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MVS leaders bring missional focus to annual retreat


Joint MC Canada/Mennonite Mission Network release by Grant E. Rissler

Gathering at Knob Noster State Park, the site of Mennonite Voluntary Service annual retreats for more than a decade, 120 volunteers, local leaders and staff from about 30 units in Canada and the United States reunited May 27-31 to relax, worship together and focus on the place of MVS in the a missional church context.

Each morning, participants discussed the concept of a missional church facilitated by Kathy Fast, executive assistant for Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and Doug and Jude Krehbiel, mission minstrels for Mennonite Mission Network. Participants also enjoyed games of Frisbee, basketball, soccer and volleyball and discussions on issues ranging from immigration/border matter, to the place of foot-washing in the Mennonite Church . Despite the restructuring of MVS into two nationally delineated programs, MVS held a joint retreat, providing an opportunity to meet new MVS staff from Canada and the United States, and to discuss the structural changes resulting from the creation of separate but cooperating national denominations in Canada and the USA.

KNOB NOSTER, Mo.—Through songs, silence and the sharing of stories from their experiences across North America, Mennonite Voluntary Service participants explored the implications of a missional focus during their five-day annual retreat here May 27-31.

Kathy Fast, executive assistant for Mennonite Church Canada Witness, led retreat participants in a three-day exploration of the missional church concept titled, "Missional Church: Challenge the Norm[s]."

Fast was joined by Doug and Jude Krehbiel, mission minstrels for Mennonite Mission Network, who are beginning a new assignment to collect, write, teach and perform songs that explain and call congregations to a missional identity.

Each morning, Fast asked participants to ponder a different aspect of how a missional church is called to challenge the norms of North American society and of the church itself.

Beginning her presentations by asking each MVS volunteer to light a candle and place it around a central Christ candle, Fast asked participants to imagine, "What is the world like with God as centre?" and suggested that being the missional church is about being focused on Christ.

"If God is our centre," Fast said, "there's stuff you're going to challenge, in our culture and in our church. If there are things that don't line up, we need to challenge them [as] Jesus challenged the Pharisees. We need to set up new norms that follow Christ."

In her second sharing, with help from the Krehbiels and other musicians, Fast asked participants to write song verses that showed how Christ's teachings differ from the dominant values of the culture around us and also suggested actions to carry out Christ's teaching. In leading the third session, Fast stressed to participants the importance of being "unified in Christ" even as we are ambassadors to the culture around us. Noting the growth of game shows such as "The Weakest Link" and "Survivor," which thrive on eliminating those who fail or are different, Fast said that the missional church is called, instead, "to be a community sharing life and resources, to create churches that are not institutions, but communities aligned with God.

"Too many of us have embraced the idea that the good news of the gospel is only for the individual," she said. Pointing out that the North American dream is defined in individual terms, Fast said that Christians are called, instead, to strive for reconciled relationships to God and to one another, living out and striving for "justice for the poor, peace for the nations and a celebration of shalom."

Likewise, Fast urged participants to remember that "the church does not exist for itself, but for others," and that if we are aligned with Christ, we "can't help being a blessing to others."

Each day, participants were also invited to spend time creating dramas, songs, sharing or writing stories, or journaling silently about the ways they saw communities living differently from the surrounding culture or overcoming the dominant norms.

Sarah Koehn, a volunteer serving in the 600-person town of Riverton, Manitoba, shared a story of the power of a seniors home to break down racial barriers in a place where half the population are First Nations peoples and half are recent Icelandic immigrants.

"There are just huge racial issues in this tiny, tiny town," Koehn said. "I work with the First Nations groups. As a white person, I'm not a part of that group, but I'm not accepted by the Icelanders because I work with the indigenous."

But one day a week, Koehn said she works in the seniors lodge where members of both groups live. "And when they have gone through their whole lives with this hatred, they finally start to talk to each other. You see these little old Icelandic women and little old aboriginal men and they're teaching each other words in their languages."

Rafael Barahona, a volunteer in Montreal, Quebec, saw the idea of a missional church as welcome. "People are realizing the need for a more active church - the need to really live up to the gospel that Jesus preached," he said.

Drawing on his experience of working with homeless people at Mile End Mission in Montreal, Barahona said, "we live in such a complex state. The higher you get up the social ladder, the harder it is to live out the gospel. [Among the people I work with] there is such a bond within that community because they can identify with the strength of need. They don't turn to money as their source of comfort, but more to relationships with each other and with God. It's just a deep firm faith."

The missional focus was very appropriate, according to MVS Canada administrator Brad Reimer. "MVS has been, for 30 years, missional," Reimer said, pointing to the long history of MVS outreach programs that sprang from the vision of local congregations and were facilitated by the central church structures.

For the Krehbiels, leading worship at the retreat was a kickoff for their assignment as mission minstrels.

Jude Krehbiel explained that their participation was both an opportunity to discuss the missional vision with volunteers actively engaged in mission work, and a chance to try out many of the new songs developed specifically to make clear the missional vision for congregations.

All of the original songs they developed were based on favorite Scriptures or writings of Mennonite theologians from different stages of Mennonite history and from different cultural groups within the Mennonite church.

"We just hope that these are usable songs that will give people a handle on what missional church is," Doug Krehbiel said.

The response from the retreat participants "has just been a blessing," he said. "If there is any group that would inspire us it's this group. Not only what they do [in service] but their incredible energy. You've got the future leadership of the church here. And to do [the songs and dramas] with such enthusiasm and joy, it's just been a blessing."

"You as a community, and as individuals, have blessed me," echoed Shirley Redekop, director of Christian service ministries for Mennonite Church Canada Witness, in the last of three devotionals she led during the week.

"I'm excited to go back to my church and tell them what went on this week, about the gifted VSers that they are supporting," she said as part of her final blessing to the participants. "So listen and hear, touch and feel God's spirit among us. [For with] God's presence within us, you are a blessing, God's love song."

MVS Canada is a partnership program with MVS USA. MVS Canada supports existing voluntary service units in six provinces, with the creation of several more under discussion with individual congregations. In addition, 10 Canadians are serving in MVS units in the USA. For information about getting involved, contact Brad Reimer (1-866-888-6785, email