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Nelson Kraybill: Lighting up Circuit Boards


Nelson Kraybill addresses Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2011.

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July 15, 2011
-Deborah Froese

Winnipeg, MAN. — A challenge issued by his classroom of high school students in San Juan, Puerto Rico some thirty years ago sparked Nelson Kraybill’s ongoing fascination with the book of Revelation. In 2010, he published Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids MI).

For Kraybill, President Emeritus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana and one of three keynote speakers at Assembly 2011, an understanding of the complex and sometimes confusing book of Revelation evolved dramatically over the years. In an email  interview, he reflects upon his first real exposure to Revelation in Grade 10.

“My Mennonite Sunday School teacher gave everyone in the class a copy of The Late Great Planet Earth. Inside was a note…saying this teaching was “biblically sound.” Indeed, the book was filled with Bible references. But I now see that most were taken completely out of context… So I have moved from seeing Revelation as a crystal ball or horoscope to seeing it as a vigorous critique of empire and idolatry in the first century. If we understand how John of Patmos critiqued the Roman empire and how he counselled Christians to be faithful to Jesus in that context, then we can listen for what the Spirit is saying to us today about allegiance, worship, and obedience to the Lamb.”

In the opening pages of Apocalypse and Allegiance, Kraybill wrote that he aspired “to teach John’s vision in ways that are accessible to a general audience.”

Though he shares a clear appreciation for academia and his scholarly friends, he notes that “the real octane of biblical teaching does not take effect until it sparks on a personal, congregational, and missional level…It’s satisfying to see circuit boards light up in myself and in other people’s lives with that kind of teaching.”

Connecting on a deeper level

“When I was at AMBS I had the privilege (and burden) of speaking in many different pulpits across the continent. I enjoyed that, but realized that I rarely knew in-depth what was going on in a given congregation,” Kraybill writes.

His new role as Lead Pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, also in Elkhart, allows him to teach, preach and mentor the same flock week after week.

“Now I know very well the people to whom I preach and relate. Theological and missional reflection go deeper in this kind of sustained relationship. It’s also been invigorating for me to function in the economically, racially, and politically diverse urban neighbourhood of south central Elkhart. “The role change has been a challenge, but not an unwelcome one. It brought a shift in work culture, from an organization of employees with definitive job descriptions to one that is supported primarily by volunteer efforts with the flexibility and wide spectrum of skill levels that come with it. “The time and energy that volunteers have to contribute may vary, and institutional leadership in the congregation requires the ability to inspire, encourage, and empower,” Kraybill writes.

He says that he had to explain to some people why he would voluntarily – and happily – leave an academic executive position to be “just” a pastor. “That attitude baffles and sometimes frustrates me, because I find the pastorate to be an intellectually, spiritually, and vocationally demanding role. We have a problem in the Mennonite church if we think of anyone as ‘just’ a pastor. Pastors have unparalleled potential to inspire and lead the church, and we need to restore a level of respect and appreciation to the role. We need our most capable young people to be preparing for congregational leadership.”

In addition to his role as a keynote speaker for Mennonite Church Canada’s Assembly 2011, Kraybill will lead a seminar for youth and adults. Competing for Your Loyalty: How Worship Shapes Allegiance is offered on Tuesday June 5 and Thursday June 6 at 4:00 p.m.

Remembering God’s future

About the Assembly theme, “Remembering God’s Future”, Kraybill muses; “If we don’t constantly remember that God someday will bring a new heaven and a new earth, and if we don’t keep in mind that God’s future is constantly breaking into the present, we are likely to fall into the idolatry of  thinking that we can save ourselves and our world with our own programs, peace witness, and inclusivity. God might want to use all of those, but salvation belongs to God (Rev. 7:10)!”

Through the pursuit of greater understanding for himself and for others, Kraybill is focussed on “lighting up circuit boards” and planting seeds for future church leadership with a passion that is contagious.