The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

Standard

A few months ago friend of mine shared a link to a news story and asked my opinion.

The story, “UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle,” did not seem to apply to my own conservative branch of the Mennonite denomination.

My initial thoughts were that this was one of those wacky liberal churches and therefore not relevant.

However, upon further reflection, I realized that my own brand of Mennonite is not impervious to cultural trends and, despite all the babies crying on Sunday mornings now, we could face a similar population collapse down the road.

Headlines about record-low fertility rates in the US or an unprecedented population collapse in another nation might seem irrelevant to our own situation.  But they can also give some indication of the patterns, telltale signs and changes in behavior that come before such events.

I’ve heard people say that we, as conservative Mennonites, are “50 years behind society” and there seems to be some truth to that.  I know with the advance of technology (like that which makes this blog possible) the pace of change is now quicker than most would have imagined a generation ago.

The conditions that allowed the Mennonite tradition to continue for hundreds of years are disappearing, and quickly.  It does not seem we are in an especially strong position to cope with the new social, economic and technological realities.

This generation could very well be the last.

Here are some factors that could determine where things go from here…

#1) We grow mostly because we have big families and convert our own children.  Like it or not, “Mennonite” is an ethnic group—complete with unique genetic disorders and a game based on our common surnames.  Yes, we do have some converts from the “community folks” and yet most of us came from Mennonite or other established Anabaptist stock.  If our birth rates were to continue to drop (as they have been amongst Mennonites in North America), then there will likely be some problems down the road.

#2) Marriage is being postponed and even avoided altogether, thereby decreasing birth rates.  Mennonites seem to be taking cues from society when it comes to committed relationship.  But, unlike society, we do not have children outside of marriage and therefore our postponing of marriages means older mothers and fewer children, and that is assuming they will marry eventually.  I just had a young woman (maybe mid-twenties) ask me to do a blog to advise her and her friends on how to tell pesky guys to get lost—not an unusual sentiment.  It seems women from conservative backgrounds are becoming less interested in marriage and motherhood, and that is a death knell to a church that can’t bring in more than an occasional convert from outside our own existing gene pool.

#3) The feeder system from Old Order groups and elsewhere could dry up.  It is not a big secret that Mennonites migrate from conservative to liberal.  My own church has lost many born into it and the casualties have always been offset with those gained from other groups more conservative than our own, or those escaping expensive land prices in overdeveloped Lancaster County.  But this means of growth via a continued supply from upstream (or downstream?) is not guaranteed.  It could change as economic pressures increasingly encroach on the Old Order lifestyle.  It is harder to support big families with higher land values, a tougher regulatory environment, rising healthcare costs, etc.  We can’t count on migrants for growth.

#4) Urbanization and loss of an agricultural lifestyle results in cultural change.  My grandparents moved up out of the Franconia Conference territory (near Philadelphia) in the 1960s to begin farming where the land was cheaper and roads less congested.  My grandparents have remained relatively unchanged in the way they dress since that time.  However, their friends “back home” have changed dramatically both in dress and perspective.  There are still a small number of “breakaway” conservatives in that region, but the main body of Mennonite churches there are extremely progressive and their trends could give us some indication of our own future.

#5) The decline of meaningful brotherhood and rise of alternatives reduces interest.  The Amish were right to identify transportation technology as a threat to community.  We might pride ourselves for having stronger communities than the church down the road (a disputable claim) and yet would we compare favorably to prior generations?  I know that even in my own three-decade life span there has been a dramatic change.  We seem less closely knit and more quick to leave for the church up the road rather than come together as one community of diverse members.  We do more world travel, have more activities for every specialized interest or age group, and are kept very busy.  However, we are also fragmented with less vertical integration, more homeschooled children, and less everyday connection—resulting in weaker communities.  Our communities could eventually disintegrate completely as they lose relevance.

#6) Lack of foresight and appropriate faithful preparation is endemic.  Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is because nobody else is talking about this.  We are chronically unprepared for change.  It seems many conservative Mennonites have their heads buried in the sand (or simply buried in day-to-day business and family affairs) and do not see trends coming down the pike.  There appears to be very little effort on the part of the ordained leadership to account for changes in culture (or technology) and even less effort to respond in a positive or productive manner.  Few advocate for a faithful and deliberate approach to problems.  We miss opportunities to increase our effectiveness because we do not utilize the greater means available to us.  We perish for lack of vision.

#7) In the void of thoughtful preparation, what results is only fearful reaction and hasty retreat.  Mennonites, like other Christian fundamentalist groups, began to withdraw from strategic high ground after being blindsided by the pushback against the state endorsement of religion in public schools and the rise of secularism.  Many decry, “They took prayer out of school!” but the sad reality is they did not remove prayer and a faithful witness from schools—we did!  We trembled like King Saul facing the Philistine giant and removed our children and influence.  We did not read 1 John 4:4, “greater is he that is in you, than he is in the world,” and believe.  It is little wonder why nobody believes us when we try to convince them of our great God.

#8) Our missions are often without purpose and out of touch.  I know a young woman (a very sweet person and sincere Mennonite) who told me, “hearts don’t change,” in response to a circumstance outside her experience.  I was astonished at the cognitive dissonance on display and it made me wonder why she was spending thousands of dollars to be at IGo Adventures and Spouse Seeking Institute in Thailand.  It reminds me of the time when we formed a committee at my church to discuss local missions where mailing out more tracts seemed to be the idea with most traction and nothing practical ever came of the committee.  Needless to say, I am not very optimistic about our abilities to do effective outreach.

Is a Mennonite population collapse in North America inevitable?

I don’t know.

I’m not expecting our complete extinction.

I’m pretty sure the Mennonite name will continue on in one form or another.

For instance, we do have a list of genetic disorders that will carry on our legacy.

But, as a religious culture and tradition?

I believe that depends.

It depends on how we approach the issues listed in #1-8 above.

Will we address problems head-on and work through them deliberately or be blindsided?

Will we adjust our thinking and adapt our methods as needed?

Or will we (like the dying Shaker movement) use hope as a strategy?

Nothing is written in stone yet.  But I do know that the conservative Mennonite culture is a frustrating place for innovative and forward-thinking people.  Old habits, functional fixedness, inability to think outside the box and a “don’t rock the boat” mentality all stand in the way of a faithful and vibrant future.

We need to ask and answer the hard questions rather than avoid them.  We should be taking note of trends, and be confronting them collectively as a group.

Notice a growing number of older singles?

Look into the Moravian option or at the very least reconsider the faithless courtship teachings that have created the current mess.  There is no reason why we should pretend there’s nothing that can be done.

Wonder why our missions are ineffective?

It could be that we are isolating our children rather than trusting God and teaching them to live in fear rather than faith.  They can’t empathize or understand anyone outside the Mennonite culture.

Where do we go from here?

It is up to you.  But, if you don’t want to be the last Mennonite standing, I suggest it is time to remove the stale items from the shelves and introduce some fresh ideas.

Change is inevitable.

Be proactive.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

  1. Kenneth A

    As a general rule, many of our cultural values (large families, hard work, stay-at-home moms, barnraising-style brotherhood) have a close relationship with an agricultural lifestyle. This isn’t a bad thing, it is simply true (and kudos for your vision of a communal lifestyle for single mothers. A man in my community dreamed of something similar to that for converts from prison ministry). I think we are experiencing several large changes in our circles; more single people are pursuing careers and living outside of nuclear families, the shift from rural agriculture to (sub)urban professional occupations provide less opportunity for brotherhood, and the Internet/social media encourage isolated lifestyles and surface relationships. I suggest that we need to address two things; our vision for brotherhood and our vision for fulfilling the Great Commission in a post-modern world.

    Brotherhood: An easy solution to propose is to encourage communal living, aka Hutterite or Bruderhof. This makes sense on many levels, but is hard to implement and may become too hierarchal in structure. A hybrid solution might be to implement opportunities for brotherhood in our routines. This could include projects and ministries of the local Church (Christian day school, children’s ministry, local outreach, work projects, churchwide employment opportunities) as well as intentional communal activities (regular shared meals, accountability/mentoring relationships, *gasp* sports, Bible studies, etc). One word of caution: we excel at segregating ourselves based on gender, age, marital status, and interests. Christian brotherhood must transcend all those lines.

    Fulfilling the Great Commission: When the Church does what it’s told to do in Matthew 28, a lot of its problems will take care of themselves. Allow me to simultaneously caution and praise borrowing evangelism techniques from evangelical Christianity. They may have done some grunt work and figured out things that (don’t) work, but too many of their methods don’t produce productive Kingdom citizens. That being said, evangelicals may have learned how to reach people a post-modern culture. We can’t ignore evangelism and claim to follow the words of Jesus.

    Closing thoughts: We find ourselves in a time of change where we need to re-evaluate our cultural practices, our cultural values, and the call of Jesus. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but each of these 3 things may need to be applied differently in the upcoming years if we want to remain faithful in our calling. Thanks for instigating this conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like your thoughts. I believe we need to be intentional and not be content with mediocrity. There are many who say “good enough” because they believe that their church is better than the one down the road. But we should not strive to be only better than others, we are to reach for perfection—we must continually strive (in faith) to be better than our prior selves and settle for nothing less.

      Like

  2. For those who were always concerned that ‘If we change this rule, then where do we draw the line next”. Well, that’s the problem. Our goal should be to be like Christ. Our goal should not be ‘don’t be like the world’. Because we follow after them 30 to 50 years later.
    I like to use the analogy of walls and gates. There are some walls that will always be. Biblical Principles that never change. But there are some things that we try to be Pharisees on and make rules about, but then have to change or ‘we’ll lose all our youth’. The problem was they made a rule instead of teaching the principle. (Black cars)
    The gates are the daily decisions. What we let in and what do we carry back out. Many have decided that the internet is a tool that can be good or bad. Many have it available 24/7 on a smart phone. But can everyone handle it? Should all teenage boys have a fast motorcycle? some can handle it, others can’t. Why do we have to have a rule about it? Why do always have to cater to the weakest? Can we help them to become stronger?
    Would it be ok if someone decides to not have the internet on a smartphone, but not because they are more holy than those who do? Our churches are more known by what we allow, or don’t allow; than what we actually teach and live out.
    Has anyone noticed that the ladies dresses are more modest today than in the 70’s? (length of dresses specifically) Is that because of culture? or improved teaching in the homes?
    Rather than trying to shelter our children, what about equipping them to conquer? Teach them why we believe what we believe, to defend the faith.
    Or do we have a lot of pulpits that are filled with people on an agenda trip, and not actually teaching doctrine?
    What grade level is our reading comprehension of Scripture? It’s great that we can quote it in our favorite translation, but if you don’t understand it, and don’t apply it. What is it worth?
    I guess I have more questions than answers.
    In closing, I think we just have to be more purposeful in our teaching and training. Both in the homes and in the churches. Push the young men to do hard things. To set the example for future generations to come behind them. It takes both the young men affirming the young ladies in the church, and the young women affirming the young men in the church.
    We are all imperfect, but are we not called to help each other to strive towards the goal?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I believe things like temperance and discernment must be developed and discipled. It is far easier to try to come up with a prescription and then go about our business. Unfortunately we have both weak communities and individuals as a result.

      Like

  3. Sandra Miller

    This article raises interesting questions whose answers seem to be elusive.

    I have pondered many times about the apostasy of our generation-born in the 1940s. Most of the children we grew up with have left the conservative Mennonite Church. Most of my friends were not wild but decent so why did this happen?

    We had Sunday School, Christian Day School. VBS, winter Bible Schools, fine evangelists -think George Brunk, Andrew Jantzi, James Bucher, Samuel Doctorian- who were very concerned about our souls. We were taught well, very well. Why did so many leave? I asked some top leaders in our Alliance this same question but they had no answer either except to ask me
    one, “why didn’t you?” I was stumped. Told him, “well, I never thought of this before.” After a few more moments of reflection I said, “the hand of God must have been on me.” Now if this is the case this raises more serious questions.

    Good article..

    One more observation- dealing with young people marrying. One mom share the concern of fellows who are uninterested in marrying but there are many girls who want to marry. She went on to say how this concern is wide spread..

    Glad someone is exposing the issues for thoughtful consideration.

    God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know the church I was born into was started in the era you describe. I guess I was spoiled growing up in a church split 50-50 with half from non-Mennonite background. Unfortunately that faithful old guard is dying out and that Mennonite transplant replacements don’t share the same spirit. We are pretty much an ordinary complacent conservative church now.

      Like

  4. Buff Showater

    Did anyone ever consider that our early Anabaptist forefathers were radical followers of Christ and not Menno Simons. We have become a cult obsessed with our founders and our culture. Until we return to that early zeal to follow Christ instead of building ever higher walls around ourselves we will indeed be a dying church.

    Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s