A 15th birthday celebration

Yesterday, our congregation celebrated its 15th birthday.

Granted, fifteen years isn’t really that long in terms of most church or even congregational histories. There are a few factors in our case, however, that make this both unique and significant.

Jubilee website photo

Jubilee Mennonite Church represents the coming together of two congregations with their own particular earlier histories (dreams, successes, struggles) which extends the story back a couple of decades. To make these individual long stories short, the one group (Northdale Mennonite) had a building but for various reasons had seriously declined in membership. The other group (Valley Gardens Community Church — MB) had people, including a lot of children and youth, but had been meeting in a school and longed for a place to call home. (Although this group had purchased land, it began to doubt the wisdom of mortgaging the future to an expensive new building.) A casual conversation between friends from the two congregations over an evening bonfire resulted in the beginning of talks, and eventually the chartering of a new entity with 77 members in 1995.

The merger was described yesterday as “a marriage of convenience,” and in many respects it was. It solved the problems of two groups, and produced something stronger than either of them alone could become, something viable for the future.

But the phrase hides how carefully both congregations approached the merger, for there was another factor in all this that needed study and honest conversation. The two “courting” congregations happened to be from different Mennonite denominations — the Mennonite Brethren (MBs) and Mennonite Church Canada (formerly known as the General Conference Mennonites or GCs). We were the first, and are still, as far as I know, the only “dual conference” church of these two groups in the province, and I don’t think there’s more than two or three in the country.

To the casual eye, this may appear unremarkable. Isn’t a Mennonite a Mennonite a Mennonite? Yes, in a way, but like many broad movements of faith, the Anabaptists too splintered and then splintered some more. At the founding of the Mennonite Brethren in 1860 in Russia, and hence separation of the two streams that our two founding congregations represent, relations were anything but cordial. (I realize I’m over-simplifying things a little, as the General Conference, now called Mennonite Church, was founded in the U.S., also in 1860, but because it was this conference that many of the Russian Mennonite immigrants from the main Russian Mennonite church joined when they came to Canada, differences originating in Russia were brought along to the New World, and perpetuated in further ways.) Alike as they may have been at the root, each group developed its own culture over time, not to mention negative stereotypes of one another.

These separated groups were now contemplating becoming a congregation that would choose to be not one or the other, but both. We set up various task forces to look at our confessional statements, polity, and so on. We consulted with conference leaders and asked the advice of ministers from each conference who had worked in churches belonging to the other. I recall some resistance at the national level of the MB conference, but since it was provincial jurisdiction to accept new churches and provincially, both denominations, were supportive, our proposal to merge won approval.

I’m glad it happened. The dual part of it is important, both symbolically and for the resources we have at our disposal, but more so the life we’ve shared and shaped together for 15 years. The fact is, denominational identity doesn’t seem to be a huge deal for the younger generation anyway. We’re still a relatively small church, in the 130-person range, and we’ve had our share of ups and downs as I suppose any congregation does, but I was reminded again yesterday of how much we’ve learned together, perhaps from the blending of our respective traditions, but more often just in the simple process of being church together.

I appreciated too the reminder of our pastor Dan Nighswander in his sermon on Hebrews 12:1,2 and 12-17 and its instruction to keep our focus on Jesus. (This was one thing the Anabaptist reformers got right, he said, this insistence on the centrality of Jesus — an emphasis, he went on, that is proving especially relevant for the church in a post-Christendom world.) Such a focus will shape our identity (for primarily it must be that we’re a group of people following Jesus together), our character, and our relationship with God.

There was a great spirit of celebration yesterday, in the service and the lunch that followed. Happy birthday, Jubilee!

Alfred Neufeld reads the past, for the future

I’m home from B.C., tired and brain-full. The Renewing Identity and Mission (RIM) event I mentioned at the end of my previous post was interesting and well worth attending. It was packed with workshops — three tracks running concurrently in every time slot, which means it was impossible to attend more than a third of them.

For now, I think I’ll simply post a few notes and reflections on the opening address of the RIM consultation, delivered by Alfred Neufeld of Paraguay. His paper served as a kind of foundational analysis for much of the conversation in subsequent sessions, as well as provoking some good discussion immediately. It deserves — and needs — further discussion, it seems to me, especially when the longer paper upon which his presentation was based is available as well.

Neufeld is an educator and writer with a long list of credentials which I won’t list here, except to say that he’s one of the denomination’s leading theologians and so it was fitting, I think, that he deliver the keynote address, attempting to draw an analysis of Mennonite Brethren (MB) identity with reference to its founding in 1860, as well as posit a vision for the future. He is also, thankfully, easy to listen to.

Neufeld’s reading of 1860 (shorthand for MB origins), he said, is threefold:

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the essential nature of the church.

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the existential dimension of salvation.

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the transcultural mission of the Holy Spirit.

More precisely, Neufeld follows J.B. Toews in calling the MB origins “a phenomenon of renewal.”

Neufeld then provided a fascinating list of how historians and various members of  “the community of scholars” over the past 150 years have described the essence of the 1860 dissent that formed the MB Church. (I’m working from my scribbled notes here and apologize in advance for their inadequacy). Continue reading

In honour of David Ewert

Today I want to say a few words in honour of David Ewert, longtime Bible teacher, preacher, and writer, who died Friday, April 23, in Abbotsford, B.C. (Winnipeg Free Press obituary here.)

I was not a student of Dr. Ewert. My interactions with him were mainly during my years at the MB Herald, in the capacity of editor to writer, and in this capacity I found him not only willing to serve whenever asked, but wonderful to work with as well. His copy was always on time or early, and so precisely written it needed virtually no editing at all. Last year, when we asked to reprint an article, “Does the resurrection make a difference in everyday life?” which had first appeared more than 20 years earlier, and said that we needed to shorten it and also update bits of the language here and there, he readily granted permission, and trusted us to make the changes. To my recollection, he said he didn’t even need to see the revised piece, although we sent it to him for his review anyway. He was polite and somewhat formal in his correspondence, but he never failed to include some affirming or grateful word about the ministry of the magazine, and coming from him, this was valued encouragement indeed. 

But my larger gratitude concerns David Ewert’s place in our denomination, where he was known not so much personally as broadly, by all of us, for his many contributions. He was born in 1922, served the Mennonite Brethren and wider church some 70 years: 25 years at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, and also as professor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, and as visiting teacher in other schools in North America and internationally. He preached in many churches, and wrote more than 20 books.

According to the short biography of him by Bruce Guenther with Kevin O’Coin, carried in the recent Leaders Who Shaped Us, Ewert’s influence and leadership were particularly significant in the transition of Mennonite Brethren in North America out of “their isolated, often rural, ethnically homogenous communities” into a more urbanized and outward-looking ethos. He “defined and embodied the convictions of the Mennonite Brethren church,” write Guenther and O’Coin, but “helped to move [it] away from both a particular, and often exclusive, German-Russian ethnicity, and from aspects of American fundamentalism that some had found attractive.”

Some years ago I read, and enjoyed, David Ewert’s autobiography, A Journey of Faith (Kindred, 1993). I want to mention two things that I’m grateful he impressed upon the MB denomination. One concerns his influence in weaning us away from the dispensational approach to the Bible and into a sounder understanding of the Book of Revelation. No question, he admitted, caused as much controversy in his experience as teacher and preacher.

Having discovered the wonderful continuity of God’s saving plan for humankind in the Bible, I lost interest in the eschatological intricacies of the dispensational school. I had disposed of Larkin’s eschatological charts long ago…. Since I found no evidence from the New Testament for dividing up the return of Christ into two “comings” (the rapture and the Day of the Lord), and that, in fact, the “last days” had begun in the first centurey, I was spared speculating about which current events might be signs of the imminent return of our Lord. As far as I was concerned, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 had nothing to do with the blessed hope of the believer. However, for such views I was called interesting names. I still have a folder full of letters denouncing my “heretical” views on eschatology. My book “And Then  Comes the End” allayed some of these criticisms, when it was discovered that I held to every fundamental teaching of the New Testament on eschatology. What was missing was the nonsense that goes under the guise of “prophecy” (such as date-setting, or determining from political, sociological and economic developments how close we are to the end.)

I’d grown up with those charts too but was not sorry either to see their demise. A large one drawn on cloth hung on the wall of the conference archives room for some time, where it recalled for me, whenever I saw it, the intensity of this interest in the past. But its being there also symbolized the move away from the “nonsense” that had beguiled and consumed us for a time.

The other item of gratitude I want to mention concerns Ewert’s attitude about study and the life of the mind, which may currently be suffering some loss of emphasis in our denomination, and of which he wrote: 

I have found that one can bury one’s head in a lexicon and come out with the glory of God…. It didn’t happen over night but I see it more clearly now than in my younger years, that intense academic efforts do not endanger a person’s devotion to God. In fact, I have found the opposite to be true. When one offers one’s academic activities up to God as a daily sacrifice, they become a means of grace. My patience tends to wear thin when I encounter students who in the name of piety shy away from the rigors of study.

May the work and memory of David Ewert continue to be blessed among us.