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At the Summit: the church at a crossroads

   
 
   

April 25, 2008
-Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — For pastor and teacher Tom Yoder Neufeld, Christian identity and mission go hand in hand – and they are at the heart of the theme for the 2008 “People’s Summit for Faithful Living.”

“The call to be a distinct people with a distinct identity is a call also to a very specific mission, a public mission, one which the world observes,” he says.

Yoder Neufeld is a plenary speaker for the Summit, a gathering of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada members from July 7 to 10, hosted on the campus of Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. The People’s Summit event will include a delegate assembly for Mennonite Church Canada (July 7-8) followed by a bi-national gathering of MC Canada and Mennonite Church USA (July 8-10).

The theme, “At the Crossroads; Promise and Peril,” expresses a sense of urgency and examines how the church can live faithfully in a global community bombarded with contrasting messages. It’s based upon the text of Deuteronomy 4:1-9, which is a call for Israel to remember who it is. “The church is at a crossroads, a point of decision making to determine who we are as the Body of Christ and how we will be the Body of Christ to the world,” Yoder Neufeld says. “I like that dual focus on whose we are and at the same time coming to understand why we are.”

By its very nature, being at the crossroads raises questions. What do we do with our wealth? How do we care for the earth? What does peace mean? How do we respond when others within the Body of Christ do not agree with our ethics? These concerns become more important within the growing diversity of the Mennonite Church. “We’re ethnically very diverse, we’re socially diverse, we’re diverse in terms of our ideas about how to live faithful lives,” Yoder explains. “We’re always facing promise and peril.”

Yoder Neufeld spent his formative years in Europe where his parents were involved with church planting and various forms of mission work. “Life in the church and its mission were like ‘mother’s milk,’” he says. He made the decision to follow Christ when he was still a child.

Despite this early commitment, Yoder Neufeld arrived at his own spiritual crossroads during a period of uncertainty and soul-searching as his undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba drew to a close. A “palpable encounter with God” came through an unexpected source; a man he admits to have previously written off as “flakey.” At a student conference, he heard this man offer a simple prayer: “Thank you God for your beautiful family.” Yoder Neufeld says he was “blindsided by a sense of gratitude…there was something so profoundly humbling about that to me. I suddenly realized I’m part of that family too. It unleashed a well of emotions and I remember weeping out of joy at that reality.”

The experience freed him from a previously held notion that he had to be able to answer all of the “big questions” for God. “You can never really predict how God will encounter us nor can you ever count God out,” he muses. He believes this understanding opened the door for his graduate studies at Harvard to become a process of discovery. “I’ve often thought back to that very formative story for me which I think has given shape to my work and my writing.”

Yoder Neufeld believes that he is called to find ways of communicating God’s message to the church. First as a pastor and now for twenty five years as a teacher, his passion for church identity and mission has driven him to write a number of books and articles exploring issues of faith, including Ephesians: Believers Church Bible Commentary (Herald Press 2002) and more recently, Recovering Jesus: the Witness of the New Testament (Brazos Press, 2007), which grew out of his work in the classroom.

Tom Yoder Neufeld is Associate Professor of Religious Studies (New Testament) and Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, teaching also in the graduate Theological Studies program. He and his wife Rebecca are currently on sabbatical at Fuller Theological Seminary in California where he is writing a book on violence and the New Testament.To register for the People’s Summit for Faithful Living, visit www.mennonitechurch.ca/events/summit08/

Tom Yoder publications at The Resource Centre