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Fall 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 2 · pp. 260–262 

Book Review

Renewing Identity and Mission: Mennonite Brethren Reflections After 150 Years

ed. Abe Dueck, Bruce L. Guenther, Doug Heidebrecht. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2011. 314 pages.

Reviewed by Keith Poysti

The title of this book suggests the question: What does it mean to be Mennonite Brethren (MB) today, and how is mission connected to that identity? “Identity” is an agenda that is clearly on the minds of MB pastors and leaders as evidenced by the findings of a 2009 US/Canada survey, mentioned in the introduction of this book. One could say that this need to define MB identity is closely related to the basic human need for “meaning.” When the need for meaning in life is met, one knows one’s place in the world and can live out one’s faith with vigor and focus. Loss of meaning can result in an identity crisis, a questioning of our very existence. What is our “reason for being” as a collection of MB churches both global and national? What can we find in our history, theology, and practice as MBs that validates our continued existence as a distinct denomination? Or as Alfred Neufeld bluntly asks in the first chapter of this book, “Is there still a need for the special Mennonite Brethren way and for denominationalism within the global Mennonite family?”(20). These questions form the connecting threads of this book.

Renewing Identity and Mission is a collection of presentations made by Mennonite Brethren theologians, historians, sociologists, teachers, and leaders. The occasion was a consultation organized by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Over 300 people gathered in Langley, B.C., on July 12–14, 2010, for the consultation. Seventeen of the presentations were selected and edited to form the content of this book. In the interest of full disclosure, this review has been influenced by my participation in the consultation, where I imbibed the spirit of the event. In order to fully appreciate the dramatic power of this book, you “had to be there!”

In the first chapter, Alfred Neufeld presents a survey of historical, scholarly perspectives on what it means to be Mennonite Brethren. Quoting both affirming and critical voices, Neufeld draws out three pillars that he thinks summarize the essence of the MB movement: the desire to recover the essential nature of the church, a renewal of emphasis on the existential experience of salvation, and a renewed obedience to the “transcultural mission of the Holy Spirit.” He admits that most evangelical denominations lean on these same three pillars, and Neufeld warns MBs to avoid a “cheap denominationalism” which tries to create identity out of minor doctrinal differences. Instead, Neufeld encourages MBs to embrace the historic “accidents” that led Mennonite believers in Russia to create a new denomination. Like the beginnings of many other denominations, specific {261} circumstances and people combined to form a new movement that God used for missional purposes. Furthermore, he urges MBs to continue to live out an apostolic and prophetic role in the global denominational landscape. The apostolic challenge is to avoid going back to being “the quiet in the land” in favor of being sent out to form new faith communities in new lands. The prophetic challenge is to refuse to bow to the secular powers for comfort and privilege in favor of challenging and denouncing the false gods of nationalism, consumerism, and religiosity. When Neufeld presented this talk at the consultation, the audience broke out in forceful applause—he struck a deeply responsive chord!

The rest of the book is divided into three sections: Historical Reflections, Theological Reflections, and Missional Reflections. In the first section, Valerie Rempel provides an interesting critical summary of the major histories of the Mennonite Brethren written by MB authors. Bruce Guenther explores MB identity as Christians who are both Anabaptist and Evangelical. Guenther offers a fascinating look at the ever changing, waxing and waning interplay between the Evangelical and Anabaptist elements of what he calls the MB “dual theological identity.” Abraham Friesen re-examines the beginning impulses of the MB movement, and then charts the influences other movements made on the fledgling MB Church. He delivers a strong appeal for MBs to return to their Anabaptist theological roots in charting the course for their future. Larry Warkentin outlines the role of pietistic hymnodies in MB churches, and a younger voice, Jonathan Janzen, laments the loss of peacemaking as an important emphasis and practice among Canadian MBs and offers an enlightening analysis of why peacemaking has lost its luster.

Doug Heidebrecht leads off the Theological Reflections section by describing the role the MB Confession of Faith plays in MB identity. Even though it often stands in the background, Heidebrecht asserts that the MB Confession of Faith is essential for unity, discipleship, and mission. Heidebrecht echoes other contributors to this book by urging North American Mennonite Brethren to welcome confessional contributions from the global MB family (ICOMB Confession of Faith). Tim Geddert directs MBs to “know what they mean” when they claim that the Bible is the final authority for faith and practice. Andrew Dyck wrestles with an MB understanding and practice of conversion, Cesar Garcia describes a Colombian MB ecclesiology, and Brad Sumner and Keith Reed offer a rejuvenated version of community hermeneutics as a way to discern God’s will.

The last section, Missional Reflections, attempts to describe the variety of ways MBs are pursuing God’s mission and the challenges they face in that pursuit. Topics include how MBs are doing in global mission, preaching and mission, a statistical analysis of how MBs are doing in Canada, {262} the growth of the MB Church in Quebec, how emerging adults appropriate faith, and doing mission on the university campus. One is left with a taste of what Canadian Mennonite Brethren think about mission.

This book is a must-read for MB leaders and pastors. “Identity crisis” is perhaps too strong an expression to describe the state of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Canada, but a renewed quest for meaning is evident. Renewing Identity and Mission is a creative idea bank, a holy imagination prompter, a conscience awakener, pointing us towards a much needed infusion of meaning in being Mennonite Brethren today.

Keith Poysti has served as the Conference Pastor for the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba since 2005, assisting pastors and churches to pursue their God-given mission with joy and effectiveness.

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