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Neil Young, gardening and faith:
A conversation with Dave Bergen


“Is Neil Young actually a Christian? Is he writing from a Christian perspective? Perhaps the question we should ask is, ‘Is the love of God getting through to him somehow?’” Dave Bergen reflects on the nature of his Christian Formation ministry.

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February 16, 2007
- Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — There are few things that give Dave Bergen more pleasure than digging his fingers into freshly tilled soil of his gardens after a long winter.

This expression of nurturing and coaxing new life out of recently thawed ground is an annual pilgrimage for Bergen, executive secretary of Formation ministries for Mennonite Church Canada. But his work of overseeing a national ministry described as “fostering faith in homes and congregations” frequently needs more than one agricultural season to take root. “Much of my work is intangible and progress is hard to measure,” says Bergen.

Though growing up on a prairie farm was socially isolating for Bergen, it also gave him an appreciation for the nurturing environment of a tightly knit family and faith community.

Today he observes, “I am much more aware of the influence of my parents than I was 10 or 15 years ago. They lived a really strong faith and had a very deep ethic.”

Originally on a career track in the sciences or engineering, Bergen discovered something refreshing as a young adult at Elim Bible Institute in Altona, Manitoba. “Bible school is one of the strongest expressions of church as a nurturing supportive community that I’ve encountered,” asserts Bergen.

Subsequent experiences at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University), a directorship at a church camp, and studies at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary significantly shaped Bergen’s faith journey.

Early on, others identified and affirmed his gifts. “Faith development has really come most significantly in a community context. For me the external calling was always much stronger [than the internal calling], but it required validation from those around me,” he reflects.

As a pastor for 18 years, Bergen found energy in “Working along with people to create life giving and redemptive experiences within their church and faith communities.”

Bergen is a strong believer in helping people contextualize their spiritual instincts. He often sees intersections in the spiritual desires of people and popular culture.

To some people, seeing a movie about the popular musician Neil Young would have nothing to do with church work. “For me that kind of thing makes all kinds of connections. Wherever truth and goodness and life affirmation are evident, God is at work, whether it is affirmed or named or not.

“Some might ask, ‘Is Neil Young actually a Christian? Is he writing from a Christian perspective?’ Perhaps the question we should ask, ‘Is the love of God getting through to him somehow?’, whether through vestiges of past experience or cracks that open in current experiences.”

It is precisely the “cracks in current experiences” this father of two young adult daughters seeks out to help connect young adults with the perceptually unexciting ministry of the wider church.

“I see an incredibly intense passion for faith that’s meaningful [for youth and young adults] in their world. There are huge gifts in that population. Some of them have the courage to stick with it even though there are few entry points in a church that is so neatly tied together with structures and process and programs. How can we make room and make the church a place that not only welcomes that, but is also open to becoming something different because they are part of it too?”

Bergen recalls a young pastor he has mentored since age 14. “I have you to blame for answered prayer,” the young man said, in response to Bergen’s earlier wish that “I hope that God leads you into a challenge that pushes you really hard.”

His voice catches slightly, and eyes soften as he continues to reflect on a deeply meaningful moment. “It sometimes takes years, but it’s very satisfying to see someone think and learn and stick with the process and grow into that gift to the church,” he says about watching a young person mature in faith. “There is no greater satisfaction than that.”

Constant reading (“I always have a couple of books on the go”) and close observation of good communicators have developed a strong appreciation for the value of language – a significant deficit he sees in the wider church today.

Language can easily become a lightening rod for hurt, says the soft-spoken Bergen. As a Lenten exercise, he suggests people think hard and deep about how they communicate with others – and then practice paying new attention to sensitivity in language as well as respectful speaking, listening, and interpreting.

A significant contributor to disunity in the church is that people “talk past one another,” says Bergen, and don’t recognize that while the words they choose to express themselves are different – their message is often essentially the same. Bergen advocates that Christians work hard at overcoming language differences and seek commonality instead.

“When you read Paul and the part about the body needing many members (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) – the situation was similar. The church was on the verge of falling apart. But we need to learn that we are connected. Paul was saying that there is unity here and that we don’t all need to talk the same way.”

For Bergen, the challenges of church work are offset by inspiration and affirmation, and even more so by a recent study by religious sociologist Reginald Bibby. It suggests that “After decades of decline, participation levels among young adults under 35 increased among Protestants and leveled off in the case of Catholics.”

Bergen observes a “high level of desire” by people to be nourished spiritually. “One can strike up a conversation about spirituality or about being a spiritual person with almost anybody. You can meet a complete stranger and find that they are deeply nurtured by certain kinds of things within their spirit, but they won’t connect it with a spiritual tradition.”

There is ample opportunity to tap into that desire, to understand what drives that desire and nurture the appetite, he says.

Sidebar: Christian Formation Ministry

  • Mennonite Church Canada Christian Formation’s ministry is to “Foster faith in home and congregation”
  • Formation operates a Resource Centre to support congregations and individuals in nurturing their faith. Enhanced promotion of the service, a complete on-line catalogue of multi-media resources, and an increased interest in faith development has nearly doubled circulation year over year since 2003. On-line shopping and a partnership with Mennonite Publishing Network now enables on-line sales of MPN titles as well.
  • A Christian Education and Nurture office is charged with helping individuals and congregations grow in faith by providing support to Sunday school teachers, offering workshops and seminars, developing unique resources, and fostering connections to resources from Mennonite Publishing Network.
  • A Youth Ministry facilitator works closely with area conferences to network youth and support youth ministry workers across Canada.
  • The Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives gathers and preserves the collective Mennonite story for the teaching of future generations.
  • The Mennonite Heritage Centre Art Gallery provides a venue for connecting the inspiration of the arts with worship and service.
  • Der Bote, a bi-weekly German language newspaper, connects German speakers around the world.
  • Christian Formation ministry networks with Mennonite schools to build strong church-school relationships and to support the denomination’s priority of “growing leaders for the church.”