This post is part of our Journey Forward series. We’ve invited folks from across Mennonite Church USA to reflect on our Journey Forward and consider how they’ve seen Renewed Commitments at work in their lives, their congregation or community. If you’d like to contribute to this series by highlighting stories that bring our shared values to life, email JenniferC@MennoniteUSA.org.
Katherine Jameson Pitts is executive conference minister for the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference. She has pastored congregations in Kansas, Pennsylvania and California and now resides in Portland, Oregon. She and her husband, Ken, have three adult daughters and two granddaughters.
For as long as I can remember, I have heard the refrain, “The church must change … to survive, to grow, to reach a new generation, to respond to cultural challenges …” Basically, we need to do things differently!
At the same time I have often heard the call to preserve old traditions, to stay true to ancient wisdom, to resist any influence from the culture around us. “We need to remember our heritage.”
Decline is real in many congregations and the reasons aren’t as simple as demographic shifts or that young people just aren’t interested in church. It’s not just because we are stuck in old ways or because we have embraced too many new ideas.
The reasons for change in the church are complex, just like so many changes we are living through. We are living in a cultural and environmental climate that is very different from 10 years ago, and even more so from 20, 50 or 100 years ago. And sometimes it feels hard to be church in this time, to be church in a way that matters for us and makes a difference for others.
Our denomination is calling us to a “Journey Forward” with three renewed commitments: to follow Jesus, to witness to God’s peace, and to experience transformation through the power of the Spirit. It’s simple, rooted in scripture, our values and our history. Pushing us into the future as we step out together.
But how do we follow Jesus when we are in conflict about the meaning of scripture, and the call to discipleship takes us to uncomfortable places? How do we witness to God’s peace in a nation that has been at war for over 17 years and is immersed in a social media outrage culture? How do we experience transformation when many feel like they are just hanging on to their place in the world by their fingertips and we aren’t quite sure what lies ahead?
The scriptures speak to this push and pull, between hanging on to what we know and leaning into what might be. Jesus said, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matt. 13:52)
This passage comes after a series of parables about growth and about treasure:
The sower sowing seed in various kinds of soil,
The tiny seed growing to become a great shrub,
The woman leavening a whole bowl of flour,
The farmer letting weeds grow among the wheat,
The one finding a treasure in a field and selling everything to buy it
The merchant finding one fine pearl and selling everything to buy it,
The fisher netting in all kinds of fish.
Some of these are parables of people who did things the old way, but Jesus saw something in what they were doing that led to life. Some are parables of people who did things differently, and Jesus saw something in what they were doing that reflected God’s desires.
The gospel — the good news of God’s love for all creation — is the treasure we have. And out of it we bring the old and the new. In the old and in the new, in doing things the way we always have and in doing things differently, we find the good news. Jesus sees possibilities for growth and the reign of God in both.
At our recent Conference Communications Council meeting, congregations stood as their names were called, one-by-one, to share something that they have begun doing differently. The stories piled up. There were big changes and small. Some came out of vision and others from necessity. We heard stories of starting new programs to care for each other, getting to know the stories of the people who lived here before settlers came, covenanting with a congregation from a different ethnic background, welcoming a new pastor, learning to be church without a paid pastor, beginning a fresh ministry to children after years without children in the congregation, engaging those who live on the streets where they are, partnering with community organizations, and gathering at new times and in different places. The stories we heard are not all that different from the stories congregations you know might tell, I am sure. It wasn’t always easy or simple. Before they happened, many of those new things required meetings and planning, energy and time from lots of different people. Change requires a commitment to one another to stay on the journey together.
Throughout the process, there is often push and pull, but as those given the treasure of the gospel to tend and to share, we discover what it means to follow Jesus, to witness to God’s peace, and to experience transformation in our time and place. Going back every time to our treasure, bringing out what is old and what is new, we take another step forward on our journey as God’s people.
All congregations are invited to use Journey Forward’s “Pathways” study guide. Find it and all Journey Forward updates here.
Your financial support of MC USA helps us equip leaders and tell stories of Anabaptist faith in action across the church. Donate to MC USA here.