By Joshua Brockway
On Sept. 19-20, a group of 400 people gathered in Carlisle, Pa., to ask the question: What does following Jesus look like in North America as it is increasingly clear that we now live in a post-Christian culture? The gathering “Church and Post-Christian Culture: Christian Witness in the Way of Jesus” was one in a series on the over-arching topic, “Once and Future Mission,” hosted by Missio Alliance. Co-sponsors included the Church of the Brethren.
Speakers and attendees clearly understood the Anabaptist tradition as one way of answering that question. As the description of the conference stated so plainly, “Anabaptism is increasingly turned to as a primary resource for the shaping of a missional imagination of the life and witness of the church in North America and beyond.”
The conference was framed by three key statements: “A Fresh Encounter with Jesus,” “A Radical Approach to Community,” “A Subversive Journey in Mission.” Speakers in the main session included leaders within historic Anabaptist traditions, and noted evangelical pastors and theologians who have come to see Anabaptism as the faithful alternative to North American evangelicalism. Church of the Brethren pastors Samuel Sarpiya and Dennis Webb took the stage with Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd, and Bruxy Cavey to explore how Anabaptism and evangelicalism are finding common ground within the new post-Christian realities. Mennonite pastor Meghan Good and Brethren in Christ pastor Kurt Willems shared how being raised in Anabaptist traditions was at first something they wrestled with, but they have returned to Anabaptism with clear eyes, acknowledging both the cultural hurdles and the richness within the tradition.
Jonathan Shively, executive director for Church of the Brethren Congregational Life Ministries, noted a key reason for the Church of the Brethren to take part in the conference: “It was important to have the Brethren at the table for this conversation about our tradition so that we could offer a Brethren vision of Anabaptism.” As a sponsor of the conference, the Church of the Brethren was able to share the perspectives of leaders who have come from evangelical backgrounds and have found a new home among the Brethren. Congregational Life Ministries also was provided space in breakout sessions to offer information about its work on congregational vitality to the wider Anabaptist and evangelical audience.
“The conference also provided a setting for the historic Anabaptist denominations to talk together about our shared tradition in today’s religious landscape, an especially welcome opportunity for those of us in similar leadership positions,” Shively said. With the Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Church USA, and the Church of the Brethren as sponsors, a number of denominational and congregational leaders met on Sept. 18 to share their struggles and opportunities in ministry. Key themes emerged in those conversations that both encouraged further conversation and affirmed that all are asking similar questions of our organizations and the wider culture.
Several presenters noted in the plenary sessions that gathering with these historic and emerging Anabaptists served as a reminder that “we are not in this alone.” Pastor and writer Greg Boyd even went so far as to say that we are on the verge of a new reformation. One Brethren pastor, Shayne Petty, echoed Boyd, saying, “It was life-giving to be with people who, in spite of our diversity and nuances, ‘get me’ and ‘speak my language.’ As a Charismatic Anabaptist, I felt, and still feel, the Spirit moving powerfully toward revival.”
“there is an energy and a zeal in these conversations as evangelicals discover for the first time some of the passion we, who have grown up with the peace of Jesus, tend to lose,” noted Laura Stone, another Church of the Brethren attendee.
— Joshua Brockway is director of Spiritual Life and Discipleship for the Church of the Brethren, on the staff of Congregational Life Ministries. He is one of the participants who have offered substantive reflection on the event in blogposts. Find his reflections on the Church of the Brethren blog at https://www.brethren.org/testblog/2014/an-anabaptist-family-meeting . Emmett Eldred, an intern supported by On Earth Peace and the Church of the Brethren, also has shared reflections at http://dunkerpunks.com/2014/10/08/dunker-punks-walking-into-the-storm-with-jesus .