Previous | Next

Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 187–194 

Moving beyond ‘Liking’ to Actually ‘Using’ the Confession of Faith?

John Hau

When I was a campus pastor at a local university, we put on events, hoping for students to engage in spiritual conversation and the person of Jesus. However, despite our best efforts and creative ideas, we rarely had a good turnout. We often found ourselves confused because our conversations with students would generally go like this:

“Hey, we’re putting on this event about science and spirituality. Would you like to come?”

“Yeah, actually, that sounds super interesting. When is it?”

“Wednesday evening at 7.”

“Sweet. Maybe I’ll bring a few friends.”

“Great! See you there!”

And then they wouldn’t show up.

Our team was pretty demoralized and confused. It’d be one thing if our events weren’t interesting to students, but we couldn’t figure out why about 75 percent of students we talked to seemed genuinely interested and would even ask for information about the events and RSVP on Facebook but then not show up.

So, we did some research which helped us make sense of why we were being ghosted. In general, there are two questions one has to answer to successfully make a “sale.” The first is a question of perceived fit: “Does our offering meet an identifiable want or need in your life?” In our context, we could translate this as: “Are you interested in this {188} event?” Our team was getting positive responses to this question. Students seemed genuinely interested in what we were offering.

However, there is a second question which is just as important. We might phrase it as perceived cost: “Will you purchase this item?” In our context on campus, it was the question: “Will you actually come to the event?” We realized we had done a poor job of asking and answering this question. And when we reframed our experience around this question, we realized we had our work cut out for us. The campus we were on—Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC—is classified as a “super commuter” school, which means most students don’t live on or near campus, spend a minimal amount of time on campus, often have not made new friends at the school, and lack “school spirit.” The icing on the cake is that the University has three campuses in three different cities, and students often have classes at more than one, commuting between them daily. Oh, and the main campus is on the top of a mountain.

As daunting as this made our job, asking this second question was unbelievably helpful. It changed our questions from, Is this a good event? to, Is there anything that could keep students around to come to this event? It challenged our assumptions. Many of us were trained with ministry models from American college towns where the majority of students lived on campus and engagement with all campus activities was a given for student life. Rather than holding a single “big” event, we learned to host the same event at several time slots and locations for students who had pockets of free time. It also helped us find new allies and uncover pertinent information. Once, the chancellor (president) of the University held a free pancake breakfast for all students. Out of almost 40,000 undergrads, only twelve showed up. I remember thinking, “Well, maybe we’re not failing as badly as I thought.”

With this as a background, the sentence that stands out to me from the Janzen and Sumner study is, “There was a general appreciation for and perceived usefulness of the Confession of Faith among pastors . . .” 1 To me, this signals there is not a problem with the first question of marketing, which, for our purposes, we could state as, “Do you like the Confession?” The pastors interviewed, at least, have positive feelings toward, and minimal problems with, the Confession.

However, like our campus staff, there may be confusion along these lines: “If you like it, why isn’t it used, taught through, and platformed more in the life of our churches?” To answer this quandary, we must ask the second question, “Why isn’t it actually used?” To this question, I would like to offer three potential responses. {189}

WHY PEOPLE IDENTIFY AS MENNONITE BRETHREN

The desire to highlight the Confession seems to house an assumption: “The Confession is core to who we (all MBs) are.” However, at least in my experience, this misidentifies why a large group of people are actually pastoring in or part of an MB community.

In a previous article in Direction, I wrote,

From my vantage point as a relative outsider to the MB family, there is little consensus about “who we are,” much less any defining features which must be true of an MB. Are we those who have Mennonite names? Those who have a connection to an MB church? Those who practice and teach Anabaptist theology? Any or all of the above? . . .

I use the term Mennonite or MB as it would be used in everyday vernacular in the context I minister in to describe the loose affiliation of a broad swath of people and institutions who identify with the term “Mennonite” or “MB” for [any reason, including] theological, ethnic, cultural, or familial reasons. 2

If the above is accurate, suggesting that the Confession should hold a high place of prominence will only speak to one of the aforementioned groups: those who identify as MB for theological reasons. From my vantage point, this is a small group. MBs are not, in my experience, perceived as a theologically formative community, and as a pastor I don’t expect them to form me or my community theologically, nor have I experienced such formation.

So what are some of the reasons people are part of the MB Conference? In Vancouver where I live and pastor, most nonethnic MB churches have been planted or replanted within the last twenty-five years. For these churches, the MB Conference provided money for planting and space to do whatever one wanted, as long as it wasn’t in direct defiance of the more black and white areas of the Confession (which should hint at why the Confession is not more broadly lauded: the marketing of these communities was “This is an Acts 29 church” or “This is a plant of ____________ Church” or “This is a third-way church”). Therefore, the reasons for being MB are practical, financial, and historical. Many of the people who attend these churches would not know that they are an MB church or that MBs have a Confession or what the Confession might say.

This includes my church. We are MB because MBs helped to fund our church at its inception, I am credentialed by MBs, and MBs run our payroll. This is a fine arrangement, but we are not in any way passionate about it. This does not mean we’re going rogue or don’t like {190} the Conference or the Confession. I’ve signed the Confession and we’re part of the Conference. This simply describes the relationship we have in accurate terms—it’s not a promotional relationship. To ask that it become a promotional relationship would be to change the expectations of the relationship.

My observation is that in longstanding MB churches, most attenders connect differently with the term Mennonite Brethren. There may be an ethnic identification (“I am German Mennonite”); a historical identification (“The MBs brought us over as refugees so we are part of the MB conference”); an over-against identification (“Well, we sure aren’t General Conference”); a situational identification (“Going to an MB church in this location signals something positive to my community”); or a relational identification (“My friends attend this church”).

The fact that people identify as MB for various reasons helps to explain why many acknowledge and accept the Confession but don’t promote it. If it is not a selling point, of course you’re not going to highlight it in your advertisements. It would be like extolling the virtues of your cell phone contract on TikTok or an entrepreneur passionately explaining why the CRA is such a wonderful organization—not going to happen. As far as I can tell, MBs are not alone in downplaying their statement of faith, and it raises the question of the value of denominations in a post-Christendom and secular age.

THE FORMATION OF THEOLOGICAL IDENTITY

This section will outline two cultural shifts which make an increased use of the Confession difficult.

First, not many MB pastors I know are trained at MB seminaries, nor have they been significantly influenced by Anabaptism. In a recent conversation with the lead pastor of a large MB church in my area, he turned to me and said, “You keep using the word Anabaptist. What does that even mean?” I’m not pointing fingers. I was not educated at an MB school or otherwise exposed to MB theological influences. If I want to grow in this area, I have to do it on my own. However, this means that for many of us pastoring inside the MB community we choose our formative theological influences independently, which means choosing influences that likely come from outside of the MB Conference, and more generally, outside of Anabaptist perspectives. This reality has been communicated from the Conference leadership as a feature and not a bug; a designed outcome, not a problematic one.

Second (and related), with the proliferation of the internet, an increasing individualism, and general distrust of historical {191} organizations, both pastors and parishioners no longer need to look to their denomination for their primary theological input. Rather, people are much more likely to find an online spiritual voice that ministers to them and which they can identify with. From these voices, they find other groups and movements that introduce them to a broader cross section of voices that align with their perspective. Whether it’s the ministry of John Piper which has led them to The Gospel Coalition, or Sarah Bessey and Evolving Faith, or Tim Mackie and the Bible Project, this is the new path of influence for most Christians I know, pastors included. If people in my church have a theological question, they are much more likely to look for an answer from their group of trusted theological voices than from me or the MB Confession of Faith. As a case in point, I assume pastors could more easily name Gavin Ortland’s new book than anything the National Faith & Life Team have put out in the last year.

Again, this is true for me as well. I have my own external voices that I listen to and learn from, which I am more likely to turn to than someone within the MB Conference, unless there are specific insights I cannot gain somewhere else. For example, our church is learning to practice a community hermeneutic. In this case, the formative influences for me, and therefore for our community, come from inside the MB Conference because these are the only people I can find who have any experience and practice with a community hermeneutic.

This means, in my opinion, that for most pastors and parishioners, the Confession is not the theological plumb line. We may sign it, but we have a different plumb line, informed by other sources, by which we are measuring the Confession and which we are trying to pass on to our communities. If you want to know what these are, I suggest looking at a specific church’s membership classes, statements of faith, and other affiliations on websites to see where any church lines up. Today, what you voluntarily choose to promote says more about you than what you are contractually obligated to include.

As a sidebar, while I do value the Confession as a tool for theological development, I do have to question the Confession as the tool for theological development. As mentioned, our community is learning to practice a community hermeneutic. Rather than the bounded-set, line-drawing approach of churches they grew up in, many in our community have found this to be a huge breath of fresh air and are stepping into the invitation for them to bring their stories, learn to listen to the Spirit, and engage Scripture centered on Jesus, with an emphasis on discipleship and mission. Although I personally align closely with the Confession, I think giving people the Confession as a this-is-what-we-believe, unchanging {192} document shortcuts the development possible in a process like a community hermeneutic. I see my role as both a steward of orthodoxy (which I think the Confession does an okay job of summarizing in a certain format) and a developer of community, spiritual discernment, wisdom, and trust in God’s word. The people I minister to want their stories to be told and acknowledged, their learnings and context to be taken seriously; they want to discover together rather than be told what to believe. And I agree that this might have better lasting value on their theological formation.

In a similar vein, a “pushing down” of the Confession misaligns with the desire for religious authenticity of the present-day churchgoer. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor states that Western culture is characterized by a general culture of “authenticity” or expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, “do their own thing.” 3 While our initial reaction may be to bemoan the downsides of such a longing, Taylor invites us to become neither fully optimistic nor pessimistic about it (and, I would add, to recognize the tendencies within our tribe, whatever those tribes may be towards religious authenticity). Rather, it simply is the milieu we minister in, and therefore, we must also enter into it in order to see people become fully alive in Christ. Does a confession, or at least the way a confession is used and held, open or close doors to an “authentic” faith in our secular age?

THE CONVERSATIONS WE DON’T WANT TO HAVE

I believe that further heated dialogue about the Confession will result in the opening of many conversations we don’t want to have, truths we don’t want to acknowledge, and inequities we do not want to address. 4

First, I don’t think the relational bonds are strong enough for us to extend the trust and time needed to work through this document together. In my credentialing process, I read the book “Family Matters” which describes the Mennonite Brethren as a family. However, my experience has been much closer to a loose affiliation of those pragmatically joined by an organizational title than anything else. Those we think of as “my people” or “family” are likely Christians, but are, at best, a subset of those within the MB family.

Second, there is a general mistrust amongst practitioners I know due to how the Confession has been used in the recent past. In my location, there have been calls to re-sign the Confession specifically because of churches and pastors walking outside of the guidelines of Article 11. I agree that questions related marriage, singleness, and family are timely issues and extremely important for anyone pastoring in Canada {193} today. And personally, I’m not in disagreement with the decision to ask those who celebrate the opposite of what the Confession says to leave (regardless which part of the Confession that is). However, I’m also not sure a doubling down on signing a document doesn’t treat the Confession as a line in the sand rather than a “living document.” It also inhibits the Confession from becoming “mine” and “ours” if people feel that their context is not taken seriously.

Third, the desire to place the Confession at the core of a life of faith is a privileging of a certain type of knowledge that has not and, in my opinion, will not lead to the desired outcomes of discipleship and the pattern of dying and rising in Christ that must characterize the life of the church and Christians. The Confession by its nature emphasizes what Kierkegaard calls “objective” truth, a type of truth that relates to the world as an object and approaches faith as the mastery of a set of information. 5 This type of truth is completely needed and an integral part of a life of faith. However, Kierkegaard emphasizes another truth: subjective truth. Some may eye-roll at the word subjective, so it is worth pointing out that for Kierkegaard, subjective truth is not the statement of the postmodern what’s-true-for-me-is-true-for-me or a lazy approach to theology. Subjective truth is a truth for which one lives and dies, a truth of passion, a truth that sees people as persons, and God as a subject rather than an object.

In my view, both “truths” are important, but only one can be captured by a document like a confession. Kierkegaard saw subjective truth as an important corrective to helping those in Christendom become true Christians, which, in my opinion, is very transferable to those of us ministering in today’s post-Christendom and secular context.

Finally, further conversations about the Confession open up questions about the canon within the canon that all of us hold. Currently, Articles 11 and 14 seem to be those causing the most heat at the leadership level (they’re what I get emails about). However, are they the only articles that need “enforcement”? What’s more important, environmental stewardship or conversations about sex and gender? Peacemaking and nonresistance or conversations about abortion? Do I think that all churches will be forced to teach, train, and disciple according to the full breadth of the Confession? I do not.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, I’ve attempted to clarify why the Confession may be, at the same time, liked and yet rarely used and promoted. I point to three major reasons why this may be the case: a pastiche MB identity, the lack of MB-related, theologically formative influences, and the lack of desire {194} to have deep, open, and passionate conversations about the Confession. I believe that until these factors are dealt with, the Confession will not become a central and promoted document but will be relegated to the neglected place between the first question, “Do you like this?” and the second, “Will you actually use it?”

NOTES

  1. Brad Sumner and Rich Janzen, “Exploring Congregational Use of the MB Confession of Faith: Past, Present, Future: Summary Report—February 2022” (PowerPoint presentation), slide 24, https://projects.communitybasedresearch.ca/files/rjanzen/MB_CoF_Summary_Report_Final_Feb_2022.pdf.
  2. John Hau, “Who Are We? Navigating Mennonite Brethren Identity in the Sea of Culture,” Direction 50 (Fall 2021):191–92, https://directionjournal.org/50/2/who-are-we-navigating-mennonite-brethren.html.
  3. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
  4. Many of these points follow the line of questioning that can be found under the heading “Guiding questions for living with diversity and difference” in Sumner and Janzen, “Exploring Congregational Use of the MB Confession of Faith,” slides 41 and 42.
  5. For more on the dangers of this type of thinking, see Eric Fromm, To Have or to Be? (New York: Harper & Row, 1976) or Hartmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World (Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2020).
John Hau holds an MBA from Trinity Western University in Langley, BC. He served for many years in the student ministry of Power to Change and is currently the pastor at Reality Church in Vancouver, BC.

Previous | Next