Mennonite Brethren and the Next Church
Several years ago, I returned from Kiev where I had been teaching as a Fulbright scholar. In Kiev I had attended an Anglican church and there enjoyed some of the best expository preaching I had ever heard. Those English preachers just pack their sermons with substance and include few anecdotes. The services were also quite worshipful. Anticipating some of the same when I came home, I visited a number of Mennonite Brethren (MB) churches, the denomination of my membership for over thirty years. To my surprise, things had changed. I encountered a series of sermons based on the Jabez Prayer, many personal illustrations, big screens displaying hymns and Bible verses, and Praise and Worship teams.
Mennonite Brethren have a history of buying into outside influences.
During the next few years, I visited more MB churches and witnessed much of the same. At times announcements came in the form of a dialogue, sermons were introduced by a skit, big screens flashed the hymns and Bible verses, Praise and Worship teams had replaced the choirs, singing in four-part harmony was gone, and guitars had pushed out the church organ. A number of churches had centered their services around the best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life. 1 When we came to the sermons, they were often light and on “relevant” subjects. Expository preaching was a thing of the past. Some pastors began with their ideas and found verses to support what they wanted to say. Moreover, in some of the churches the pastor was operating more as a CEO than as a pastor of the flock. Rather than working in close connection with the congregation, he was attempting to control it.
This is not to say that all of the above characteristics are bad. For any religious group to be successful, it must be culturally relevant. For any religious body, however, there is only a fine line between being relevant to its surrounding culture and being absorbed by that culture. And in their attempt to be relevant, many MB churches are in danger of stepping over that line.
Mennonite Brethren have a history of buying into outside influences. They began as an Anabaptist group with a substantial dose of pietism. They then absorbed significant elements from the Baptists, Dispensationalists, Fundamentalists, and Evangelicals. Being somewhat porous in respect to theological boundaries, Mennonite Brethren separation was often based on their cultural and ethnic distinctives. 2 But except for an older generation, the cultural barriers are a thing of the past. And as is the case with most denominations today, theology counts for little.
Where are the Mennonite Brethren now headed? They appear to be moving toward the Next Church or new paradigm church. By this I mean some combination of characteristics drawn from the church growth movement, the seeker-sensitive churches, mega- and electronic churches, and charismatic worship practices. Reinforcing this impression is the fact that the keynote speakers at the 2005 U.S. MB Conference meetings were gurus of the church growth and seeker-sensitive movements.
NEW BATTLE LINES
American religion is changing. Denominationalism, once the structure of American religion, is breaking down. Once upon a time, theology and beliefs determined denominational boundaries. This is a thing of the past. What currently sets Christian bodies apart is how they do church. Is the Sunday service geared for believers or the unchurched? Does this service focus on worship or evangelism? Do the sermons contain substance or are they topical and focused on “relevant” subjects? Is the music traditional or is it contemporary, featuring a Praise and Worship team? Does the church use hymnbooks or are the songs flashed on a big screen? These and other issues have established the battle lines between churches—not theology. In fact, one pastor described his church as a “Heinz 57 church,” meaning that there was such a wide variety of doctrines that few people knew what they believed. 3
Few MB churches are in danger of becoming mega- or electronic churches. Still, MBs have been heavily influenced by how these churches do church. At times new pastors bring such ideas into their congregations. On other occasions, congregations pressure the pastor to adopt what the mega- and seeker-sensitive churches are doing. They see these churches growing and want some of the same. Whatever the source, many Mennonite Brethren congregations are adopting a new vision.
What does this church look like?
No spires. No crosses. No clerical collars. No hard pews. No kneelers. No biblical gobbledygook. No prayerly rote. No fire, no brimstone. No pipe organs. No dreary eighteenth-century hymns. No forced solemnity. No Sunday finery. No collection plates. Centuries of European tradition and Christian habit are deliberately being abandoned, clearing the way for new contemporary forms of worship and belonging. 4
This new form goes by many names: the Next Church, seeker-sensitive churches, the new paradigm church, or the postmodern church.
PREACHING IN THE NEXT CHURCH
Yes, “welcome to McChurch.” No more boring, irrelevant sermons. They relate to certain themes and are coordinated with musical and dramatic productions. Our sermons touch you where you are. They are concrete, not abstract. They are practical, not theological. They connect with your feelings, not your mind. They are immediate, not distant. How do you like the sermon titles at some seeker-sensitive churches? “Authenticity,” “Discovering the Way God Wired You Up,” “The Power of Money,” “The Art of Decision Making,” “Maintaining a Healthy Attitude,” “Fanning the Flames of Marriage,” “Energy Management,” and more. At the Next Church, many people are being served, but critics question whether they are being fed. 5
Why do millions of Evangelicals accept and even crave this kind of preaching? Biblical illiteracy is part of the answer. In part this biblical ignorance stems from the way Evangelicals approach Scripture. Believing that truth can be found in the literal words of the Bible, they take a cut-and-paste approach to Scripture. They see no need for systematic thinking, the principles of biblical exegesis, or interpreting Scripture in its historical context—as have most Christian traditions. Rather, Evangelicals play “Bible roulette,” that is, they use random texts to support the idea at hand. They prefer Scripture à la carte. Instead of looking at the whole context of a passage, they extract specific verses. 6
In adopting this approach to Scripture, Evangelicals reflect the populism and pragmatism of their subculture. Understanding Scripture in its proper context requires some theological training. Conversely, a literal reading of certain proof texts with no knowledge of the larger picture can be done by the untrained laity and has a populist appeal. Moreover, Evangelicals are not interested in doctrine or theology; they want an immediate application of Scripture. As Nancy Ammerman has observed in her study of Fundamentalist churchgoers,
Although they often read the Bible from cover to cover, believers rarely refer to the themes of the whole Bible or even of whole books or stories. Rather, they search the Scripture to find the word or phrase that seems to answer the question at hand.
In fact, “Any portion of Scripture, no matter how small, can be used.” 7
Another major factor behind the Evangelical taste for shallow preaching is television. Our television culture has conditioned people to have a short attention span, something resembling the time between commercial breaks. People gain much of their inspiration from sound-bite cliches. Television has also replaced the spoken word with visual images. So sermons in many “progressive” churches are short with a liberal sprinkling of anecdotes, and they are practical, not theoretical. Visual images abound. They come in the form of large screens, film clips, and dramatizations. The modern church is moving in the direction of the medieval cathedrals where stained glass windows conveyed a message. 8
Contemporary sermons and culture connect in another way. Americans are always looking for quick answers and easy solutions. They hope to lose weight without dieting or exercise. They believe they can engage in analytical thinking with little knowledge about a particular subject. Somewhat related, contemporary sermons focus on applications rather than any knowledge of Scripture. Parishioners want end-results without hearing any substantial biblical teaching. Modern sermons are long on practical application and short on substance.
America is an entertainment-driven culture, and late in the twentieth century television became the primary vehicle for entertainment. Thanks to television, Americans expect to be entertained in many areas of life, including the church. And this has caused major problems for the local pastor in respect to both preaching and worship. Entertainment programs present life in simple black and white terms. In doing so, television has enhanced its viewers’ taste for entertainment and drama, and has reduced their ability to think about complex issues. To accommodate this trend, successful televangelists entertain and present their message in simple dramatic terms. The traditional seminary-trained pastor, who preaches a content-based sermon with notes, cannot compete with the televangelist. Such sermons are not as entertaining or dramatic, and they often raise complex issues. 9
WORSHIP IN THE NEXT CHURCH
The greatest attraction of the large progressive churches might be their style of worship. Many people who came out of the Jesus movement of the sixties are now the backbone of the megachurches. True to their Woodstock heritage, they prefer a lively style of worship, not a traditional service. The super church can offer a number of worship options, including a service with guitars and bands that play Christian rock. Indeed, the guitar has replaced the organ. 10 For the most part, this generation rejects liturgical services as found in the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. As Alan Wolfe says,
American society is a nonliturgical society, its pace of life too fast, its commitments to individualism too powerful, its treatment of authority too irreverent, and its craving for innovation too intense to tolerate religious practices that call on believers to repeat the same word or songs with little room for creative expression. 11
Listen to the music at many megachurches. Turn on some Christian radio stations. Or listen to many contemporary Christian CDs. What do you hear—Christian or secular rock music? It may be difficult to tell. In music, the convergence of the Evangelical subculture and mainstream American culture becomes quite obvious—perhaps more so than in any other area. The values of individualism, feelings, experience, subjectivity, self-fulfillment and materialism come to the forefront in both contemporary Christian music (CCM) and popular secular music. But this has not always been the case. Prior to about the 1970s, one could tell the difference between secular and sacred music.
A revolution in musical tastes took place among Protestants between 1940 and 1970. And the controversy that they began has still not abated. What has developed is a new sectarianism over worship. While differences over doctrine have died down and denominational loyalties have weakened, people are fighting and dividing over music and how one does church. For the baby boomers, who regard self-fulfillment as important, music is a significant factor in their choice of a church. The innovators are accused of “turning worship into a rock concert.” Conversely, the traditionalists are charged with “turning it into a music appreciation class.” Music sparks controversy because “it mediates between sacred and secular, youth and old, emotion and restraint,” notes Thomas Bergler. 12
Praise and Worship music has become popular in many churches, appealing to the youth but alienating more traditional worshipers. Coming across as more than a Christianized version of rock music, Praise and Worship gave increased respectability to CCM. Praise and Worship can be most readily identified by the presence of a praise band on the stage at the front of the church. Very similar to the Jesus rock, the praise band consists of electric guitars, drums, bass, and singers with microphones. In the more pragmatic churches, this praise band or worship team has replaced the symbol of the traditional church—the church choir. The Praise and Worship music comes early and often lasts for about thirty minutes. The service begins with a round of songs, punctuated with an opening prayer and more choruses, followed by a sermon. 13
Praise and Worship has taken hold because it connects with many of the historic Evangelical characteristics. It offers the churchgoer an experience—a sense of encountering God, a reminder of their conversion, and dramatizes the trials they face. Like most Americans, Evangelicals desire to be entertained. Praise and Worship is lively and offers them music similar to what they will hear on the radio. It also reflects the populist impulse within Evangelicalism. Evangelicals are often uncomfortable with traditional churches because they convey an atmosphere of formality, rationality, structure, and professionalism. Praise and Worship services are informal, subjective, emotional, and expressive. Such services also blend the sacred and the secular as Evangelicals do in many areas of life. 14
THE CEO PASTOR
In the Next Church the role of the pastor is changing. The new Testament indicates that such leaders should be pastor-teachers (e.g., Eph. 4:11-13). Such a person preaches and teaches the Word of God and shepherds a flock of believers. The role of the senior pastor in new paradigm churches, however, is quite different from that of the New Testament pattern. The new paradigm pastor is more like the CEO of a corporation. While such leaders may still be the primary preacher on Sunday morning, their tasks center on directing the operations of the church, which can be quite extensive. Some megachurches have hundreds of paid staff plus an army of volunteers. These individuals are in a chain of command, responsible to an area director, who must report to the senior pastor. Many of these large churches, indeed, function like business corporations. 15
Some Fortune 500 Pastors have lost their prophetic voices. Sermons cannot proclaim God’s judgment or be critical and negative. In some churches, the word sin has become an expletive. Expository sermons, which proclaim God’s Word in its context, are on a decline. Solid biblical teaching is too heavy for most congregations. Rather, preaching must be pleasing and entertaining. Preachers must proclaim God lite, a God who is your buddy and soul mate. Negative ideas must be so camouflaged that they are barely recognizable. Pastors face congregations who have been reared on hours of television and expect to be entertained. So the pastors must become a cross between an executive and an entertainer. Sermons must be short, relevant, and reinforced by visual images, including dramatization. For example, in one megachurch a sermon preached on the theme of spiritual warfare was illustrated with images of skydivers, karate experts, and body builders.
This model of the CEO pastor raises several questions. Are pastors being trained adequately for their new roles? To whom are these CEOs responsible? In recent years, seminaries have included more management training for their students. The Doctor of Ministry degree focuses on practical training. On the whole, however, a seminary degree does not adequately prepare one for a ministry in the Next Church.
As George Barna complains, at seminaries students conjugate Greek verbs, study theology and church history. Instead, they should be learning how to serve a target audience in their communities “as cost effectively and as meaningfully as might be done by McDonalds, Proctor and Gamble, or United Airlines.” Seminary training, in his opinion, should not be abstract or theoretical but be practical and oriented toward marketing. In another place, Barna lists the functional competencies of a Christian leader. Preaching, teaching, and biblical knowledge do not make the list. The qualities he notes are those befitting a corporate CEO. 16
THE SPIRITUAL QUEST
A therapeutic and self-fulfillment mentality is prevalent in Evangelical circles. In addition to preaching the Gospel, the Next Church is also promoting a spirituality so common in American culture. What is spirituality? It is a very difficult concept to grasp. It may or may not include traditional religion. For some, spirituality connects with a faith tradition. For many, however, it is not bound by any doctrinal or creedal categories.
Wade Roof Clark contends that any legitimate definition of spirituality would include
reference to a relationship with something beyond myself (known as “Creator,” “God,” “transcendent power,” etc.) that is intangible but also real. It would recognize that spirituality is the source of one’s values and meaning, a way of understanding the world, [and] an awareness of my “inner self.” 17
Spirituality has indeed “swung away from what is beyond us (God or the church) to what is within us.” Such individualism is one of the reasons contemporary Americans are reluctant to make a commitment to participate in congregational life. 18
The late twentieth century has witnessed a major shift in religion toward the inward, subjective, and experiential. The baby boomers and generation Xers have been raised in a therapeutic self-help environment. Out of this has come a tremendous quest for self-fulfillment. The boomers and Xers became seekers for a spirituality that went beyond the mechanics of some self-improvement program. They have given a spiritual, inward, and experiential twist to the notion of self-improvement. This new dimension to self-improvement might be better described as a desire for self-transformation. 19
In their pursuit of spiritual self-improvement and inner meaning, boomers and Xers have turned to many sources outside of historic Christianity. But even within the Evangelical community, the gospel of self-improvement has taken on a strong dimension. Surveys indicate that over half of the churchgoers in America attend because “it’s good for you,” and that about twenty-five percent go for “peace of mind and spiritual well-being.” Most appear to be “looking for that inner and more subjective kind of payoff” from religion. They desire “support, not salvation, help rather than holiness, [and] a circle of spiritual equals rather than an authoritative church or guide.” 20 In fact, it is difficult to “tell where the immensely popular language of self-help therapy begins and the language of salvation through Jesus ends.” 21
Self-fulfillment became a dominant theme of the 1960s and 1970s and it has linked up with the materialism of the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, the quest for spiritual fulfillment has acquired a powerful consumer dimension. “Spirituality, like hamburgers, was increasingly something one could get quickly and in a variety of places,” notes Robert Wuthnow. 22
“We live in an experience-saturated culture,” says George Gallup. As a result, experience in religion has taken precedence over belief. People seek authenticity by means of an experience, not through ideas. This trend has accelerated as the vitality of conservative Protestantism has shifted from Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism and on to Pentecostalism. 23 In an age when people seek personal fulfillment through experience, the Next Church opens the door to many options. You can experience self-fulfillment through contemporary music, relevant sermons, drama, small groups, how-to-do-it sessions, or even athletic activities. Take your choice.
BIG CHANGES AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS
Whether you love or hate these changes, American religion—especially its Evangelical variety—is undergoing a revolution. Some call these developments a second Reformation. This is probably an overstatement. The sixteenth-century Reformation challenged the very essence of the prevailing Catholic faith while the new paradigm has altered the form in which the Evangelical faith is transmitted and practiced. These changes brought by the new paradigm churches do not run as deep as those by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons, and others.
The contemporary reform of Evangelicalism focuses on priorities and methods of delivery, not doctrine. The seeker churches still uphold the basics of generic Evangelical theology—the authority of Scripture, divinity of Christ, and salvation by faith. While they ignore denominational and social issues, seeker theology must be regarded as conservative. Still, the changes are significant. While the Reformation emphasized faith over works and placed the Bible ahead of tradition, the new seeker churches have stressed experience over doctrine, emotion over serious Bible study, and spirituality over religious tradition. 24
While not obvious, however, a subtle change in theology may be in the offing. In the Next Church, Evangelism has replaced worship as the major priority. Traditionally, Evangelical churches have been believers churches: they insist on a commitment to Christ as a standard for membership. Church membership also centered on certain shared theological beliefs. Now they are seeker churches. Such churches still require a similar response to Christ and move believers to small groups, but their priorities have changed. In fact, attendance at these seeker services is usually greater than the church’s membership.
Church growth through Evangelism and accommodating the seekers are on the front burner—not worship or discipleship. Moreover, theology has taken a terrible body blow. In a church that focuses on the practical or “felt needs,” as they would say, beliefs count for little. Doctrine is almost nonexistent. Seeker churches only require an assent to a generic Evangelical theology. “The challenge is this: as [seeker] churches try to attract sellout crowds, are they in danger of selling out the Gospel?” Or as church growth expert George Barna puts it: “There is a fine line between marketing and compromised spirituality.” 25
Contrary to much of its past history, Mennonite Brethren operate in a culture driven by democracy and the market economy. In such a society, success and failure are measured by numbers. And numbers often increase when a religious body caters to winds of popular culture. As the Mennonite Brethren enter the twenty-first century, they face several challenges. A major one is this: how to grow and relate to modern society without selling out the faith, including the distinctives of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Or as Bruce and Marshall Shelley put it, “How can the Christian mission appeal to popular tastes without endangering the Christian message and the believing community? What if popular opinion conflicts with God’s truth?” In a democratic society church leaders face the challenge of distinguishing “the voice of the people from the voice of God.” 26
- Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).
- See Richard Kyle, “The Concept and Practice of Separation from the World in Mennonite Brethren History,” Direction 14 (Jan. 1984): 33-43.
- Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion (New York: Free Press, 2003), 71-72.
- Quoted from Charles Truehart, “The Next Church,” The Atlantic Monthly August 1996, 37. See also Eddie Gibbs, ChurchNext (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001).
- Kimon Howard Sargeant, Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Nontraditional Way (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 18; quote of sermon titles in Charles Colson, “Welcome to McChurch,” Christianity Today 17 December 1990, 53.
- Mary Jo Neitz, “Bible Roulette,” in Charisma and Community: A Study of Religious Commitment Within the Charismatic Renewal (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1987), 28; Wolfe, Transformation of American Religion, 68-69.
- Nancy Ammerman, Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 53.
- See Edward Gilbreath, “Farther In and Deeper Down,” Christianity Today 1 April 2002, 52-56; Arthur W. Hunt, “Back to the Dark Ages: How Electronic Media Are Pulling Us Back to Barbarism,” Christian Research Journal 24:1 (2001): 26-31, 48-49; John G. Stackhouse, Jr. Evangelical Landscapes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 92-101.
- Quentin J. Schultze, Televangelism and American Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 19, 98, 117-18.
- Lyle Shaller, “Megachurch!” Christianity Today 5 March 1990, 23. See also “Megachurch Methods,” Christian Century 14 May 1997, 482-83; David Goetz, “Suburban Spirituality,” Christianity Today July 2003, 31-37.
- Wolfe, Transformation of American Religion, 17. Still, some Evangelicals prefer more formal services and are gravitating to churches of the liturgical tradition.
- Thomas E. Bergler, “I Found My Thrill: The Youth for Christ Movement and American Congregational Singing, 1940-1970,” in Wonderful Words of Life, ed. Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 123 (quotes); Don Cusic, The Sound of Light (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1990), 123-39; Milburn Price, “The Impact of Popular Culture in Congregational Song,” The Hymn 44 (January 1993): 13; Michael S. Hamilton, “The Triumph of the Praise Songs,” Christianity Today 12 July 1999, 30. See also Bradley D. Vogel, “Music Styles of Tabor College and MB Southern District Churches, 1961-2002,” Direction 32 (spring 2003): 99-110.
- D. G. Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 196.
- Hart, That Old-Time Religion, 196-97.
- See Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 52-53; idem, “Sounding Out the Idols of Church Growth,” in No God But God, ed. Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1992), 164-65.
- George Barna, Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988), 37 (quote); Guinness, Dining with the Devil, 53; David F. Wells, “The D-Min-ization of the Ministry,” in No God But God, 175-202; George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville, TN: Word, 1998), 113.
- Wade Roof Clark, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 34-35.
- George Gallup, Jr. and Timothy Jones, The Next American Spirituality (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 2000), 48-54; Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 27.
- Roof, Spiritual Marketplace, 9.
- Colson, “Welcome to McChurch,” 29-30.
- Wolfe, Transformation of American Religion, 83.
- Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), 67.
- Gallup, The Next American Spirituality, 53 (quote); Wolfe, Transformation of American Religion, 80-81.
- Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 11.
- Douglas D. Webster, Selling Jesus: What’s Wrong with Marketing the Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 9.
- Bruce Shelley and Marshall Shelley, Consumer Church: Can Evangelicals Win the World Without Losing Their Souls? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 98.