I’m sitting with Dan in what has been our family pew for what feels like decades and actually is. Third row from the front, right hand side of BayTree Mennonite church.
Not because any rule says we need to sit there.
My husband is a man of habit and we’ve always left the back seats for the visitors and the people with little children. We’re the pastor’s family and we sat there even when our kids were small. I find the back of the church to be very distracting, probably because I was a preacher’s daughter and sat up front all my life. But back then it was on the left side of the church with my mom and later on the front bench with my teenage peers. We had segregated seating and I was always surrounded by altos and sopranos, black nylons, and black shoes.
Tonight it’s counsel meeting night and testimony time. If we’re married, we stand as couples and each talk about how things are with us and God and others. Older singles and younger youth do the same, minus the couples part. We have this service every six months in preparation for communion. “Let a man examine himself…” 1 Corinthians 11:28. And “confess your faults one to another…” James 5:16
The air is warm and close and the testimonies are a beautiful mix of joy and sorrow, struggle and victory, longing for heaven while tied to cumbersome earth. It’s like a little window into everyone’s heart. We cry happy tears when the new members say they feel so at home here and laugh with understanding when *Galen shares something brutally honest about the realness of life in battle against the flesh.
*Names are changed because Dan says I shouldn’t use them (even in a positive light) without asking people first. And I was too lazy to get their permission.
Kara talks about struggling to find her place as a young married person without any children. She doesn’t quite fit with the youth girls anymore and while the young moms are lovely, they have different conversations than what she can identify with.
Richard talks about his recent stroke and learning trust when everything else is stripped away. Heidi talks about choosing not to feed her mind with depressing news articles and Rachel reads a song about how precious Jesus is to her.
When it’s my turn, I say that relationships are definitely a work in progress at our house and confess that Dan recently told me in a teary conversation (the tears were mine, not his) that he feels like he doesn’t have my trust like he wishes he did. I talk about my tendency to try to control situations and people instead of just being quiet, praying, and letting God do His work.
Dan confesses that sometimes he’d rather live a reclusive life and just go out and feed his cows instead of taking his place as a pastor. We smile because we all know that about him, but also know that he’ll always show up and do his job.
We are honest, it feels like a safe place, and we feel loved and heard.
(Sometimes I wonder if my church people would be scandalized if I’d actually be more honest yet with my temptations and failures. But is this the time and place for it? Some of those things are better off taken to a trusted friend and not the entire local body.)
I love our untraditional-by-Mennonite-standards church group. I love that Brian with his mental challenges passes the offering every Sunday morning and shares long testimonies and prayers. I like it that we can giggle irreverently sometimes when a song goes badly and that no one expects perfect, well-ordered communions that go off without a hitch.
Our church hasn’t always been the strong, close-knit group of people that it is currently. In my limited experience, it feels like churches ebb and flow. They grow, they fight, they split, they struggle. Sometimes they rise again from the dust and rally and grow again. It feels like we’re in a sweet spot right now and while I am so grateful, I hold the joy loosely and try not to be smug about one single thing.
Smugness. It’s one of the things I’d like to talk about in what I hope will be a series on church, particularly the Mennonite church. Of the “conservative” practice, for lack of a better term.
Let me describe some of our current outward practices for those of you who might not speak Mennonitese.
The women wear cape dresses (there is an extra layer of fabric over the bodice). Purpose? Modesty, helping to avoid sheerness, simplicity.
We have a veil guideline too. (colour and size)
I could tell you more, but maybe that’s sufficient now for those who don’t know a hoot about our traditions.
Dan still wears the traditional plain cut suit, mainly because he is a pastor and likes to dress up and that’s what he owns.
(But as one of my friends (a deacon’s wife) puts it, there is a lot of sin that can hide behind that plain suit. As you can tell, she’s not a fan.)
My experience with the conservative church will be different from yours. For one thing, we live far from other churches who practice things quite like we do. We are isolated and independent of large conferences. Many of our members come from stricter backgrounds and are pushing back against that.
But I’d like to talk about a few of our strong points and also our weaknesses in the next few posts. Hopefully they’ll be applicable to Mennonites or any other denomination with a stricter, more traditional background.
(And by doing this, I in no way claim to have the inside track on the pros and cons of our practices. There are some wonderful Anabaptist people who have written on these subjects in a much more skilled way than I ever will.}
When I asked for responses on instagram and facebook about what people love about being a more traditional Mennonite or why they have left, what impresses them about our groups and what depresses them, I got a lot of conflicting responses. Like is common to all of us, our strongest strengths can also be our weakest weaknesses.
One strength of my church and hopefully yours as well is Brother/Sisterhood.
Bunny trail: We had a baptism yesterday and Dan did the traditional practice of taking the applicant by the hand after they knelt for the pouring of water and helping them to their feet.
(No, we don’t immerse and no, we have no biblical reason not to).
He intoned, “As Christ was raised up by the glory of the Father, even so you also shall walk in newness of life; and as long as you are faithful and abide in the doctrine of His Word, you are His disciple indeed, and shall be acknowledged as a member of the body of Christ, and a brother/sister in the church.”
He baptized Coleson and pronounced him a brother. Natalia was next. Taking her hand, he invited her to rise and be acknowledged as a brother in the church too. He caught himself quickly. But it was a funny moment that we won’t forget for a while.
Brother and sisterhood is a truly beautiful thing. I heard this from so many of you. When one member suffers, the others suffer with them. We rush in with casseroles and blankets and childcare and money. We clean houses when people are moving and cut wood for the teachers and donate beef to the family whose father had Covid.
Hopefully we do the same when someone is suffering emotionally or spiritually. We might not be as good at this. But I never once felt judgment from anyone in our congregation for my mental health battle. There was only much support and prayer and physical outpouring of love.
But I know of people who have left our church (and there have been more than a few) who didn’t feel like people cared a lot or wanted them back very badly. Sometimes we care more about what people leaving does to our good record than thinking about the individual and their hearts.
And sometimes, as I heard from various people and know from experience, we are loyal to the point of covering up things like abuse. That is a sad, sad day, when the church is not dealing with its own who have sinned against God and others, when we believe strong, controlling men over the children they have harmed, when the plain dress covers the black heart.
Someone was commenting to me recently on the generosity of our brotherhood and I thanked them and said that I hope it extends beyond the four walls of our church. Not that Jesus says we are sisters and brothers to an unbeliever. That’s a different dynamic altogether. But how do we feel about the church of God at large? The church of Jesus is huge and diverse.
A downside of a tightly knit brotherhood is that outsiders feel like just that-outsiders. Kind of like I feel when my kids talk about music and movies that I know nothing about. They quote lines and roar with laughter and I sit there like a sore thumb and try to look interested but not too curious and nosy and pathetic.
Someone who commented on my Q and A posts on social media said that when you try to join a Mennonite church from a different background, it’s like going to a new school where everyone else grew up together and knows the same people and plays the same sports. You often just feel like you don’t fit.
I really challenge you to give some thought to how visitors/”interested” people feel in your church group. Does your sense of brotherhood extend beyond your four walls?
This might be also a good time to bring up the point that various single people made to me personally about not feeling accepted and at home in a culture that is so family oriented. I feel like I’ve read a lot about this subject on various blogs and am not prepared to discuss it a lot, nor can I do it as well as some have already done. Do you feel like single people have a place in your church? Are you open to them being other than the traditional school teachers who contribute for years to the church in that way? Do they feel awkward about finding a place to sit on your family pews or at your fellowship dinners? Do your pastor’s sermons include more than just advice to parents when he preaches about home life? Are they precious and honoured and do they have a voice?
Dysfunctional families have a really hard time, too, fitting into a culture where a strong and healthy family life is so revered. Is there any room in your group for people from backgrounds that are vastly different? Do you give them a place of belonging and acceptance?
More on this later, God willing.
I hope I won’t regret having committed to more posts on this subject. Somehow this post feels stilted and cliché. And I know that so many of you have experienced broken brotherhood relationships and are carrying hurts from that.
I’d love to hear from you, either publicly or privately.
Are you experiencing healthy brotherhood somewhere or feeling alone and unwanted?