LONDON (Mennonite Mission Network/Mennonite Church Canada Witness) — Each year about 20,000 people gather on a race course nestled in the hills of Cheltenham in Western England – but not to place bets.
They’re here to open their hearts and minds to four days of Christ-inspired music and speakers.
The Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival is attended by all ages, but teens and young adults are easily the most conspicuous presence, says Vic Thiessen, because they are rarely seen in churches.
Thiessen is director of the London Mennonite Centre, a ministry of Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network. Greenbelt attracts visitors, he said, because it is a place for people who are questioning their traditions and looking for new ways of being a church. “Especially,” he said, “for being a church that sees peace and justice as central to the gospel of Jesus.”
Enter Mennonites and Anabaptists. Some of the founders and current organizers of the event were involved in Anabaptist study groups hosted by Alan and Eleanor Kreider, LMC directors through a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network from 1974 to 1991. Kreider himself was a regular speaker during the early years of Greenbelt and Mennonites and Anabaptists continue to make regular appearances. This year, they accounted for at least four presentations, including one by Tim Nafziger, a Mennonite Mission Network volunteer who works at LMC.
From its inception in the 1980’s, Greenbelt has focused on peace and justice issues, both in its music, and its speakers. Today, singer-songwriters like Garth Hewitt and Martyn Joseph and speakers like Walter Wink and Ched Myers challenge the worldviews and values of teens and twenty-somethings.
“The entire festival has a distinct Anabaptist feel to it – if it had been organized by Mennonites, it wouldn’t look much different,” quips Thiessen, who had often pondered the Anabaptist flavor of the event.
In a global economy, events like the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival begin to spread their impact in unexpected ways. This summer at the MC Canada/MC USA joint assembly in Charlotte, N.C., Thiessen met Paul Wright, a former Brit who became a Mennonite after moving to Florida.
Wright first encountered Anabaptist ideas at Greenbelt and was convinced the festival was part of an “Anabaptist conspiracy” that also included Workshop (a Christian studies program), the LMC and Third Way magazine.
“When I attend events like Greenbelt, where you rarely hear the word Anabaptist or Mennonite, and detect the unmistakable flavor of Mennonite theology throughout, I can understand what Paul means,” says Thiessen.
“And then I wonder just how much influence the LMC has had on the church scene in the UK during the past 30 years. It’s quite thrilling to be part of a conspiracy, especially one that is helping to bring young people back to Christianity.”