What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Andrew Shenk, April 2011
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Over the course of the semester, I’ve seen myself, along with my professor, my classmates, and the authors we’ve read, attempt through a number of different means to answer the question of “what it means to be Mennonite.” We’ve discussed many different dimensions, different parts of what “Mennonite” is, different issues and challenges, different events that have shaped the church, and through all of these discussion the most frequent assertion I’ve seen made is that “Mennonite” can never really be precisely pinned down. I think this elusiveness is one of the most important and unique ways that we can define “Mennonite.” This term encompasses a social-political movement, a set of theological values, an ethnic/cultural group, a historical tradition and a modern establishment. The diversity of opinions and groups, the shifting nature of the church, and the enormously different meanings that “Mennonite” can have are all expressions of the church’s defining, central goal: to be always moving toward the kingdom of God, no matter how that movement comes about.
This means that to be “Mennonite” means to be ready to commit to a faith that’s never easily defined or described, one that shifts and moves, that is unique and original. It means recognizing that all churches that call themselves Mennonite are reaching for the same goal, and that whether its in the suffering churches of Zimbabwe, or the mission outreaches in Paraguay, or the socially conservative congregations of Lancaster County, or my own relatively liberal church in Goshen, Indiana, “Mennonites” are all trying their best. This means that no basic creed or doctrine can be established, and no tradition or culture is sacred or definitively “Mennonite,” but instead we’re all struggling constantly with the realities of doing the impossible.
I believe this flexibility and humility is what has defined the Anabaptist tradition from the beginning, and that the conflicts and questions that have frequently brought congregations together and driven them apart are the best way we can define “Mennonite.” The tension between living in the world and apart from it has been present since the martyrs gave up everything for their separation from the world. This tension relates to the question of what role missions plays in the church, as well as the level of political and social involvements of Mennonites. Another important question involves what it means to establish a church as a community, including the struggle to create a church community on a global scale.
The fact that understanding the church as a whole is such a difficult and slippery endeavor makes it hard to come up with an answer to the question of why I personally am a Mennonite. In answering this question, I see reflected in myself just how big the meaning of the word “Mennonite” actually is. I’ve struggled with the question of whether I am actually a Mennonite in the first place, and what exactly would qualify me to be one, but have realized in this process how difficult such an answer is to find. In the end, this question actually points out more clearly just what all the different “things” that are connected with Mennonites are actually centered around. I have always identified and understood myself as a Mennonite, and still do today, even if some questions and doubts cloud that understanding. I have attended Mennonite churches my entire life, have lived within Mennonite culture and connected myself with Mennonite However, I am not baptized, and have no immediate plans to be baptized. I have few deep church connections and little involvement in regular discussions of faith with other Mennonites. In some ways, I’m Mennonite in all the ways I have no control over, almost “ethnically Mennonite.”
Still, I find myself coming back over and over to the church and its concepts and practices. I can intellectually grasp Mennonite theology, even argue and explain it. I believe strongly in Mennonite understandings of pacifism and non-violent resistance. I can imagine myself being involved in or supporting the church’s relief or mission efforts for most of my life. I see both the local, and the global church as an important, interconnected community that I hope to be involved in and considered a part of. I hear the stories of Anabaptist and Mennonite history and they resonate with me on a personal level.
However, the point I must constantly remind myself of as I list these intellectual and social connections with the church is that these convictions and beliefs at this point are not faith based. I’ve struggled with a lack of strong personal faith, from a position within the church, and have tried to understand what it means to live as a Mennonite who is both within the church and also deeply separated from it. I still believe that the Mennonite church is where I will seek and consider faith, a place where these questions can continue to be asked and I can find support and meaning. I believe in the church as a diverse and complex entity, and its focus on a community of believers living out deep beliefs in real practices is why I want to be a Mennonite. The idea of a connection to the church that’s only intellectual and cultural is a scary one, especially when this connection is compared to the deep and new faith often found in the global church, a faith that has more in common with that of the martyrs than any expression of church I’ve experienced. Still, I hope to seek out my own kind of faith within this little corner of the Mennonite church I’ve grown up in, knowing that it’s a part of a much, much bigger movement of people all looking for the same thing.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.