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The question of "Why am I am Mennonite?" seems to have been haunting me over this past semester. When people have asked me if I am Mennonite, there is no simple answer. However, I either reply simply with a "yes" (to avoid an extended discussion) or with a "kind of," if I am in the mood to explain my entire religious background.
My entire background can be traced to Anabaptist and Mennonite roots. My great-grandfather was a deacon and bishop in the Amish church, my grandfather helped found a conservative Mennonite church in western New York, and both my parents attended Mennonite schools such as Eastern Mennonite High School, Hesston College, and Goshen College. However, when they moved away from areas populated with Mennonites, they found it difficult to find a Mennonite church that would not be over half an hour away and that would fit the needs of their children as well. The Mennonite churches in my area seemed to be filled with those of older generations with no passion to acquire and keep young church attendees. To my parents, the search of finding an appropriate Mennonite church arose to be an impossible task, so they started to attend churches of other denominations in order to keep my sister and I involved in church-related activities. As I grew up I continued to believe and live the Mennonite ideals, as did my parents, we just did not attend a Mennonite church.
For the past five years now, I have attended a Lutheran church. During high school I was fully involved in the youth group, missions teams, and high school choir, but I waited to be baptized until I was 14 and I never went through confirmation with the rest of my acquaintances. I do not even agree with some of the Lutheran beliefs. But am considered a Lutheran because I attend a Lutheran church? Now that I have returned to my "roots," I have had to continuously ask myself what makes a Mennonite and if I consider myself one.
I have found Mennonites to be a group of people that have a great sense of community. I have seen a difference between the communities that are full of Mennonites and those that are not. These locations are usually full of people who all know each other because they have grown up with each other their entire lives. They, along with others, were taught that whatever their mom and dad believe, they believe and value it as well. This causes a plethora of the same beliefs but no basis or reasons behind what they believe. Are these types of people considered to be "true" Mennonites if the basis behind their beliefs is because of their parent's decisions and "guidance?" Or are genuine Mennonites those that know why they believe and value certain things? Although having established beliefs seems to be a blessing for some people, it can seem simple-minded to those who are not a part of this faith (this includes people from other denominations as well, not just Mennonites).
When I decided to attend a Mennonite school, almost everyone I knew (besides my close relatives) had never heard of the term "Mennonite" or what it meant to be a Mennonite. I explained to them that Mennonites are pacifists, disagree with infant baptism, and put full importance on family and community. I learned after being at Goshen College, after even a few weeks, that I too had no good idea of what being a Mennonite meant either. I quickly learned by personal experiences with Mennonites, but mostly through class lecture, that I too knew nothing about what it means to be a Mennonite.
After attending Goshen College for awhile now, I have learned that not only does being a "genuine Mennonite" mean being an advocate and believer of a non-violent lifestyle and disbelieving in infant baptism, but it also means that you have attended MYF conventions in Philadelphia, Wichita, and Orlando, spent your summer at a camp such as Little Eden or Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp, and are automatically able to sing four-part harmony at the drop of a hat. If you do not fall into these categories, people question whether or not you are a Mennonite. However, if you fall into these categories you are automatically assumed to be Mennonite. But are there others things that are a basis to being a Mennonite?
Since I have taken Anabaptist Mennonite History, there has been an inner struggle within me; I have had to decide which convictions and values of Anabaptism and Lutheranism I hold to be logical and correct. I am not the only one that has felt this inner struggle with beliefs. Luther must have felt some controversy with the beliefs and actions of the Catholic Church. In 1517, early Anabaptists and Catholics must have also felt some kind of a conflict after Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church door. These theses pointed out the beliefs that separated Luther from the Catholic Church.
Ten years later, the Anabaptists came out with The Schleitheim Articles, which introduced the defining elements of Anabaptism. This included discussion on adult baptism, the use of the ban, the Lord's Supper, separation from the world and all evil, election of shepherds by the congregation, the use of the sword, and issues concerning the oath. These issues are still the basis for the Mennonite church today.
Because I have been exposed to both Mennonite and Lutheran churches, I have seen both churches try to implement their founding ideals into their services and members. To my knowledge, they pretty much both do so. However, they both seem to fail in some areas. First of all, the Lutheran church that I attend at home, although they are growing in size tremendously, seems to be growing for the wrong reasons. They are attracting new people from all over the city in order to grow in size so that they can continue building on the new, impressive, and unnecessary church campus. Even though this may be getting people involved and part of a church family, the church is not being the invisible church- a point that Lutheran emphasized as being important.
On the other hand, the Mennonite church seems to be doing the opposite and only growing (at least in North America) due to growing families, not because of the outreach programs of the church. For instance, Mennonite churches in my home state (ranging anywhere from 5 to 300 members) are virtually unheard of because of their lack of energy to attract new members. Although the church may be trying to keep separate from the world and it's evil, it comes across as being very exclusive and excluding at times.
Since I disagree with parts of both denominations, I can honestly say that I have no idea whether or not I am a Mennonite. If beliefs and background are the basis to deem someone Mennonite, then I can proudly say that I am a Mennonite. But, if one is considered a Mennonite if they attend a Mennonite church and attend other Mennonite activities, then I have to say that others and I do not consider me to be part of the Mennonite community. I am Mennonite because of what I believe and why I believe it. I am not Mennonite because of what I attend and what beliefs my parents have branded into me.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.