Reflections for the future Church

by Scott Hackman, Salford

Post-Christendom class 2012
Bobby Wibowo (Philadelphia Praise Center), Dorcas Lehman, Tracy and Barbara Brown, Scott Hackman (Salford), and instructor Steve Kriss (Franconia Conference director of leadership cultivation) traveled to the UK last month to study Anabaptism in a Post-Christendom context.

The Anabaptist movement has re-emerged in Post-Christendom Europe and it may give American Mennonites insight into our future.

Last month, I participated in a cross-cultural class through Eastern Mennonite Seminary that took us to Bristol, Birmingham, and London, England.  There my classmates and I saw glimpses of hope from the UK Anabaptist movement, where people are asking basic questions about the purpose of church and joining God’s mission of restoration in their context.

Post-Christendom is the transition from the church as the center of power in society to the church on the margins of society. This is often manifested in the embrace of other religions, even as Christianity is declining.  The Muslim faith community is growing rapidly in England; an estimated 50% of people attend a Mosque every week.

We went on walking tours to observe what God was doing in the context of each city and how the church was participating.  On one of these tours, after a late walk in the rain, we found a cab to take us back to our lodging.  The cab driver asked me if I was a Christian from America.  I disclosed my identity with hesitation but he looked at me and said, “Did you see me come out of that Mosque where I was praying? I am Muslim and I want you to know we are not all violent people.”

“I am a Christian from America and I don’t support our wars against your people,” I responded.  In that moment I began to understand our Post-Christendom context, where I could express my identity and have a conversation with my “enemy,” and all because he modeled this transparency with me.

Cross-cultural trip 2012
Class members investigate a peace garden in the center of Birmingham that stands on a site where a church was bombed during World War II. Photo by Scott Hackman.

On a walking tour in Bristol, we passed a church building that has been re-purposed into apartments and yet another that was used as an elderly care facility.  In London, the former church buildings were used for music venues and community centers.  These buildings stand as monuments to an era when the church shared power with the state.  As this authority is shifting, followers of Jesus are seeing “church” less as a place of worship and more as a practicing community on mission in its local context.

Anabaptists in the UK are asking different questions than the Mennonites of my faith community back home.  In one London neighborhood with 90,000 residents, for example, only about .5% of people enter a church each week.  We met with the community’s Christians, who asked, “What does the Gospel look like in this context?”  After years of prayer and hard work developing relationships with their neighbors, they built a playground in the middle of a marginalized community.

These Anabaptists are asking hard questions: What does the Gospel look like in our neighborhood?  What is church when no one understands the basic story of Christianity?  Who is the church for?   In their persistent engagement, I saw a glimpse of the kingdom; I am encouraged to ask these kinds of tough questions in my context, too.

As I return home, I continue to ponder what I heard and saw.  Our neighbors aren’t going to engage in the future church if they can’t bring who they really are to the community of faith.   They yearn to belong to a faith community before they will believe or behave differently.  They’re not going to believe in a loving God if they aren’t loved.  They’re not going to respond to the Gospel if it’s not a liberating move of love in their lives.

Anabaptist followers of Jesus in England have given us a glimpse into our future and it’s one that fills me with grief and hope: grief because of the pain we have caused in the name of Jesus through our colonialism and patriarchy and hope because people are expressing the Gospel message and following Jesus outside of the systems and hierarchy of religion.  They are being and becoming the people of God—church—in a context we have not yet but still may encounter as America moves towards its own version of Post-Christendom.

Scott Hackman is part of the missional team at Doylestown Mennonite Church and a student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, PA campus.  He has received assistance in his education through the Area Conference Leadership Fund—to learn more about the ACLF or to make a contribution, click here.