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for the church: An ecclesial vision
December 14, 2007
“… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord…” Ephesians 3: 10-11 NRSV
Winnipeg, Manitoba — Christians have lost sight of what God intends the church to be. This is the bold, perhaps prophetic, proclamation Robert J. Suderman makes. Suderman, appointed General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada in December, 2005, has devoted most of his life’s energy and passion to understanding the role of the church in the world.
“What the church is meant to be” is not a question that’s being asked very seriously today, says Suderman. “Instead people are asking what should we do, or how should it be done?”
Suderman began pondering the purpose of the church during his university days, when exposure to new people and new ideas broke into his traditional, rural-Manitoba Mennonite mindset. “I decided that if I couldn’t understand [the faith], it wasn’t worth hanging on to.”
The challenge to understand was kept alive by a boyhood friend, also a university student. “He absolutely and tenaciously hung onto everything that no longer made sense,” says Suderman. “That tenacity turned out to be a significant shaping experience for me.”
At age 21, Suderman, a product of the public school system, accepted his first professional job as teacher at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Influential conversations about faith with fellow colleagues led to further study at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Elkhart, Indiana.
At AMBS his resolve deepened through the teaching of theologian John Howard Yoder. “I took every course from him that I could and read every book that he wrote. Yoder made me realize that this faith stuff does make sense, and that I didn’t have to throw it away.” Suderman later earned a doctorate in theology from La Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, in Bogotá, Colombia.
Today, Suderman’s mantra is declaring the ecclesial – or churchly – vision for the church. “The primary role of the church is to be a peoplehood of God. God wants to work through peoplehood, and through incarnation. This is evident from everything we know about God’s revelation to us. That is the message we need to recover, but it’s hard to do because it’s not where we are at.”
Where we are at, says Suderman, is that we don’t actually believe that the community of faith is meant to carry the possibility of reconciliation. “We tend to limit the role of God’s people-hood to the parameters authorized by secular society, blessed by Christendom-minded governments and civil society, and acceptable to the political correctness of pluralism.”
It’s easy to not believe. Critics and skeptics discount the church because of its faults and weaknesses. But, “Just because it isn’t what it was meant to be doesn’t mean our vision should change from what it should be,” emphasizes Suderman. He likens it to improving healthcare from the perspective of what it has become (curing disease), rather than what it should be (preventing disease).
Suderman believes people have reduced the ecclesial vision of the church as a peoplehood of God into a series of “good things” that become isolated and disconnected from a discerning ecclesial community. These good things take on a life of their own: discipleship, evangelism, mission, peace, justice, devotional life, ethics, relief and development work, violence reduction.
For example, “… we want to send $100 for people to dig wells in Africa, but we do not necessarily concentrate on forming communities that will work at creating a permanent supply of water.” All these good things, he says, “… grow out of our convictions, but they don’t grow out of our ecclesial convictions anymore.”
Centuries of tradition have made this mindset a virtual part of our spiritual DNA. Constantine (272-337 AD), the first Roman ruler to legalize Christianity created a set of rules governing the church that simultaneously restricted the church’s role to spiritual tasks. “It put limitations, restrictions, and inhibitions on the vocation of a church that was so wild [and thriving] when you read the book of Ephesians. This wild vocation for the church has been domesticated,” says Suderman.
Spending ten years working with the Mennonite Church in Latin America provided Suderman with a glimpse of a new possibility for a more ecclesial reality. In Colombia, where daily violence, a strong military presence, and poverty describe life, the church is “… attempting to address every woe of that society from the foundation of being a people of the kingdom of God.” It is having a disproportionately large impact given that there are only 2,000 Mennonites in a population of 40 million in that country.
How an ecclesial vision for the church would look in today’s congregations in North America is difficult to describe, concedes Suderman. “[People] have a lot of the same questions I have about how we make this practical.”
In today’s terms, an ecclesial vision for the church would mean that, “Every community, every context, every geographical, political, social, and economic setting has a living vibrant, contextualized, indigenized, permanent, deeply rooted community of faith that is living what God wants for that context. In some cases it may mean being in confrontation with what there is; in others it might be embracing what there is.
“The point being that there is this community spiritually capable of discerning what God’s will and way is for that particular setting. And that’s the primary strategy of God, to make sure that those churchly communities exist and are functioning and vibrant and addressing the needs of that context. Such needs may be HIV-AIDS or water or violence or war or injustice and so on.” When the church’s vocation becomes communal, he adds, it becomes the church.
On an individual level, Suderman describes an ecclesial vision as each member of the church having a “tenacious, contagious passion burning in their hearts to be a peoplehood that incarnates the value that God wants for the world. We should be satisfied with nothing less.”
And there is hope. In 2006, Suderman visited every congregation in Mennonite Church Canada. The people gave him hope, “… that good, sincere, dedicated, well intentioned members are not resisting this [message], and so we will keep pounding away at it.”
Suderman suddenly recalls a recent story about several young adults on a learning tour in Colombia. Impressed by the ecclesial vision of the relatively small Colombian Mennonite Church that is faced with seemingly insurmountable hurdles, the group became disillusioned with their home congregations and how little was being done to help them.
At the close of the tour, they received some unexpected advice from a Columbian church leader. “The best thing you can do for Colombia is to go home and love your church,” they were told.
Our church, says, Suderman, is the church all Christians are called to love.
God calls, equips and sends the church