How do we respond? Words from the street, pulpit, and pew: Pastoring in a historic conference in changing times

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Jessica Walter, jwalter@franconiaconference.org
Associate for Communication and Leadership Cultivation,
Franconia Mennonite Conference

We, the Mennonites of Franconia Conference, are a varied bunch. We are urban, suburban, and rural. We are Asian, African, Latino, and European Americans. We are immigrants seeking religious freedom. We are young and old and in between. We are rich beyond our ancestors’ comprehensions and we are barely getting by from paycheck to paycheck. We are farmers, masons, automotive technicians, business owners, cashiers, writers, social workers, dentists, pastors, teachers, stock clerks, baristas, philosophers… the list goes on and on. And our ministries, our churches and organizations, cover all sorts of possibilities.

Amidst all this diversity we not only share a faith, we also share a country and a culture that is swiftly changing. And while some may believe that culture does not shape faith, those who take a deeper walk through our Biblical and Anabaptist history into our present context will see that as the culture around us, as people of faith, changes so do the ministry needs of ourselves and our neighbors. This then changes the way we minister, worship, preach, and teach. In times when cultural changes happen very quickly how do our ministries keep up with our changing needs? How do we continue to be missional? How do we pastor in these rapidly changing times?

In the hopes of finding answers to these questions I interviewed a handful of leaders from a variety of ministry contexts in our conference. My interviewees included Lora Steiner, a writer and seminarian; Mim Book, Associate Pastor of Salford Mennonite Church; Jon Moore, Pastor of New Beginnings Community; Sheldon Good, Franconia Conference summer intern, member of Salford Mennonite Church, and Goshen College student; Dawn Ruth Nelson, Pastor of Methacton Mennonite Church; Kirk Hanger, Pastor of Nueva Esperanza/New Hope Fellowpship of Alexandria, VA, a Franconia Conference Partner in Mission; and Randy Heacock, Pastor of Doylestown Mennonite Church.

Change and Response

“I find myself spending a lot of time helping the church to see and understand the impact of change in our society,” reflects Randy Heacock. “I try to provide biblical/theological foundations for understanding such changes. I sense there is a genuine desire from many in society at large to experience God in the midst of change. There is a genuine search for spiritual guidance beyond our materialistic world.”

Dawn Ruth Nelson has noticed a change in the members of Methacton Mennonite towards reflecting the surrounding and international cultures. She notes that nearly half of her congregants are “folks who were not raised in a Mennonite sub-culture; in other words, they were not raised in a community where they went to school and church with other Mennonites.” She goes on to reflect, “The cultural gap is not so much between Mennos and non-Mennos anymore; it is between races, cultures, socio-economic differences. We at Methacton are spending more thought and time on bridging these differences in culture; intentionally finding ways to meet folks we wouldn’t have met otherwise.” Dawn has also observed a change in the spiritual background of the people who attend Methacton making the small congregation a “more inter-religious faith community.”

As Mennonites become more “acculturated,” Lora Steiner has observed an increased awareness of issues that surround and affect us, “things like poverty, homelessness, a growing gap between rich and poor.” She has especially noticed this among younger generations in the Mennonite church. “Mennonites are really good global citizens, but as a church, we haven’t done a good job of looking at the issues in our own back yards,” she reflects. “We as a church know that our faith has something to say to this, and we speak the language well, but when it comes down to it, we’re rather lousy at actually engaging the world around us. I dream of a day when we have something to offer the brokenness all around that doesn’t say, ‘We’re here to help and know what you need,’ but figures out what it means to enter each others’ lives without our own agenda.”

Mim Book has noticed a decrease in the number of “every Sunday” attendees countered by an increase in the desire for deep worship and teaching. “Even though attendance is not as regular, there is a greater desire for worship relevance and a yearning for relevance of faith and spirituality.” Mim feels a heightened expectation for doing worship in a professional way from her congregation along with a “desire for more vulnerability and flexibility in worship.”
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Sheldon Good has observed “a boom of aficionados for Christian Education hour at Salford Mennonite Church.” The young adult classes of Salford have increased in attendance. “Young adults are proving they prefer small group settings in church, where discussion and dialog take place very naturally. The challenge is how to turn this into something that spans generations, divisions, and differences.”

Jon Moore and Kirk Hanger are experiencing much diversity in their congregations and communities and are allowing those diverse peoples to energize, shape, and lead their ministries. The neighborhood of Bristol, PA, where New Beginnings is located, has witnessed an increase in Liberian immigrants who are more friendly, helpful, and open. “I see our spiritual gifts from two different cultural backgrounds,” says Jon. “We worship differently as well. When I see someone going through a life storm, I notice how we as a community come together to help that person. A little while ago we had a flood and a few young neighbors came to help us even though they did not attend here.”

“Our community is diverse in many ways,” notes Kirk. “When we started, New Hope’s core group didn’t include any Hispanics; now half the church is Hispanic. We mix Spanish songs, prayers, and Scripture reading into our worship time, and provide Spanish translation for the service and weekly small groups in Spanish. This growth is encouraging. Our Hispanic brothers and sisters are doing outreach and evangelism. They easily bring new people to church.”

Evidence of God Amid the Change

As we navigate the changes in our congregations and communities we are given opportunities to witness God at work in the transition. The following are a few of the many examples Kirk shared of seeing God in his congregants: “I see God working in Esmeralda, 17, and her brother, Jose, 13, both children of Salvadorian immigrants. Prior to becoming part of New Hope, both were seriously thinking of going into the military as the only option for eventually paying for college. Now they’ve decided against that option. I see God working in George, a middle-aged Anglo man we met three years ago as we were handing out water bottles at a bus stop. Soon after he was picked up on a probation violation and sent to prison. We stayed in touch with him. Recently he was released and is now attending New Hope preparing for baptism. I see God at work in Tim and Melody, ethnic Mennos from Lancaster County and founding members of New Hope. Recently Melody, her 2 year old daughter, and I spent a morning with a Muslim family answering their questions about the local school system and talking about Jesus. I see God at work in Gonzalo from Bolivia and Grizelda from Mexico. We’ve watched them move from the edge to the heart of our church community as they have experienced God’s love in a foreign land.”

Yet even in the light of these examples it is sometimes hard to see God or to figure out where he is leading. “These times are a communal ‘dark night of the soul’ when God is perceived not so much in traditional communal structures (which are largely gone) but in a hidden way, a transformative way,” reflects Dawn. “Times of darkness require new direct ways of accessing and relying on God. I find that every day of being a pastor requires me to pray the First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous: God I can’t, but You can!” God is indeed amid the change. The question is, are we? “Since God is the God of creation, I see a new community of faith being formed that is more authentic in its expression to our current world,” notes Randy. “Though the church has every opportunity to be at the center of this new creation, I fear it will keep itself in the comfort of its own structure and buildings. I fully expect God will bring about something new in the next 25 years.”page_7.jpg