Rich Preheim
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

With its myriad of fault lines, California is synonymous with earthquakes. But despite the frequency that tremors hit the state, the damage incurred is usually little. Outside the West Coast, the greatest earthquake risk in the United States along the New Madrid Fault, an isolated but immense crack under Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois that produces fewer quakes but greater destruction.

Congregational conflicts are like that, said Fred Kniss.

A sort of church seismologist, he literally wrote the book on the topic. His “Disquiet in the Land: Cultural Conflict in American Mennonite Communities” is the standard for examining the clashes that repeatedly plague U.S. Mennonitism.

In an interview, Kniss, a sociology professor at Loyola University in Chicago, compared rural Mennonite congregations to the New Madrid Fault. They are largely uniform in cultural and theological composition and thus have fewer sources of conflict. But one when arises, it can have devastating effects, splitting apart entire sections of the body.

Urban congregations, meanwhile, are filled with diversity and so have more fault lines, Kniss said. But like California, while the congregations may experience more disagreements, they are usually less damaging. Its members can’t fall one side or the other of a single fissure.

“I think it’s harder for [urban] congregations to get polarized,” said Kniss, a member of Chicago Community Mennonite Church. “Urban life is such that every day you have to deal with differences, be it in church or on the street. How to negotiate differences is a part of everyday life.”

In other words, more differences means less contentiousness. There is a lower expectation of homogeneity.

The conflict for urban congregations, Kniss said, can be with more rural-oriented congregations. “I think that makes a problem for traditional Mennonites,” who, in their sameness, have a greater sense of what is acceptable, he said, compared with urban congregations which can find it harder “to come to a definition of purity everyone can agree on.”

To respond to this story, e-mail urbanconnections@mennonitemission.net.

 

 

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