KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Bible begins in the book of Genesis in a garden, and ends in the book of Revelation in a city.
Likewise, most Mennonites who immigrated to North America established themselves on farms, but today, many are finding themselves in urban surroundings, which presents Mennonite Church USA leaders with a new set of challenges.
In an effort to better serve urban congregations, Mennonite Church USA denominational ministry and Mennonite Mission Network commissioned an eight-month listening tour. From January to September of this year, Hugo Saucedo, the Mennonite Voluntary Service director; Glenn Balzer, the director for DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection); and Marie Voth, the DOOR assistant; visited pastors and urban leaders in 18 locations across the country, culminating Nov. 17-19 in an Urban Leaders Summit in Kansas City.
They found that urban congregations are very diverse and face a similar set of realities uniquely divergent from more “traditional” Mennonite culture. For example, many urban pastors are bi-vocational and often not available for midweek church events or meetings because of another job. Urban Mennonites are often on the front lines of social issues the church inevitably faces: intercultural communication, women in leadership, sexual orientation, immigrant concerns, high cost of living, and racism.
“We’ve been traveling and listening all over the country, and we’ve heard stories of hope and stories of frustration,” said Balzer. “Both are very much alive.”
One of the results of the listening tour was a 10-page report that describes a denomination becoming more diverse and less institutional.
“Over and over, we hear that ‘people like the theology, the simple living, the commitment to peace,’” Balzer said. “People don’t join the Mennonite Church for the institution; they join for the theology.”
Some respondents reported feelings of racial tokenism. Many found national and conference structures overly controlling. In most cases, urban congregations are becoming less dependent upon institution.
Congregations themselves are taking on fresh forms as new spiritual communities take shape. Intentional communities, interdenominational congregations, and clusters who meet to pray and worship out of the “blue hymnal,” but don’t want to be labeled as a church, are just some of the groups challenging traditional institutional definitions.
Many of the listening tour participants expressed frustration about participating in another study, citing little or no visible change as a result of earlier studies and reports.
“This was a great project and it was good to hear people’s voices,” said Saucedo. “But my fear is that this will only be a project.”
Addressing those concerns, the report concludes with a set of recommendations to create a national urban strategy for Mennonite Church USA. The recommendations include:
• Developing a two- to four-person listening team to further strengthen relationships and help urban congregations network.
• Creating a variety of opportunities for urban people working on similar issues to gather for focused conversations.
• Developing a clear path for potential urban congregations and other groups to enter conferences and the denomination.
• Providing marketing and communication resources that recognize that some congregations may not want to use the name Mennonite.
“We had been doing a number of different things in urban ministries over the years, but it was just this patchwork that didn’t make sense to a lot of folks,” said Balzer. “This is an opportunity to hit a reset button.”
The recommendations and an overview of the report will next be presented to the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board.
“The feedback and further discernment by the Urban Leaders Summit has been productive and critical to shaping the future of urban ministry in the United States,” said Mennonite Mission Network Executive Director Stanley Green. “Mission Network staff will support the Executive Board in their discernment as they determine how the recommendations will be carried forward.”