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Is Our Future Evangelical?
There is more power in two streams that have merged as a river. From a Mennonite perspective, denominational differences are our strengths. They need not be a source of division.


I told a Mennonite friend that I had returned from a gathering of the Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents. She looked at me as if I had been to an island with the bubonic plague.

Dr. J. Nelson Kraybill

My friend seemed surprised that conversation with Evangelicals had encouraged and strengthened me for ministry. The word evangelical worried her, and I pondered the irony that a Greek term meaning good news has negative associations for some Mennonites.

It is no mystery to me why Evangelical raises red flags for Mennonites. I have been on a 20-year journey toward identifying with Christians who claim that label.

As a young adult I embraced what I understood to be Anabaptism, a commitment to take Jesus seriously, especially for peacemaking. I was certain that I was not an Evangelical, because Evangelicals from Billy Graham to the local Bible Chapel had supported the Vietnam War.

Too quick to stereotype

Whoever coined the term Third Way for Anabaptism did not mean to be arrogant, but at times I felt smug in my Anabaptist correctness. Stereotypes about other Christian traditions shaped my attitudes.

I could explain why I was neither Catholic (too authoritarian, too sacramental) nor Protestant (not sufficiently concerned with ethics, too compromised with the values of society). I was part of the Anabaptist Third Way that understands Jesus' teaching on community, discipleship, peacemaking and service.

Seeking models for witness

After three years at a mainline Protestant seminary, I accepted my first pastoral assignment with a New England congregation. I was keen to maintain the Anabaptist identity of the small congregation that included some who wanted to drop the name Mennonite. The congregation had a deep commitment to discipleship, and that bore fruit: Members took leadership in local projects, from refugee sponsorship to affordable housing.

But in secular New England neither I nor many in our Mennonite congregation knew how to invite others to faith in Jesus Christ. We could affect the community by deeds of living service, but why did so few come to know Jesus?

I discovered that growing churches in New England almost invariably were of an Evangelical bent. These congregations immersed themselves in the Scriptures, believed in sin and conversion, worshipped with heart and mind, and invited others to accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord. I attended gatherings of the Evangelistic Association of New England and was humbled to see how much I had to learn from evangelical believers.

Positive experience with evangelicalism

Experiences over the next ten years exposed me to positive aspects of evangelicalism.

• Protestant churches in the West making the greatest impact for change in the inner city often were Evangelical. People who believe in conversion and the power of prayer sometimes have the greatest commitment to work with homelessness, addiction, and other urban ills.
• During six years at the London Mennonite Centre in England I learned that Evangelical in the United Kingdom does not signal right-wing politics or knee-jerk conservative theology. British Evangelicals gave costly testimony to the Gospel's power to address matters of justice—by opposing nuclear weapons or by building real community in East London's slums.
• Many active participants in the Anabaptist network in the British Isles are Evangelicals—people who taught me to claim the bold witness and missionary courage of my early Mennonite forebears.
• Some influential Evangelicals in North America are looking to Anabaptist models for inspiration on faithful discipleship in a post-Christian society. Evangelicals are taking Mennonites seriously. I want to reciprocate.

Today's evangelical movement is broad and varied, and we cannot respond to it with simplistic stereotypes.

I don't have to try hard to muster complaints about North American evangelicalism. But I can do the same with the Mennonite Church, and I know too well my own failures. I have resolved to stop comparing the best of my Anabaptist heritage with the worst of evangelicalism. Early Anabaptism was, at its core, Evangelical: Christ-centred, biblical, confessional, and invitational. Mennonites in the 21st century will profit from drinking at the streams of contemporary evangelicalism—but we must also dip back into the spiritual wells of Evangelical witness in our own heritage.

Today's evangelical movement is broad and varied, and we cannot respond to it with simplistic stereotypes. We cannot let TV preachers define for us what Evangelical means. Neither can we summarize evangelicalism by traits characterizing the movement a generation ago.

The word evangel comes from the New Testament word usually translated Gospel (good news). That is our word as a follower of Jesus, and the word belongs to all believers who put their hope in Christ.

Learning from other streams of piety

I have benefited from contact with Roman Catholics—in spiritual disciplines, visual/liturgical aspects of worship, and appreciation of Early Church history. Other Mennonites have also learned from Catholics. Not all of my Mennonite friends, however, are willing to learn from Evangelicals.

We may disagree with the wider evangelical movement on ethical or theological issues, just as most Mennonites disagree with Catholic teaching about Mary. There is sufficient common ground with Anabaptism, though, to make respectful exchange and fellowship worth the effort. I do not want Catholics or Evangelicals dismissed by Mennonites as irrelevant or contemptible.

Mainstream Protestantism in North America is experiencing identity struggle and membership decline. This is sad for me, because I have learned much from it—especially from two mainstream seminaries where I received degrees. I read Christian Century magazine and value many mainstream theologians.

But I notice that the churches and movements that are growing typically have a warm evangelical piety and a clarity of confession that sometimes are absent in the Protestant church. I value what I learn from an evangelical magazine such as Christianity Today.

Even in the Mennonite Church, it is congregations with evangelical character that are growing, calling young leaders, discipling believers, and reaching to the margins of society. Mere numerical growth is no measure of faithfulness, but if a movement's fruits are true to the Gospel, growth is a good thing.

Evangelical Mennonite churches have been most successful at reaching across ethnic, racial, and economic boundaries. Evangelical faith expression is most likely to be passed on to the next generation. The huge growth of the Christian Church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia has been in evangelical circles.

Mennonites in North America can rejoice that the future of the Mennonite Church (and the global Christian Church) looks Evangelical.

I want to make Mennonite communities places where Evangelicals experience respect and hospitality.

The growing edge of the church has vibrant worship, expectant prayer, costly discipleship, and bold witness. Mennonites do not need to artificially change vocabulary or affect a manufactured piety to be part of this breath of the Spirit; we simply need to reclaim our evangelical roots.

I am committed to making no snide remarks about Evangelicals, and I want to listen and learn from people in the evangelical movement. I want to make Mennonite communities places where Evangelicals experience respect and hospitality.

We have something to offer

I accept the label Evangelical and believe the following characteristics of evangelicalism are essential to Anabaptism:

• A Trinitarian faith with accent on the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ;
• The centrality and trustworthiness of Scripture for belief and practice;
• Repentance from sin and change of life by the Holy Spirit's power;
• Regular discipline of prayer and worship;
• The urgency of mission to share news of salvation with others;
• The centrality that God someday will unite all things in Jesus Christ.

This is only a starter of common ground. Here are a few among many convictions or practices that Anabaptists might offer to other Evangelicals and the wider Church:

• The centrality of Jesus both for salvation and for ethics;
• Commitment to peacemaking, non-violence, and service;
• Christian community and sharing of financial resources;
• Baptism after repentance and instruction;
• The integration of Word and deed in mission.

In sharing what we understand to be essential aspects of Christian faithfulness we must be both bold and modest. The same convictions and practices appear within parts of many denominations and the Catholic Church. Mennonites have no monopoly on faithful discipleship—and I am not ready to let others have a monopoly on the word Evangelical.

J. Nelson Kraybill, Ph.D., is president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. This article is reprinted with permission of The Mennonite (March 5, 2002), and uses the shortened version of OurFaith digest (Summer 2002).

Originally published in The Mennonite, March 5, 2002. Reprinted in The Messenger, November 15, 2006.

 

 
 
 
 

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