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Footprints of the missional church


January 27, 2003
by Maurice Martin

Winnipeg, Man.— On January 5-7 approximately 50 people met at Charleswood Mennonite Church in Winnipeg for the first of four missional church training events which will be held in 2003. The others are scheduled for May 4-6, September 7-9 and December 7-9.

Present were 52 participants representing 38 congregations — 15% of MC Canada congregations — from Ontario to British Columbia. Also present was a representative of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church. The course "Leadership in a Missional Church" is jointly sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada Formation and Mennonite Church Canada Witness.

There are three objectives for the course: 1) To understand the biblical/theological foundations and historical influences at the heart of the emergence of the missional church understandings; 2) to consider the implications of these understandings for the nature and activity of the church; 3) to prepare participants to lead congregations and/or other groups through similar learning experiences.

The latter objective is based on a "multiplier" strategy. The course is designed so that the materials used can be duplicated and the process replicated in congregational and other small group settings, involving an ever-widening circle of individuals. The hope is that as more people become thoroughly conversant in the terminology, theological focus, goals and methodology of being a missional church, people in the congregations of Mennonite Church Canada will come to understand and own this vision for the church's life and ministry, and will put it into practice.

This broader working group of volunteers will augment the work already begun by the missional church training persons who have been appointed by each area conference: Jim Loepp Thiessen in MC Eastern Canada, Norm Voth in MC Manitoba, Eric Olfert in MC Saskatchewan, Marvin Baergen in MC Alberta and Gerd Bartel in MC B.C.

The theological focus is as follows: "We understand that God wants to reconcile the entire world to God's intentions that are best known to us through Jesus Christ. The church is sent into the world to align its purpose and activity with these intentions. God's will is best discerned in community, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Leaders need to be equipped and in dialogue with each other so that our congregations can be continually nourished, challenged and mobilized by God's hope for the world."

According to Jack Suderman (Executive Secretary of MC Canada Witness), God's intentions for the world are clearly described in "the book -ends" of the Bible in Genesis 1-2, and in Revelation 21. "While some things in between are not always clear, the 'book-ends' bring some clarity," he asserted.

He described two ways to approach scripture. People who see the Bible as a mirror seek a link between what's happening in their lives, mirrored in the Bible. In effect the starting point is "my questions." People who see the Bible as a window approach the text by immersing themselves in the questions raised by the biblical people, which might be questions they may not have been asking, or indeed, prefer not to ask! This approach to scripture takes more time, patience and energy; people prefer the mirror style — if you have a question, go look for an answer.

There are five major areas of focus in the course. Marilyn Houser Hamm (Director, Congregational Partnerships, MC Canada) will lead in worship and reflection on worship from a missional perspective. Suderman will lead the study of Biblical/theological foundations and reflection on what this means for the life and work of the church. Chris Arney (Director of Evangelism and Church Development - Mennonite Church British Columbia) will focus on the historical setting and contemporary context in which the church exists and help participants discern the implications for the church's ministries. Alan Kreider (Mission Educator with Mennonite Mission Network) will describe congregational culture and transformation in the context of the culture in which we live and work as congregations. Jeff Steckley (Giving Project Consultant Coordinator for Mennonite Church Eastern Canada) will offer tools which are useful for congregational process and transformation.

In the first two day session the group became conversant with terms such as “Christendom” and “post-modern context.” The place of the Christian church in its society and culture, including its relation to the state, has changed considerably through the centuries. The early church was a persecuted minority within the larger society. But after 312 A.D. when emperor Constantine passed the Edict of Toleration things changed. Indeed, in 392 emperor Theodosius made Christianity the compulsory religion of the Roman empire. Out of this emerged the "Constantinian synthesis" of church and state, also known as “Christendom.” In Christendom the assumption is that the church and state are close allies because both have similar goals, values and strategies. The assumption also is that all persons who live in Christendom are made Christian by their baptism or “christening.”

Sixteenth century Anabaptists protested this notion of Christendom when they asserted that people should be Christian “by choice, not by birth.” They believed in the separation of church and state, and that true Christians live their Christian lives as “a people apart.” They did not assume that the dominant culture necessarily lived by Christian values of discipleship, peace, etc.

In our present post-modern society the inclination is to value personal experience and local reality over institutional structures, including the Church and organized religion. In our multicultural society, we can no longer assume that we live in a Christian society. The church is no longer in a privileged position in this society (the Lord's Prayer has been removed from schools, we even debate whether we dare say “Merry Christmas” during the holiday season, etc). Thus we are in the midst of a “crumbling Christendom.”

Is this “crumbling Christendom” something to be lamented? Or do we, like our Anabaptist forebears, celebrate that the church may well find its place as a counter-cultural reality in society, with a renewed purpose for service and witness? What does it mean for a church increasingly on the margins of North American society to encounter its post-modern culture in a missionary way? The course “Leadership in a Missional Church” will offer cultural analysis, theological reflection, and describe the nature of the church for times like these.

Arney further described our time as a post-modern society where the church is no longer the centre of establishing the norms for the broader community. People's spiritual needs are great. We are surrounded by cultural, ideological and religious diversity. We live in a global village. We live in a world of staggering need. We live in a materialistic world. We live at hyper-speed. We live in a uniquely Canadian context. And we live in an international Christian community. These and other marks of our times were presented to the group, along with the challenges they present for the church.

What do we need to change in order to embrace a “missional identity” in our congregation? In other words, what are the “missional church footprints” which we can identify in the life and work of our congregations? Does this simply call for a routine adjustment in how we think and act? Or is it a major paradigm shift for congregations? The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, as those who participate in the course take what they learned back into their congregations and test the vision and discern some of the "footprints" of the missional church.