Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Surveying the energy and movement of Anabaptism

From Eastern Mennonite University: Seminary, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802-2404, USA
Crackling with energy! Photo by Kristie Wells
In the fall of 2009, I had the pleasure to sit in a conference room on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University with a handful of Mennonite academics and pastors. The topic picked by the group of young church leaders organizing this event was audacious: "The Future of Anabaptism." The energy harnessed from this group eventually led to the formation of the Anabaptist Missional Project (AMP), in which two of my good friends from seminary are involved. I've been a Brethren fly on the wall to this group and they've been fun to interact with. AMP is "a network of emerging leaders who love Jesus, care about the church, and seek to be part of God’s mission in the world," purposing to "promote a constructive vision for church renewal, convene to fellowship and grow as emerging leaders, and network to create concrete initiatives for engaging our world missionally."

Early in my second year of seminary, I was just then getting into circles where people were talking openly and excitedly about what it means to be an Anabaptist Christian and what spiritual renewal in the church might look like in light of present global realities facing the church, Anabaptist or otherwise. I didn't know then that this excitement would sweep me up in the movement...

Domestic Issues
In January of this year, Myron Augsburger - elder statesman of the Mennonite Church USA, president emeritus of both Eastern Mennonite University and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, locally famed preacher, and someone whom I sit near most Sundays - issued a challenge to North American Anabaptists. Based on his 60 years of ministry in the church, Myron wanted "to see something far larger, more diverse, more open to others who differ — and also a fellowship of shalom rather than a structural organization." (!) His vision? An "Alliance of Anabaptists in North America." My favorite part: He named the Church of the Brethren as needing to be in that alliance! (More on that later.)

Four months later, two young leaders in the church - Tom Airey and Sheldon C. Good - have answered Myron's challenge with the Anabaptist Network in North America (ANNA), tweaking Augsburger's suggestion for a name with a more 21st-century ring. As assistant editor of the Mennonite Weekly Review, Good has already been busy helping make the MWR website into a bustling online hub of all things Anabaptist, especially on their vibrant The World Together blog. Now Good and company seem poised to turn that energy toward building a movement. In Airey's vision document for ANNA, he expresses a longing "to swim in a blessed heterogeneity ('from every tongue and tribe and nation') right here in North American Anabaptism."

Global Shifts
Why is North American Anabaptism in such a non-sectarian mood these days? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Anabaptism is "moving south," as it were. One of the early points in the AMP meeting back in 2009 was the fact that Anglo-derived Mennonites are holding steady at best while Latin American, African, and Asian Anabaptist groups are exploding. Even the churches in North America which are growing tend to be churches for immigrant communities from the global South. Taking these shifting realities seriously, the Mennonite World Conference recently moved to appoint to its top leadership position, César García of Colombia, along with moving MWC offices from Strasbourg, France to Bogotá. The sands are shifting not only in numbers in congregations but now in the institutions of Anabaptism.

This news prompted one of my interlocutors in the Anabaptist blogosphere, Phil Wood, to assess the state of the small Anabaptist movement in his land, the United Kingdom. He sees these shifts as A call to European Mennonites to spiritual renewal, lamenting that "The fire burns in Bogotá, but what shall we make of the European embers?" His constructive answers for that context are good ones that I'm paying attention to for my North American circumstances.

Will Brethren heed the call?
Myron Augsburger named my own Church of the Brethren in his call for an Anabaptist Alliance. Well now we have an Anabaptist Network in North America, but will Brethren heed the call? Have they even heard it? Though I've been Brethren my whole life, I've lived on the fringes of the denomination and only recently made significant contacts with people "on the inside." My experience has been that today's Brethren don't seem all that interested in the Anabaptism conversation that seems to be generating quite a bit of new energy in Mennonite and non-Mennonite circles, domestically and internationally, but even outside traditional Anabaptist groups. The developing intellectual tradition of neo-Anabaptism, for instance, seeded by John Howard Yoder and carried on by Stanley Hauerwas, both of whom continue to be dealt with extensively in the theological academy. Indeed, Yoder has been dead since 1997 but there's been at least a book per year by or about him ever since I started seminary. Last month after a conference presentation, I had a young woman approach me from a conservative Evangelical college in Texas, and she told me that they study Yoder and Hauerwas in their political science program!

So why aren't my fellow Brethren tuning in to any of this? I've bellyached about Brethren/Anabaptist disconnect at least once before, so I won't go on about it again. My friend, Josh Brockway, who is both Brethren and "on the inside," says that we have a bad case of Modernity that we just can't shake. I agree with that diagnosis. There are pockets of interest, though. For instance, the denomination recently organized a speaking tour for U.K. Anabaptist, Stuart Murray, whose recent book, The Naked Anabaptist, has generated some discussion in North American Brethren and Mennonite circles. But still...

While I continue to be happily Brethren, I also continue to believe that we Brethren don't pay enough attention to our Mennonite-Anabaptist sisters and brothers in Christ, and we don't pay enough attention to the work of Yoder and Hauerwas in the academy, preferring instead liberal Protestantism that I find inadequate to address the realities and challenges of the global church. So perhaps this post is a call to my fellow Brethren to join in the spiritual renewal movement that's bursting forth from the Mennonites I've grown to love. As blogger and former IT worker, this post is also a call to Brethren to start doing our public thinking - popular and academic - on the web, as many of these Mennonite groups are doing. The institutionally Brethren web presence is atrocious and it's past time to change that. But we also need to hook up with what the Mennonites have started here online as a supplement to something far more profound and embodied.

In light of all this news today, Phil Wood told me, "It's almost possible to hear the tectonic plates sliding at the moment."Or as my friend Aaron Kauffman said on the AMP blog, responding to Phil's post, "God's mission is on the move!" Hallelujah, and may we be attentive and faithful to those movements!

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