The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

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A few months ago a Christian 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.

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