The Confidence Conundrum

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“Be confident!”  

Two words and some of the most unhelpful advice ever given.

Telling someone to be confident is like telling a depressed person to be happy or a short person to be tall.  A person who lacks in confidence does not know how to be confident or else they would already be confident.  Building confidence takes more effort than making a bold pronouncement upon someone.

People do not simply choose to be shy, unsure, uncertain, doubtful, confused, hesitant, timid, anxious or fearful.  No, those things are a product of life experiences and emotions that are all very real.  A confident person making a perfunctory statement does nothing to change the reality of a person who lacks confidence.

That said, confidence is desirable and something to be shared.  

Unfortunately, people who are confident often do not have reason to be introspective about it.  When you feel good about life there is not much need to know why or question it, there is only reason to be what you already are and enjoy the benefits.

Confidence is both a natural disposition and also something gained through positive experience.  Parents instill confidence in children through example or by helping them to overcome their fears and learn from failures rather than dwell in them.  Confident and successful parents seem to produce confident and successful children.

Confidence goes hand in hand with success, it frees a person to take the plunge rather than waste time in needless deliberation and makes them more attractive.  But, there is a sort of causality dilemma, in that confidence often leads to success while success builds confidence and without one the other becomes more difficult to maintain.

When confidence doesn’t produce success, it leads an intelligent person to doubt.  And with doubt comes less desire to risk effort and that results in even less opportunity for success, which often leads to even less success and even less confidence.  Pretty soon things can spiral downward into the pit of despair without a clear way out.

So, how do we help someone who lacks confidence gain it?

If you want a person to be confident then you must give them reason to be confident and good enough reason to overcome whatever reasons they have to lack confidence. To be helpful one must directly address root causes and not dismiss the realities that created the condition as silly or irrelevant.

What people need is T.IM.E.

Help must be practical.  Encouraging words don’t cut it.  Words, no matter how confident you are in saying them, are only words and do nothing to counteract the real life experience or emotional baggage of someone who has only known failure.  What is helpful, perhaps the only thing that does help in some cases, is meaningful long-term investment in the other person.

Loss of confidence happens over a lifetime, it comes as a result of traumatic experience or neglectful treatment, thus expecting a person to “snap out of it” because you say so is delusional at best and an excuse to be indifferent at worse.  There is more to be done than simple encouragement and that means an investment of time.

Here are three simple steps…

1) Take time to listen.  Confidence goes hand in hand with success, but success can lead to arrogance and unwillingness to hear first.  Many people want to “fix” another person without taking time to actually listen and assess the need.  This could mean many months or only a moment depending on the need.  It takes relating to the other person at their own level, earning their trust, without being in a rush or speaking in judgment of their situation.  Half the problem could be the lack of someone who will actually hear them out and care.  So listen empathically and try to identify with the other person emotionally.  Weep with them, laugh with them, eat with them and imagine with them.

2) IMagine a solution.  Without confidence, our ability to envision a better future dwindles and dies.  A successful person can easily take their ability to see a bright future for granted and yet a person who has continually failed does not share their rosy vision.  The first step towards any solution, therefore, is to think about it, to break the problem down into steps and help the other person mentally develop their path towards success.  After that comes execution of the plan.

3) Empower them.  This is where the rubber meets the road and is probably what is most lacking in our age of dog-eat-dog individualism.  Sure, there are many willing to spew their unhelpful advice and unasked-for judgments, but there are very few willing to partner in the success of another person and by this I mean make a substantive investment.  No, this does not mean a handout done in pity or religious obligation either, but an investment that physically and materially shows our confidence in the person who needs it.  Your willingness to partner together with them in a solution will, by itself, help build their confidence.

Anyhow, some final notes…

This is not a method or formula.  Each person and every situation is different.  Sometimes all that is needed is encouragement (more than saying “be confident”) which could mean something as little as a phone call.  While other times a lifelong commitment may be required.  It will likely require creativity, facilitating the right connections, and making recommendations.  

The goal is to get the person what they need to get on their feet and going in the right direction.  It also means getting out of the way and not being controlling or expecting anything in return besides enjoying their success with them.

Nobody is self-made.  If you are confident and successful, there are reasons why that go beyond your own abilities.  We did not pick our own home, communities, height, intelligence, personalities or luck.  We cannot take full credit for anything we have accomplished in our life.  This is reason to be humble and helpful.

If you are confident then share what you have been given with those who have little or less than you do.  Show your hope in their future with truth of action and not only your confidently spoken (but empty) words, be their heart…


The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

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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.

Conscience or Compromise?  The Courage of Desmond Doss…

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There is a movie out about an unlikely war hero.  The man, Desmond Doss, was a Christian conscientious objector (or a conscientious cooperator according to his own description) who joined the army to save lives rather than take them.

Doss refused to pick up a rifle in training and for disobedience to orders to do so he was court-martialed.  But he stood his ground, he was allowed to go into combat without a weapon, and went unarmed as a medic.  His courageous effort to save lives earned him presidential honor.

Doss, unlike many in the church today, was unwilling to compromise for sake of convenience.  Many have compromised valuing their own temporal comfort over full obedience to the one who has control over eternity.  Many have compromised, voting for ‘the lessor of two evils’ and political expedience rather than take a courageous stand against the evil of both sides.

#1) The Apostate Church Does Not Overcome Evil With Good.

Jesus said…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.   And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

It is amazing to me that many claim to love Jesus and yet find all kinds of ways to make the plain teachings above not apply to their own situation.  They misuse other parts of Scripture to water down the words of Jesus and faithless hypothetical “what if” reasoning to justify around what is clearly stated.  I guess for them Biblical literalism only applies when it has no real practical value or real life consequences—like the creation narrative in the book of Genesis?

But, when Paul echoes Jesus and says we should “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21) I am doubtful that he is saying that we should do the same things evil people are doing while slapping a religious justification on it.  He’s actually telling us to be radically different, that we should care for our enemies as we would our own, and trust God will do justice.

Those in the apostate church do not trust God and therefore take matters into their own hands that are not assigned to them.  This is the beginning of their road to compromise, it is negotiating a deal with Devil to secure a temporal gain and exactly the temptation Jesus resisted when offered worldly power.

#2) The Apostate Church Is Focused On Judgement of Others Rather Than Self-examination.

Jesus said…

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brotherʼs eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brotherʼs eye.” (Luke 6:37-42)

If we ever could fully comprehend God’s perfection (and our own unworthiness by comparison) we would likely never judge anyone again.  Instead we would spend our days prostrate in prayer and thanking God for the amazing grace that saved a wretch like us.  Unfortunately we do not understand God’s grace and therefore struggle with smugness, sanctimony and self-righteous feelings.

We also tend to judge ourselves differently than we do others.  There is a tendency to justify our own behavior based in circumstances while treating the sins of others as a character flaw and an inexcusable choice for evil.  This tendency is called fundamental attribution error and the very opposite of what Jesus taught us to do.

We should never excuse our own compromise and then simultaneously pray “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” as Jesus did.  It is our job to show grace and in our doing so we are living in obedience to God who will show us grace.  Those in the apostate church do opposite of this and are harsh to outsiders while forgiving their own or themselves. 

#3) The Apostate Church Demonizes Opposition Rather Than Love As Christ Loved.

The apostate church has compromised and have broke spiritually blind despite their arrogance.  They therefore cannot love as Jesus did and do not understand this:

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devilʼs schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:11-12)

A Christian should not be involved in the politics of those who demonize their opposition.  Some of the claims from this past election remind me the blood libel used to slander the Jews and create an irrational hatred of that whole people group.  When we turn other people into demons we justify our own unthinkable acts and often become as terrible as those we demonize.

Our flight is in a spiritual realm “not against flesh and blood” but the apostate church spiritualizes their own worldly perspective and demonizes those whom they are commanded to love.  Furthermore, our judgement again should be turned inward and towards our own, as Paul explains:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.  What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.'” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

Even in churches where political involvement is discouraged Paul’s words (above) are ignored and the judgement focused on those outside.  But we are told it is not our job to judge those outside our group—those outside are for God to judge.  Instead we are not to be associated with those who claim to be Christian yet live unrepentant in their immorality.

This in–group favoritism is common in the world, it is expressed in various forms of tribalism where people only see the faults of those outside their tribe, it is also a common feature of the apostate church, but it is the antithesis of what Jesus taught.  We must not associate ourselves with those who claim to be Christian and yet live in unrepentant sin.

#4) The Apostate Church Is Focused On the Worldly Kingdom.

Jesus said…

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)

The idea that a person must vote as a Christian duty is absurd.  Certainly there is a case for using the means we have influence the world in a positive direction and voting could be a means for doing that.  However, there is also a case for abstaining from politics and following after the example of Jesus who refused worldly power offered to him by Satan:

“The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.'” (Luke 4:5-7)

Many seem to be willing to make a deal with the devil for much less than what was promised to Jesus.  Offer them a few Supreme Court Justices with assurances of their religious freedom and they’ll turn out in droves.  Never mind whether or not the one promising the world to us will deliver on their end of the bargain.

Have we forgotten that true men of faith would rather be in prison or a martyr than make the smallest comprise for worldly gain?

How has the church become so blinded by worldly political ambition?

It is disturbing to me is how some who profess Christ are actually shamelessly celebrating the election of a vulgar and unrepentant man as if it is a spiritual triumph.  It makes a mockery of our faith when we compromise out of fear, it is a spiritual poverty and should be repented rather than celebrated.  

Our lack of trust in God will make us losers even when we think we have won.  The ends do not justify the means.  We need less cowardly people who compromise for sake of temporal worldly gain—and more who make a courageous stand like Desmond Doss.

Commitment Issues: Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

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There was a Baptism service at my church this past weekend and not the usual indoctrinated from birth teenager either.  This was a married couple in their thirties come in from outside the Mennonite religious tradition.

We had Communion that night and the devotional was about how Jesus asked “take this cup from me” when considering the suffering he would soon endure.  The cup we drink at Communion is a voluntary commitment to “take up the cross” and suffer with Jesus.

Baptism is a serious commitment.  Jesus urged to “count the cost” before making a commitment to follow after him and his converts were adults.  This seems in stark contrast to the evangelical emotional appeals for a decision and child conversion of the current conservative Mennonite culture.

Mennonites, or rather our Anabaptist ancestors, suffered persecution because they (among other things) rejected infant Baptism in defiance of the established religious order of their day and tied the ritual back to profession of faith.  This is called “Believer’s Baptism” and a commitment made with keen awareness that it could come at a tremendous cost.

Baptism Age: Then Compared To Now…

We, as Mennonites, especially conservative Mennonites, take pride in our Anabaptist identity, we like to use it as something that makes us unique, special or separated and, put plainly, better than other Christian denominations.

But are we?

Are we much like early Anabaptists and Mennonites who came before us?

In my own church experience, as noted, the ‘conversion’ to Christianity often comes at a very young age and most are Baptized as teenagers.  This is probably a reflection of a departure from our Anabaptist roots and embrace of more recent Evangelical innovations.  We, unlike our predecessors, have pulpits to pound on, Sunday school hours aimed at children and Revival meetings with strong emotional appeals.

So, what about our Anabaptist heritage, how does *their* normal for conversion compare to our own?

When did *they* get Baptized?

According to a GAMEO article on age of Baptism this is the answer:

“The estimated average age of baptism for 10 representative Anabaptist men and women, 1525-1536, was 36.4, with none under the age of 20, two between the ages of 20 and 29, four between 30 and 39, and four between 40 and 49.”

Early Anabaptist converts were often adults who could likely more fully understand the commitment that they made and knew it could be a death sentence.  Mennonite converts today, by contrast, are often children, products of a careful indoctrination from a young age, taught to please parents and through ‘conversion’ gain access to the perks of cultural acceptance rather than lose it.

Which leaves a question of whether or not our child converts actually able to count the cost of being a disciple of Jesus or are they simply doing what is culturally expedient and trying to keep up with their religious peers?

Sure, we could say that our children (because of our great teaching and example) are more ready for a serious commitment than say, for example, a 16th century German peasant facing death, a safe assumption, right?

However, then we get to the topic of marriage commitment…

Marriage Age: Then Compared To Now…

As far as I can tell our Amish and Old Order cousins are doing just fine in regards to courtship and marriage—It seems to be business as usual for them.  However, in the conservative Mennonite subset I am a part of there also seems to have been a shift away from marriage commitment.

When compared to prior generations we are waiting longer and longer to tie the knot.  My great grandma, not uncommon in her day, married as a teenager, and my grandparents married just into their twenties like my parents did.  But in my own church today there’s nearly two pews of those twenty-five or older who never married and hardly even dated.

The subset of Mennonite I belong to came under the influence of fundamentalist voices, men like Bill Gothard (who remains single) and others, that taught a courtship model.  They have embraced an idea that basically turns a first date into an engagement.  Friendship, let alone development of a romance, has become nearly impossible and it is because there’s this fear instilled in both genders to prevent even healthy interaction.

These fundamentalist Mennonites have also come under the influence of worldly entertainment.  Despite our traditional dress and slightly more cloistered communities, we are exposed (through internet and other media) to secular millennial generation values.  Mennonite fundamentalists, like their worldly counterparts, are postponing a marriage commitment longer and more never do tie the knot.

Could it be possible that we value freedom from responsibility over commitment and our temporal pleasures (like freedom to travel or other self-satisfactory personal projects both religiously or otherwise justified) over the risk of a long-term relationship?

But, more importantly, what does this reluctance to show romantic love say about our faith?  Can we claim to be committed to God when we can’t even make a serious commitment to loving each other?

Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

I believe our practices betray our inconsistency of thought and departure from the identity we claim as our own.  It is cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, etc.  We urge our children to commitment before they are able to count the cost as an adult, but then continue to mistrust that decision after they do so as if we do secretly know better. 

First we often urge them to wait to be Baptized.  We save that public confirmation for teenagers who went through a young believers class, which is nothing like the Baptism immediately upon profession of faith as was the case in the early church. 

But then, even after that, we continue to mistrust the commitment when it comes to courtship practice.  Mennonite suitors are not treated as an actual brother in Christ when it comes time to ask.  No, instead they are treated as if a hostile invader who must prove himself worthy by running a gauntlet and can be instantly disqualified if he dare be too honest about his own imperfection.

We might ridicule Catholics and Lutherans for doing the opposite of us (for Baptizing their infants and then confirming them as believers later on) but should probably be careful not to throw stones from our glass houses.  We should instead consider the beam in our own eye and ask why we are urging commitments that we don’t fully recognize or completely respect later on.

We tell tales of Constantine marching his troops through a river and calling them Baptized.  Yet could it be that we are really only manufacturing pre-programmed religious robots?  Sure, we produce children who recite back memory verses, spout out our dogmas on cue, and give all the right sounding answers with a smile on their face, but are as evil as the world at heart?

Adult Commitment Rather Than Premature Birth and Underdeveloped Faith

In Christian commitment (as in marriage) we should probably be encouraging our adults to commitment and telling our children to wait until ready.  If a person is too young to commit to marriage then they are also likely too young to comprehend the true cost of discipleship and make a commitment to God.

As one who was physically born early (my mother’s labor induced rather than natural) there is clear danger in going ahead of schedule like this.  I spent weeks in the hospital, in plastic box seperated from my mom because of a collapsed lung, and seemed to have developmental issues since as a result.

Likewise, encouraging premature spiritual birth could be to our detriment and leading our converts to struggles down the road.  Perhaps we have become like Abraham who tried to create a fulfilment of God’s plan through his own efforts?  Ultimately our children are not saved by our good parenting, frequent altar calls or courtship standards.

We need to return to a radical faith that emphasizes the cost of discipleship and encourages adult decision rather than urge premature commitments.  Perhaps the our young adults would be less fearful of lessor commitments and more ready to sacrifice all for love than cling forever to their childish fears?

Whatever the case, there is something very special about an adult Baptism and a decision made by one more fully aware of the cost of commitment.  May God bless Dan and Dina for their testimony of faith and their public commitment yesterday.

The Lost Witness of Christian Community and Finding it Again

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There has been much focus on the family in the church.  Popular media commentators (like James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard and Doug Philips) encourage making a high priority of our own immediate families. 

Family is important.  But the “no greater joy” in 3 John 1:4 is not written about a man’s own family or his blood relatives.  Instead the letter is written about the church.  John is describing love for spiritual children and the family of God.  Do we find as much joy in the church family as we do in raising our own children?

Christian community has been watered down over the years.  Yes, we might have more ‘church’ activities than ever and yet, as far as real interdependence, we are lacking.  Those of you from good homes, who are happily married and in your prime, may not notice.  But there is great social need beyond your doorstep.

This blog will explore where we are, where we were and where we need to go from here; it will address the enemies and also the benefits of faith community.  One blog can’t even begin to do the topic justice, but hopefully it will spark thoughts and discussion.  My prayer is that those reading will take faithful steps to restore the Christian community where they are.

Where we are…

The loss of community in the world around us is profound and the results are tragic.  Isolated people are unhealthy people.  The family unit itself has been degraded.  Many children do not have opportunity of dinner time conversations together with their parents at home.  Child care is increasingly outsourced.  More people survive on food cooked by strangers than ever.  The elderly are interned for sake of convenience, out of sight and out of mind.  It is madness.

The church has not fared much better.  People in many churches have very little meaningful interaction with each other during the week.  After the church service is over most go their seperate ways and expect the needs to be taken care of by those appointed to do so.  There is very little difference between the mainstream church and the world in regards to community.  Sure, many churches bustle with activities, and there are many good people who are trying to make a difference, but there are many unmet social needs.

My conservative Mennonite culture has a more distinct history of community.  Other Anabaptist groups, our spiritual (and often biological) cousins, have a stronger community emphasis than our own.  Amish have taken dramatic steps and have rejected technology (starting with the automobile) in an effort to preserve the integrity of their communities.  The Hutterites have a long communal tradition.  But conservative Mennonites lack a clear structure and could lose this strength of community entirely.

I’ve seen changes in my own Mennonite community in my own lifetime that indicate the erosion of our community.  We are following after the mainstream and the world more than we often realize.  The Anabaptist prioritization of brotherhood has been replaced with a more individualistic mindset.  

We do not pursue the concept of Gelassenheit anymore.  Instead we turn to our own biological families for support and our fellowship is growing apart.

Where we were…

The early church example is very clear.  The family language used by early church leaders meant something.  When Paul spoke up for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-25) he speaks with the urgency of a father speaking for his son.  It is not casual usage of words.  It is not us singing “I’m so glad to I’m a part of the family of God” on Sunday mornings and then doing next to nothing for each other during the week.  The chuch then was a true family in every sense of the word…

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47)

And repeated again later in the book of Acts…

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Their commitment to each other was clearly not a superficial commitment like our own too often seems to be.  What is described in the passages from Acts above is not coincidence.  No, what is described is what will happen when people commit fully to the teachings of Jesus and love as they ought to love.

Where we need to be…

What we need, first of all, is intention—we need to want to make the ideal of community a greater reality.  We must realize our own weakness alone, confess this to each other and then bear our burdens together… 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It is not a meddlesome or controlling spirit, but rather a growing recognition of our own need for community and deepening commitment to the good of our Christian brothers and sisters.  This kind of love is the truest expression of obedience to the law of Christ.  

Jesus said the world would know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:34-35) and this is expressed in Koinonia (κοινωνία) or our common union as believers.  We are to be intimately involved in fellowship together, and in all things, or we are not fully living the example Jesus taught.  This must be made a reality today in our own time or we cannot claim to be fully living in faith. 

The church should be extending our family to those without.  Our elderly should never be left to a commercially operated nursing facility.  Young single mothers should be able to find a restful place amongst us.  We need to be less focused on our own individual family and more concerned with the family of God.

Enemies of community of faith…

There are many reasons why we do not follow the Acts church example today and it is mostly because we fear that the arrangement will not benefit us as an individual or our own family.  This is a short list of reasons why one may resist a greater expression of Christian community:

1) Individualism: There is no doubt that our American culture centers on ideas of independence and rugged individualism.  Unfortunately this has evolved into a rat race where everyone pursues a dream (unattainable for many) at the expense of real and fulfilling relationship.  We seek independence, and it is good when we are working to support ourselves, yet we have social needs that cannot be fulfilled in ourselves alone.

2) Prosperity: People can create an illusion of their lack of need for other people because they are wealthy.  Our wealth as Americans is used as defense of the status quo.  The argument goes that since everyone has food, shelter and clothing there is no need for a better application of what we read in the book of Acts.  Unfortunately government programs, while keeping people from physical death and complete destitution, do nothing for social or spiritual needs.  Even materially wealthy people can be very isolated and miserable.

3) Pride: Religious people can easily imagine they are better than other people including their own brothers and sisters in the church.  They do not want their children influenced by other children and adults, therefore they remove them, homeschool, etc.  It is the oldest sin in the book.  It was what seperated mankind from God and it is also an enemy of Christian community.  Pride is dangerous, it causes divisions in the church and decieves us into believing we are better off when we are in complete control.

4) Technology: The Amish were right.  The automobile dramatically changed and has aided in the decline of community.  Add to that the television and smartphones.  Children nowadays have more reason to stay inside and isolated.  Adults are not much better by choosing to live in some suburban home with a privacy fence.  We are increasingly buried in technology, addicted to the quick fix of social media and at the expense of true relationship.

5) Fear of commitment: It takes faith and commitment to seek after deeper relationship and many of us are simply avoiding it.  In the conservative Mennnonite church we are afraid to court and adopting the same reluctance towards marraige of the Millennial generation.  Commitment is scary.  The rewards of community (like marriage) are not immediate and the risks loom large.  Unfortunately we miss out on a blessing because of our fear.

The practical arguments in favor of community of faith…

First and formost, there is need.  Again, just because your own needs are met does not mean that there is no need.  The plight of our older singles and elderly people would be a little less severe if they were intergrated into a community rather than the afterthought that they often are.  The church shold be a place where everyone has an equal seat at the table. 

Unfortuantely many of us our too preoccupied with our own families to notice or care about those who are lacking.  That is not the spirit of Christ who told us to leave all (including family) to follow after him.  The irony is that those who actually have by some means found their security in themselves may actually have the most need.  Wealth, whether it be that of material or biological variety, has always hindered commitment to faith.  Our need to repent of our religious individualism and spiritual pride could be our greatest need of all.

Then there is the matter of efficient use of resources.  As most of us currently live there is this ridiculous redundancy.  We all need our own seperate lawn mower, garden tools, pickup truck and would be so much further ahead sharing.  That’s not to mention our reliance on commercial lenders rather than each other.  It is sad that we would rather our brothers pay interest to a bank and struggle to stay ahead than help them as we might our own son.  It is a wasteful use of resources that could otherwise be used to further the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the most spurious arguments against a more real expression of Christian community is the idea that it would come at the expense of evangelism.  The reasoning goes that existing groups that practice a community of goods concept have failed in one regard or another and often in sharing the Gospel.  This, of course, is the same argument used by those saying that we should drop other non-mainstream Biblical practices currently practiced by conservative Mennonites.  If we start abandoning practices that can somehow be associated with abuse or neglect we would probably need to join the faithless and stay home.

Community of faith is actually the most practical witness of the Gospel we have.  How better to meet the needs in the world around us than to offer them the clearest possible alternative?  There is no choice between missions outreach and Christian community because one can compliment the other.  In fact, one enhances the other and makes it much more effective.  Sure, maybe the commitment would require more of us.  However, there are many people with needs who would benefit greately from a church that truly acted as a family.  

Change comes upon us slowly…

The book of Acts describes a reality quite a bit different from our own today.  Then, unlike now, there was a willingness to give up financial independence and truly be a part in a community of faith.  This is something that must be restored for the church to function as it was supposed to fuction.

I believe that the contrast between then and now is something that must be part of our discussion.  Even in my own lifetime there seems to be a weakening of our commitment to each other.  There was a time it seemed we spent more time together visiting on a Sunday afternoon, when we worked closer together and had a more meaningful impact on each others life.

There needs to be radical steps taken in faith.  We need not recreate the past, but rather we do need to walk in obedience to the same Spirit that caused the early church to want to have a better communion (or common union) together.  We must ask what has changed between our priorities today and theirs then.

Many of us would scoff at the idea of a commune.  However, do we see the absurdity of our own time and way?  Do we see the cost of paying strangers to prepare our coffee in the morning or care for our elderly?  Do we see what the loss of community has done to our neighbors and nation?

There needs to be a vision for community of faith.  We need to take steps to get off the tragectory that the world is on and present something different and better.  My own conservative Mennonite church family can lead the way in this regard.  We have this better prioritization in our Anabaptist history and could use this as a basis for a fresh push in that direction.

We need to be intentional.  We need to challenge the thinking of the world that has crept into our lifestyle and has convinced us that we are better off in our own corners rather than in loving community together.  Jesus said “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:29) not only our own biological progeny.  The church should be our family.  

So my encouragement is that we pursue the true ideal of church community with all sincerity.  We should tune out the radio and internet commentators and commit to love each other more.  I believe we will find God faithful when we do.  

Disposable Men: Millennial Rejection of Marriage and Mennonite Bachelors

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​We live in an age that prefers convenience over conservation.  We do not want long-term commitment to that plastic cup at the picnic over the weekend or anything else really.  Even marriage has become disposable and cheap to match the current generation.

Marriage in the conservative Mennonite community is one of those things that has not undergone this silverware to plastic transformation.  Divorce is not an option for those raised in this tradition.  However—having been otherwise assimilated into the prevailing culture—many of us are choosing to divorce from a marriage commitment altogether and remain single.

In some cases there can be abstinence from marriage for religious and other good reasons.  Paul wrote: “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man (unmarried) to remain as he is.” (1 Corinthians 7:26) That recommendation likely being for the “present crisis” of widespread persecution and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

But, the awkward unholy alliance of Mennonite and millennial values is not a Christian ideal.

In this age I suspect the choice to remain single is often selfish and simply a reflection of millennial generation values having rubbed off on us.  To many marriage seems inconvenient, it would impose on their freedom to travel the world and require maturation.  We, like other millennials, postpone our adulthood and some would rather remain perpetually childish.

There is some difference between us as conservative Mennonites and the typical millennial.  We, unlike them, are afraid to date and young women encouraged to turn down all suitors who do not fit their (or their mother’s) idealistic list of requirements.  They are convinced (and perhaps because of a culture too focused on women being submissive) not to take a risk until they simply lose interest.

You’ll note that I’ve positioned women as the gatekeepers to courtship and marriage and that’s because they are.  It is the one place in conservative Mennonite culture where they know their voice is heard.  Can we really blame a young woman, especially one raised around a patriarchal dad or controlling brothers, for being reluctant to sign away her independence?

Unfortunately her reluctance is not equally matched by male counterparts.  I know many exasperated unmarried guys who followed all the rules, who jumped through all the hoops, and have only known rejection.  A good Mennonite guy will not even get a first date unless he is judged worthy by some incomprehensible measure.

Our not choosing commitment in the present will cost our faith and future potential. 

I’m all for choice and choosing wisely.  However, that is something altogether different from choosing not to choose altogether for fear of choosing incorrectly.  There is an unbalance in favor of over-caution (or a commitment phobia) that could result in lasting consequences and serious disappointment if not addressed.  

Marriage, a relationship where Christian commitment to self-sacrificial love is tested and exampled, should not be so easily discarded.  Men, especially non-resistant men who can’t serve society as soldiers and police, have strong desire for something of tangible concrete value to protect.  Women, by contrast, can have this need to nurture fulfilled in caretaking, a career in the medical profession or elsewhere, and even profit handsomely.

A single man is often ineligible for leadership positions in the church.  Conservative Mennonite employers often offer less compensation men without families or overlook them entirely.  And, in youth obsessed American culture, his disadvantage only grows and increase in age only increases the stigma.  The married men brag from the pulpit how their lovely wife made them everything they are while the bachelor wonders why he is amongst those unworthy.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many unmarried and wanting women either.  For as many young women who got asked two dozen times and said “no” every time, there’s also probably as many who never got asked once.  It is because Mennonite guys won’t risk asking a girl who doesn’t fit their list of requirements for fear of rejection and getting a reputation for a girl they were unsure about to begin with.

Yet, in my estimation, it is unmarried men and the future of the church that are hurt most in the current paradigm.  Our culture is still traditional enough that a single woman can expect to be under the care of her parents.  She can enjoy a special flexibility whilst waiting for her white knight.  Not true of her brothers, they can’t afford to go on adventures and yet risk being judged as unspiritual for preparing for the responsibility of marriage.

Unmarried conservative Mennonite men are the most disposable.  We must be always available without complaint at a moments notice and be providers protection without compromise.  It is pathetic, actually, what men give out for free.  But to be more guarded, to carefully guard our hearts as something precious or preservable, and keep our strengths to ourselves is impermissible.  

We must be like a paper plate, an adequate stand-in performer, something wanted around for temporary use, and okay to be tossed in the trash.  And, yet, we must also live up to the traditional Mennonite male role and display the qualities of fine chinaware.

Respect your own value if you wish to be respected.

Here’s my recommendation for those single people who wish to be married and have been routinely rejected or overlooked: Stop grovelling in front of the unappreciative, open your eyes like Peter did envisioning the expansion of the church (Acts 10:9-16) and open the doors of your wedding feast to those who understand the value you intend to offer them.

Jesus spoke about not casting our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6) and not persisting with those who do not value us: “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5) We might want to consider this advice when the value of our commitment is rejected in our own communities.

Loyalty can be a fault.  There are unmarried men and women outside your own religious community who might better appreciate your Christian testimony.  So don’t waste the remainder of your virile years wondering why the ‘right one’ won’t even have coffee with you.  

God isn’t a Mennonite and, as a faithful child of God, you aren’t garbage. 

What Trump’s Popularity Says About Amish And Mennonite Priorities 

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​The whole Trump phenomenon has been amazing to see.  It has caused many lifelong and intellectually grounded Republicans to second guess their party affiliation.  It has also caused a divide in the conservative Evangelical movement.

One thing for sure, most conservative Mennonites I know (who vote quietly, if at all, and tend to be motivated by social issues like abortion and lean right) have been politically orphaned by Trump. 

Most, but not all…

Some Mennonites and Amish love the brash billionaire businessman.  They are loud and unapologetic in their support.  There is an ‘Amish PAC’ paying for billboards to urge our religious brethren to come out in favor of their man.

This post is about why some might be tempted.  It is not a political post so much as it is a diagnosis of how a man as contentious and vile as Trump could have any appeal with members of a Christian sect (Anabaptism) historically known for it’s peace position and repudiation of excess wealth.

I would chalk up Trump’s appeal with some raised in Anabaptist tradition to several things.  All of these things having to do with the way those raised in our communities are taught to think (or rather taught not to think) and what we fear.  I write this post as a warning to those with ears to hear it.

1) We like simple concrete answers.

Trump speaks in crude, unrefined and basic terms.  There is little nuance to his language and, even if he contradicts himself twice in the same day, his answers come off as assuringly absolute.

This gives some comfort to those raised in an environment where they were sheltered from the complexities of the current age.  For those of less formal education he is less threatening with his broad terms, overly simplistic narratives and unrealistic yet concrete sounding solutions.

Conservative Mennonites and Amish have an anti-intellectual bent.  Many of us (as those who value manual labor over mind work) mistrust academics and professionals.  Providing by the sweat of our brow seems more honest than the alternative.

Unfortunately this attitude can lead us to being too dismissive of intellectual pursuits.  It causes some to ignore the warnings of the better informed and makes them extra vulnerable to charlatans.  

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” (1 Corinthians 12:21-25)

We need all types to be at our full strength as a body.

2) We equate business success to moral superiority.

Trump flaunts his wealth, exaggerates his self-worth and business acumen.  On the surface this might seem antithetical to a culture that values modesty and simplicity, but in actuality it exposes something about our true priorities.

Amish and Mennonites are both frugal and industrious.  Many are small business owners; some have done quite well for themselves and are proud of their accomplishments.  They see Trump as one of them and the guy they can trust to guard their accumulated wealth.

There is this unspoken understanding (perhaps a result of some denominational cross-pollination or just human tendency) that wealth is always a blessing from God.  Those with money in the church can buy their power and influence over even ordained leaders.

Sadly this is completely out of step with what Jesus taught and the early church practiced.  It grieves me that many in our conservative Anabaptist circles seem to value profits over people and think in terms of bottom line rather than love.  

“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.   But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:9-11)

Be on your guard against the allure of those promising worldly greatness and wealth.

3) We prefer authoritarian leaders.

Trump is an authoritarian.  He promises to take care of business unilaterally and without apology.  With him it is get in line or be run over and this is what many want.  They want their own ideals railroaded even at the cost of consistency or conscience.

Many conservative Mennonite and Amish churches have departed from true brotherhood and rely on the heavy handed leadership of a bishop.  Not having to decide for themselves gives some a feeling of security, a person can find their place without much effort or thought.

Thinking requires effort.  Being involved in a community that disciples requires a huge commitment and added potential for frustration.  Teaching temperance would require time we would rather spend on our own personal pursuits.  So we outsource, we turn to strict rules (and roles) are easier to enforce and look to forceful leaders to impose our values.

This, again, is something condemned by Jesus.  Our leaders are not supposed to be the tyrants of worldly example; they are supposed to be examples of self-sacrificial love and submission.  But, instead of leading in this way, many look for someone to hitch their wagons to and do their work for them.

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.” (Matthew 20:25-26a)

Be different.  Take responsibility and serve as Jesus did.

4) We fear strong and outspoken women.

Trump is many things, but his chauvinism is something that stands out.  His attacks on women who dare question him seem to be especially personal and nasty.  

This, at first glance, seems incompatible with a religious culture that avoids harsh words.  However, some conservative Anabaptist men are unaccustomed to women who stand up to them or question them directly.  It is a threat to them and they see a hero in Trump because he says what is on their mind.

Trump is a chauvinistic like them.  They don’t want a woman who questions or rivals them.  Even highly qualified conservative Mennonite women are treated with too apparent distain by some male coworkers who think all women should be at home, in the kitchen, and raising children.

But this is not reflective of the attitude of Jesus.  Men are supposed to be examples of humility, not entitled selfish brats.  A good man is able to bite his tongue, withstand criticism and treats all people with respect even when they are undeserving.

“Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” (Luke 8:3)

Women of faith in Scripture did more than sit at home waiting on their husbands tending children.

So, where do we go from here?

Those who disagree or like Trump may have already dismissed me as one of those highfalutin liberal weenies they love to loathe.  However, I want to confession some of my own guilt for not always leading in the example of Jesus Christ.  It is too easy for me to be defensive when confronted and feel justified.

Truth be told, whether you like Trump or despise him, we all can learn to do better.  Life is sometimes complex, sometimes good people suffer while the wicked prosper, but we should avoid running from the challenge and reacting in fear rather than faith.  

Politics is about power and control, that has a strong visceral appeal, but we (as people of faith) should desire something better.  Our fulfilment should come in loving others as Jesus told us to love and our hope built on something more.

This world will pass, but true faith will endure from now into eternity.  Put your investment where it counts, invest in the love of Jesus, forgive your enemies and be good to those who persecute you.

Jesus is the answer, not some bloviating businessman making promises of temporal greatness.  Find security in God not governments and reject politics as usual.

“Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” (2 Peter 3:17-18)