I write this just a few days after we concluded our 2021 Annual Conference Assembly (ACA). Because of the continued COVID pandemic, ACA had to be held virtually, but due to the efforts of many gifted people in Conference and our many congregations, the feedback that we have received so far has been very positive. The highlights were the worship service, the missional stories that were shared, and the way people were able to interact.
The main speaker for the worship service, as well as the missional conference which was held on the Thursday and Friday evenings prior to ACA, was Brad Roth from Moundridge, Kansas. He is author of the book God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church. Brad emphasized the importance of God’s people being missional, bringing the Good News of Jesus in whatever setting we find ourselves in. I believe that he was able to offer hope for all of us, whether we find ourselves in a rural setting, an urban setting, or someplace in between.
A big thank-you goes to Ohio Conference staff, the Missional Planning Team, ACA Planning Team, ACA Worship Planning Team, and all the volunteers that helped put the missional conference and the Annual Conference Assembly together. Even more importantly, we give thanksgiving, praise, glory and honor to the triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I also write this with springtime in the air. Perhaps it is more welcomed and appreciated this year after what has been a long dark season which actually began just after our 2020 Annual Conference Assembly and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With vaccines finally being administered to large numbers of people and the numbers contracting the virus decreasing, there also seems to be hope that we are approaching the other side of the pandemic when people and congregations can safely gather again and life can start returning to some sense of normalcy.
However, as I shared at Annual Conference Assembly, there are some things that this past year revealed that will not be going away anytime soon. Those things include racial discrimination, violence in many of our cities, and polarizations of people that is just as prevalent in our churches as it is outside of them. How do we as a conference of churches work with the many challenges that face us? How do we as a conference of churches offer a hope and future that is different than the world outside our churches is offering?
My suggestion is that we return to two doctrines that were foundational to most of our Anabaptist and Mennonite forefathers and foremothers: 1) the need for a new birth; and 2) a two-kingdom theology. I know that those two doctrines have held different meanings over the years and they have been distorted at times and over time, but to abandon them altogether to align with mainstream denominations and our culture has been to our detriment as a denomination that has something different to offer to the world.
Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3). Again, Jesus said to him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at me saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).
This leads us to Jesus’ thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36), meaning Jesus’ kingdom, the Kingdom of God, does not look like the kingdom of this world.
Most of the early Anabaptists and Mennonites felt that one needed to be born again, a rebirth by the power of the Holy Spirit, in conjunction with repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, for spiritual transformation to take place in one’s life.
Those same early Anabaptists and Mennonites did not believe it was the role of the church to change the world. Christians are supposed to represent the kingdom of God in the kingdom of this world, to offer something different, to be salt and light. A study of congregations and members of Mennonite Church USA in 2006 by Conrad Kanagy (released in a book titled Road Signs for the Journey) found that across the United States, members of our congregations had become more and more like our culture in just about every category — the authority of Scripture, views on sexuality, education, financial stewardship, security, political divisions, etc. As Mennonite Church USA prepares to begin a new study on beliefs across its congregations and members, my prediction is that this study will find that the trend has continued exponentially.
What if we were to return to our roots as Mennonites and Anabaptist Christians as radical (derived from the Latin word radix – root) disciples of Jesus Christ who are called not to change the world but to live out the kingdom of God in this world, inviting others to join the kingdom and to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? That would cause us to examine all the different ways we have given in to the kingdom of the world. Real transformation and change have to start with us, Christians who are on the journey of continual conversion through the work and power of the Holy Spirit. May it all be for the glory of Jesus’ name!