When I was a child growing up in the Mennonite faith, I would have described the Mennonite faith as strict, conservative, Republican and blessed with rules. We couldn’t dance, drink, have sex out of marriage, marry the same sex, get remarried after divorce, have long hair or hang out with anyone who did any of these things. We looked different and believed different from most of the world. It was a conservative body of believers.
I now look at the Mennonite faith from the outside and think, “Is this the same faith that I was raised in?” Almost all of these rules (and several more) have been overturned. I see a liberal body that is pushing the envelope to be more liberal. Of course this isn’t ALL Mennonites, but the body in general does not have the same standards that the previous generations did. This isn’t necessarily wrong – it is just a different stand than before.
So what happened? Here are a couple of my thoughts. These are not scientifically proven by any stretch. They are simply observations.
1) The church has grown from being mainly rural and farmer based to a much higher percentage urban crowd. This demographic has made a huge change in the personality of the church and has added different races and ethnic inclusion. Urban crowds tend to be more liberal/progressive while rural crowds tend to be more conservative.
2) The church has expanded it’s base from a family base to a broader individual scope. It is getting harder to play the Mennonite Game tracking back relations to similar ancestors. This more independent crowd is less tied in with “old family roots” and has less of the old standards.
3) The political shift is occurring because members are attaching “love and care” scriptures to the political alignment. The conservatives of the past believed in helping the poor, the widows and orphans but they thought the church was responsible. They were highly separated from the government and government aid. The new generations have jumped on the band wagon of other liberals – the government needs to be compassionate and care for everyone. Republicans are now viewed as hateful, greedy and mean. Instead of preaching personal responsibility in giving, we are using scripture to push for a softer and gentler government that seems to be more in line with Jesus’ teaching. Do we want to join Mennonite Disaster Service or have the government help people in need?
4) Through missions, mainly MCC, the church has become more social based. We care for physical needs. We are concerned about social justice and the world economy. We are concerned about the effects of war on people as we watch people die daily on TV. The social gospel is spreading and it has a home in man Mennonite circles. Do we feed people first or teach them about Jesus?
5) The Mennonite colleges have driven to the edge of the cliff on many issues. Some would say they drove off a long time ago. A friend recently said “My daughter is going to _________, I hope she stays a Christian.” This is not surprising seeing how almost all colleges have taken on the progressive side to every issue. My dad was concerned about me getting spiritually confused at a secular college. I would say the same today of the Mennonite schools.
6) We are a rebellious people. Not just Mennonites. All of us. We fight against the rules and authorities. The church says “don’t drink alcohol, it just makes us want to drink more.” America has survived through rock music, the love generation, Nixon, TMI, terrorists and the internet. The world is constantly changing and that is forcing the church to change as well. Last week I pulled into a pizza shop. There was a buggy sitting outside with a young mother and several young children. Inside was a young dad getting take out pizza while talking on his cell phone and paying the bill with a credit card! How does a church control change when we are immersed in the world everyday.
Finally, this is not my father’s church. It is certainly not my grandfather’s church. It is the Mennonite church today. Some will freely join it today because of the changes it is making and some will leave it today because of those same changes. Right or wrong, the church will continue to change and someday we may not recognize it at all. The fact is, none of us can blindly sit in any church or denomination for a lifetime and not constantly analyze whether we stand by the cornerstone beliefs. What was once a cornerstone, might just be thrown out with a whole other belief.