Event looks to interchurch relations for models for intra-church relations
GOSHEN, Ind. (Mennonite Church USA)—“What are Mennonites learning from interchurch relations that might help us be church together within our own Mennonite community?” Nearly 40 participants engaged this question at a gathering held April 11 at North Goshen (Ind.) Mennonite Church and sponsored by the Interchurch Relations Reference Group of Mennonite Church USA.
Speakers at the event—informally titled “Being the body together?”—included John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen College; Anton Flores-Maisonet, founding member of the Alterna Community in LaGrange, Ga.; and Eleanor Kreider, a longtime missionary, teacher and writer from Elkhart, Ind.
John D. Roth
Roth shared with those present how participating in a formal dialogue between Mennonite Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) from 2002 to 2004 had led to something of a conversion experience for him. He was involved in dialogue with Lutherans through Mennonite World Conference for much of the following decade.
“Before that, I had never regarded divisions in the body of Christ as a serious problem,” he recounted.
Roth confessed that he had approached the dialogue with Lutherans initially as a way to vindicate Anabaptists who had been persecuted by Lutherans and others, seeing it as an opportunity to argue Mennonite perspectives on baptism, discipleship and peacemaking.
What he discovered, however, was that an identity anchored in differences can blind people to the shadow sides of their own gifts. He said that entering into relationship and conversation with Lutherans helped him see theological blind spots and deficits in his own tradition. One downside of voluntary church membership, for example, is that it allows people to “select their flavor” and can lead to homogenous congregations and associations of like-minded people.
“It can be much easier to talk to Lutherans, Catholics or Pentecostals than to Mennonites down the street who have different convictions on the issues of the day,” Roth acknowledged. In dealing with differences within one’s own church family, he said it is important first to acknowledge that God is at work beyond one’s own congregation and even in groups that might seem very different.
It’s also important to continually acknowledge that the treasured gifts of a particular tradition often conceal shadows and deficits, he said. Reflecting on the importance of blood flow and nerve signals in a healthy body, Roth argued that being church together “will require me to seek out the gifts you offer as if my life depends on it.”
Flores-Maisonet shared from his experiences of working with immigrant brothers and sisters. “Love crosses borders” is the motto of the Alterna Community he founded—a bilingual community of Christ-followers devoted to faithful acts of hospitality, mercy and justice. This motto is true, he suggested, both in addressing societal issues such as immigration and in personal relationships and the challenges of being church together.
Flores-Maisonet spoke of the work of Richard Foster, an evangelical Quaker who has identified six streams of Christian spirituality: evangelical, holiness, social justice, contemplative, incarnational and charismatic.
“We need the gifts of each of these streams to live in faithfulness to Jesus,” said Flores-Maisonet. “I have bet my life that Jesus is reconciling the world unto himself, and that the cross is wide enough to reconcile us to one another.”
Kreider highlighted practices that are needed “to be church together.”
“We need to fast from certain kinds of words that pigeonhole, judge and demonize others,” she suggested. “When we speak poorly of others in our church family, we should remember that ‘the kids are listening.’”
Part of the Mennonite tradition, she confessed, is that “we are so keen on being right.”
“We must practice repentance for ways we have dismissed and belittled others,” she said. She encouraged those present to proceed by building friendships across differences, making space to share testimonies with each other of how God has been teaching, guiding and transforming them, and adopting a posture of openness, curiosity and careful listening. She urged her audience to cultivate a longing “to be part of a people who are loved, who are forgiven, who know grace and gratitude.”
“Mennonite Church USA is one small but important part of the body of Christ,” said André Gingerich Stoner, director of interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, reflecting on the work of interchurch relations. “We have important gifts to share and to receive to help us all be more faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Mennonite Church USA’s Interchurch Relations Reference Group includes John D. Roth, Anton Flores-Maisonet, Jamie Ross, Malinda Berry, Mark van Steenwyk and Sue Park-Hur. The group offers counsel to Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, and Gingerich Stoner. This event was held in conjunction with a biennial in-person meeting of the reference group.
—Mennonite Church USA staff