by Brandon Bergey, Bethany Mennonite Church
Bethany Mennonite Church was planted in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont in 1952 as an initiative by the Franconia Conference. Conference representatives wanted to find a secular location to plant a Mennonite church. Fast forward to 2019 when Vermont is the most secular state in the nation.
We recently finished a sermon series on Anabaptist history and theology. That kind of exploration is so useful in our congregation because we are made up of former Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, and “Nones.” Some of us are strongly drawn to Eastern religions, including Christianity’s Eastern Orthodox stream. Having this sort of diversity among 50 or 60 people can be very interesting! It feels necessary to be inclusive. How else would we do ministry in a secular, post-Christian environment? In our adult Christian Education class, we are currently discussing Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ. Many of us are finding that Christ’s presence permeates the whole world.
In our Membership Covenant, which we renew annually, we commit ourselves to welcoming “everyone, without exception.” We affirm that “we embrace our differences as well as our similarities, and we respect and learn from other faith traditions and values.” These commitments have become increasingly important for many of us. On the days I find myself in deep disagreement with a fellow member, I am invited to love my neighbor as myself. A diverse church is one of the hardest places to practice the love Jesus taught!
Bethany has a strong emphasis on lay leadership. We have only one paid staff position and have never had a full-time pastor. Congregants are deeply involved in planning and leading worship, doing pastoral care, working on committees, and connecting with the community.
At times, this was constrained by size and financial limitations, but at times when we could have afforded more professional staff time, we chose not to, in order to retain our lay-led culture and structure.
We have a fairly laid-back worship service. People wear flannel shirts and snow boots. A 2-year-old wanders among the pews, hoping for an unblocked route to the piano or a guitar. An infant quietly nurses. The congregation sings familiar and new songs. The relaxed attitude is especially obvious in the sharing time that follows the sermon. The person bringing the message is understood to be giving only the first half of the message. Our congregational response time is the second half. Our small size and commitment to vulnerability means we are able to weave a shared narrative. Each Sunday that sharing time elicits additional wisdom, truth, and insight that reflects our diverse community.
I am so thankful for that group who studied church planting in the middle of the last century. I am so thankful to be a part of this resulting diverse group, age 2 months to 85 years old. I am so thankful my young family is warmly welcomed in the worship service and Sunday School, even though we currently make the most noise.
Pray with me that we will see Jesus in our relationships, even when, especially when, our honesty about our differences causes tensions. Pray with me that we will embody God’s Spirit in a way that touches all of our neighbors. Pray with me for a family who attends church with us who are attempting a seemingly impossible project to which they feel called. Join me in giving thanks for our pastor who has been a deep source of wisdom for many of us and many beyond our walls in the community.