By Matthew Shedden, Pastor, Defiance Church, Glenwood Springs, CO
[Originally printed in the August 2015 issue of The Mennonite]
Conrad Kanagy, at the end of the recent survey of credentialed leaders within MC USA on the question of GLTBQ inclusion, reflected back on a thought that occurred to him during his last study of the health of MC USA and a question that has followed him ever since. He writes, “What if the Holy Spirit is dismantling the church as we know it?” and ends his thoughts with the hopeful prayer that “we will work with the Spirit rather than against the Spirit in the dismantling work of this season.” That a prophetic comment seems to have been largely overlooked as I’ve been in meetings where we’ve digested the survey. But to me it named a reality that the survey results alone fails to capture. Not only that, his words reminded me of several conversations I’ve have had with younger clergy and they seemed ripe for exploration. So I emailed Conrad, who I had never met, and asked to have a conversation.
The first thing I wanted to hear from him about was, why he feels we are caught in a season of dismantling. He answered this question directly stating, “because we have so failed the mission of God.” An insight he shared on why this is our reality is because “the structures have gotten in the way.” This exists both on the denominational level and in the reality that the “church we’ve created isn’t helpful to these ends.” In midst of building up we’ve found a way to lose “the commission that ends the gospels” and forgotten to “tell the story” of what God has done in Jesus.
As I talked with Conrad I was impacted by his missional perspective and the hope of the God who sends us. I couldn’t help but hear that the gospel contains an element of rising and falling, seeds failing to the ground so that new life can emerge. But what must fall? What structures have seen their time and need to be released? What are the structures necessary for us to still continue to share a common life together? He was clear that structure is necessary and that structure is vital to relationships and connections in life. It’s a matter of creating meaningful structures. However neither Conrad nor myself have cheap and simple answers to the question but he holds that “church at its best is a local expression of God’s mission for the world.” The local church, the individual body of believers living mission in particular context, is the question that must remain in front of us as we discern his movement of dismantling. When we look at the structures that have gotten in the way we must keep in mind how this will impact the ability of local communities to hear the commission that closes Matthew’s gospel and to retell the story of God’s rescue.
As we talked I was thinking could the question facing MC USA today be whether our faithfulness isn’t in relation to the survey’s topic but instead is the call to hear the dismantling winds of the Spirit, the Spirit that levels as well as it builds? That we aren’t looking at something to solve, but that through this we can press into a reality that things aren’t well here and haven’t been well for some time. Our current trial of seeking to remain together, to hold on and make sure things work for all parties, is not that goal and that only through falling, being pulled down, can new life come among the ruins. What seems like a crisis isn’t, but the process that we must undergo in order to be renewed. I know it seems out of sorts but what if the crisis is the point so that what needs to be pulled down can. It is not shocking that in my own life a crisis can bring clarity as much as it can bring division and chaos.
This isn’t all bad news. If we are people recognizing the sovereignty of God in all things it means that God has not abandoned us. Through this season of dismantling the Spirit is going to be present with us, and present in way that can bring renewal. But this can’t be a renewal forced by human hands, but one that comes as inhale into our lungs for this Spirit. This dismantling certainly involves death, and death always involves lament. But in midst of this we can find new life, the new ways God’s spirit is springing up among us, and we can always be open to surprise of the God whose mercies are new every morning. What would it look like to join the dismantling work for the Spirit without apprehension but to do so with the hope that only comes from God. We worship a God of resurrection whose final call to Jeremiah and those who follow during a season that sees uprooting, a tearing down, a time that has destruction and overthrow, is “to build and to plant.” (Jer 1:10) May we find ways to be faithful to both calls.