The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

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A few months ago a Christian friend of mine shared a link to a news story and asked my opinion.

The story, “UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle,” did not seem to apply to my own conservative branch of the Mennonite denomination.

My initial thoughts were that this was one of those wacky liberal churches and therefore not relevant.

However, upon further reflection, I realized that my own brand of Mennonite is not impervious to cultural trends and, despite all the babies crying on Sunday mornings now, we could face a similar population collapse down the road.

Headlines about record-low fertility rates in the US or an unprecedented population collapse in another nation might seem irrelevant to our own situation.  But they can also give some indication of the patterns, telltale signs and changes in behavior that come before such events.

I’ve heard people say that we, as conservative Mennonites, are “50 years behind society” and there seems to be some truth to that.  I know with the advance of technology (like that which makes this blog possible) the pace of change is now quicker than most would have imagined a generation ago.

The conditions that allowed the Mennonite tradition to continue for hundreds of years are disappearing, and quickly.  It does not seem we are in an especially strong position to cope with the new social, economic and technological realities.

This generation could very well be the last.

Here are some factors that could determine where things go from here…

#1) We grow mostly because we have big families and convert our own children.  Like it or not, “Mennonite” is an ethnic group—complete with unique genetic disorders and a game based on our common surnames.  Yes, we do have some converts from the “community folks” and yet most of us came from Mennonite or other established Anabaptist stock.  If our birth rates were to continue to drop (as they have been amongst Mennonites in North America), then there will likely be some problems down the road.

#2) Marriage is being postponed and even avoided altogether, thereby decreasing birth rates.  Mennonites seem to be taking cues from society when it comes to committed relationship.  But, unlike society, we do not have children outside of marriage and therefore our postponing of marriages means older mothers and fewer children, and that is assuming they will marry eventually.  I just had a young woman (maybe mid-twenties) ask me to do a blog to advise her and her friends on how to tell pesky guys to get lost—not an unusual sentiment.  It seems women from conservative backgrounds are becoming less interested in marriage and motherhood, and that is a death knell to a church that can’t bring in more than an occasional convert from outside our own existing gene pool.

#3) The feeder system from Old Order groups and elsewhere could dry up.  It is not a big secret that Mennonites migrate from conservative to liberal.  My own church has lost many born into it and the casualties have always been offset with those gained from other groups more conservative than our own, or those escaping expensive land prices in overdeveloped Lancaster County.  But this means of growth via a continued supply from upstream (or downstream?) is not guaranteed.  It could change as economic pressures increasingly encroach on the Old Order lifestyle.  It is harder to support big families with higher land values, a tougher regulatory environment, rising healthcare costs, etc.  We can’t count on migrants for growth.

#4) Urbanization and loss of an agricultural lifestyle results in cultural change.  My grandparents moved up out of the Franconia Conference territory (near Philadelphia) in the 1960s to begin farming where the land was cheaper and roads less congested.  My grandparents have remained relatively unchanged in the way they dress since that time.  However, their friends “back home” have changed dramatically both in dress and perspective.  There are still a small number of “breakaway” conservatives in that region, but the main body of Mennonite churches there are extremely progressive and their trends could give us some indication of our own future.

#5) The decline of meaningful brotherhood and rise of alternatives reduces interest.  The Amish were right to identify transportation technology as a threat to community.  We might pride ourselves for having stronger communities than the church down the road (a disputable claim) and yet would we compare favorably to prior generations?  I know that even in my own three-decade life span there has been a dramatic change.  We seem less closely knit and more quick to leave for the church up the road rather than come together as one community of diverse members.  We do more world travel, have more activities for every specialized interest or age group, and are kept very busy.  However, we are also fragmented with less vertical integration, more homeschooled children, and less everyday connection—resulting in weaker communities.  Our communities could eventually disintegrate completely as they lose relevance.

#6) Lack of foresight and appropriate faithful preparation is endemic.  Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is because nobody else is talking about this.  We are chronically unprepared for change.  It seems many conservative Mennonites have their heads buried in the sand (or simply buried in day-to-day business and family affairs) and do not see trends coming down the pike.  There appears to be very little effort on the part of the ordained leadership to account for changes in culture (or technology) and even less effort to respond in a positive or productive manner.  Few advocate for a faithful and deliberate approach to problems.  We miss opportunities to increase our effectiveness because we do not utilize the greater means available to us.  We perish for lack of vision.

#7) In the void of thoughtful preparation, what results is only fearful reaction and hasty retreat.  Mennonites, like other Christian fundamentalist groups, began to withdraw from strategic high ground after being blindsided by the pushback against the state endorsement of religion in public schools and the rise of secularism.  Many decry, “They took prayer out of school!” but the sad reality is they did not remove prayer and a faithful witness from schools—we did!  We trembled like King Saul facing the Philistine giant and removed our children and influence.  We did not read 1 John 4:4, “greater is he that is in you, than he is in the world,” and believe.  It is little wonder why nobody believes us when we try to convince them of our great God.

#8) Our missions are often without purpose and out of touch.  I know a young woman (a very sweet person and sincere Mennonite) who told me, “hearts don’t change,” in response to a circumstance outside her experience.  I was astonished at the cognitive dissonance on display and it made me wonder why she was spending thousands of dollars to be at IGo Adventures and Spouse Seeking Institute in Thailand.  It reminds me of the time when we formed a committee at my church to discuss local missions where mailing out more tracts seemed to be the idea with most traction and nothing practical ever came of the committee.  Needless to say, I am not very optimistic about our abilities to do effective outreach.

Is a Mennonite population collapse in North America inevitable?

I don’t know.

I’m not expecting our complete extinction.

I’m pretty sure the Mennonite name will continue on in one form or another.

For instance, we do have a list of genetic disorders that will carry on our legacy.

But, as a religious culture and tradition?

I believe that depends.

It depends on how we approach the issues listed in #1-8 above.

Will we address problems head-on and work through them deliberately or be blindsided?

Will we adjust our thinking and adapt our methods as needed?

Or will we (like the dying Shaker movement) use hope as a strategy?

Nothing is written in stone yet.  But I do know that the conservative Mennonite culture is a frustrating place for innovative and forward-thinking people.  Old habits, functional fixedness, inability to think outside the box and a “don’t rock the boat” mentality all stand in the way of a faithful and vibrant future.

We need to ask and answer the hard questions rather than avoid them.  We should be taking note of trends, and be confronting them collectively as a group.

Notice a growing number of older singles?

Look into the Moravian option or at the very least reconsider the faithless courtship teachings that have created the current mess.  There is no reason why we should pretend there’s nothing that can be done.

Wonder why our missions are ineffective?

It could be that we are isolating our children rather than trusting God and teaching them to live in fear rather than faith.  They can’t empathize or understand anyone outside the Mennonite culture.

Where do we go from here?

It is up to you.  But, if you don’t want to be the last Mennonite standing, I suggest it is time to remove the stale items from the shelves and introduce some fresh ideas.

Change is inevitable.

Be proactive.

The Church Brotherhood Lie

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I once had a conversation with a Mennonite man who idolizes his wife and children.

I told him he was unloving towards me, and, as one careful to meet his religious duties, he was perplexed—what more could he do?

He remarked that he can’t love me with a romantic love (I never suggested to him that I wanted a card on Valentine’s Day) and then asked me how I wanted to be loved by him. 

So I asked him for brotherly love and quoted an example from Scripture:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)

He thought that was preposterous.

He loves his wife very much, he has made his own biological offspring his main mission in life, and for him to love me more would be impossible.

He did not truly love me as a brother and could not because he lacked authentic faith.

Why do Mennonites fail to deliver true brotherhood?

Mennonites take pride in their greater commitment to each other and the concept of a brotherhood of believers.  The comparison they like to make is between themselves and those whom they dismiss as being nominal Christians.

The assumption seems to be that church attendance equates to brotherhood.  And, since we compare favorably to those who only attend church on Christmas and Easter, we are doing well.  Besides that, we continue to go through the motions of servanthood (with a ceremonial foot-washing) and even do it twice a year.

But honestly, that is pathetic.

People only compare themselves to those downstream from them because they are making an excuse to be pathetic.

If you want to be more than pathetic you compare yourself to the perfect example and pursue that.  Mennonites fail to deliver on true brotherhood because their own pride blinds them from the possibility that they are falling short and could actually do better.

They lack the faith to break with their religious status quo and shoot for the impossible.

What is true brotherhood?

It is a shame conservative Mennonites shun competitive sports.  If they had learned to commit to others like high school athletes must dedicate themselves to a team then they might know something of the potential for brotherhood.

I have a cousin who just returned from his years of active duty in the military.  He says that while the challenges were tough, he will miss the comradery and brotherhood.

In practical terms, this means falling on a grenade to save your buddies (or just something as mundane as taking the time to run a lunch out to a brother in arms who forgot his) because in the military the good of the individual is sacrificed for the good of the team.  The individual dies when they enter the brotherhood.

The church I’ve been a part of for decades is a disappointment.  Many of the so-called leaders are apologists for complacency and promote faithless religious devotion.  Instead of being advocates for others (like Paul was for Onesimus) and helping them to carry their burdens as is Christian, these frauds teach that more Bible reading is the answer.

I’m sorry, but vacant promises to pray for each other twice a year while splashing water on each other’s feet is not brotherhood.  Telling me that a book is some kind of magic elixir cure for all needs is spiritual ignorance.  And the book that these phonies claim to revere says this is not the case very clearly.

What Christian brotherhood should be according to Jesus.

It does not take a high level of reading comprehension to find the central point of the New Testament.  The point is to have the kind of faith to live out the self-sacrificial example of Jesus.  What this means is following the command to love each other so the world can see clearly that we are his disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34‭-‬35)

Jesus defines this command to love further:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:12‭-‬17)

The idea of dying to self that is expressed in the teachings of Paul is often taught as if it is some kind of religious devotion devoid of a practical end.  As if we prove our love for God through emptying ourselves of any and all desire.

But the self-sacrificial love of Jesus is not aimless or vague, it is being “devoted to one another in love” to honor others above ourselves (Romans 12:10) and practicing brotherhood.

Be real or I’m not interested in your words.

The reason the church falls short is because it has compromised love for the brotherhood and made it secondary to family, business, or other personal ambition.  But Jesus did not teach individualism.  He did not promote patriarchalism either, and instead taught us to be a brotherhood.

The relationship of David and Jonathan is a picture of true brotherly love:

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1‭-‬4)

Our devotion to brotherly love should not come second.  Unfortunately there are many in the church who are not willing to come to the aid of another the same as they would their own family.  There are many who put their religious agenda and protecting their own biological progeny above all else.

That is the case with the man I had the conversation with.  He is regarded by many as a model citizen; his children do all the ‘right’ Mennonite things and are treated with favoritism, but his family is a bunch of religious self-seekers—like their dad.

The language of brotherhood should not be used lightly.  Don’t call me a brother or sister unless you are actually willing to treat me as one.  I don’t like being lied to.

The Lost Witness of Christian Community and Finding it Again

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There has been much focus on the family in the church.  Popular media commentators (like James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard and Doug Philips) encourage making a high priority of our own immediate families. 

Family is important.  But the “no greater joy” in 3 John 1:4 is not written about a man’s own family or his blood relatives.  Instead the letter is written about the church.  John is describing love for spiritual children and the family of God.  Do we find as much joy in the church family as we do in raising our own children?

Christian community has been watered down over the years.  Yes, we might have more ‘church’ activities than ever and yet, as far as real interdependence, we are lacking.  Those of you from good homes, who are happily married and in your prime, may not notice.  But there is great social need beyond your doorstep.

This blog will explore where we are, where we were and where we need to go from here; it will address the enemies and also the benefits of faith community.  One blog can’t even begin to do the topic justice, but hopefully it will spark thoughts and discussion.  My prayer is that those reading will take faithful steps to restore the Christian community where they are.

Where we are…

The loss of community in the world around us is profound and the results are tragic.  Isolated people are unhealthy people.  The family unit itself has been degraded.  Many children do not have opportunity of dinner time conversations together with their parents at home.  Child care is increasingly outsourced.  More people survive on food cooked by strangers than ever.  The elderly are interned for sake of convenience, out of sight and out of mind.  It is madness.

The church has not fared much better.  People in many churches have very little meaningful interaction with each other during the week.  After the church service is over most go their seperate ways and expect the needs to be taken care of by those appointed to do so.  There is very little difference between the mainstream church and the world in regards to community.  Sure, many churches bustle with activities, and there are many good people who are trying to make a difference, but there are many unmet social needs.

My conservative Mennonite culture has a more distinct history of community.  Other Anabaptist groups, our spiritual (and often biological) cousins, have a stronger community emphasis than our own.  Amish have taken dramatic steps and have rejected technology (starting with the automobile) in an effort to preserve the integrity of their communities.  The Hutterites have a long communal tradition.  But conservative Mennonites lack a clear structure and could lose this strength of community entirely.

I’ve seen changes in my own Mennonite community in my own lifetime that indicate the erosion of our community.  We are following after the mainstream and the world more than we often realize.  The Anabaptist prioritization of brotherhood has been replaced with a more individualistic mindset.  

We do not pursue the concept of Gelassenheit anymore.  Instead we turn to our own biological families for support and our fellowship is growing apart.

Where we were…

The early church example is very clear.  The family language used by early church leaders meant something.  When Paul spoke up for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-25) he speaks with the urgency of a father speaking for his son.  It is not casual usage of words.  It is not us singing “I’m so glad to I’m a part of the family of God” on Sunday mornings and then doing next to nothing for each other during the week.  The chuch then was a true family in every sense of the word…

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47)

And repeated again later in the book of Acts…

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Their commitment to each other was clearly not a superficial commitment like our own too often seems to be.  What is described in the passages from Acts above is not coincidence.  No, what is described is what will happen when people commit fully to the teachings of Jesus and love as they ought to love.

Where we need to be…

What we need, first of all, is intention—we need to want to make the ideal of community a greater reality.  We must realize our own weakness alone, confess this to each other and then bear our burdens together… 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It is not a meddlesome or controlling spirit, but rather a growing recognition of our own need for community and deepening commitment to the good of our Christian brothers and sisters.  This kind of love is the truest expression of obedience to the law of Christ.  

Jesus said the world would know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:34-35) and this is expressed in Koinonia (κοινωνία) or our common union as believers.  We are to be intimately involved in fellowship together, and in all things, or we are not fully living the example Jesus taught.  This must be made a reality today in our own time or we cannot claim to be fully living in faith. 

The church should be extending our family to those without.  Our elderly should never be left to a commercially operated nursing facility.  Young single mothers should be able to find a restful place amongst us.  We need to be less focused on our own individual family and more concerned with the family of God.

Enemies of community of faith…

There are many reasons why we do not follow the Acts church example today and it is mostly because we fear that the arrangement will not benefit us as an individual or our own family.  This is a short list of reasons why one may resist a greater expression of Christian community:

1) Individualism: There is no doubt that our American culture centers on ideas of independence and rugged individualism.  Unfortunately this has evolved into a rat race where everyone pursues a dream (unattainable for many) at the expense of real and fulfilling relationship.  We seek independence, and it is good when we are working to support ourselves, yet we have social needs that cannot be fulfilled in ourselves alone.

2) Prosperity: People can create an illusion of their lack of need for other people because they are wealthy.  Our wealth as Americans is used as defense of the status quo.  The argument goes that since everyone has food, shelter and clothing there is no need for a better application of what we read in the book of Acts.  Unfortunately government programs, while keeping people from physical death and complete destitution, do nothing for social or spiritual needs.  Even materially wealthy people can be very isolated and miserable.

3) Pride: Religious people can easily imagine they are better than other people including their own brothers and sisters in the church.  They do not want their children influenced by other children and adults, therefore they remove them, homeschool, etc.  It is the oldest sin in the book.  It was what seperated mankind from God and it is also an enemy of Christian community.  Pride is dangerous, it causes divisions in the church and decieves us into believing we are better off when we are in complete control.

4) Technology: The Amish were right.  The automobile dramatically changed and has aided in the decline of community.  Add to that the television and smartphones.  Children nowadays have more reason to stay inside and isolated.  Adults are not much better by choosing to live in some suburban home with a privacy fence.  We are increasingly buried in technology, addicted to the quick fix of social media and at the expense of true relationship.

5) Fear of commitment: It takes faith and commitment to seek after deeper relationship and many of us are simply avoiding it.  In the conservative Mennnonite church we are afraid to court and adopting the same reluctance towards marraige of the Millennial generation.  Commitment is scary.  The rewards of community (like marriage) are not immediate and the risks loom large.  Unfortunately we miss out on a blessing because of our fear.

The practical arguments in favor of community of faith…

First and formost, there is need.  Again, just because your own needs are met does not mean that there is no need.  The plight of our older singles and elderly people would be a little less severe if they were intergrated into a community rather than the afterthought that they often are.  The church shold be a place where everyone has an equal seat at the table. 

Unfortuantely many of us our too preoccupied with our own families to notice or care about those who are lacking.  That is not the spirit of Christ who told us to leave all (including family) to follow after him.  The irony is that those who actually have by some means found their security in themselves may actually have the most need.  Wealth, whether it be that of material or biological variety, has always hindered commitment to faith.  Our need to repent of our religious individualism and spiritual pride could be our greatest need of all.

Then there is the matter of efficient use of resources.  As most of us currently live there is this ridiculous redundancy.  We all need our own seperate lawn mower, garden tools, pickup truck and would be so much further ahead sharing.  That’s not to mention our reliance on commercial lenders rather than each other.  It is sad that we would rather our brothers pay interest to a bank and struggle to stay ahead than help them as we might our own son.  It is a wasteful use of resources that could otherwise be used to further the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the most spurious arguments against a more real expression of Christian community is the idea that it would come at the expense of evangelism.  The reasoning goes that existing groups that practice a community of goods concept have failed in one regard or another and often in sharing the Gospel.  This, of course, is the same argument used by those saying that we should drop other non-mainstream Biblical practices currently practiced by conservative Mennonites.  If we start abandoning practices that can somehow be associated with abuse or neglect we would probably need to join the faithless and stay home.

Community of faith is actually the most practical witness of the Gospel we have.  How better to meet the needs in the world around us than to offer them the clearest possible alternative?  There is no choice between missions outreach and Christian community because one can compliment the other.  In fact, one enhances the other and makes it much more effective.  Sure, maybe the commitment would require more of us.  However, there are many people with needs who would benefit greately from a church that truly acted as a family.  

Change comes upon us slowly…

The book of Acts describes a reality quite a bit different from our own today.  Then, unlike now, there was a willingness to give up financial independence and truly be a part in a community of faith.  This is something that must be restored for the church to function as it was supposed to fuction.

I believe that the contrast between then and now is something that must be part of our discussion.  Even in my own lifetime there seems to be a weakening of our commitment to each other.  There was a time it seemed we spent more time together visiting on a Sunday afternoon, when we worked closer together and had a more meaningful impact on each others life.

There needs to be radical steps taken in faith.  We need not recreate the past, but rather we do need to walk in obedience to the same Spirit that caused the early church to want to have a better communion (or common union) together.  We must ask what has changed between our priorities today and theirs then.

Many of us would scoff at the idea of a commune.  However, do we see the absurdity of our own time and way?  Do we see the cost of paying strangers to prepare our coffee in the morning or care for our elderly?  Do we see what the loss of community has done to our neighbors and nation?

There needs to be a vision for community of faith.  We need to take steps to get off the tragectory that the world is on and present something different and better.  My own conservative Mennonite church family can lead the way in this regard.  We have this better prioritization in our Anabaptist history and could use this as a basis for a fresh push in that direction.

We need to be intentional.  We need to challenge the thinking of the world that has crept into our lifestyle and has convinced us that we are better off in our own corners rather than in loving community together.  Jesus said “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:29) not only our own biological progeny.  The church should be our family.  

So my encouragement is that we pursue the true ideal of church community with all sincerity.  We should tune out the radio and internet commentators and commit to love each other more.  I believe we will find God faithful when we do.