Like many other things not appreciated until they are gone, there was a time when the unique character of the church of my youth was something I had mostly taken for granted.
You see, that church, unlike some other Mennonite churches, had many surnames not typically found within the denomination. We had Cordermans, Gelnetts, Fiedlers, Schrocks, Schooleys and Rovenolts—all of them “community” people who decided to become Mennonites.
Over the years that near even split of Mennonite-borns and “community” people has slowly faded. The non-Mennonite names displaced and replaced as more transplants arrived following cheaper land prices and a better place than Lancaster County to raise their families.
The original church, started a few decades before my birth, had been the result of a Summer Bible School program. A group from Lancaster County drove several hours north and set up camp on the grounds of a small one room public school.
Eventually several young couples involved decided to move into the area where they held the summer program. They purchased the little old school house and started the “East District Mennonite Church” with Lester Miller ordained as pastor.
That church, the one with Lester at the helm, is the one that had a greater focus on the local community and was basically a family of misfits. As far as Mennonite churches go it was a very welcoming place and I believe still retain that reputation today.
However, over the years (since the time Lester moved back to Lancaster and with the influx of “cradle Mennonites” who didn’t necessarily share that original vision of outreach) there has been a subtle shift—a reverting back to a mostly ethnic church full of those who cater only to their own families.
What is an ethnic church and when is it a problem?
It used to irk me, coming from the mixed background congregation that I did, when people would describe Mennonites as being an “ethnic church” and unwelcoming to outsiders. My response would be that Mennonites aren’t the only church with a distinct ethnic flavor and that my own church was diverse.
Truth be told, ethnic diversity isn’t a necessary ingredient for a vibrant local church either. I would expect that a church in China would have mostly those of ethnic Chinese background and a church in central Pennsylvania to have mostly German or other Caucasian origin. Most historical churches were made of those who shared an ethnic identity and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of local flavor.
Unfortunately these ethnic lines, when they come at the expense of a universal and united church, become antithetical to the Christian tradition left to us by the Apostles. We are supposed to all be one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) rather than divided up by differences of gender, social status and ethnic background.
Ethnic division, very often linked together with sectarian or denominational distinctions, is a great weakness of the North American church. Instead of local community is being unite into one church, as was the case in the early church, we hold onto our own racial and cultural identities. We put ourselves first, our own ethnic families, over unity in the Spirit.
American churches are “intellectual ghettos” as well. We separate over political ideologies, theological perspectives, traditional versus contemporary preferences and, in the case of Mennonites at least, over the most trivial bits of application. This multitude of churches all claim to Jesus as Lord and yet each prioritize preservation of their own cultural “echo chamber” and focus on insulating themselves from any real challenge of their ideas.
What would Jesus say about ethnic churches in diverse communities?
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
That might be hyperbole. It was addressing an audience that place great value on ethnic and family identity. It seemed to contradict prior teaching that put emphasis on tribe and caring for one’s own first. Nevertheless it is something Jesus said and something we ought to contemplate as it applies to our own times.
Did Jesus come to establish a church divided in so many ways? Would he approve when people living in the same geographic area drive past multiple churches to find one that suits their own personal preferences? At very least, is it appropriate to “plant” a new church in a town where there are already multiple options?
At some point there needs to be some introspection. If the church you are in does not reflect the demographics of the local community you should ask why that is. Was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ was about people congregating with people ethnically and otherwise similar to themselves? Were newly converted Greeks required to live by traditional Jewish religious standards?
I’ll let this be the answer to that last question…
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? […] Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2-7, 11-12 NIV)
When we put our own ethnic and religious tribe above loving as Christ taught then we are like those whom Paul wished would cut themselves off completely.
Finding the universal church…
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. “ (Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV )
The divided western church does not represent the ideals expressed by Jesus or the Apostles. What it does represent is our cultural value of independence over unity in Christ. It is because we value our own ethnic groups and our own idiosyncrasies of practice over the love for the whole family of God. It is because we are unwilling to “hate” our own families in order to find greater unity together in the Spirit.
There would no doubt be a blessing for those who gave up their own religious cultural and personal hang ups in obedience to their Lord who said to put love for his church first. My own will to do that was crippled for many years by my want to feel loved, accepted and desired in my ethnic church. In had placed being Mennonite above being Christian and truly loving my neighbors despite our differences.
I’ve recently started to go to a church that has members from many denominational backgrounds. Yes, there are some of the “cradle” types who bring their own ethnic and cultural flavor to the group. And, yes, I do need to drive past a couple other churches to get there. But the mix is more representative of the surrounding community and the welcome I’ve received there reminds me of a little church that I once knew.