A Mennonite Identity in the Twenty First Century, Jonas H Yoder, April 1999 (United States)
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Since Martin Luther spoke those famous words to the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, there has been a wide potpourri of beliefs and religions take form in the last couple of centuries. Mennonites are a product of this. Since Luther made this decree, religions seemed to split into many different forms and sizes. These religions range widely today as relates to core beliefs Mennonites themselves are the product of several schisms. As we head into a new century, there are many problems that make me wonder if we as Mennonites are going to have a major schism in the near future. There have recently been many arguments over many key issues regarding the way that one lives their life and interpretation of scripture. These issues are by no means new issues, and in fact are some of the reasons why there were schisms in the Anabaptist Church up to this point.
I am by no means saying that the Mennonites have had no identity up to this point. I would say quite the contrary. We are well known for our, to the world, conservative beliefs. We are also known for our cooking and our singing. We also have a rich Anabaptist heritage.
There are then obvious standards that people of a church ideally would like to uphold. There is emphasis on certain standards for daily Mennonite living that are important to one church that at the same time to another church could have an entirely different meaning. To me, one of these issues is the issue of service. It seems to me that some churches really want this in their congregation's every day lives. Some churches even have extensive overseas mission programs. There is, also, Mennonite Central Committee who has played a big role in helping overseas.
There is a wide range of beliefs and practices all across the world. People who claim to be Mennonite could to some groups of Mennonites not be considered Mennonite. Some leave the church over this. In my opinion, people leave the church for two reasons. To let me use broad, vague terms, the church is either too liberal or too conservative. How is this possible? To me, for a church to be able to have people leave it due to both of these reasons is a sure sign to me that the church is in a serious identity crisis.
I have seen a wide range of Mennonite churches in my short lifetime thus far. I have moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, attending Mennonite Churches the whole time. I have lived in a mainly white, rich area of the country, and the richest county in all of Pennsylvania (Montgomery). I now attend a college that, in my home county, is considered quite liberal.
My extended family on my father's side has been and remains quite conservative. They, in my opinion, are about as Mennonite as you can get. My grandfather was a bishop in the Mennonite church. There are seven children, nine all together. Of that nine, there are only three that today claim to still be Mennonite. Surprisingly enough, two of the people are not my grandparents. My grandparents left the Mennonite church after being in it for over 60 years.
This is a completely new and shocking revelation. One could only speculate why, but when my grandfather was asked about it, he responded that he liked this new church a lot better. He liked the way in which problems where dealt with a lot better.
At home, there was a minority of the youth that claimed God and religion for that matter in a very passionate way. This is a great sign of more seriousness in the youth, as far as religion is concerned. However, there are many people that I talked to just before I began my venture to Goshen College, that did not claim to have anything to do with the Mennonite Church. They claimed to be "Christian not Mennonite".
Then, in my experience, there are people that I have met at this college. For the first time in my life, I have met people that claim to be Mennonite and have non-traditional views. If you would allow me to be shallow, they would be labeled as liberal. Many of these people identify aspects of the church that has been extremely hurtful and judgmental. Some of these people now don't want to claim to be Mennonite.
Why is this such a phenomenon? Why are people from both ends of a spectrum of beliefs wanting to leave the same institution? What are we to do about this?
One could argue that there are many dividing issues. A big issue is the interpretation of scripture. This would lead to the questioning of such issues as homosexuality and sexuality in general. There are many harsh realities in the church. Abuse still takes place. Racism is still ever so present in some Mennonite institutions. I have also heard others say that there is not enough emphasis placed on service in other countries. Each one of these issues can be important to some and not others. Each church seems to have different places of emphasis.
If we are not going to split off into many pieces as the Anabaptist Church did from the sixteenth century on, we need to get out of our inherent identity crisis. There are too many arguments about many issues, in my opinion. The church needs to find at least one unifying factor that defines us as Mennonites, identify that, and go from there.
I would say that this point could be a wide variety of things. It could be something as insignificant as the great Mennonite cooking, or it could be something as big as service. In my opinion, there is also a major need for less bickering among the churches. There needs to be more understanding of each other, and more education about not only the outside world, but about each other. If you would allow me to use those shallow words again, there needs to be more education to the conservatives about liberals and definitely vice versa. Making assumptions about someone based on one word (i.e. liberal, conservative) needs to stop.
There is such a broad spectrum of Mennonites today. There are still farmers and then there is a new wave of Mennonites, like myself, that are into the fine arts. Mennonite choirs are making appearances at Carnegie Hall. There are now Mennonite fashion designers, which fifty years and still today is laughed at.
The Mennonite identity needs to happen mainly from education in my opinion. When there is lack of education, assumptions are made. Assumptions, in my opinion, are counter productive. We need no longer sit back in our rocking chairs and watch the world fly by, we need to find a more secure identity and make a difference in the Twenty First century.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.