Salem Mennonite Church says they were being challenged by God “to watch, look, and listen…” then join in! As they did this, Pastor Bruce at Salem was invited to organize the volunteers for the Union Cemetery project, a Quakertown private non-profit cemetery, that ended up in disarray. The project would be a cemetery clean-up, beautification, and weed whacking project. Salem Mennonite Church envisioned an opportunity to engage local youth to assist in the project. The Missional Operations Grant (MOG) that Salem received assisted in the purchase of necessary materials for the clean-up project and aided in providing space for youth to build relationships with church members.
Through this project, Pastor Bruce and Salem Mennonite Church have been able to build relationships with youth, local businesses, the community, and government leaders. It has lead to opportunities for the church to engage more deeply with their community.
For more information about the project and the other doors God is opening in Quakertown for Salem view the video below of Pastor Bruce sharing the cemetery upkeep testimony at the 2015 conference assembly:
Every year, members of Blooming Glen Mennonite Church throw a party. It’s got all the necessary elements of a good celebration: games, food, music, and plenty of neighbors joining in. And then there’s one part you wouldn’t expect: a Massey Ferguson combine harvester rolling through nearby fields, harvesting crops of corn and soybeans.
Blooming Glen first began planting its fields in 2002. The church owns 76 acres and about a third of that—25 acres—has been planted annually ever since. The grain is sold on the open market, and proceeds go towards a different project each year. Usually, it’s towards an agricultural project, like those run by Mennonite Central Committee.
Every year, church members harvest the crops around the end of October. And every year—the last Saturday in October—the congregation holds its annual harvest festival, an event open to anyone who wants to come.
One year profits from the harvest went to a non-denominational ministry in Minnesota supporting farmers in that state; another year, they took the grain to farmers in the Belleville, Pennsylvania area who were experiencing heavy drought. Another year, a portion of the proceeds went to Keystone Opportunity Center, a Souderton, Pennsylvania-based organization that aids homeless people. Two years ago when grain prices rose, they sent $20,000 to a Mennonite Disaster Service project in Ohio. This year, the going price has dropped so it won’t be as much, though it’s still nothing to sneeze at—as long as you don’t get too close to the semi in the parking lot where the combine is unloading the grain.
At the festival, there are activities and games—no age limit is posted—that range from painting pumpkins, to throwing corn cobs through the painted mouth of a pig, to hayrides. One game has prizes—small wooden animals made with a jigsaw and painted. Bob Moyer, a member of the congregation, made 75 of them last year; this year, it went up to 100.
Members of the church say the event, like the fields, grows and changes a bit every year. Many people from Blooming Glen donate homemade chili and cookies, cider and apples. The young adult Sunday school class serves as treasurers. John Hockman and Paul Hockman, brothers who own Penn View Farm, take care of the planting, and father-and-son team John Kulp and Ryan Kulp of J & R Farms helped with the harvesting this year. The junior MYF group supervised the popcorn machine, while the senior MYF led games.
Robin Long, a member of Blooming Glen and also the congregation’s business manager, says one of her favorite things about the event is that it’s multi-generational and also “multi-initiative.”
“Not only are there people here from all ages,” she says, “There are people helping from all ages.”
Alexa Kennel, 13, stopped on her way to snag another cookie, says that when she was younger, she liked the games a lot. Now, her favorite part is seeing everyone in the church and catching up with them.
Long says the harvest festival is important for many reasons: Harvesting on the same day as the festival provides a visible reminder of where food comes from and the importance of farmland. It also brings together the local community.
“It’s the simple pleasures of food and play,” says Long. “And the fellowship. You can’t beat the fellowship.”
Recently, I spent three days with a group of conference leaders who work in youth ministry. This is an annual gathering at a beach house that has no agenda other than to be with one another, share what is happening in our lives and ministries, and eat some good food. Let’s just say that youth workers know how to have a good time when we get together!
What dominated our conversation this time, however, was a lament of the current state of affairs in Mennonite Church USA: the dwindling numbers and interest in the events we plan for youth and youth workers; the fracturing of churches and conferences; the passive aggressive behavior which is so prevalent in conflicts; a lack of healthy leadership (including disappointment in ourselves); the church caving to cultural patterns of polarizing behavior; a lack of the empathy and forbearance in our church relationships that love requires; the list could go on. As we dug our toes into the sand, we waited with one another and sought to listen deeply in our grief and disappointment.
One of us commented that it feels like we are in a waiting period. We are waiting for what will be torn down and what will emerge. It didn’t help the mood that the weather was overcast and there was a chill to the wind coming off the ocean. Someone volunteered to go and collect coats and blankets so that we could stay warm.
Yet, as we huddled together, we also noticed signs of hope. We shared stories of emerging faith and maturity in our children. The more seasoned parents among us noted that this can take a long time. We noticed signs of new life and emerging ministries in our churches and conferences. We rejoiced in the collaborative spirit we often see among youth pastors and workers. We reflected on the increased interest in Anabaptist thought and practice from groups and churches outside the Mennonite Church. We chuckled with holy amazement as we swapped stories of “problem” youth in our youth groups who grow up to be effective and mature Christian leaders.
We need places in our faith community where we can grieve together and share our disappointments. We also need community to help us move beyond ourselves and notice where God is stirring on the edges. We can choose to focus on the fears and anxieties of what we perceive is being lost or we can lean into the assurance that what God is bringing about is good even if we have a hard time imagining what it might look like.
In this time of uncertainty, I long for a renewed sense of community to emerge that is willing to wait with one another until Christ returns. Each generation in the church has a new set of perplexing issues and challenges and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever come to a final resolution to settle our differences. Our youth need to see the church model a way to be authentic community together when so much in our world is fragmenting and tearing apart. I long for a church that has a vision of the community that will one day gather around God’s banquet table and then seeks to live into that community today.
I long for a community that is willing to simply be with one another even when the weather is overcast and cold.
Our theme for this year’s joint Conference Assembly with Eastern District Conference is “Esperando: Waiting & Hoping.” Conference Assembly will be held November 14-15 at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa.
I came back from Mennonite Church USA Convention in July feeling challenged and uncomfortable, the kind of feeling that means I need to do something. In Phoenix, I’d prayed about how to respond to a drone center coming to our area. I went to the next protest. Still, I remained uncomfortable.
Then I experienced what turned out to be a blessing, though it didn’t seem so at first. My car was damaged in a parking lot, and the body shop needed it for a few days. My husband and I, both retired, volunteer regularly at different places, all too far to reach on foot. In the Philadelphia area, senior citizens ride trains for eighty-five cents and buses free. I could get where I needed to go without renting a car.
My habit had been to drive anywhere too far to walk, using public transportation only when I couldn’t drive. What an irrational routine: a two-mile exercise walk, a quick stop at home, and a drive to my destination, spewing pollutants into the atmosphere. No wonder I’d felt uncomfortable! When my car returned, I found I couldn’t go back to my old ways. The Holy Spirit has turned my thinking upside down; I now use public transportation whenever possible.
When I drove, my car isolated me. Now, no longer isolated, I relate to others. I’m reducing pollution only a little, but my sense of community is growing a lot. Here are a few illustrations.
After church, I walked to the train. Two teen-aged boys, acting silly, as teens do at times, passed me. At the station I noticed an elderly man with a cane. I began to check email on my phone. A voice said, “Hey, old man, give me all your money, or I’ll beat you up!” I hid my phone away and looked up. Standing by the old man was one of the teens I’d seen. I got my phone out again, thinking of calling 911. Should I try to talk the boy out of it or would that make it worse?
Then the old man spoke, “Where are you going?” The boy answered. The old man said, “Man, you’d better get out of here and cross the tracks.”
“I’ve got time,” the boy laughed. “How’ve you been?”
My heart started beating again; they knew each other. The boy had been joking; as I returned home, I pondered my reactions and assumptions.
Often there are not enough conductors on the trains to punch all the tickets. I don’t want to cheat, so I try to find a conductor on the platform to take my ticket. Once, he refused, saying, “Use it another day.” I responded that with his permission, I guessed I would.
Once, the conductor shortage was potentially more serious. At my stop there was no conductor in sight as I stepped down toward the platform. A blind woman with a dog started up the same stairs. I knew I couldn’t move back in time, so I called out, “I’m coming down.” She backed up. As I walked past her, I said, “It’s clear now.”
A conductor stood motioning for her to move to the next door. She kept walking toward the stairs. “She’s blind,” I told him, “she can’t see you.” He kept gesturing. I called to the woman, “The conductor wants you to move to the next door.” She moved, but not far enough, stopping right in front of the opening between two cars. She lifted her foot to climb onto the first step, but her foot was over the track, which lay a few feet below. Knowing it’s not acceptable to touch a blind person, but afraid she’d fall, I put my hand on her arm. She turned toward me immediately to tell me loudly to stop. My emotions were a jumble. I reacted as I usually do when yelled at, hurting inside, but also felt immensely relieved that she had turned back. Her dog steered her back to the stairs. The conductor no longer gestured as she stepped up. I shed tears of relief as I walked home.
When I was driving most places, I rarely related to anyone on the way. My car isolated me. Now, the trains, the stations, and the buses bring me closer to the people who share this place in which I live. No longer isolated, I see them as the human beings they are, and they see me the same way, picking up my ticket when I’d dropped it, getting up to let me sit down on the bus, and, in one case, asking me if an umbrella on the shelf above me was mine, and when I said it wasn’t, exchanging sympathy for whoever had lost it.
One day, an excited little boy asked his father one question after another about the train, where it went, when it would come, how it stayed on the tracks, what made it move, and so on. He and his family wore Phillies hats or shirts. Someone asked him if he was going to the ball game. He grinned, nodded, and asked if we were going to the game, too. Soon each of us knew the others’ destinations and we all wished each other a safe journey. I expect I was not the only one to board the train with a warm feeling of commonality and a little extra joy.
At a gathering of church leaders at camp Men-O-Lan in the early 70’s, I heard Gerald Studer (then pastor of Plains Mennonite) say something like: “If I were the only person living on earth, God so loved the world that he would have sent Jesus to die for me.”
As a teenager I was never sure I was good enough to take communion. I knew I did not live up to the expectations of the church community, nor of the Scriptures so I always took communion with much anxiety and guilt. I lacked an understanding of the grace of God and of my own self-worth. All my being and doing good didn’t achieve the peace and confidence I was taught or hoped for.
After years of college and seminary training I came to discover in a much fuller way the meaning of Christ’s death. Intellectually, I understood God’s grace and mercy. I could preach with passion and conviction that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believed in him would not perish, but have eternal life.” I owned it, but did not enter into it fully in my inner being.
Holy week was a rich time for me. I enjoyed leading my congregation through what were often high times in our life together. Yet deep within me was this haunting uneasiness about how this incredible love of God reached my needs. Why would God love me to this degree? With all of my goodness on the surface which people could see, I was still a rebel inside, driven with selfishness and insecurities.
At one point in my early years of ministry I was wrestling with the question of how God could offer total forgiveness and hold nothing against me. How could I be fully his beloved son? I had no sudden epiphany, but the grace of God slowly overwhelmed me over several weeks and months. It had something to do with my self-worth and my being able to forgive and receive forgiveness. My view of God began to change from that of a judge who stood over me to a God who had high expectation but was gracious and understanding and forgiving. I began to hear the loving and welcoming voice of a God who was with me at all times. I was more gracious with myself. I found myself extending grace to others. If God could love and forgive the rascal and phony I was at times, I could do the same.
After 40 years of ministry, I enter another Holy Week eagerly anticipating the week’s events, Thursday evening at the last super and Friday evening at the cross. Yes, I am drawn into deep awareness of my own brokenness and the grace of God extended to me. Even more, though, I am now aware that Christ died for the whole world. Because of the grace of the Lord Jesus toward me, I am freed by His Spirit to extend grace and forgiveness to others; God’s mercy extended to me through the death of Jesus now flows on as I extend that mercy to others.
I am keenly aware of my brothers and sisters around me. I am aware of strained relationships and unresponsiveness to need. I know that I enter more fully into the grace of God as I am more fully in a gracious relationship with other believers.
When I stand by the cross this Holy Week, I will stand in and by the grace of God. For I know that going deeper into the grace and love of God is related to extending more grace and mercy to others. As I weep because of my times of betrayal, may I also weep for the brokenness of others. As I enter into God’s mercy and forgiveness, may I also release others by grace to experience mercy and grace in God’s Kingdom of Love.
by Ervin Stutzman, executive director, Mennonite Church USA
I’ve been a follower of Jesus in the Mennonite tradition for many years. Therefore, for me “to Mennonite” is to instinctively follow the many rhythms and routines that express my core beliefs about Christian discipleship. I engage in particular rhythms of corporate worship and private devotion, action and reflection, exercise and rest, (lots of) work and (sometime too little) play, (too much) speaking and (too little) listening, communal discernment and personal choice. I could expand on each of these routines but I have chosen to address only the last of these several pairs.
For me, “to Mennonite” is to engage in communal discernment about the most important issues in the Christian life. Some newcomers to the Mennonite church quickly observe that our insistence on processing decisions can lead to undue cultural conformity and inertia. To new leaders eager to make changes in the church, processing often appears as a weakness, if not a downright annoyance. Stuart Murray, an Anabaptist from Great Britain, once cited a Mennonite friend who said that “process is the Mennonite drug of choice.” Ouch!
Recently, I met with a congregation of individuals who were mostly new to the Mennonite Church. Although they were part of Virginia Mennonite Conference as well as Mennonite Church USA, some members were hesitant about being identified as Mennonites. They feared that being Mennonite would drag them down, perhaps even lead them down the wrong path. They wished for greater independence from the larger body of Mennonite Christians. They seemed worried that the choices we are making as a national conference, even after communal discernment, might not reflect God’s best for them.
While the downsides of endless discussion and processing seem painfully obvious, there are clear upsides that keep me walking on the Mennonite path toward communal discernment of God’s chosen future. To Mennonite, then, is to join with others in circles of respectful and prayerful conversation, observing together what God is saying and doing in a community of faith. To Mennonite is to listen for God’s call. To Mennonite is to determine to follow where God leads, no matter what the cost.
This does not eliminate the need for effective group leadership. Indeed, it takes courageous leaders to blaze a trail into God’s future. Communal discernment can determine what God is calling us to do; getting it done is another matter! Further, coming to a group consensus can build a strong sense of ownership that will help to move the group along, especially during hard times. I have found that everybody is always lazy toward someone else’s goals. Good processes of communal discernment help us all to own the group’s goals for ourselves.
“To Mennonite” this way requires a strong sense of trust in the group. It appears that many leaders fear to engage groups in a search for consensus. I suspect they are worried that an ambitious radical will wreck the process or that a band of foot draggers will slow progress to a halt. Even more, I sense their anxiety that someone else will get the credit for any forward progress.
After years of leading groups, I have found that God can allay such fears. Consequently, I trust group processes more than ever. I am more likely now to bring my (supposedly brilliant) ideas to groups for testing. More likely to listen for the wisdom of even the quietest members. More likely to trust the Holy Spirit to point the way toward the future. If that’s what it means “to Mennonite,” count me in.
by Alex Bouwman, West Philadelphia Mennonite Church
It is not easy separating the noun “Mennonite” and the verb “to Mennonite.” I think it is because the terms are not mutually exclusive. Those of us who identify as Mennonite, ethnically or culturally, and practice a Mennonite faith are likely already Mennoniting. Here are a few examples that come to mind that demonstrate the close relationship between our beliefs (as Mennonites, the noun) and our practices (as we Mennonite, the verb):
We have taken to heart Jesus’ call from the Sermon on the Mount to be peacemakers. Much of our identity involves nonviolence, yet peacemaking is a verb.
We believe in maintaining a close relationship with God, praying, and striving to do God’s will. But what does the Lord require of us? I read about the verbs acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
We believe in living in right relationships, not as individuals on our own, but remaining connected to one another. We follow the practical Ten Commandments as well as Jesus’ explanation of the greatest commandments. Here we are told to love God wholly and our neighbors as ourselves. Love is a verb.
I am proud (wait, can I say that?) of the ways we lovingly Mennonite all over this world for peace and justice. Any of the verbs mentioned above are worth their own blog entries. I would like to share just two simple examples from our church of Mennoniting, or doing community, together.
Last fall our youth group hosted another Mennonite youth group from Lancaster County for a day. They rode the train into Philadelphia and transferred to the trolley, which dropped them off right at our church’s doors. We cleaned up trash at one of our parks, enjoyed lunch together, and did a long two or three mile scavenger hunt walking tour of our neighborhood. This fall we plan to make a trip to their church to enjoy the neat aspects of their rural community, something we city-folk don’t often experience. I sense the Holy Spirit moving as we intentionally get together with those we otherwise might not, finding points of commonality, and learning about the benefits of both city and rural living.
A few years back our church had a meeting to discuss various possibilities for new small groups. Out of that meeting came the desire for more frequent potlucks. We enjoy our monthly church fellowship meals, but this would be a casual weekly meal. There were other small groups that involved bible studies, book clubs, or discussion topics. That involves preparation and a necessary commitment. We wanted something a little different.
Thus our Togethering small group was formed. We meet every Tuesday evening for a potluck meal and fellowship in one of our homes. In the beginning a core of us (probably 8 or so) met weekly with various families joining for a week to check us out. At one point we had over 20 coming! We now consistently have about 10-12 each week. It’s a great way for someone who is visiting for the first time to get connected with a smaller group of people without the pressure of long-term commitment. It is a wonderful gift to share with each other about what is going on with our lives and in the world.
I don’t believe I’m going out on a limb when I say every Mennonite church has ways of doing community, loving God and neighbors as themselves, and working for peace and justice. The way I see it, whether we do them as part of our identity as Mennonites or the way we put our faith into action—or some engrained combination of the two—what matters is that we are living our faith in the real world with love, justice, mercy, and humility.
Next week, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, will share his experience of Mennoniting through community discernment. How do you “Mennonite”? Join the conversation on Facebook & Twitter (#fmclife) or by email.
Franconia Conference’s vision is to equip leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission. This summer ten young adults, pastors and congregations embodied the Franconia Conference vision of equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission as part of the conference’s ongoing leadership cultivation initiatives. This summer partnerships extended with partners in mission, Philadelphia congregations, Mennonite Central Committee, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College—all for the sake of carrying the good news through a new generation and context.
Adrian Suryajaya served through Mennonite Central Committee’s summer service worker program. He worked with his home congregation Philadelphia Praise Center and plans to attend Eastern University as a first year student this fall.
“I enjoyed working with the children and my pastor (Aldo Siahaan) during the summer,” said Suryajaya. “I rediscovered the value of patience, flexibility, and humility . . . to seek God’s counsel when I’m in tough situations.”
Suryajaya organized various church events including a free music concert, a block party, and a summer peace program for children.
“The hardest thing I had to do during the summer was to come up with the Peace Program planning,” Suryajaya said. “Once the blueprint was set, it was easy to do the program.”
For now, Suryajaya will continue his education at Eastern and work towards becoming a physician. “The things that I’ve learned during my internship definitely will help me get through the process of becoming a medical doctor,” he said. “For instance, I have to be patient about how long it will take to get my degree and I know that God will always be on my side in any situation.”
Brendon Derstine wanted a taste of every part of ministry while working with his home congregation, Franconia Mennonite Church, in Telford, Pa, this summer.
“I have been joining in a variety of ministries including worship leading, preaching twice this summer, teaching Sunday Schools, . . . visitation, going to church meetings, delegating at Pittsburgh, and helping out in other ministries as well,” said Derstine, who will be a senior at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg, Va. this fall. “My focus has been intentionally broad so that I could get a big picture of the life of the congregation.”
Over the summer, Derstine connected with the role model of Moses as a leader.
“I liken the pastoral vocation to the character of Moses leading the Israelites throughout the desert wilderness in the Exodus story,” he said. “Like Moses, pastors lead us throughout our lives—we call on them in times of need and harp on them when things don’t go our way. They walk with congregants in the best of times and the worst of times and they are expected to be everything to everyone.”
Moses understood that even though he was a leader, he was human, Derstine said. “High standards are good, but we must remember that pastors are only human, too,” he added. “They lead us toward the Promised Land, but ultimately, they don’t go make that decision for us to follow God—we make it. They remain on the east side of the Jordan.”
For Derstine, serving in his home congregation has been a blessing. “One of the greatest rewards of my time here at Franconia has been reconnecting with my home congregation after being away at school for 3 years. Ministry is a lot about relationships and connecting people to the ways God is already working in their lives.”
Ministry is a constant up and down, according to Derstine, “An ever-changing mix of emotions. It can be messy, but let’s face it, life is messy. And yet in its messiness, God is ever present.”
Derstine will finish his studies to be a sixth to twelfth grade teacher next spring. “I don’t see education and church ministry as that different from each other,” he said. “Whether I teach in a school, or follow God’s call in another direction, I believe that this internship has allowed me to practice teaching and caring for people in a variety of ways—two important components in both church ministry and education.”
Erica Grasse, a junior at Goshen College, Goshen, Ind., also worked with her home congregation, Blooming Glen (Pa.) Mennonite Church, this summer.
Grasse echoed Derstine’s joys of rediscovering relationships, saying that what she enjoyed most about working at Blooming Glen was returning to her home congregation and reestablishing relationships and coming to appreciate her roots.
“I have been getting opportunities to teach and work with the youth,” she said. “To sit in on various leadership meetings, to see perspectives of layperson ministry; and to look at strengthening the young adult program to better match the needs and resources of the church and community.”
While she enjoyed her summer, she said she recognized the needs of pastors to enjoy themselves as they work. “Pastors are out to have a good time, too,” she said. “The work of ministry is a tiring and daunting task, but sharing humor and food are two ways to keep sane.”
At Blooming Glen, Grasse says she comes away from the program with less certainty about a future occupation. “This internship has confused me even more,” she said. “As someone who is studying biology, environmental science, policy and economics, I have been challenged to see the pursuit of ministry work as a complementary component to my vocational interests. Yet, I have come to realize that my future may consist of things I cannot currently imagine myself doing.”
Seven other interns also spent their summer working through Franconia Conference contexts:
Monica Solis, a student at Northern Virginia Community College,served at New Hope Fellowship in Alexandria, Va. with Grace Parker, a junior at Goshen College.
Patrick Ressler, from Goshen, served at Germantown Mennonite Church, Philadelphia, through a partnership for supervision from Franconia Conference.
Jamie Hiner, senior, and Bianca Lani Prunes, sophomore, from EMU served with the Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association in Philadelphia.
Ben Sutter, a junior from Goshen, served with Steve Kriss on the communication team of Franconia Conference.
Joanne Gallardo, EMU Associate Campus Pastor, spent her summer doing a residency at Deep Run Mennonite Church East in Perkasie, Pa.
In late August the board and staff of Franconia Conference gathered to share dreams and visions, to work at logistical details for assembly and to take a step toward reconciliation and healing. It was a beautiful day at the pavilion behind the meetinghouse at Blooming Glen, amongst cornfields—the first day when brisk air invites longsleeves and light jackets after a hot summer. We were meeting to do business plan, to eat together, to imagine.
As the sun was setting to the west, we gathered in a circle for prayer, confession, and mutual commissioning. Led by LEADership Minister Ray Yoder, we prayed with the Conference’s core values and vision—centered in Christ—placed on the floor between us. We were there in a shared journey, shared struggle, with sometimes shared hope and sometimes contested dreams. We are different people, representing different histories, perspectives, congregations. It’s hard work and real commitment in a postmodern world to be together, to witness together, to carry each other’s joys and burdens.
But something interesting happened as we ended our prayer, at the moment of our confession of our struggle, our inadequacies, our failures and foibles—a trail of wild geese streamed over us loudly, moved to form a V and flew into the sunset. In Celtic Christianity, a tradition that maintained a healthy and hearty faithful Christianity while the rest ofEuropeand the Mediterranean region muddled through a difficult time, the Wild Goose was a name given the Holy Spirit. In that evening, amidst our questions and questing, I think the Spirit invited us again to move on, to press into a new day, to gather our diversity of experience and perspective, to pay attention to the signs around us in creation, culture, Text and Spirit and to soar into God’s future.
When I am reading this Intersections, I am struck again by how the Spirit continues to stir us. Within these pages, the diverse dreams for the reign of God and the life of discipleship that we incarnate are written in story form. We are people of many commitments and ways of describing God. We’ve been called forth and cultivated from many places . . . and we’re going into diverse places fromVermonttoBaltimoretoEngland. We’re young dreamers, pilgrim seekers and mature leaders building peace in places like Souderton, Quakertown and Allentown. We’re trying out the reconciling process by gathering across historic divisions and cultural boundaries with assembly this year . . . and we’re committing to a yearlong journey focusing on extending Christ’s justice and peace.
It feels like we’re trying to follow the Wild Goose, recognizing a new day, moving in diverse and unexpected places, seeing sometimes what was unimaginable emerge, and grappling to deal with it and make sense of it. The Celtic Christians maintained a real faith in tough and confusing times. They provoked art, developed mission movements and cultivated missional communities. They used resources creatively and carefully. They were mindful of the connection of body, soul, mind, land, resources and the resurrected Christ.
When I read our stories in this issue, I know we’re on the journey. The Spirit is stirring. Something continues to be breaking forth. We’ll need to continue to be prepared for it, to cultivate, to hope and work, to pay attention for both the signs and possibilities around us, near and far. The Spirit invites us as a historic and yet emerging community further into a journey, offering up a mission which we might embrace and find both ourselves and the world transformed through the story of the Good News even in disconcerting times.
This summer I spent two weeks in the United Kingdomtraveling by train to visit eight distinctly unique Urban Expression gatherings. As pastor of Ripple, an inner city, missional Anabaptist congregation in Allentown, Pa., I went to observe, learn and “compare notes.” Each gathering and each family that I visited had a uniqueness and creative energy related to and reflecting its neighborhood, culture, size, resources and leadership. I had never encountered so many different faith expressions in such a short time or been able to experience them so honestly and openly. Each church had its struggles, joys, cutting edges and things that were changing. All had a belief that God had called them to the city, to these people; they loved the people in their neighborhoods.
Some groups had old buildings, while some had newer buildings. Some had no buildings but gathered in homes, or pubs, or community spaces. While walking in BristolI saw a steady flow of people entering and leaving a large and, undoubtedly, old church building. Curious, I went inside and found a climbing gym. Children climbed the walls in what might have been the Sunday School rooms. More advanced climbers made it to the top of the sanctuary and others tackled the bell tower. In all the church buildings I visited, this was the only single-use facility.
At St. Mark’s Baptist Church in Bristol, I had a great lunch prepared by volunteers with a bill that was “pay what you could” in the church’s new cafe. The place was full. The building’s double balconies in the sanctuary held an eclectic display of artwork by local artists and school children. There were rooms that were refurnished for students with special needs and other spaces for community arts programs. In another part of the turn-of-the-century building, the church planned to begin a food bank in cooperation with the local citizens and grocery stores. All of this was open on a summer Saturday afternoon.
I found churches that had remodeled their cavernous sanctuary space into three floors of apartments, a coffee shop run by people in need of job skills, community social service offices and, yes, a number of cozy meeting spaces used for worship, Bible teaching, Sunday school, parenting classes and addiction recovery. The reflection on space was interesting, organized and exciting. There was often a facilities manager on the premise to moderate and coordinate the building use. The spaces have been transformed – not lost, but used in creative ways, open seven days a week to meet needs Monday through Sunday.
On other occasions, worshipping groups gathered in public places, transforming them into holy space. Bible studies around pub tables, meeting people in parks, movie nights at the local community center, and church- run community carnivals on the town square all witnessed to Jesus’ presence among the people, outside of formal church buildings.
These encounters provoked questions about facility use, whether we have been blessed with space of our own, or where we gather if we do not own our own meetinghouse. What does God ask of us? Are we being faithful to the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, and to our neighbor? Are we willing to open up and to be the center of the community, a light on a hill? Or are we being nudged to move out of our church buildings into the public spaces to proclaim the gospel? May we think creatively, remembering the meetinghouse turned into a climbing gym, as we follow Jesus and form missional communities.
Tom’s time in England was partially funded by a Missional Operational Funds Grant to continue to build relationships with Anabaptists in the United Kingdom and to cultivate further learning and implementation of God’s dream in Allentown.