HARRISONBURG, Va. (Mennonite Mission Network) – Mennonite Media staff recently selected the top seven questions from the 208 inquirers who e-mailed, phoned and wrote to Third Way Café or Mennonite Media in 2007. The array of questions is sometimes amusing, often confounding and frequently gives insights as to what people wonder about Mennonites but are too shy to ask.
In the 10 years since its launch, Third Way Café, produced by Mennonite Media has kept its focus on ministry to the general public, specifically people who know little or nothing about Mennonites and want to know more. Most questions are answered by Jodi Nisly Hertzler, who responds to inquiries from her Harrisonburg home. David A. Shank, a retired pastor and former mission worker in Goshen, Ind., responds to deeper theological questions.
Third Way Café's top queries for 2007, with abridged answers, included:
1. Recently, several Mennonite families moved near our farm, and I have noticed that they watched our cats when they were at our house. Is there a certain Mennonite belief concerning cats? – Kay.
TWC: As far as I know, no Mennonite (conservative or otherwise) groups have any beliefs concerning cats. I think it's safe to say that the more conservative groups tend to view animals less as pets and more as help around the farm, so it's possible that they just aren't used to cats as indoor pets? But that's a guess.
2. The older I get, the more sense the Anabaptist lifestyle makes. I have recently started ordering clothes from Amish or Mennonite ladies, because they are, quite frankly, better clothes, not made in sweatshops, wear like iron and actually fit average body shapes. – Steve.
TWC: After looking through Third Way Café, you might be interested in our official statement of beliefs, the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. That said, you should note that Mennonite Church USA does share your concern regarding the influence of modern culture and consumerism in our lives, but we don't withdraw from society in the same way more conservative groups do.
3. I want your definition of “sacrament.” Some Mennonites think they have seven sacraments, but they cannot name them. Nor can they provide me with a definition of “sacrament.” – Wayne.
TWC: "Sacrament" is the doctrinal language of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran, Calvinist/Reformed/Presbyterian ... churches. Mennonites emerged out of that European ecclesiastical scene and never have comfortably and collectively used for themselves the word “sacrament,” perhaps because the term may suggest that it is a purveyor of sacred mystery that only the mysteriously sacred, qualified person can purvey.
Mennonites have sometimes spoken of their own practices as "symbols" or "ordinances," – those practices which are taught/ordained by Christ and the apostles, and which also teach and order their common life of faith. An important U.S. Mennonite leader from 1900 to 1940 taught that there were seven biblical ordinances: baptism on confession of faith; communion (the Lord's Table); washing of the saints' feet; the holy kiss; marriage; ordination of elders/bishops, ministers/preachers of the Word, deacons; and anointing with oil for healing.
4. Does one just go to a service or is this not done? We stopped at the Mennonite Information Center on Route 30 in Lancaster, Pa., but I was too shy to ask any questions. – Ed.
TWC: It would be a bit irregular to just "pop in" at an Old Order or Amish meeting house, but most Mennonite churches welcome any and all visitors. To learn more about Mennonites, read through www.thirdway.com. And if you are more interested in the Amish and Old Order groups, try: www.howstuffworks.com/amish.ht, www.800padutch.com/amish.shtml or www.religioustolerance.org/amish.htm.
5. The local store run by people of the Mennonite doctrine does not sell American flags but they do sell flags with flowers, animals and other earthly symbols which many of us flag-flying Christians consider pagan. Why will a Mennonite-run store not sell an American flag? – Cheryl.
TWC: Most Mennonites would not consider flags with flowers and animals on them to be pagan. Such flags aren't necessarily Christian, but most of us would say that they are simply a religion-neutral decoration which shows an appreciation for the beauty of God's creation – not a statement of belief or loyalty to a certain idea or government, unlike the American flag, which is hung as a symbol of patriotism and allegiance to the U.S. government. Most Mennonites do not fly government flags, as we do not pledge our allegiance to any worldly government or country – our allegiance is to God and the building of God's kingdom on Earth.
6. I heard a comment last night that Mennonites give a couple intent on marriage a blanket, and that it is accepted that this couple will engage in premarital sexual relations prior to the marriage ceremony. Can you enlighten me? – Ken.
TWC: I would dismiss the comment – it makes for an interesting tale, but I doubt it is rooted in fact. Try writing to the people at the Mennonite Information Center (out of Lancaster, Pa.). They're the experts on the Amish and plain Mennonites and if there's any basis to this rumor, they would know.
7. I grew up an evangelical Christian, but am now finding a more authentic faith in the Anabaptist tradition. I would like to spend one month living with an Amish community in the midwestern United States in order to learn first-hand the radical way of simple discipleship to Jesus in community. Do you have any suggestions for me, given my dream? – Luke.
TWC: The Amish do not evangelize and they generally aren't looking to "convert" interested strangers, so it's rare (at least, as far as I can discern) for outsiders to find an Amish family willing to have them live with them for an extended period of time. I think that the only way to do so is to go in person and make some contacts within the Amish community and just see if there are any takers.
You could try contacting the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center. It's the closest thing of that nature to your area. They might possibly have some suggestions or contacts you could try.