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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Congregations are the Center of Mission

In a television advertisement with variation iterations, a one-year old child trades stock and bonds electronically using an e-trade app on a computer or mobile device. E-trade not so subtlety pushes the idea that even a baby doesn't need a broker to invest on Wall Street. It's that easy!

Alas, we will always have brokers with us. But increasingly we are able to cut them out of our lives and build relationships directly with, say Wall Street, or whatever or whoever we want to connect. And so it is that the church too is racing into a future where brokers (churchwide agencies, conferences, denominational structures) will play a different role. In this new age, as Mennonite Church USA makes clear, congregations are the center of mission. Brokers do not do mission and ministry on behalf of congregations anymore, but must equip and empower congregations as expressions of the church's vocation. Brokers will no longer have networking as their primary raison d'etre unless they can add value to relationships.

I expect Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, rural Goshen, to announce their intent to leave Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference at our annual sessions beginning tomorrow. Rumors fly that others will join them. For many local Mennonites, emotions are running high. But as I reflect on this decision, it occurs to me that my personal relationship wtih Clinton Frame, and my local congregation's relationship with Clinton Frame will change little. In particular we will continue partnerships in mission with Clinton Frame around, BAR Retreat, Amigo Center, Bethany Schools, Goshen College, Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale, conversation about being a large Mennonite church, and other mission and ministry locally, and perhaps beyond. Indeed, we already partner with local Mennonite congregations that a not part of our conference. CFMC will become another one.

In many ways institutions are no longer necessary for networking. Clinton Frame is a local example. Technology enable us to expand that circle, making connections without brokers. It seems we really do believe congregations are the center of mission, at least we are behaving as as such. And this fact is going to reshape the church.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The End of the Age of Church Bureaucracy?

This post begins an occasional series of posts on the church as we move further into the 21st century.
A friend of mine recently provoked my thoughts suggesting that, when the history of the church in the 20th century is written, scholars will see that bureaucracy was the defining theme of the century. The energy and vitality of the church expressed itself in bureaucratic institutions, vehicles for achieving the mission of the church in an age of institution building in the broader culture.
For Mennonites, Albert Keim’s biography of church statesman Harold S. Bender describes this age as it emerged in the first half of the 20th century. John Sharp’s coming biography of Orie Miller book ends the age by telling the story of another of our great institution builders. The alphabet soup of Mennonite institutions filled many of us with a sense of identity and clarity about what it means to be a Mennonite.
Mennonite Central Committee and its bureaucracy changed my life, introduced me to my wife, and served as a door for me (and countless others) to the Mennonite church. I cannot repay this debt. These institutions shaped many of our lives and have touched millions with the love of Christ. These institutions enabled our gifts to flourish and bless the world. These institutions were necessary for the vitality of the church. Yet my friend suggests the age of institutional bureaucracy is history, belonging to the 20th century, as institutions leave the scene to make way for the vitality and mission of the church to express itself in new ways.
Another friend, a conference leader, told me about Marco Guete, Conference Minister in Southeast Conference, who deliberately downsized the conference as a matter of vision, recognizing the conference would not support conference bureaucracy beyond the need for work with pastoral transitions. Whether or not you agree with this vision, it represents the kind of decisions facing us in the years ahead. What is the purpose of conferences, denominations and accompanying agencies and institutions? For Mennonites, the movement of congregations and conferences in and out of Mennonite Church USA during the current crisis will likely crystalize and hasten these decisions.

These times challenge us, calling us to a willingness to let go of what may no longer be useful to the mission of God, and open ourselves to the new things God is doing and will do among us.