At a recent conference a Neo-Anabaptist friend of mine asked why the traditional Anabaptists in the room were so unaware of the missional, post-christendom nature of our faith. It was quite obvious that most of those in the room, especially those over forty, were steeped in the liberal and institutional nature of the Brethren and Mennonites. In fact, often the vocabulary of some of the presenters more often reflected the political perspectives of our wider culture.
The question helped name just why I was a bit disheartened. The answer, however, is neither comforting nor easy.
Like many Christian traditions, the years following World War II were significant for the Anabaptists. Church buildings were built to accommodate increasing attendance and organizational structures grew to reflect the surrounding secular institutions. To be fair, these structures were created in order to gather and expand the local ministries of the congregations. By gathering resources and energy, these denominations could leverage their energy and funds to greater effect than could a single congregation. The effect, however, was to institutionalize what had initially begun as a movement.
It was not long until these institutions began to look more and more like other mainline denominational structures. Endowments were created, office buildings were constructed, and governance soon took over the original intent of facilitation. The Christendom model of buildings and programs soon took firm root.
Entering the contentious years of the 60’s and 70’s these historical peace churches encountered a new phenomenon. Their witness for non-violence soon spoke to a whole segment of American culture. Rather like the building based model of church growth so common in Christendom, this was an ideological outreach, albeit more passive in form. As people began looking for faith communities that spoke of peace, they found the Mennonites and the Brethren. The denominations themselves needed to do very little to entice these seekers, or in more traditional language, to evangelize. Instead, the people found us.
With this influx, however, came the Enlightenment Liberalism that the early movements tried to counter. Instead of seeing peace-making as an outgrowth of Christian formation, it became the mode of conduct. Peace was in many ways unhinged from discipleship. Soon the language of liberalism began to co-opt what had been a unique vocabulary of the movement. Justice, peace-making, and mutual aid started to look a lot more like the pacifism and altruism of secularism. There soon was little to distinguish Anabaptist theology from the ideologies of the wider cultural of American Liberalism.
To be fair, this was not just a flip of the switch. We did not become like the culture or other Christendom traditions over night. It was a long process of engagement, conversation, and attempts to speak faithfully in a particular time.
The result however, is common across the other mainline traditions. Denominational structures are in significant decline. The numbers of people in the pews is shrinking and thus the capital to support such large bureaucracies is waning. And just like the rest of America, the church finds its language and practices increasingly defined by the partisan politics of the 24 hour news cycle. Our communities reflect more the political party of choice than the traditions from which they emerged.
Despite this dire portrait, there is something to be said for the Anabaptist traditions. At their very roots these churches were movements of discipleship, structures and institutions followed. Our mainline cousins, on the other hand were birthed in the magisterial days when bureaucracies, secular and ecclesial, intentionally looked very similar. The bishops and diocese were patterned after provinces and governors. Christendom shaped both civil and church practices for these denominations.
For us as Anabaptists we need not look very far into our tradition to readapt to a Post-Christendom culture. We don’t need to assume that people are attracted to our buildings but reclaim a way of life as our witness. We don’t need to passively speak of peace, but adopt the ways of reconciliation that were a part of a life of discipleship.
Though my Neo-Anabaptist friend and I were a bit dismayed at the remnants of Christendom Liberalism, we need not dwell there. As our institutions decline and as the fallacy of our wedding of the Enlightenment and tradition is revealed, the resources and practices are at finger’s length. Turning toward communal formation and expectations for individual discipleship provide us the tools to reclaim our movement and missional nature. If we live it, people will come.