Note: This is a conversational post about Mennonite sub-culture. It is not about “training up a child” for Jesus.
From where I sit in my accounting office I can see across the parking lot to the Jubilee Thrift Store, in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. I see many variations of Mennonites who come daily to seek out some discounted clothing or household items. These Mennonites are so different from the other customers. Often the mothers that I see are out-numbered by the children that surround them. The swift gait and purposeful stride between the store and the dark-colored vehicle is the mark of people with clear purposes and pressing schedules. Being a reflective person by nature, I often find myself musing about Mennonites and the place that they occupy in the world.
The most obvious trait of Mennonites is the sub-culture that they have created that sets them apart from the culture that they live in. It is a culture marked by peculiar modes of dress, less education, and their own traditional methods of housekeeping and industry. If a Mennonite does speak to a person about Jesus, and if that person is attracted to the Mennonite faith, he will have a big cultural divide to traverse. If that convert’s goal is to become completely immersed and accepted into the culture, he will likely fail in the attempt.
And so I have come to the conclusion that it would be best if Mennonites would have clear goals and expectations before they engage in colonization or outreach efforts. If they engage in inner-city children’s ministries for example, they should not expect the children to one day join the conservative Mennonite church. Instead they should be satisfied to provide a secure place for the city children to be surrounded by friends as they learn about the love of Jesus. During the working day, the men of the community can find opportunities through upright character traits and honest business dealings to display Jesus to the world. These activities (and many others like them) reflect realistic expectations and worthy ministries.
Growing up, I was a very secluded Mennonite boy who really believed that we were the only truly Christian people in the world. Outside of my family name, most of my identity lay with my particular Mennonite church. I saw myself as totally distinct and separate from the broader sea of humanity; even those who were Christians. I thought that the whole world, if they wanted to be Christians, should really join our church. Growing older I felt puzzled that almost no outsiders joined our worship services. I felt perplexed when my excitement about a convert from Boston marrying a young lady from our church turned to disappointment as he and his Mennonite wife eventually left our church and returned to his Catholic roots. I felt guilty that we weren’t doing a better job in evangelism. Occasionally I got swept up with the idealistic fervor of other young married men with big dreams about expanding the tent and reaching the lost around us. I observed the resistance of other church members who felt threatened by this evangelistic zeal. I heard tales of woe from the mission field in Guatemala, and when I traveled there I saw a peculiar sight; ethnic Guatemalans dressed in North American Mennonite ethnic garb. Few of these people ever really were considered to be equal to the North Americans, and yet they also were now separated from their Guatemalan family and community. The difficulty of traversing the cultural divide came clearer to me when my own wife from non-Mennonite background revealed how impossible it seemed to her to ever really feel like she belonged in the church in which I was born and raised.
Several years ago we transitioned from the church of my childhood to a loosely-organized, unaffiliated conservative Mennonite congregation. Eventually we found that the lifestyle rules in that church, while unwritten, were really pretty much the same as the church we had come from. In the experience of joining that church and leaving it again, I discovered that I still expected my church affiliation to be a large part of my identity. And this church, so loose and disorganized, could never meet that need.
At that point I started to look very seriously at the surrounding non-Mennonite churches and we attended a fair number of them. At nearly every church I was attracted to the friendly, welcoming atmosphere, the well-planned services, and the well-thought-through, educated preaching. But I couldn’t quite think of actually joining. I kept thinking about immorality, teen pregnancy, drugs, and other destructive lifestyle plagues so prevalent in the American culture. I knew that if I allowed my children to join the youth activities in a church like that, I would always be worried (maybe paranoid is a better word) about their well-being. I looked inward and saw what my Mennonite upbringing had implanted in me. Train up a child in a certain way of life, and when he is old it will be totally impossible to ever truly escape from it!
…this is the story of my life so far.
And so, I conclude that conservative Mennonites would do well to consider how impossible it really is to bridge the divide between their sub-culture and the broader culture. And as for me, I think that our church home will be in a Mennonite group somewhere; simply because I was raised there. Yes there are limitations to what I will be able to accomplish in the world. But there are also blessings. This lifestyle and upbringing is what makes me unique. It is what makes me, me.
We are hoping to find a group that is open enough to diversity to accept both me and my wife; she with her non-Mennonite background, and me with my post isolated-Mennonite musings; a church that gives us the freedom to pursue the ministries that we are called to as a family; and a church where our children can both enjoy social interaction with their peers and be protected in a measure from the destructive scourges of our surrounding culture.