say that the Anabaptists were on the right side of history. Their emphasis on community, non-violence, and the priesthood of all believers are ideas that have gone mainstream and as a result have been accepted in the church at large.

The result of this is that we have become less radical and more normalized. And normalization has led to institutionalism. This in turn has led to maintaining the status quo (the institution). Although it is true that institutions create stability and help to maintain order, the downside is they do this by resisting change. This resistance can and does lead to being on the wrong side of history.

Even my radical tradition was, and still is among some groups, resistant to inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership. Racism continues to rear its ugly head. Our acculturation has occasionally led to an unwelcoming attitude towards the immigrant. Currently we are either ignoring the sexual orientation debate or threatening to let it tear the church apart.

You see, there is a cost for being on the right side of history, especially in the church. Confronting injustice more often than not leads to misunderstanding and sometimes goes all the way to charges of heresy. Being thrown out of the church for “not holding the correct beliefs” is not fun.

I realize that it is not easy to go to church with people whose beliefs are radically different than the traditional way. If the church is going to be the church, then it needs to figure out how to embrace and include that which is different. It is the only way we can find our way back to the right side of history.

A glimpse into the program I oversee

Brent Davis is a Dweller in our DOOR Hollywood program. Over the last few weeks he took it upon himself to capture the thoughts of recent Discover participants while they stayed at our community house.  It’s a huge blessing, and a fun way to show how God is nudging people to break down single stories in Hollywood through DOOR. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np_JZfxfg38

 

If you are interested in participating in in DOOR, please check out our website – www.DOORnetwork.org

A Christian One-Liner

The other day I was involved in one of those controversial Christian conversations.  As our discussion was wrapping up this person said to me, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin."  Then we hugged and went our separate ways.  This one-liner was not new to me.  As a matter of fact I have heard and used the exact same phase for years. I have probably even uttered it from the pulpit. This time the conversation was a tough one and the phrase did not sound so spiritual.  You see it was the first time I had ever been the target of the line.  To him I was the sinner that needed loving and my prayerfully considered convictions were the sin that needed hating.  Quite frankly it did not feel good to be on the receiving end.  I had been judged to be a sinner.  His love for me, in spite of my sin, did not make me feel any better, respected, or accepted.  I would not be whole until I quit sinning.

I have done a lot of thinking about loving the sinner and hating the sin.  It is one of those statements that sounds good; so good that many of us might even wonder why Jesus didn’t have the wisdom to use it himself.  I could just imagine Jesus as he looked a Peter after the third denial, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The problem with loving the sinner and hating the sin is that it shifts power.  It is an attempt at becoming God.  When I say love the sinner, hate the sin in essence I am saying that I have God knowledge.  I have the ability to name who sinners are and what sin is.  Granted there are times when this seems obvious to all.  Pedophiles and murders are two groups of people that come to mind.  However, most of us live in a world that is much less stark.  As much as many of us would like Scripture to be crystal clear on issues of war, patriotism, sexual orientation, speaking in tongues, hell, heaven, and many others, it isn’t clear.

When believers differ from each other it is tempting to name that difference as sin.  The temptation is especially strong when we believe that we have Scripture on our side.

I remember going to church and being told that drums were a sign of the Devil and that women were not gifted in leadership.  These opinions were held fervently, leaders believed they had God and Scripture backing up their beliefs.  I am glad that the church had the courage to grow beyond those convictions.

I do not know where we are going to end up with the big discussions of today, but I do know that if we keep naming those who are different than us sinners we won’t have the opportunity to see where the spirit of God is leading us.

Imperfect

One of my regular prayers to God goes something like this: “I just want one year to be the perfect year, a year when everything would go according to the plan.  All of my personal and work related budgets would be met; a 10% surplus would be a nice bonus!  In addition I would like all the DOOR evaluations to come back with glowing comments and no suggestions for improvement.  My theological reflections and opinions would be received with open arms.  These reflections would be turned into a book which in turn would become a best seller.  My staff would start from the assumption that I could do no wrong. And finally my computer would be free of bugs and viruses.” God has not granted this prayer request.  I am not perfect, the people around me are not perfect, and it is only on rare occasions that things work according to the plan.  Learning to live with imperfection actually becomes a life skill.  There are even people who tell me that dealing with let-downs and the unexpected is what develops character.  Apparently everything being perfect doesn’t say much about who we are as people; trials, tribulations, and imperfections are the things that make great people.

Here is my question: If this is true for individuals is it also true for the church?  Why is it so important to develop statements of faith that seem to require everyone to think and believe the same way?  Why can’t the church be a little more imperfect?  I am part of Mennonite Church USA.  We are starting to tear apart at the seams around the issue of ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  Some people, and I am speaking specifically to those in leadership, believe that unless we can agree on what the Bible says about this subject we cannot worship together.  From my perspective, and I need to own that it is my perspective, this seems like the pinnacle of spiritual immaturity.  It is the imperfection and differences of opinion that create character and integrity.

There is a story in John 8:1-11 about a woman caught in adultery.  The leaders saw this woman’s imperfection but had no ability to see their own imperfection.  Both the leaders and Jesus wanted the same thing- purity.  Their approaches were so different.  The leaders literally wanted to kill any impurity they found.  Jesus wanted everyone to be more reflective about their own status.  Reflection creates a space for difference and difference allows for character development.

If we are serious about our status as the bride of Christ, then let’s become much more comfortable with difference and imperfection; maybe even embrace those who hold positions about theology we radically disagree with.

Unity

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.”   Have you ever wondered if unity is possible, especially among people of faith?  In my more cynical moments I wonder if the unity that emerged during the council at Jerusalem was a “one-off” event. Today the church seems to make more headlines for its theological division than for its ability to bring folks together.  The reasons for this fracturing are varied and move from humorous to sad.  There is an urban legend about a church that split over a painting in the baptistery that depicted Adam and Eve with belly buttons.  When I was in college I remember debating vigorously about the virgin birth and Jesus’ resurrection.  If someone was on the other side of my position I quickly moved to questioning their faith commitments.

In 2013 many faith battles are directly connected to sexuality.  As more and more churches rethink think their stances on the ordination and marriage of gays and lesbians the church seems less and less unified.  Some church leaders have even taken to starting new denominations over these disputes.

I realize that unity for the sake of unity makes no sense.  After all if everyone is unified in allowing something that is evil to occur then unity is only allowing a mass of folks to do and be wrong.  Unifying people of faith around unity only is pointless at best.

This does not change that Jesus’ final hope for people of faith was that they would be unified (read John 17).  My job provides me with many opportunities to work with both liberal and conservative believers.  If I am honest I see no quick faith fix to the sexuality battles.  Unity is still a possibility.  It will demand something people of faith often confuse with backsliding - compromise.

Like the leaders at the council of Jerusalem the church needs to become less concerned with burdening its membership with unnecessary requirements.  When Jesus was asked what was most important, his response was simple, concise, and profound.  For Jesus everything boiled down to love.  Anything we do as individuals or communities of faith that violates this rule moves all of us towards dis-unity.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “love God, love your neighbor, nothing else matters.”

Thoughts on immigration

“Mr. Obama, tear down this wall.” Can you imagine Enrique Peña Nieto, the 57th President of Mexico, giving this speech?  How would Americans react?  Don’t we have the right and responsibility to protect our land?  To keep our people safe from invaders who would take our jobs and abuse our social systems?

I am old enough to remember when in 1987 then President Regan issued a similar challenge to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall.  Interestingly not many folks took notice when the speech was first delivered; in time this became the prophetic moment of the Regan Presidency.  Within a few years the wall came down and western style freedom spread like wildfire through much of Eastern Europe.

Last week Mennonites from all over the USA gathered in Phoenix, AZ to discuss where they are as a denomination and where they are headed.  The theme was “Citizens of God’s Kingdom.”  I believe that this theme also has the possibility of being a prophetic moment, not only in the life of the Mennonite Church but also in the life of the American Church.  It was a theme which affirmed citizenship in the kingdom of God and the notion that Christianity and the Christian community crosses all borders.

Without a doubt immigration is a controversial political issue.  I sort-of get why, but as a Christian matter I am not sure that there is much controversy.  After all, Jesus calls us to a new understanding of family.  Blood lines no longer define relations.  It possible to say, “Our unity in Jesus trumps blood, borders and anything that would separate us from one another.”  As we all know families need to connect, get together, and fellowship over meals.  Anything, including politics, which prevents this from happening, needs to be called out.

So maybe it is time for a new speech, this time from people of faith – “Mr. Obama tear down that wall.”

Judgment

Ministry and judgment seem to go hand in hand.  I am not sure this is healthy or right, but it is reality.  It would also be nice to say that I have managed to stay above the judgment fray, but that would be less than truthful.  It still bothers me when I feel like I have been or the work I do has been judged.  After 19 years of leading an ecumenically diverse organization, judgment is just part of the employment package. I have been described as liberal and have been written off as a conservative.  To some I am too pro-life while others only think of me as pro-choice.  Jesus freak and Universalist have been used regularly.  If I spend too much time thinking about these labels a type of schizophrenia sets in.  However, if I am honest with myself all of the labels fit.

After 19 years of interacting with Christians of all stripes I have become convinced that judging and labeling each other is mostly a silly activity.  The God of Scripture is not easily definable.  Choice, life, exclusive and inclusive all help to describe God.  Yet Christians have used these terms and others to define who is not on God’s side.

Where does this need to judge and condemn come from?  Maybe we need to be a little less exclusive in our understanding of who is in and who is out.  What would happen if we started from a place of openness?  I think the Apostle Paul says something similar in I Corinthians, “and now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”

Diversity on Sunday Morning

This past Sunday, Easter 2013, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about diversity in houses of worship. Apparently 9 in 10 churches in America have no significant racial diversity. Not a big improvement from 1956 when Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. When almost every other segment of society has embraced differences and diversity why is the church so resistant to change? In the evangelical world there are white and black understandings. When it comes to social issues there are the progressive churches, those open to LGBTQ people, and there are the conservative churches, the hate-the-sin-and-love-the-sinner people. Denominationally there are Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, African Methodist Episcopal, non-denominational, emergent and anarchist varieties. There is high church and low church. Peace churches and Patriotic churches. There are traditions that make space for women in leadership and churches that call men to retake their God-given headship. There are house churches and mega churches. From what I can tell everyone thinks they have "the" correct understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

This is not a blog intended to persuade you to my particular understanding of the Christian faith. To be honest my goal is simpler and possibly more radical. My thoughts go all the way back to my time in seminary when I participated in a church planting class. The entire course revolved around one central idea - the Homogeneous Unit Principle. In short this principle says that churches will grow when you bring people together who look the same, believe the same, are of the same economic status and hold a similar world view.

When I look at much of the church today the truth of this principle is certainly born out. People want to worship in spaces where they will feel comfortable. I understand this desire; I am just not sure if this desire is particularly Christian.

From what I have observed the Homogeneous Unit Principle tends to benefit the powerful. In its most dangerous form the powerful, read Conservative Christian Church, assumes it has the right to speak for everyone, including God.

Now, back to my proposal, when it comes to the life of the church we need to understand the Homogeneous Unit Principle as appalling evil. Christianity was never intended to be a gathering of people who are exactly the same. It sort of flies in the face of the children’s song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Paul’s image of the body, Jesus disciples, and the entire book of Acts are a few other examples that highlight the wonderful diversity of the Church.

Imagine with me for a moment. What would happen if progressives joined conservative churches and conservatives joined progressive churches? Not with any agenda beyond recognizing that we are children of God and have much to learn from each other. Can you imagine suburbanites worshipping in urban churches and urbanites being welcomed as full members into suburban churches? How about Catholics worshipping in Mennonite congregations and Mennonites participating in the life Southern Baptist congregations? Understanding develops empathy and empathy creates a space for conversation, conversation opens the door to conversion and all of this leads to a Christianity that changes the world.

Tension

This summer almost 3,000 youth and young adults will descend into one of our six DOOR cities and participate in a week of service, mission, guided reflection, and learning. For the most part everything will go well. Participants will go home with a new appreciation of the city and how God is working in the urban world. Lives will be changed, hearts will be softened, and negative stereotypes will begin to crumble. For over 20 years I have had the privilege of giving witness to what happens when people begin to see the world from a new perspective - a perspective which includes people who look different, think different, eat differently, and worship differently.

Sometimes I wonder about the process of getting participants to this space. So much about mission and service projects is about bringing something to a people or place that they couldn’t get on their own. Years ago there was a mission project in Denver that welcomed incoming groups with the slogan, “Welcome to Denver, Denver needs you!” The more I thought about this the more it bothered me. Denver needs you? Really? If these groups didn’t come to Denver would Denver have fallen apart? Weren’t there already local churches, pastors, and laity in Denver serving?

The temptation in recruiting participants into the DOOR program is to talk about the city in a negative light. After all why would anyone go on or support a mission trip where the service location was talked about positively? According to Robert Lupton there is a certain amount of ego satisfaction going to places where we will be viewed as frontline troops placing ourselves in the gap between the grace of God and evil forces that threaten to take over. This perspective does have a certain heroic quality, but it isn’t accurate.

The city is an amazing place. It is true that bad things happen and the needs are great, but this is only a minor part of the story. It is in the city where God is gathering all the peoples of the world. Old divisions like liberal, conservative, Presbyterian, Baptist, White, and Black just don’t matter as much. For urban people it is much simpler to define each other by what is held in common than what is different. People who participate in DOOR do help out and that is greatly appreciated, but this is far outweighed by the lessons that urbanites impart to our DOOR participants.

Judgment

I bought a new bible last week. Cokesbury is closing all its retail stores so now is a great time to get a great deal on a new bible! This whole process of looking for a new bible sent me down memory lane. I still have the bible I used as a teen. On the inside cover I found the following quote:

“No two Christians are exactly alike, some wear their hair quite long, others wear it fairly short, some Christians have black skin, others have skin that is yellow or white; some Christians have little education, others have graduate degrees; some Christians are poor, others are rich; some Christians enjoy using guitars and drums in church, other are opposed to using any instruments.”

A day or two after purchasing my new bible I was part of a phone conversation where the person on the other end of the line declared that I was clearly not a Christian. He then proceeded to pray the sinner’s prayer over me not once but multiple times. I must say it is interesting to be thought of as a person without faith.

This experience has caused a lot of reflection in my own life. Not about my commitment to Jesus, but about how many times I have questioned some else’s faith or commitment to their faith simply because it did not reflect my commitments.

I am known for telling people that God does not come to us for permission. We, humanity, are not the gatekeepers for God. Declaring someone outside of the kingdom of God has never been our responsibility. Allowing God to be God is not easy or comfortable. If you are like me you want God to be on your side. I would like to think that my values line up with God’s. This is what the church is called to do, remind us of God’s values. The struggle to be as radically accepting and inclusive as God can be disturbing.

In my work I get to see and work with Christians of all stripes. There are the patriots and those who call us to a global citizenship. I have worked side-by-side with pro-life and pro-choice believers. Some believers are convinced that the rapture is coming and others see it as the greatest scam ever pulled on Christians. This list could go on for quite a while. Here is my point, for reasons that are only known to God Christians don’t always agree. Our disagreements can seem quite significant. These disagreements should never be cause for declaring that someone is outside the kingdom of God.

How would Christianity be different if we started with the supposition that everyone is a child of God; that each person’s beliefs, political positions, immigration status, and citizenship are simply inconsequential?

The Mission Trip – why go

I remember the first time I approached the church elders about the possibility of taking the youth on a “Service/Mission Trip” – it was 1992.  Their initial response was somewhat disheartening.  Couldn’t we do the same thing and stay at home?  This option helped to “protect” the budget.  There were those who saw this as a smoke screen whose real purpose was to get the church to pay for a youth group vacation. To be honest, these were and still are good questions.  Why should we spend so much time, effort and money on the annual service trip?

  1. These experiences open us to the wide variety of ways in which God works in our world.  I am constantly amazed and surprised with God’s complete disrespect for the boxes I want to put God in.  Service trips have a way of opening our eyes to a God who is working in and through all kinds of different people, ministries and even non-faith-based groups or individuals.
  2. More often than not service trips provide opportunities to work with other denominations and faith traditions.  Having the opportunity to work with and alongside people who come from a different faith perspective can be energizing.  It develops the courage to do this at home.  Learning to move beyond the walls that so easily divide the church is kingdom building.
  3. Service trips allow us to experiment with John 13 - washing feet.  In this passage Jesus even washes Judas’ feet, his betrayer.  This is not always easy; as a matter of fact it can be hard.  Taking up the cross to follow may mean cleaning toilets in a homeless shelter.  Living for Jesus is a lifestyle, not a week or a slogan but rather it is a value, a way of treating even our enemy.
  4. These experiences provide opportunities to work with people who are “different.”  The difference may be with age, race, gender, orientation, physical ability, education, nationality, language, or politics.  Learning how to see the other as a child of God, even when that person shares very little in common with me answers the question, “what would Jesus do?”  It helps us to better understand Philippians 2 where Paul asks the church to consider others as better than themselves, looking to the interest of others.
  5. Service trips begin to develop a new way of seeing the world.  Cities are not just bad places; they are filled with creativity and hope.  The homeless are not all derelicts, shelters are not all clean, and God does not live only in suburban churches.

These are some of my reasons for taking your group on a service trip.

Why DOOR?

If you are a leader of a group or the person charge of finding a service/learning opportunity for 2013, then this blog is for you! Here are my top 10 reasons for considering DOOR:

  1. We are an “asset based” organization.  We believe that God is alive and well and working our cities.  Yes there are needs, issues and problems in the city, but the hope, resourcefulness and life in the city far outweigh the negatives.  Another way to think about this is that the biblical story starts in a garden, but ends in a city.  If you want to know what heaven is going to be like, come to the city!
  1. There are 6 great locations to come and witness what God is doing - Atlanta, Chicago, Denver,      Hollywood, Miami, and San Antonio.
  1. The $305.00 per person cost covers meals, staffing, lodging and reflection.  This frees leaders to spend time getting to know the members of their group – doing the pastoral stuff without      having to sweat the logistics.
  1. 2013 marks our 26th year, we began in 1986.  We have the experience and knowhow.
  1. We hire local City Directors; these are folks who know the city and who call it their home.  If you break down, it’s their mechanic you’re calling.  When you leave, the relationships with agencies, speakers and neighborhoods remain and grow  year to year.
  1. Our relationship to local      helping agencies, ministries and churches is grounded in authentic      relationships.  On average each of      our cities we work with 30-50 agencies, ministries and churches.  That’s a potential national network of      300.
  1. The fee you pay helps DOOR hire local staff and purchases food and materials at local businesses.  You are not only getting a good value for your money, but it is spent in such a way as to benefit the local community.
  1. Our commitment to “partnership.”  We partner with other organizations and institutions because we believe that we have much to learn from others and the combination of DOOR with our partners creates a better experience for participants.  We believe that service minded learning is best accomplished collaboratively.  Listening and learning from various voices serves to enhance one’s understanding of God and God’s call.  We believe in hearing God's call within community at both the individual level as well as our organizational level. This commitment to partnership extends to all levels of DOOR’s programming.  Nationally, we are a network of cities and denominations partnering with each other to provide learning. Locally we work with various faith based and non-faith based service agencies. We are committed to connecting participants to local urban congregations representing various denominational and cultural traditions.
  1. Our commitments to reconciliation peace, non-violence and justice.  From race to nationality and from denomination to local church our programming, our training and our philosophies challenge us to reconcile the sins and hurts of the past and to move forward together with God.
  1. Finally, take home new energy, focus, and ideas for ministry in your home congregation and neighborhood. Interacting with urban service agencies, local congregations, and DOOR staff can help your group consider how to live out the Gospel in new ways at home.

The Church

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to work with church leaders and members from many different faith traditions.  Some come from very structured church communities while others come from less formal more Pentecostal contexts.  There are churches that see the Bible as one of many holy books they would turn to for advice, while others come from traditions where the Bible is viewed as the inerrant word of God and the only Holy Scripture that should be consulted.  The labels people of faith give themselves and each other are telling as well - Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Liberal, Progressive, etc. After almost two decades of interacting and leading all these different “Christian” groups I find myself fascinated by the similarities between the extremes.  Take for example Scripture.  Both Liberals and Conservatives require a high degree of “Selective Reading” in order to maintain their understanding and reworking of the Christian faith.

My more liberal (or progressive) brothers and sisters don’t really like the Apostle Paul.  They seem him as a sexist and homophobe.  More often than not their approach is to simply ignore Paul and focus on Jesus and his message of Grace.

My more fundamental (or evangelical) brothers and sisters have so confused American Civil religion and Scripture that they can no longer tell the difference between the two.  Take for example the “life issue.”  The vast majority of conservatives are both pro-life and pro-war; at best this is an oxymoron.

I cannot help but wonder what it would mean for the church to take Scripture seriously.  Conservatives would have to give up their sexism, homophobia and need for violence.  Liberals would have to give up their eliteness, smugness and educational arrogance.

Here is the good news.  Every week DOOR hosts multiple church groups, representing a wide spectrum of the Christian faith community.  It is true that the church leaders sometimes judge and condemn each other, but the youth have very little interest in finding reasons to divide.  They are interested in a Christian faith that moves beyond posturing, politics and rhetoric.  For them faith is about taking Scripture seriously, loving God and loving neighbor.  When this happens walls of division become unimportant.

The Future

I am always a little skeptical when people start trying to predict the future.  At best it is foolish and at worst manipulative.  For example, I have been predicting that the Broncos will win the Super Bowl for the last 10 years.  If you are a follower of football, you are well aware of my predicting ability.  If you are not a follower of football, all you need to know is that I am 0 for 10. A couple of weeks ago I was part of a conversation about the future of the church.  Somewhere in the middle of our discussion the following prediction was made – the day of churches running existing programs or starting new programs is over and the era of the movement has begun.  Initially I blew this comment off, but in the weeks since this theme has continued to surface in other conversations.

Recognizing the dangers of predicting what the future holds, it is still interesting to think about where the church is heading.  What does it mean to move from program based church to a more movement orientated church? Is this a good thing?

Programs can tend to be top down, control orientated and overly structured.  At their worst programs are sterile inauthentic structures intended to bring people together in predictable ways.

As I have reflected on the idea of “movement,” images such as organic, shared leadership, bottom up, low structure, and highly flexible come to mind.  These images have an inviting and inclusive quality to them.

I do not know if church and denominationally run programs are going to disappear in the next decade, but I do like the idea of moving from program to movement.

Defining Church

When does a gathering of people become more than a gathering?  More specifically, when does a gathered group become a church?  And who gets to define what a church should look like?  How critical are committees and ordained staff in defining church? According to scripture, when two or three are gathered Jesus is there.  Not one word about a building committee, ordained bishops or youth ministry.

Have we made church too complicated?

At a practical level it makes sense to conduct ourselves decently and in order.  It is empowering to have a set of rules.   It also helps us to define who can be in and who is out.

The downside to tightly defined rules for what makes a church a church is that it leads to legalism.  Jesus, the head of the church, was not known for being a legalist.

When we put the power to decide what makes a church a church in the hands of a committee, it is at best disempowering and at worst discouraging to new creative expressions of church.

Is there a downside to shifting the responsibility of defining church from conference (leadership) to the group requesting membership?  I suspect this kind of shift would be empowering and freeing for everyone involved.  Instead of having to insure that a procedure was followed, time would be spent listening to stories and figuring out how both sides can come together.  Relationship would take precedence over procedure.

Having a more open approach to defining church has the potential to radically reshape denominations.  This may make some people uncomfortable.  That said I believe the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Mennonite Church USA Project

For the past year I have been part of a three member urban church listening team for Mennonite Church USA.  The following is the final report from that tour.  It is a long document, but your thoughts and comments would be appreciated:

Building Community and Starting Conversations

The Urban Tour Report

Hugo Saucedo, Glenn Balzer, Marie Voth

November 19, 2010

In September 2009, the One Voice Team, a collaborative group of Mennonite Church USA leaders, commissioned a team of denominational leaders to begin the work of building relationships between conferences, congregations and the denomination.  The denominational ministry team was asked to focus on the following: Church Planting, Peace and Justice, Racial/Ethnic relationships, Missional Church and Urban Ministry.

 The two of us, Hugo Saucedo, Director, Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), and Glenn Balzer, National Director of Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR), were asked to give leadership for the Urban Ministry portion of the Denominational Ministry team.  Marie Voth was later added as the third member of this team.

The tour began in January 2010 and wrapped up in September 2010. It included visits with pastors and urban leaders from the following 18 locations/regions:

  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Denver, CO
  • Chicago, IL
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Minneapolis/ St. Paul, MN
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Raleigh/ Durham, NC
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Seattle, WA
  • San Antonio, TX
  • Dallas, TX
  • Tampa/ Sarasota, FL
  • New York City, NY
  • Hampton/ Newport News, VA
  • Washington DC/ Baltimore, MD
  • Cleveland, OH
  • Portland, OR

 During each visit, we asked the following four questions:

  • Who are you?
  • How are you?
  • What are the things that you do well?
  • How can Mennonite Church USA be helpful?

 We want to remind readers that this report grows out of the stories we heard; we make no claims that this was an objective or scientific study.  We believe that there is value in the subjective nature of our tour. By listening to stories, we began to build relationships.  Stories have a unique power; they are a gateway of sorts into the soul of the urban community. It was clear that stories and relationships held more value in the urban community than any scientific study.

Many people voiced frustration about being visited for yet another urban study, especially since they had not seen any changes or improvements because of previous studies and reports.

The intent of this report is (1) to summarize the major themes that emerged during the tour, (2) to be a starting point for discussion about urban ministry within Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA), and (3) to present recommendations to the leadership of MCUSA about the future of Urban Ministry within the context of our denomination. This report is a first step in this continuing discussion and relationship.

Over the course of the tour many ideas, issues and concerns have been brought to the table.  The conversations have been lively and filled with agreement, disagreement, frustration, joy and raw emotion.  After much reflection and discussion by and between the members of this team, we divided what we heard into four major categories: Diversity, Institution, Being an Urban Mennonite, and Different Manifestations of Church.

 Diversity

 Diversity includes controversial subjects, but addressing all the questions that diversity raises is critical to who we as MCUSA will become.  How different can church members be from each other and still worship together or claim the same faith?  Is the church big enough to hold the diversity?  Does difference demand that churches or members separate from each other?  What does it mean to embrace all this diversity and still be one church?  Is it even possible to do this?  If not, where or how does MCUSA begin to talk about what is and is not acceptable?

Thoughts from the road…

We are “multi-“ racial, cultural, lingual, class, theological. That is good, but our multi- nature is primarily between congregations and not within congregations. We appreciate our differences when we get together but when it comes to Sunday worship we are still segregated.

        ~Chicago

The Mennonite thing doesn’t always lend itself to diversity.

        ~Minneapolis

It’s a myth that people with different understandings of theology can’t worship together.

        ~Philadelphia

In other places there could be different (Mennonite) churches with a clearer/ unanimous vision. We’re all kind of stuck with each other, which is probably how the church ought to be.

        ~Portland

 It is not how you deal with diversity as much as how the other person deals with diversity. Some people view diversity as healthy or tolerant. Others feel that to be faithful, you have to be in an active defensive position against the thing that is different from you. The act of faithfulness is equated with being defensive. That is difficult. It can be easy to demonize a fundamentalist, conservative mind. But I need to understand that they want to be faithful.

        ~A pastor from Portland recognizing that different theological approaches to diversity are important

 Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference is a conference that experiences diversity at every conceivable level; from immigrant churches to traditional European Mennonite congregations; congregations working through gender/sexuality inclusion issues and those working with drug, prostitution and homeless issue; from highly educated people to people who have not had educational opportunities; from Pentecostal to quiet. In the midst of all of this, they are conducting services and holding meetings with at least 10 different languages represented.

It can be a battle for what diversity takes priority.

        ~Hampton

Congregations do very little dialogue on issues like this. They often embrace the view from the pulpit.

        ~Cleveland

Congregations that have a lot of diversity focus on coming together. Congregations that have little diversity tend to focus on differences.

        ~Cleveland

Engagement with the urban Mennonite church means encountering diversity. The urban churches of MCUSA represent a good portion of the diversity present in America today.  When it came to discussing diversity, the questions back to the team were often pointed and personal.  Is MCUSA able (willing) to contain the breadth and width of the diversity that is present within the urban church?  Can MCUSA celebrate diversity when people feel rejected and devalued?  Are leaders and members of MCUSA truly in relationship with every brother and sister or are some held up as tokens?  If MCUSA is going to be authentically urban, then questions like these cannot be avoided.

Our urban brothers and sisters are creating spaces where differences can be talked about, argued about, embraced, struggled with, and respected.  More often than not, these conversations are filled with pain, misunderstanding, frustration and love. Diverse gatherings consume a tremendous amount of emotional energy.  It is imperative that MCUSA find ways to communicate across multiple cultures.  Everywhere we went people expressed a commitment to intercultural respect, but the “how to do this” part is not so easy.  How do leaders train for this?  How should it look when MCUSA and conferences conduct meetings where multiple cultures are represented?  Does one assume that everyone understands English and its cultural nuances?  Where does MCUSA find the inter-cultural experts skilled in helping churches and conferences navigate these issues?

Diversity is much more than culture and language. Diversity also includes differences in theology, education, socio-economic status, political views, age, and family configuration and different understandings of gender roles, military participation, and sexual orientation.  Picking and choosing which diversity to embrace only causes more pain. 

 Everywhere we went people claimed some level of diversity.  It seemed to us that healthy conferences and churches understood that diversity adds something important to the life of the body.  Congregational life is enhanced when members with different cultures, backgrounds, and ideas add their gifts to the community.

 Diversity has an ugly side as well.  While it provides space for opportunity and celebration, it also carries the potential for pain and rejection. No one has ever suggested that the church become less diverse.  But tension quickly emerges when we start talking about our differences, especially when the differences appear to cross a theological line. Sometimes inclusion of one diversity seems to result in the rejection of another.

 Many churches have or are struggling with issues involving diversity.  Several churches are currently having congregational discussions about diversity related issues. Other pastors expressed pain because of conference discipline based on a congregational position (i.e. on sexual orientation) or because of institutional racism and ethnocentrism.

 In the words of one pastor, “We are enriched by diversity but we can’t sit back and let it happen.” There are amazing examples of churches, groups, and conferences who choose to worship together despite their differences. Welcoming, embracing, and integrating a diverse group of people takes work, patience, and grace. 

Institution

Pastors and ministry leaders asked hard questions and challenged the Mennonite institution(s) in a variety of ways – what follows are, for the most part, unedited comments:

Treat city and urban areas with the same standards as other areas

        ~Philadelphia

MCUSA needs to look at itself, at the institution. It doesn’t reflect the new urban reality and diversity

        ~Philadelphia

Leadership in all areas is too heavily ethnic (Anglo) Mennonite

        ~Denver

Leadership should not be so afraid to tell the truth - they need to learn to take a stand

        ~San Francisco

The current language from MCUSA is dividing-“ urban”,” church of color”,” minority”

        ~Philadelphia

Find ways to walk alongside and support the work and vision of local conferences and churches. Sometimes MCUSA/MMN only seems interested in inserting its own programs and these are not necessarily programs that the conference needs or the only way conferences would like to engage with MCUSA/MMN.

        ~Denver

Everything should be geared towards empowering the local congregation

        ~Raleigh/Durham

Make room at the table for those with significant variances to the confession of faith

        ~Chicago

The confession of faith has become a rigid document designed to exclude people

        ~San Francisco

Need to go back to the core, to the foundation of what makes us Mennonite and Anabaptist; to what sets apart our doctrine. Cultures have become the focus. We need to put the core vision in front.

We need to articulate “what it means to be a Mennonite” using language that people understand.

        ~Los Angeles

Be clear in the distinction between Anabaptist theology and Mennonite culture. The clothing people want is Anabaptism, not Germanic heritage.

        ~Seattle

Understand and demonstrate that mission is not just overseas

        ~Los Angeles

They like the MMN tagline- “across the street and around the world” and would like to see a good balance between the two. If we continue flubbing “across the street,” there may not be an “around the world.”

        ~Phoenix

Renewed focus on church planting

        ~Phoenix

Some of the staff and leadership of MCUSA should live in urban areas to get a better feel for them. They should be more visible away from the center.

        ~Minneapolis

Create a larger category of “partner in mission/ministry” for groups that aren’t quite traditional churches, like intentional communities

        ~Minneapolis

What is the role of the conference versus the national structure?

        ~Raleigh/Durham

How can we nationalize urban projects that come from the urban people, not MMN?

        ~Tampa

Control doesn’t make the church better.

        ~Tampa

Tradition is killing the Mennonite Church. We must innovate and bring new things.

        ~Tampa

If you are going to help somebody, ask what they need. Don’t just give without asking.

        ~Washington DC

VMC has a membership category for people in the military. Why can’t we do the same for LGTB persons?

        ~Washington DC

What would it be like for MCUSA to claim the early Anabaptist vision? The movement started in the city. The city was not seen as a bad place but as a place to engage and converse with people.

        ~Portland

Quit parachuting leaders into urban areas

        ~Los Angeles

Take the needs of bi-vocational pastors into consideration when planning meetings and events

        ~Dallas

Have the church/ institution become the policing agency instead of the (Gospel) delivery system?

        ~Hampton

I sometimes wonder if MCUSA is trying too hard to portray an image of diversity (that may not be accurate) in our advertising and publications

        ~Cleveland

When talking about the Mennonite institution(s) it became clear that in general urban Mennonites do not draw all the same lines of distinction that those who are closer to these structures do.

Acronyms (institutions) like MMN, MCUSA, MEDA, MCC, MDS, MVS, MEA and MMA (now Everence) are not always understood to be distinct.  The confusion only increases when we talk about different programs within a particular institution.

Attitudes towards institution (denomination and local conference) varied greatly.  Some churches are grateful for their local conference.  Other churches are angry at their local conference and/or MCUSA.   In some cases, we fielded questions about the unwillingness of MCUSA to step in and fix the layering of conferences, particularly in the east.   Others were indifferent and ambivalent towards both.  Some openly questioned the relevance of the institutions. 

One thing is clear, urban congregations are becoming less dependent on institution.   This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways.  On the positive side, frustration with the institution has given way to local empowerment.  If the institution is not going to help the local church, then they will figure it out for themselves.  On the negative side, frustration with the institution has lead to feelings of abandonment and not really belonging.  Among some churches of color, there is a sense of being used; that MCUSA only turns to them when a good diverse photo shoot is needed.

There was also recognition that MCUSA institutions can be helpful and supportive. MBM and MMN helped nurture the church start in Albuquerque, which is now a thriving congregation. Churches with MVS units see them as vital to their congregational mission. Many churches said they would like a MVS or Service Adventure unit in their city. Some pastors said that information and programs from MCC and MMN help their church feel more connected with the larger Mennonite church, both in the US and around the world. One conference noted that they also need to be open to allowing institutional people come in.

In Hampton, VA, we had a vigorous discussion regarding MMA’s decision to rebrand and become Everence.  Is it time for MCUSA to consider rebranding?  If MCUSA wants to be a diverse denomination, it is important to recognize that here in America “Mennonite” known more as a culture than as a denomination.  It would be wonderful to say “Mennonite” and not jump to a mental image that looks more Amish than African American.  Mennonite theology is solid, but MCUSA branding leaves much to be desired.  The road to diversity will ask MCUSA to consider branding and presentation.

One pastor from Raleigh suggested that the institution’s purpose is not to be nimble, but to pay attention to the witness of those who came before, to tell the stories of the dead and to know the faith of our ancestors.

When asked how MCUSA could be helpful, relationships and resources were the top responses. In many cases, churches meant financial resources. We believe this to be a reflection of the economic realities many congregations face.

More than money, pastors and leaders have a strong desire for real relationships- with MCUSA, local conferences, other urban areas, and within their own cities. It was clear that all these relationships need to be non-conditional. MCUSA and conferences need to provide movement space without telling local groups and congregations what to do, without controlling relationships and conversations.  MCUSA needs to learn how to engage without needing to control.  It is of critical importance that relationship and networking take place in a context of mutuality and partnership.

Many leaders asked for resources including curriculum, peace building and conflict resolution training, church planting assistance, MVS units, materials (translated into Spanish and French), consulting and local mission expertise. Some churches would also like help in developing best practices or help in facilitating open discussion on divisive issues.

A number of leaders lamented that our Mennonite Schools of higher education have become inaccessible, from a financial and location perspective.  They are viewed as being too expensive and too rural.

When we spoke with leaders who have come to the Mennonite Church by choice as opposed to birth, they often talked about feeling like outsiders.  How does MCUSA work with and include people who have adopted the Mennonite church?

Being an Urban Mennonite

The urban Mennonite Church is thriving and creative, made up of a plethora of cultures including both immigrant and US born.  As the tour progressed, it became increasingly clear that people join and participate in the church because of the theology – active faith, peace-building, and community make sense in the urban world. 

While Anabaptist theology works well in the city, Mennonite culture does not always translate.  The tension between theological and cultural understandings of being “Mennonite” is significant.   Urban leaders of color tend to believe that the North American Mennonite Church is primarily controlled by cultural Mennonites.  No one is arguing that being a cultural Mennonite is wrong, but frustrations arise when cultural heritage becomes an advantage when seeking denominational leadership. The ethnic/ non-ethnic Mennonite divide can also hinder effective communication.

Another urban reality is the emergence of commuter churches.  These are churches where the meeting space is in a neighborhood that is separate and different from the neighborhood(s) where members of the congregation lives.  These worshipping groups are grappling with being a presence in the community in which the church facility is located. This issue only intensifies when a neighborhood changes from one culture to another; often this change is from white to brown.

We also encountered urban churches best described as a gathering of Mennonites who have “fled” to the city.  These churches are made up of MVS alumni, graduates from Mennonite Colleges who have moved to the city for work and friends, and people escaping the narrow theological confines of home.  In the city, they have created communities where it is possible to hold on to what they would define as the central core of Anabaptist theology with the space to be progressive theologically.  Not surprisingly, these churches often find themselves in conflict theologically with immigrant churches.

The networking ability of urban pastors is impressive.  They instinctively understand the need to partner.  It is second nature for urban leaders to connect across of traditional and non-traditional lines.  It was not unusual to hear stories of how local churches have forged working relationships with other Christian and non-Christian leaders on various community issues and initiatives.

Urban Mennonites are on the front lines of issues and concerns that the larger church will eventually have to deal with.  These are the leaders who are/were the first to deal with inter-cultural communication, women in leadership, sexual orientation, immigrant concerns, cost of living and race.   Is MCUSA prepared to include undocumented pastors at all levels of church leadership?  Are seminaries preparing future pastors for bi-vocational leadership? 

The city can be an overwhelming place for pastors.  How does one balance the needs of everyone in the congregation, especially as it tends to function as an extended family?  What does it mean to serve the poor and the rich?  What does it mean to be a place of healing and reconciliation for those who have been hurt by the church?  Raising a family is expensive.  What does it mean to be a good parent and a good pastor?  Cities tend to be transient.  What does it mean to be a place of stability in a shifting world?

Churches in urban locations stand in a place of unique convergence.  Young ethnic Mennonites are moving to the city at an increasing pace and non-ethnics are joining the ranks of the Mennonite church at an astonishing level.  The challenge for Mennonites at all levels (local, conference, and national) is to intentionally engage, listen to, and provide leadership opportunities for young adults and new Mennonites.

The Different Manifestations of Church

Mountain States Mennonite Conference recently commissioned a task force whose express purpose is to explore and encourage emerging manifestations of the kingdom of God.  Right from its inception, this group recognized that traditional church models would not be a primary focus.

In Minneapolis, there are growing intentional communities who have adopted Anabaptist theology and the Mennonite church.  They look a whole lot like the Acts 2:44-46 church. Central Plains Mennonite Conference created a conference membership category for these groups.

In Seattle and Philadelphia, there are churches with creative facility usage that allow them to connect with the local community and stay financially solvent through rental agreements.

 In Denver, a group of young adults meets regularly for community, spiritual discussion, and an opportunity to sing out of the blue hymnal.  They do not want to be called a church.  That level of organization is something they are intentionally avoiding.

In Philadelphia, Kingdom Builders is a relationship-based network of local pastors, conference leaders, and ministry leaders who meet regularly.  Area Mennonite conferences claim this group, but the gathering is much more than just Mennonite.   Kingdom Builders does not seem to make any distinction between those who are part of the institution and those who are not.  Do we have space to include leaders, churches and ministries who share Anabaptist convictions but have no interest in being a part of MCUSA?

In Washington DC, there is a church that is connected to MCUSA, but they self-describe as being inter-denominational.  What does it mean to be one part of a greater whole?  Can MCUSA engage churches like this?  They want the accountability of a larger institutional body, but they need the freedom to be more than just another Mennonite church.  Is it possible that this is what “missional” is?

Bi-vocational pastors lead many of our immigrant churches.  At an institutional level, MCUSA likes to claim these churches.  At a practical level, MCUSA is still trying to figure out how to include these leaders and congregations.

There are groups that self describe as “urban Anabaptists.” They like the theology but are not universally interested in the institutional church. How does the institution (conferences and MCUSA) include these leaders in the church? Do leaders need to rethink what membership in MCUSA looks like?  When does a worshipping group become a church?  Many people are not ready to be a church because of past hurts. What does it mean to include without being overly formal about the inclusion?

Conclusion

All of us on the team have considered it a privilege to participate in this project.  The urban Mennonite church is alive, well and thriving.  We have become convinced that the future of MCUSA is inextricably tied to the health and vitality of our urban brothers and sisters.

It is possible to view the issues of Diversity, Institution, Being an Urban Mennonite and Different Manifestations of the Church negatively.  Doing so would be a misunderstanding of this report.  The tough statements and frustration are out of a stance of engagement not rejection, resignation, or apathy. Choosing to engage each of these concerns positively and with intentionality will only serve to make MCUSA a healthier, stronger and more prophetic church.

Does it make sense for MCUSA to have a national urban strategy?  After nine months and countless conversations, we believe that the answer is yes.  It is critical that any urban strategy be developed and owned by urban people.  With this in mind, we offer the following possibilities and suggestions; understanding that this is just the first step towards what we hope will be a healthy national urban agenda.

We, participants at the Urban Leaders Summit, make the following recommendations to the Executive Board of MCUSA and its staff:

Recommendation #1A

Develop a national urban strategy. This strategy should include the identifying and training of inter-cultural urban specialists and leaders.  There is an urgent need for leaders who know how to communicate across multiple cultures and theological perspectives.

Recommendation #1B

Develop a national networking/ listening team.  Ideally this would be a 2-4 person team inclusive of active leaders who remain engaged in their local urban community.   It is critical that this team be given 5-7 years of “open job-description” time.   Members of the team would need to commit to this time frame as well.  This first 5-7 years would be dedicated primarily to building relationships and trust.

Recommendation #2

Create a variety of spaces and opportunities for urban people working on similar issues to get together and have focused conversations.  We imagine gatherings of intentional community leaders, bi-vocational pastors, immigrant church leaders, pastors leading multi-cultural churches, and so on.

Recommendation #3

Develop and implement a clear path for entry, engagement, or membership for urban Mennonite leaders, affinity groups, and potential congregations with both conference and denomination.

Recommendation #4

Provide marketing and communication resources for local urban congregations and conferences in a contextually appropriate way, recognizing that urban congregations may or may not use the Mennonite name but hold the values of the Anabaptist theology.

Recommendation #5

Have the current listening team and Nicole Francisco, Abraham Thomas, and Matthew Krabill meet with the Executive Board of MCUSA at their earliest convenience to present this report and recommendations.