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Charlotte 2005 discernment issues important to everyone

   
 


Delegates engaged with the work of the Mennonite Church Canada at round tables during assembly 2004 in Winkler, Man.

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May 16, 2005
-by Dan Nighswander

Winnipeg, Man. — What does the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly have to do with the real issues of the church and of living the Christian life? Do delegates go off to an “ivory tower” to talk about abstract and irrelevant issues? Why should “ordinary” church members care what is discussed in Charlotte NC on July 4-9, 2005?

In this year’s Assembly delegates from the five area conferences of MC Canada and their 232 constituent congregations are invited to discuss five major issues. Every one of these is an issue that is important to congregational life and to the faith of individual Christians in our faith family.

1. Purpose and Priorities of MC Canada

Most of us recognize the importance of understanding the purpose of our life and determining our priorities. The immense popularity of book titles like The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church demonstrates that individual Christians and congregations know that they need to be deliberate about discovering God’s intention and aligning themselves with it. One of the conversations at Assembly 2005 could be called “The Purpose-Driven Denomination.”

Last year the Assembly delegates discussed what should be included in a new purpose statement for MC Canada. In the year since then a statement has been designed (see sidebar) that captures that discussion. Delegates will be invited to discuss and ultimately accept this as our statement of identity and purpose.

Like our Healing and Hope vision statement, the purpose statement is intended to inspire individuals, congregations and area conferences to an understanding of who we are as Christians and as the church, and what God wants us to be and to do.

Identity and purpose statements are necessarily general in their scope. But what specific actions should we be taking? How should our resources be used? How do we balance the many needs that confront us in the church and in the world?

Whether in congregations, area conferences or the national church, the priorities of Christian bodies must include both forming the faith of those already in the church and witnessing to those outside the church. The national church has some unique responsibilities in addressing national issues and representing all its members in relating to other Mennonite churches, other Christian churches and other faiths.

At Charlotte, delegates will weigh the priorities that the Board has identified and will decide together what parts of God’s mission we will engage as a national church body.

2. Issues in Funding the Ministries of the Church

We need to identify priorities because we don’t have enough people, time or money to do everything. Together we approve budgets and make commitments to the full capacity that we can imagine. And then new opportunities arise: there are other relationships, new mission opportunities, new calls for assistance.

The challenge of affirming all of the good that people do while struggling to meet the financial commitments made at annual general meetings is an issue faced by congregations, area conferences and the national church. It’s even a problem for individuals and families whose careful financial plans are confronted with needs ranging from Tsunami relief to homeless people on our own streets. Especially challenging for Christians are all the requests from mission organizations and from people whom we know who have a vision for doing something for God.

Celebrating generosity both within and outside of formal church bodies is important, but it is challenging in the midst of shrinking commitments to long term, church-based ministry.

For example, suppose that the delegates would make a $120,000 commitment to fund an AIDS ministry in Africa. (This is hypothetical: it isn’t in the current budget.) Large commitments like this over a period of years help administrators plan stable ministry into the future. Meanwhile, a local congregation gets inspired by and seeks support from the denomination to enable a member’s calling to a new ministry that is not currently part of the ministry plan. New initiatives like this frequently divert funds that had otherwise been given to long-term ministry commitments. This challenges our understanding of covenant and financial support that we have made with each other.

Our mission partners prefer stable and long-term partnership and support, whereas our donors often prefer one-time or short-term commitments. What is most helpful?

The discussion at Charlotte will build understanding among congregations and their members. It will also invite congregational counsel on solutions that meet the needs of ministries, the hopes of ministry partners in Canada and abroad, and the desires of congregational donors.

3. Proposal for a Faith and Life Committee

The church is not only defined by what it does—it’s missions and congregational life—but also by what it is. In a world of limitless information, the assumed value of pluralism, and competing belief systems, what should Christians believe? In a world of relativism, diverse social pressures and challenged norms, how should Christians behave? These are questions that every Christian, every congregation, every pastor struggles with—or should—constantly.

What should Mennonite Church Canada do to help us corporately and separately find answers to such questions? Already the national church body does a lot:

  • It provided the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective that is a defining document in our identity and a talking point for our reading of the Bible.
  • It supports schools whose faculty continually refine our understandings and teach them to young and old alike.
  • It concentrates on training pastors and providing them with tools for interpreting the faith.
  • It works with Mennonite Publishing Network and other partners to provide for children, youth and adult curriculum and books that support the values and convictions that we believe God has revealed to us.
  • It makes seven thousand selected resources available through the lending library of the Resource Centre. Staff help congregations to choose what is most suitable.
  • MC Canada staff serve in area conferences, congregations and clusters of congregations to help inspire and guide leaders and members on many aspects of faithful thought and faithful living.
  • It provides materials for Canadian Mennonite and Der Bote that address these issues.
  • It maintains the archival records of the discernment of previous generations.
  • It supports other organizations, like Mennonite Foundation of Canada, Mennonite Central Committee, Canadian Women in Mission, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Voluntary Service Adventure and more. Each works at addressing some particular dimensions of faithful living and belief.

But we believe we can do better to coordinate the resources already available and focus those resources on the issues that believers and congregations face. We believe the church must address many new and evolving issues. Among these are the ethical dimensions of biotechnology, inter-faith relations, same-sex marriage, peace, globalization, leadership and power, stewardship and the implications of a missional understanding of the church.

The delegates at Assembly ’04 recommended that a standing committee be formed to lead the church in dealing with issues of faith, ethics, polity and practice. This year the delegates will consider a proposal for a Faith and Life Committee with a mandate to give leadership to this work (see sidebar).

4. Definitions and Expectations of Membership in MC Canada

Central to the issues that the Faith and Life Committee will address is the matter of belonging to each other in the church. Congregations struggle with this. So do area conferences. What defines who is eligible for membership and who is not? What can we rightly expect of one another? What are the privileges and the responsibilities of membership? On what matters must we expect agreement, and on what can we allow or even embrace diversity?

Most congregations have definitions of how one becomes a member and what is expected of members. But that doesn’t end the questions: in fact, it invites them. What does a congregation do when someone wants to become a member without conforming to the expectations? Or when a member strays from the norms, challenges the assumptions or demands special concessions?

MC Canada faces the same questions. Is the answer to modify the expectations, to allow exceptions, or to stand up more strongly for what has been agreed in the past?

A particular question we need to face together is whether we will define the membership of area conferences in MC Canada in such a way that allows congregations to be part of the area conference but not of the national church – or vice versa. The analogy to congregational life would be finding a way for individuals to be members of a congregation but not of the area conference to which the congregation belongs. Mennonite Church BC specifically has asked us to consider this question. Some congregations in other area conferences also want to explore this possibility.

The discussion guide for this conversation at the Assembly concludes in this way:

“Membership in the body of Christ is nothing less than God’s gift of salvation. Mennonite Church Canada is a concrete expression of Christ’s body that strives to be “missional, contextually prophetic, diverse, networking and partnering, globally-connected, praying, resourcing and discipling, and enabling.”

“It represents a spiritual heritage of faithful discipleship and a vision for a future aligned with God’s activity in the world. It is a national body in which we grow as communities of grace, joy and peace and through which God’s healing and hope flow to the world.

“How can the conferences, congregations and individual believers who are part of MC Canada express and experience the fullness of being in communion with each other? How can we derive more joy from the privilege of belonging to each other under Christ our head?”

5. Relationship between MC Canada and MC USA

Because of the unique opportunity this year to meet jointly with MC USA, the Canadian and American delegates will have one discernment session together. Part of the discussion will be the relationship between our two church bodies. All the history of our relationships through bi-national church structures and all the secular issues of relationships between our two countries come to bear on this discussion, along with a vision of a church that transcends politics and nationalism. And we hear conflicting desires from people about whether to continue to meet together periodically. Where will we go from here?

In conclusion, the delegates at Assembly will be discussing matters that affect every part of the church in Canada. Pray for wisdom and openness to hearing what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church. Read the discussion materials that have been sent to your congregation, or read it on the internet at www.mennonitechurch.ca/events/charlotte. Share your views on these matters with your delegates. And look forward expectantly to the reports on how God leads as the assembled delegates discern what God is doing and what God wants us to be doing in response.


Proposed Identity and Purpose Statement:

God calls, equips, and sends the church
to engage the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
        We are a community of disciples of Jesus,
        a part of the Body of Christ,
                covenanted together as congregations,
                area conferences,
                and a national church.
        Gratefully responding to God’s initiatives,
        and empowered by the Holy Spirit,
        we commit our resources and efforts to
calling, equipping, and sending the church
to engage the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Vision: Healing and Hope

God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.


Mandate of the Proposed Faith and Life Committee

The FLC will
(a) attend to the interface between the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and our identity as MC Canada;
(b) Give leadership to Mennonite Church Canada in discerning God’s will on issues of theology, ethics, polity and practice;
(c) Work cooperatively with educational institutions and other agencies to facilitate, create and distribute resources for study and guidance to the church.


Expectations of Members

MC Canada bylaws state that area conferences and constituent congregations are expected to:
(a) give faithful attention to the Scriptures;
(b) accept the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective;
(c) uphold statements of Christian faith and life made by MC Canada from time to time;
(d) respond to the invitation to become engaged in mission and service;
(e) participate in the church’s life and mission through generous contributions of time and personal resources all in commitment to Jesus Christ in response to the grace of God and in loving service to the church in which the Holy Spirit lives and works; and
(f) assume all duties as defined in these bylaws.