A witness to the common work of God’s Spirit

This post is part of our Journey Forward series. We’ve invited folks from across Mennonite Church USA to reflect on our Journey Forward and consider how they’ve seen Renewed Commitments at work in their lives, their congregation or community. If you’d like to contribute to this series by highlighting stories that bring our shared values to life, email JenniferC@MennoniteUSA.org

Dan Miller is conference pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference. Having spent 16 years doing transitional ministry, he continues working with others to train transitional pastors. Before coming on staff, Dan co-led several pastor networks focused on church revitalization for Indiana-Michigan.

Back in July 2017, just two weeks before delegates participated in the Future Church Summit in Orlando, Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference (IMMC) completed a multi-year process addressing unity and variance. IMMC delegates approved a vision document with a breadth of variance statement. We called that document Renewing a Vision. A dedicated and gifted task group had led the Unity and Variance process. And even though people don’t typically think about their conference unless they are in a pastoral transition or they disagree with something happening in the church, IMMC delegates faithfully engaged the two-year process. Renewing a Vision has four sections:

  • Centering conference life around Jesus
  • Shared spiritual practices
  • Community discernment
  • Covenant

I was hopeful these four pieces could create a platform for IMMC to look toward the future.

But heading for Orlando, I was anxious about how the Future Church Summit (FCS) would impact our plans. Would it disrupt, complicate or support IMMC’s vision? I felt protective of the work we had done and so came a little cautiously to the table. Participating in strategic planning processes can be fun and energizing. Having worked at various levels of church, I have experienced the unintended consequences of bureaucratic brainstorms. As I facilitated and coached strategic planning initiatives in congregations, I observed that planning processes can create new activity — but that activity does not always result in real change. Nor does strategic planning guarantee Holy Spirit inspiration. Would national outcomes and strategic initiatives from FCS create activity that would weaken or strengthen energy?

I also knew IMMC takes denominational involvements seriously. We would take the Future Church Summit (FCS) and its resulting activity seriously. IMMC would be present and participate. So, with anxiety and prayer, I went to the Future Church Summit and participated in a blemished process. The FCS Outcomes report was a jumble of perspectives. What would come from it?

I was surprised and relieved when the Renewed Commitments first came out. There was no grand plan requiring great energy output. There were no priorities with ambitious timetables. It was a one-page document with three commitments:

  • Follow Jesus
  • Witness to God’s peace
  • Experience Transformation

There seemed to be significant overlap with Renewing a Vision.

Like the IMMC vision, it began with following Jesus! Rather than identifying a particular understanding or ideological position as our center, Mennonite Church USA and IMMC had both chosen to begin with Jesus. Renewing a Vision states “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. This simple confession unites the church across cultural, national, racial, denominational and every other human-made boundary that separates people from each other. As one, the church proclaims faith in Jesus for salvation from sin and service to God.” More than a social club or a service club, the church claims an identity as followers of Jesus.

Second, Renewed Commitments highlighted transformation. Renewing a Vision understands spiritual practices as a way Christians bend toward Christ and are formed over time as Christ followers; and a way Christians open to the Holy Spirit’s transforming work. In this time of adaptive change around the world and among followers of Jesus, we are in special need of transformation, as the third point of the Renewed Commitments identifies. IMMC’s Renewing a Vision (RaV) document states,

We are shaped over time by what we pay attention to and the habits we form. Thus we want to pay attention to and enact several spiritual practices that will continually bend us toward Christ, and form us over time as Christ followers. We believe that by committing ourselves, together, to work at these spiritual practices, God will bring transformation toward Christ-likeness and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual transformation was part of the Anabaptist story in Europe. A favorite story of mine from Martyr’s Mirror is of a woman chained to her bed by the authorities, who in her fervor to share her faith, dragged her bed to the door so she could tell passing neighbors about Jesus. Franklin Littell pointed out to Harold S. Bender that Bender’s The Anabaptist Vision failed to identify the evangelistic zeal that characterized 16th Century Anabaptists. Bender acknowledged this but did not revise his pamphlet before dying just a few years later. Sixteenth century European Anabaptists wanted to share with others the spiritual transformation Jesus worked in their lives. Spiritual transformation continues to be a characteristic of the worldwide Anabaptist movement into the present day.

Third, the Anabaptist understanding that peace has a central place in the story of God’s people, in both the Old and New Testaments, is a stewardship Mennonites carry, along with many other streams of Christianity. RaV includes it as a practice and Renewed Commitments makes it the second point. An (imperfect) incarnation of the way of peace is one contribution Anabaptists/Mennonites make to the world and to the worldwide Christian Church. Again, Renewing a Vision states, “While Jesus is not bound by Anabaptist traditions, we believe the Anabaptist stream of faith contributes to a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus here and now.” Anabaptists have a stewardship to share within Christian circles and beyond.

I am relieved and grateful for the overlap found in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference and Mennonite Church USA vision processes. They bear witness to a common work of God’s Spirit at multiple levels of church. I am hopeful we will continue to overlap and amplify one another’s work as we move forward.