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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 50–53 

Quebec Mennonite Brethren Identity: A Project Underway

Pt. of series, Ethnicity and Assimilation: The Shape of the Problem.

Eric Wingender

In the late 1980s, my wife and I were given the opportunity to attend the [Mennonite Brethren Biblical - Ed.] Seminary in Fresno, California. During those three years, I was introduced to a new people who had been for me, up to that time, a unique and exotic breed, a strange and mysterious group whom back in Quebec we referred to vaguely as “our brothers from out West,” namely the pure, genuine “ethnic” Mennonite Brethren.

At the seminary I learned about the preoccupation Mennonite Brethren have with their identity. At first somewhat mystified, I came to see these discussions as some sort of idiosyncratic hobby; call it “mennopoly.” On a few occasions in a group discussion with people I did not know, this “hobby” enabled me to distinguish the “ethnic” from the newcomers!

Such was my perception until the question about the Mennonite Brethren identity in Quebec was put to me. What was its nature? As I reflected and discussed the matter with some leaders, I came gradually to realize that it was an intriguing and complex topic and not merely an intellectual mind-game. Quite to the contrary, the question stands as a crucial and pivotal one upon which, perhaps, hinges the future of the Quebec Mennonite Brethren Church.

Here I briefly express my own views about our identity, first by pointing out our historical and sociocultural context, and secondly by listing three positive factors which are currently fostering a sense of belonging and nurturing an awareness of our uniqueness and distinctiveness.

The fact that we are a first-generation church sets us apart from the rest of our larger North American brotherhood, as does the fact that we speak French and were raised Roman Catholics. Our larger societal context is unique in many respects: a society where the majority entertain a deep mistrust of any form of organized religion and where Catholicism, although considered irrelevant, is still viewed as the only legitimate expression of Christianity. All other churches are considered as mere cults or are seen as unwelcome intrusions of Anglo-Protestant cultural imperialism. It is also a society naively revelling in the idea that it is one of the most “post-modern” cultures in the industrial world, a culture where the {51} traditional beliefs and moral tenets of our Judeo-Christian heritage are under siege, and where religion is slowly conceding the ground to hedonism and self-indulgence.

Our origins and the hostile ethos in which we evolved defines, in part, who we are. Yet what defines us more importantly is the internal dynamic of our church where three elements are making their influence felt: a striving for unity and cooperation, a redefining of our spirituality, and an interest in communing with the larger North American Church.


The first converts in the Quebec Mennonite Brethren Church received little or no Anabaptist teaching, nor even an historical overview of the Anabaptist movement. The converts were led to believe that their faith reached back to the primitive church, without the mediation of any historical movement. Christianity, as it was explained to them, was basically an individual experience of God’s salvation which was supposed to elicit in them an urge to read the Bible, pray to God, and share the Good News. Although terms like fraternal love, sanctification, and forgiveness were part of the vocabulary, very little effort was put into nurturing good relationships and instilling in the minds of the young converts the concept that the ability to work together is crucial, that the church is not only a place where we do certain things, like preaching and praying, but also a place where we have a way, a “kingdom way” of doing things.

Not surprisingly, the church from its inception was not able to deal constructively with the tensions and conflicts which are a normal part of the life of any group. No one in the beginning had the knowledge or the influence to lead the church away from that painful and dangerous path which could have destroyed the fledgling community.

Over the years, however, a few young converts emerged as leaders and attempted to set a different course, to bring about change. They made deliberate and consistent attempts to develop and nurture good personal and working relationships. Although conflicts at times severely impaired these efforts and have left scars which can still be felt today, it remains that these young believers were “driven” by a concern for unity and cooperation, a drive (not unlike the famous Duracell rabbit) that just kept them going and going!

To this day, this leadership has remained committed to the biblical teaching of the unity of the church and to what this teaching entails concretely. To what can we attribute the presence of this “obsession?” Perhaps it comes from a single, direct, “naive” reading of the Bible. Their virulent biblicism brought them to grasp and cherish a view that made them--quite unknown to them--genuine Anabaptists. {52}


A second positive factor at work among Quebec Mennonite Brethren is the process of redefining their spirituality. Many of the members have been slowly led to a point where they have begun to question the fundamentalist pietist spirituality which, since the first day of their conversion, was understood to be the only valid way to express and live one’s faith.

This redefinition was caused first by the difficulty of living up to the stringent demands of that spirituality. A case in point would be the emphasis put on direct verbal witnessing. If witnessing frequently makes you a good Christian, what is left when no one around you is open to hear the message of the Gospel? One can easily guess the intense moral sufferings such a principle created in sensitive persons.

Moreover, the traditional spirituality is very much inward-looking and otherworldly, bringing the believer either to lose himself or herself in introspection or in the contemplation of his or her eternal destiny. These two characteristics are more and more going against the grain of people’s sensitivities. What is in the air right now is a thirst for real, genuine community life. There is a longing for connectedness and sharing, in a context of relationships based on solid commitment to personal growth. The otherworldliness has lost its appeal to the now; people no longer look to the afterlife as a source of meaning for their life; they want the concrete reality of their existence to be the bearer of this meaning.

But these new sensitivities are not the whole story. The Quebec Mennonite Brethren are working at a new understanding of what spirituality is. The reason for this is simple: many key concepts of the “old” spirituality like sin, sanctification, and the old nature were explained in such a way that they were never really operational or functional. In the long run, they proved to be theological categories quite useless to interpret and accurately describe what the believers saw in the deeper recesses of their heart and in the realities of life as it unfolded around them.

What this new spirituality will be remains to be seen. Yet it is evident that while remaining pietist, Quebec Mennonite Brethren pietism is slowly being shaded by an increasing willingness to embrace humbly the complexities of life in our sinful world and the many aspects of suffering and grace which come with this complexity. The somewhat simplistic and narrow-minded triumphalism of the Christians’ early faith is being replaced by a more sober and realistic view of the mysterious ways with which God’s kingdom is being manifested.

This new spirituality has also meant that the leadership has more and more accepted the responsibility of the church’s situation and of its future. {53} There has been a turning away from an attitude that pretended to be a waiting on God, but which was sometimes pure and simple escapism and fatalism. Allowing themselves to believe that the “will of God’ is more a constant reminder to strive for love rather than a detailed plan of what one has to do on a day-to-day basis, the leaders decided to go through a process of strategic planning which helped to sharpen the church’s focus and contributed to a common understanding of where Quebec Mennonite Brethren should be going in the future.


The last positive factor helping us in our attempt to bring about our future is the organizational partnership with the rest of the Canadian conference. The Canadian conference, by its encouragement to create our own provincial conference, has helped us to develop a sense of our legitimacy and importance. It acted as a motivating factor to bring Quebec Mennonite Brethren to assume responsibility for their destiny and stop being dependent on the decisions of the missionaries or the leaders from outside Quebec.

We can argue that such a step may have come too soon, and that it has left the Quebec church with a cumbersome structure and with insufficient resources to move forward aggressively and become a full-fledged partner with the other provincial conferences. Yet the formation of a conference helped the church to see it had strengths and good leaders to carry on the task.

The regular contacts and the generous financial help have been encouraging and have helped to maintain the motivation of the leadership. These actions helped to create a sense of belonging to a larger family whose accomplishments mirror what our future could be if we remain faithful.

Our larger Canadian and North American family is the channel by which Quebec Mennonite Brethren are able to learn the story of the Anabaptist forebears. This story is cherished by many and has given Quebec Mennonite Brethren a pride of belonging to a unique and distinct tradition which bears testimony to such important values as biblicism, community, and service to the needy.

The hope and prayer of the Quebec Mennonite Brethren is that they themselves will embody more and more fully these values and that by doing so God will use them to minister to the Quebec evangelical movement, to those who are in search of God and to our brothers and sisters elsewhere in North America who have loved us first.

Eric Wingender is a public high school teacher in Quebec; he is a member of the Board of Mennonite Brethren Missions and Services.

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