new Mennonite Life logo    September 2000     vol. 55 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

Church as an Instrument of Hope

Gilberto Flores

In the new millennium the church should be multicultural, multiethnic, missional, and a church in marginality.

1. The Anabaptist movement as an ideal or as a challenge

Anabaptist theology offers to us an extraordinary variety of possibilities. That has happened because this theology is a consequence of a journey, the pilgrimage of the church in special circumstances, rather than a speculative approach motivated for philosophical reasons.

In the early Anabaptist movement, the orthopraxis was the dominant task of the church.

They were seeking to be consistent and coherent between their understanding of the Scriptures and their responsibility in life. The early Anabaptist leaders Conrad Grebel, Simon Stumpf and Felix Mantz, demanded from Ulrich Zwingli a reform of the church, "according with the true of the gospel and the Word of God." There is one reason which made the radical reform into a unique movement: It conformed itself to the gospel, according to the word of God. It did not conform to traditions or to worldly rulers.

I want to mention some interesting and attractive characteristics in their practical theology:

--To be a disciple is to be in mission.

--To be Christian is to be loyal to Christ.

--To be part of the church is to be in a confrontation with the dominant culture.

--To be a disciple is to be in the world in an attitude of testimony and hope.

--To be a Christian is to take risks in regard to accomplishing the mission.

--To be a Christian is to be part of a new universal and inclusive humanity, based in Christ's salvation, rather than nationalities or territorial jurisdictions.

--Mission was not a task. It was the natural way to express why the church was there.

Conforming to the truth of the gospel is not only matter of right doctrine or right practice.

It is a matter of identity, to be salt and light. It is understanding the real reason why the church is in the world. The understanding of the church becomes dominant in decisions about what to do and how to do it. It is important to realize what kind of people we are as a community of faith, as a church in mission. Opinions about who we are, about our identity, and how we see ourselves, become relevant in relation to our limitations, our possibilities, as well as how we are in mission. In theory there are many commonalities between the Anabaptist movement and the actual Mennonite Church, but there are also several differences and limitations related with mission and the kind of church we are. In that sense is important keep in focus the pilgrimage as a paradigm from Anabaptist theology and history. The church will have permanent questions about her nature and identity. She will be intentionally interested in recreating herself into a new configuration, a shape that reflects the Anabaptist legacy beyond surnames and ethnic traditions. The Anabaptist movement and its theology can be a stimulating challenge and can impart coherence and pertinence for the church in the world during this third millennium.

2. The new millennium as a Kairos

We are, with our children, a people for this time. We cannot remove ourselves and set ourselves apart from the blessing we have received. We are part of this moment, of this Kairos. We live in a time when we may be instruments of hope for the world. The Kairos moment is a time when God wants to show his mercy, his intention to heal, restore, and make things new. It is a time when God offers to the church a new vision, and new ways to walk the journey of God's purposes. But Kairos is also a time when the church needs wisdom, courage and a sense of urgency. It needs wisdom to discern possibilities and to make adjustments. It needs courage to accept God's calling for changes, and urgency about the church's reason for being. To recognize this time as a Kairos moment will have consequences for how the church reads the context and realities around her. It is important also to recognize the strong forces which push the church toward fear, defensiveness, and reaction. The context determines how the church shapes herself. At this Karios moment, are we the church for these times? The church may answer with a resonant yes!

3. It is time for a new church

If we conceive the Anabaptist theology as a theology in pilgrimage, we can use that theology to help to the Mennonite Church to define and recreate a new profile appropriate to these times. The church may use the affirmations of Anabaptist theology as a paradigm in this time of seeking. The example of the martyrs should be a critical and practical way of obedience rather than a romantic remembrance. A new church demands profound changes. It is not a matter of new windows, different colors, or new logos and slogans. It is not a new facade to feed our pride. These changes are related to profound issues of relevant consequences in the very order of things.

Church renewal is necessary because of the challenges and dilemmas presented by the new world's order. Our church must learn to be more critical of the context, national and global. For example, the church freely speaks in terms of globalization, and states its intention to be more global. But, in general, it is not critical about the effects of globalization in countries victimized by its forces. It is time for a new church which is capable of defining her role in the middle of the dominant culture. We need a prophetic voice, a light that radiates in the midst of desperation, materialism, relativism and dehumanization. We need a new church that is strongly identified as a marginalized church--a church with the capacity to incarnate in the world the presence of Christ, the cross and suffering. Such a church in consequence will become redemptively open to the poor.

4. The shape of the church.

A church that expresses loyalty and commitment to Christ and the Bible.

A church more identified with Anabaptism than Mennonitism as ethnocentrism.

A church that uses the sense of ethnicity to be proactive.

A church that intentionally uses ethnicity to be open to others rather than to shut them out.

A church than identifies herself as a missional church, not just a sender of missionaries.

A church less divided by secondary issues.

A church where women, people of color and minorities have space to exercise their gifts given by God, and not as a concession from Anglo white men.

A church where the mission agencies are identified as a servants of God's purposes, and not competitors in the religious market.

A church with a democratic idea about education.

A humble church aware to use the power of money to produce life.

A humble church able to evangelize cultures around it, but open to be evangelized by those cultures as well.

A church that uses Anabaptist theology as a resource for a permanent process of renovation.

5. Dilemmas of the search for a new shape for the church

All searches have their difficulties. All face certain dilemmas. There are dilemmas in the Mennonite church that have not been yet resolved and that are worthy of mention.

a. We sometimes think we must emphasize the future without judging the immediate past of the church. This problem can arise when we establish new working plans for mission. We can easily criticize what has been done in the past as if it was disloyal or improper. That prevents a correct vision and a favorable healing to start again. At the same time, if we do not have the capacity to evaluate our past actions, our possibilities of transformation will be limited. If the church and its agencies do not learn to see themselves critically, they will create nothing new and they will not have the joy of a new experience. Jesus said not to "put new wine in old wineskins."

b. We get the "isms" out of perspective--Mennonitism, ethnocentrism, provincialism, and machismo. How can a church go forward if she puts her "isms" in front as her horizon? Perhaps this is an uncomfortable question, but it must be asked. Some of these "isms" close the door to creativity, participation and commitment because they create immediate barriers. Many of the differences mentioned in the course of the transformation process toward the new MC-GC Mennonite church have been related to certain "isms" that are characteristics of the groups in dialogue. Some of these extremes inhibit healthy values and contributions to the life of the church. A certain diversity is essential to maintain the equilibrium in the dynamic of all social groups. This diversity sometimes is frustrated in the church because of the intolerance that the "isms" impose. Women can not participate because they are women. People of color receive a special treatment because they are different.

c. Evangelism and mission. In many cases it has been taken for granted that if a church has a mission committee, it is a church in mission. If someone initiates a work among the groups of color, the church is already doing evangelism. The improper use of the task of evangelism, directed to minorities or different people, can be a bad symptom of something that is not functioning well. This is especially true when the task to do mission among the dominant culture is neglected, and when the churches shut themselves away in their own buildings to nurture their own interests and see nothing beyond the parking lot. The idea that mission is an effort of an agency is an idea proper to a management theory. But it is not an idea for a theologically healthy mission.

In this regard, it is import to redefine church once again. If we re-read Anabaptist history we will discover that a church with a sense of urgency cannot delegate its obligation if it wants to have relevance in society. For example, the big questions from Latin America always were: What kind of church do you want to help us build? Is the type of church that you have at home such a worthy model that we should want to have it too? After one hundred years of Mennonite mission in general, and more than fifty five years of mission in Latin America, these questions are still on the table.