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God's people now- sharing the dialogue


God's People Now! Face to Face with Mennonite Church Canada, Robert J. Suderman, (Waterloo, Ontario & Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2007)

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June 8, 2007
-Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Man. - A 2006 cross-country Listening Tour of Mennonite Church Canada congregations affirmed General Secretary Robert J. Suderman's belief that "relationships and trust are key to building the church." His new book, God's People Now! brings the dialogue of that tour to the national body, highlighting "wisdom from the pews."

"We're aging, but most folks here are still on the green side of the grass."

"Mennonite means the love of God in action."

"The churches in our community are kind of like hockey teams; we put people on waivers and then trade members with each other."

"Forgiveness doesn't mean one side is right; it means that there is a channel through which love can flow."

"We've been silenced. And it's hard to learn to be quiet over and over."

Suderman expresses awe over these succinct, heart-felt expressions and describes the book as "first and foremost a tribute to the deep wisdom of our people."

God's People Now! examines issues such as demographics, worship styles, identity, leadership and declining volunteerism. Situations vary from church to church. Some have come to terms with aging populations or have found ways to encourage the involvement of younger members. Others have discovered a level of compromise or acceptance between worship styles, or never found it to be an issue. While many churches are streamlining their activities to function on fewer volunteers, one small church is restructuring to accommodate more.

Despite the struggles, Suderman believes there is enough common ground to remain united in the face of adversity. The church as a whole believes in God and congregations are responding to God's call in their lives, albeit in different ways. He suggests the real issue is trust - or a lack of it. "Some of us don't trust that the other is taking seriously the same common ground that is so dear to us. When we differ on how we read the Bible for guidance, for example, we begin to suspect that the other is not reading it at all, or at least is not taking it seriously...When others prefer different music in church, we suspect that they do not want to worship God at all."

Suderman demonstrates how trust can develop when people reach out to those with whom they don't agree instead of defending their own position. He cites an example from one church where young and old work together to meet the musical needs of each. The youth ensure drums and guitars are not too loud for the older people. They contribute traditional hymns to the services. The older members of the congregation encourage the youth to praise God in ways that are meaningful to them.

This give and take is akin to embracing others. "We don't want to be welcomed; we want to be embraced," says one congregant. "And there is a big difference."

In an email exchange, Suderman expressed surprise at the deep level of appreciation people had for the visits, the effort they made to attend and the emotions expressed. "I don't think I fully understand the roots of this appreciation and emotion. But I think it had to do with a deep sense of validation for them as a congregation in spite of the hardships and concerns many were dealing with."

When asked what he hopes the book will accomplish, Suderman says, "I hope the book can be an instrument of unity in the church which at the same time does not back away from the bluntness of the challenges that we are facing."