Previous | Next

Fall 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 2 · pp. 69–75 

Faith and Practice in Congregational Life

Roland Reimer

In his well known book, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, J.A. Toews (1975) quotes H. Richard Niebuhr, “All attempts to interpret the past are indirect attempts to understand the present and the future” (1975:3). In my opinion, this perspective reflects the intent of our consideration of the data in the Church Membership Profile. Hopefully the understanding gained from the review of our recent past and present conditions will guide us in becoming more faithful and effective in our congregational life.

In an initial reading of the Profile, the data provide few surprises to those familiar with our denomination. But that is not to suggest the absence of noteworthy information or cause for concern in our congregational life. While the data provide some encouragement, they also justify serious concerns regarding the changes that are taking place in our denomination.

Change, of course, is not a unique product of modernity. Change has always been with us. The history of the people of God, including those in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, reflects that fact. It is the nature, rate and direction of change that call us to accountability.

The trends perceived in our congregational life have brought about increasing tensions between our belief systems and our patterns of behavior. It is this writer’s opinion that the gap between faith and practice is widening. The data reflect increasing diversity of faith and behavior in congregations and between countries (United States and Canada), some more and others less compatible with the historic faith and practices of the Mennonite Brethren Church and its current Confession of Faith. {70}

The faces of our churches are changing. The personal background of the respondents in this study shows a shift in membership. In the absence of substantial growth, the concern regarding a shift in membership is heightened by the fact that there is a decrease in the younger and an increase in older persons. Our churches are “graying.” The percentage of members 50 years or over increased from 34 to 48 percent, while the under 20 age group decreased from 14 to 6 percent during this decade. (Since the same churches were surveyed in 1982 as in 1972, some of the newer churches reflecting urbanization and the mobility of youth were not included in the survey.)

The increased number of respondents in 1982 over 1972 who experienced divorce, separation and remarriage is indicative of the continued erosion of marital stability. This factor may reflect increased instability in primary relationships within the congregations, a shift in the theological perspective of Christian marriage and remarriage, as well as a change in church discipline and membership requirements. In the past, the membership of divorced persons was frequently terminated by either the church or the individual(s). It appears that a more open and redemptive stance in our churches may result in the retention of those experiencing marital failure, leading to forgiveness and restoration among members.

The decreasing number of singles in our churches (Table 2.1), in the face of an increasing number of singles in society, serves as a call for ministry to a growing segment of our population. The data reflect that the needs of singles in our churches are not being met as well as those of married members (Table 5.2). The fact that singles registered a lesser degree of satisfaction in church life than did the married should cause us to examine the focus of our ministries and the attitude of our leadership toward this growing segment of the population.

Congregational activities, such as worship, fellowship and nurture, had more positive value for the members 40 years and older than for the younger members. As anticipated, the older members also registered a more conservative viewpoint regarding most social concerns, ethical issues and moral practices.

All of these factors seem to suggest that congregational life in our churches may become even more diverse, fragmented and inconsistent with our historical theological teachings of the past. And yet, the youth of our membership appear to identify more closely with classical Anabaptist-Mennonite teachings than do {71} the older members, particularly those 60 and older.

The central beliefs reflecting a strong identification with orthodox teaching and fundamentalistic beliefs was surprisingly high in view of societal pressures and cultural influences. Life in most urban congregations, with more younger and educated professionals, probably would reflect even greater diversity than these percentages indicated (Table 2.2). Two items that suggested a weakening of a fundamentalistic perspective were related to the “six-day creation theory” and the eternal destiny of humanity without Christ. These trends were evident, especially in Canadian churches and in urban areas. The generally high scores regarding our doctrinal position was particularly noteworthy in the light of the diverse societal influences of the past decade. We seem to have done very well in teaching the doctrines of our faith.

For a denomination that has been known as “a people of the Book,” the decline in selected items of Bible knowledge should probably be a concern. For a denomination that has a high view of Scripture (94 percent) and that is committed to the teachings of Scripture as the basis for faith and life, there seems to be significant evidence of an increasing gap between faith and practice. If this trend continues, practices may become even more diverse and inconsistent and possibly even contrary to the teachings of Scripture.

The perspectives on the role of the church in the world probably reflect the increasing diversity in our denomination more than most categories in this survey. Although there was little evidence of a drastic change, there was some evidence of contradictory and inconsistent postures regarding some of the items. It is important to note that most of the responses were in the moderate range while the responses on central beliefs were generally in the high range.

A possible explanation for the obvious gap between faith and practice may lie in the substantial majority who identified with spiritualistic rather than sectarian Christianity, especially among pastors, and particularly in the United States (Table 3.1).

The diversity of responses in the areas of discipleship, reconciliation, and church and state seemed to reflect an inconsistency in theological position or a subjective, individualistic selectivism in responding to the gospel. For example, only 42 percent of the respondents in 1982 agreed that “Jesus expects us {72} to follow His example,” a decrease of eight percent in this decade.

Some of the questions used in 1972 may have been somewhat dated for 1982. For example, the items regarding reconciliation pertained only to national and international levels of interaction. Perhaps the results may have been different if questions of personal, family and vocational conflicts had been included. Even so, these data reflect a fragmentation that threatens the homogeneity and unity of our faith and practice. There are those in our churches who fervently believe that some of these responses reflect the ethnic origin of our denomination rather than the theological convictions of our membership.

The church practices data also reflect a denomination in transition. Moderate changes were indicated by the data. Continuity in membership for consecutive generations, marriages to persons from within the denomination, and close friendships within one’s church family no longer characterize the membership as much as they did in the past. The biological family is no longer synonymous with the spiritual family for Mennonite Brethren, according to the demographic data in the survey. Cultural factors have probably influenced our religious life as much through the shift in membership as through any other medium. Another highly influential factor affecting congregational constellations lies in the choice of educational institutions (such as Bible school, college or university and seminary), Christian service opportunities and vocational pursuits and career development.

The gradual but definite change in membership creating diversity in background of biological and spiritual families may have far-reaching effects in terms of family solidarity, Conference knowledge, interest and loyalty, and support through finances and prayer and service (Table 2.9).

The modest growth in relational factors, such as participation in small groups, probably reflects the need for “high touch” in a “high tech” society, a hunger for genuine fellowship which is hopefully one of the strengths of our churches. A decrease in the perceived value of Sunday school (6 percent) and attendance (6 percent) (Table 2.4), as serious as it appears, may be off-set somewhat by the increase in small groups (7 percent). The medium range score (45 percent) of participation in “during the week” meetings and the moderate attendance of weekly Sunday services (76 percent) are additional factors that may reflect disillusionment, {73} boredom with the services, or mobility due to work or pleasure. Perhaps these factors help to explain the lack of growth, enthusiasm and ownership within our membership. “M.B. is Beautiful” (a United States slogan) may not be much more than just that—a slogan. Yet it represents a vision and a dream for the future. Permission and endorsement for members to become increasingly involved across denominational lines, plus a poor self-image and an inferiority complex denominationally, may well contribute to some deteriorating church practices (Tables 2.4, 3.1).

The data also suggest a substantial shift in attitude toward church membership in that its “value” increased by 10 percent during the decade that marked the end of the “anti-establishment” era. A desire for greater participation in the life of the congregation is emerging, and serves as a healthy and noteworthy sign.

However, the trend toward increasing privatism and individualism and decreasing accountability spiritually, financially and personally is reflected in the perspectives on organizational matters and serves as a paradox. The signs of increasing localism and provincialism also merit prompt and careful attention. The low scores indicating increased support of various programs reflect a limited scope and vision beyond ourselves and a disenchantment with activities such as Sunday school and foreign and home missions. Support for Conference educational programs was also waning (Tables 2.5, 3.2).

The social concerns issues, as might be anticipated, were not a high priority. The attitude toward race relations may reflect the “homogenous unit” concept of the church growth movement—other races are equal if in their place. Political involvement seemed acceptable if it remained with voting (privatism) and if it did not involve the use of church buildings or a public expression of a person’s view in word or deed (Tables 2.6, 3.1).

Whether personal or corporate, ethical issues and social concerns reflected the diversity and heterogeneity of our congregations. Social ethics was one area of congregational life in which the singles excelled. They consistently scored higher than did the married members (Table 3.1). Perhaps this reflects their more negative attitude toward the church.

Mennonite Brethren highly affirmed conversion as an event in being authentically Christian. Considerable confusion existed regarding the theological understanding of salvation and sanctification, {74} as evidenced by the repetition of conversion experiences. The wide spread of scores between conversion and relationship to God (Table 2.7), mostly in the medium range, reflected a gap between being “followers of Jesus” and becoming mere “converts to Christ.” Some evidence of the charismatic movement was reflected in the data (e.g., speaking in tongues, 3 percent), and yet this low percentage may have reflected the rigid negative reaction to this movement.

One of the more sobering sets of scores was the one measuring practical experiences. Pietism, which emphasized the devotional life and was so dominant in our early life, was waning in most categories measured (private study, 40 percent; family devotions, 33 percent; Tables 2.8, 3.1).

Another cause for concern lies in the decreasing interest and involvement in evangelism and service, in spite of major efforts to equip workers and to facilitate believers through church growth seminars and schools of evangelism (“I Found It” and “Probe ‘72”) sponsored in the decade surveyed. The decreased support for youth to enter voluntary service (49 to 40 percent) may reflect more about our values than we wish to acknowledge, such as our bent toward materialism, narcissism and provincialism. Or is it a loss of confidence in the programs offered by Conference agencies?

The section on moral practices reflects a set of issues that are mostly personal. Some seem culturally rather than Scripturally based. Some taboos reflect a traditional Mennonite Brethren mentality highly influenced by Fundamentalism (e.g., smoking, drinking, and dancing). Others have specific Biblical support, such as marriage of believers and unbelievers, divorce, extramarital sex and drunkenness. The diversity in attitudes among members of congregations and the two conferences was noteworthy, especially as correlated with age, marital status, education and residence (Table 3.1). The desire to be practical and relevant in church ministries and to grow numerically may constitute two major factors that contribute to diversity in moral practice. Perhaps we have failed to incorporate newcomers adequately, either in discipling new converts or in integrating transfers into our churches. Our moral attitudes are more conservative than our practices (Tables 2.9, 3.1). Clarification and confrontation on appropriate life style issues may become essential in the decade ahead if faithfulness to the Lord and {75} integrity in the church is to be regained or maintained among Mennonite Brethren.

In an attempt to understand ourselves, our faith and our times, a two-fold question emerges, “Who are we?” (identity) and “What are we doing?” (mission). The increasing tension between faith and practice in congregational life may reflect a lack of clarity on both questions. Both our identity and our mission appear to be unclear and in flux. The unfinished challenge of Scripture left for first-century Christians, “. . . That you might straighten out what was left unfinished . . .” is still our mandate (Titus 1:5, NIV). Let us press on to the work of the unfinished task before us.

Roland Reimer is pastor of the First Mennonite Brethren Church, Wichita, Kansas.

Previous | Next