Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What does it mean to be Brethren? Demonations, movements, and identities

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


bekah said...

Ah - I had similar feelings post-panel discussion. I enjoyed it and found myself wondering why we aren't just one denomination/movement/communion. I mean, we identify ourselves very similarly - what is keeping us in our separate corners? Hmmm...I hope we keep conversing and dreaming and visioning together like we did this past weekend...maybe someday we will morph into one peace church - wouldn't that be fun!

Either way, I look forward to our house church.

Joshua said...

Great observations Nick.

I might say that the nameless professor has entered the jaded stage...a but paralyzed by a changing Church. Quite possibly it is the Church he knew which dying. That may not be bad thing.

There are grand myths out there about what the Brethren have been. Is our doctrine based on reconciliation and non-resistance, sure. But have we every really been a Peace Church in practice...well about 20% of us. That's hard to swallow when the myths we read in Sunday school convinced us that we are a Peace Church.

Their are a number of vibrant, life-giving, and practical communities in our Church. Some small, some large, some crazy conservative and some crazy liberal. They may not be the places where you and I learned to be Brethren. But again, that may not be a bad thing.

Keep up the good work!

Nico said...

Hey Joshua,

Thanks for your comment!

I started typing a comment in response to yours, and it got WAY too long and didn't really address what you were saying, so I'm just going to turn it into a later blog post.

I think we are a Peace Church. I think we have been a Peace Church, and I think we must remain a Peace Church if we are to be relevant in the coming age. Sure, not ever individual member of the Church of the Brethren is opposed to war, general or specific--far from it. But those who are most engaged in our national denominational activities--those who attend Annual Conference, NYC, NYAC, Song and Story Fest, Bethany presidential forums, and son on--are more likely to identify with the peace witness than members as a whole. That feeds into our mission and our ministry, and promotes a Peace Church culture that I have consistently felt. If we ever set that aside, I fear it will be, once and for all, the death of our Church.

I agree with you, though, that our identity as Brethren must be beyond political ideology, doctrine, and even the ways that you and I learned to be Brethren. We must not be afraid to let go of what truly holds us back. But we also have to make sure we don't lose our roots, lest we become yet another tree toppled in the hurricane of these changing times.

Eric said...

Interesting post, with some truly valid concerns. Here are some thoughts.

Having grown up in Northern Indiana, I was largely influenced by the various Anabaptist groups which I encountered. At times I was positively influenced, which is why I can say I have come to Anabaptist and Pietist conclusions on my faith. Yet at other times I was negatively influenced, seeing the impacts of legalism and institutionalism and wanting nothing to do with that.

Today I am a librarian in a Christian academic community in Western Michigan. As a 'token Anabaptist' in a community with Dutch Reformed and Baptist traditions, I tend to bump into quite a few students who are discovering various Anabaptist beliefs and wish to discuss and research them further. I can say confidently that Anabaptist and Pietist theology is not dead, and God is definitely at work with in leading people to become more developed followers of him.

At the same time, I see that the traditional Anabaptist and Pietist institutions bring no interest to these individuals, and actually give them the same sour taste that I have in my mouth. It's pretty simple as to why: while these folks are finding a theology that they see as a complete gospel, the institutions that historically stood by this are no longer doing so. One example is Goshen College is allowing the National Anthem to be played, but there are many others where a inconsistent hermeneutic is being followed by a group more concerned about maintaining the institution than following Jesus the King.

I think your point in the last paragraph is right on. Alexander Mack and his friends did not seek to form a new church or create new institutions, but to simply follow Jesus. Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow him.

Joshua said...


I agree that the Church of the Brethren has and will be a Peace Church. But what we have meant about Peace has morphed through time. I think you are right (and the survey numbers reflect it) that the more involved in the denomination the more people identify with the Peace witness. And most would say its greatest witness is against war.

I would like to see the shift towards reconciliation language for several reasons. First, it makes clear that our witness to peace is grounded in the work of Jesus Christ. Second, such language presses us to ask how we are being reconcilers in our local, everyday life. In a kind of pithy way, I would say we are Pacifist on the macro-level and passive aggressive at the micro.

I am wondering if you would mind cross posting this on Already and Not Yet?

Brian Gumm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Gumm said...

I can't believe I'm just now stumbling onto this blog! As a Brethren student at a Mennonite seminary and justice/peacebuilding program, AND having attended the event at Bethany in April...AND having many of the same questions you bring up...well, I'm really grateful to have found this place. A fellow seminarian and I worked up a video from that conference and I wrote up a few more reflections on my blog ( Check it out if you're interested. Looking forward to more conversation! Thanks, Nick.

Nico said...


Welcome! We're glad to have your thoughts and experiences tossed into the mix. Please let me know if you're interested in getting author privileges and contributing some full posts!

Same goes to everyone who kicked into gear discussing this post.


I really resonate with your statement about being pacifist/passive-aggressive. Carrie Fry-Miller gave a wonderful sermon at Young Adult Conference in which she indicted the Church for having a "pathological niceness"--how we're all door-holding polite to each other but try to cover over some real harsh tensions, partly because we seem to be afraid of not being of one mind.

I'd also be happy to cross-post, though I'm not currently an author on AANY.


Thanks for your comments as well. Being from Goshen, I'm particularly interested in that whole national anthem thing.

Thanks everyone for your fantastic posts. Please get in touch with me about contributing to this blog. We need to be a living young person blog!