Last weekend saw a who's who of Brethren (and Quakers and Mennonites) descend on Richmond for Bethany's Presidential Forum, "When Strangers are Angels." I didn't participate much in the conference due to a fat work schedule and a thin wallet, but I did make it to a panel session of Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers discussing what it is that makes us Brethren, Mennonite, or Quaker: how do we know who is in and who is out? And what do these identities mean to us?
In some ways, these questions are becoming more critical in the face of declining church membership, budget cuts, and what I would argue is the rise of post-Christianity (can I say that?).
I'll drop the incriminating details at the expense of making this paragraph vague and uninteresting, but in a recent worship service, someone did something that came across as overly enthusiastic and, frankly, a bit lame. A former professor of mine leaned over to me and said, "Our church is dying, Nick."
Maybe I'm too young to be wringing my hands and fretting about the future of our church, but that's what I'm doing. In my own short lifetime I've seen a visible drop in membership in my home congregation. I've seen district and regional events draw smaller and smaller crowds, or even get scrapped altogether. I've seen our denomination cut program after program that gives us relevance outside our own little community. And all that has made me wonder, what's going to happen to the Church of the Brethren?
Scott Holland, one of my professors here, doesn't like the word denomination. He prefers movement. Within Christianity, there are Brethren and Quaker movements, each bringing their own interpretations and contributions to the broader context, and interacting with each other to weave a bigger story.
I think this idea of movement might be key to the future of our identity as Brethren. I hate to say it, but the Church of the Brethren may not be able to survive as the institution of programs and missions that we've known it to be. It's just a financial reality. But when we have so long defined ourselves by the presence of a visible church, what will happen to our identity as Brethren when that visible church folds?
Institutionally, I can see us moving in a direction of increased interdependence with other groups--maybe the Mennonites or the Quakers--in a way not unlike the interdependence between Bethany Theological Seminary and the Earlham School of Religion. Maybe the net will be even broader. Or maybe we'll just find ourself, one day, without a church to belong to. In any of these circumstances, how will we continue to be Brethren?
The radical pietist tradition from which the Brethren emerged did not see the need to have a visible church, and we may be forced to learn something from that. I, for one, am unwilling to give up being Brethren, whatever being Brethren may mean. Even if my membership is in the United Brethren/Mennonite Church (or something like that), I'll still be very clear in saying: I am Brethren.
-Nick Miller Kauffman