Jon Carlson reflects on how Mennonite Church USA is better together and how our collective participation in the church both shapes us and reflect who we are as a body.
Jon Carlson is the moderator for Mennonite Church USA and has served on MC USA’s Executive Board since 2019. He is the lead pastor of Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola, Pennsylvania. Jon completed his Master of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
When we had a little bit of downtime during a recent Executive Board meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, I snuck downtown to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The signature exhibit right now is “Hip Hop at 50,” marking 50 years since a party in the Bronx, New York, kicked off a global revolution in music. It’s remarkable to think that with just two turntables, a microphone, some plywood and spray paint, hip hop became a worldwide phenomenon that continues to shape and reshape culture.
Right around the midpoint of 1973 and 2023, Mos Def released his first full length album, “Black on Both Sides.” In a spoken word opening, the artist ruminates on the status of the culture:
“Listen, people be askin’ me all the time ‘Yo, Mos, what’s gettin’ ready to happen with hip hop?’ I tell em, ‘You know what’s gonna happen with hip hop? Whatever’s happening with us.’ If we smoked out, hip hop is gonna be smoked out. If we doin’ alright, hip hop is gonna be doin’ alright. People talk about hip hop like it’s some giant livin’ in the hillside, comin’ down to visit the townspeople. We are hip hop. Me, you, everybody, we are hip hop. So hip hop is going where we going. So the next time you ask yourself where hip hop is going, ask yourself, ‘Where am I going? How am I doing?’”
It’s not that different from what I tell people about Mennonite Church USA. Sometimes people talk about MC USA like it’s some “thing” out there — some giant living in the hillside, coming down to mess up our congregations. But that’s not true. MC USA is us, and MC USA is going where the churches are going.
Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank was fond of saying, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” Shifting the metaphor from hip hop or the church to the government illuminates the shadow side of collective action: Sometimes the systems we create together do horrific things that none of us would do alone. None of us would pass or enforce draconian immigration laws on our own. None of us would wage unjust and immoral wars on our own. “The things we do together” aren’t always the things we choose.
While we can achieve remarkable good together, we can also unleash terrible evil. What we create together can seem to take on a life of its own, a giant living up in the hillside.
The theologian Walter Wink, writing around the same time Mos Def released his debut album, ruminated on these realities of collectives: “Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestations can the total structure be transformed.”
More recent thinkers have begun to speak in terms of “emergent properties”: higher level structures that are entirely reliant on their lower-level components, yet cannot be reduced to those components. Water is wet even though neither hydrogen nor oxygen are wet. In emergent structures, the whole also exhibits “downward causation,” shaping and reshaping its constituent parts.
As an emergent structure, Mennonite Church USA is us, and Mennonite Church USA also shapes us.
Thankfully, we are often shaped in positive ways. As Paul notes, the entire body can accomplish things that no individual part can (see 1 Corinthians 12). We cannot say that we have no need of one another.
We are better together.
At the very same time, the systems and structures we create can become vectors for sin and death in ways that seem to transcend any individual choice.
Living faithfully together requires holding together both these truths. Here are three practices that might be helpful in our shared life:
A “set it and forget it” approach to our systems and structures seems unwise. Health and growth require our full participation, allowing the whole to benefit from the wisdom and insight of each individual part. Practically, this means saying, “Yes,” when invited to serve on a churchwide committee, sending delegates to assemblies and staying engaged with the rest of the church.
Mennonite Church USA emerges from the dense web of relationships that exists between conferences, congregations, churchwide agencies and individuals. Our formal structures exist to serve and strengthen those relationships, so we are only ever as healthy as our relationships. When we put relationships front and center, we’re less likely to experience each other as some giant living up in the hillside.
While we can justifiably celebrate the good we achieve together, we also must remember that acting collectively creates no guarantee that we are acting rightly. We would do well to hold our systems and structures with a high degree of humility, always seeking to become more like Christ in the journey of transformation.
Mos Def continues his spoken word reflection on improvement:
“And the hip hop won’t get better until the people get better, then how do people get better? Well, from my understanding people get better when they start to understand that they are valuable. And they not valuable because they got a whole lot of money or ’cause somebody think they sexy. But they valuable ’cause they been created by God.”
May we remember our value in being created by God and celebrate what God has given us to do together.
 I was reminded of this song by — and flagrantly stole this illustration from — Michael Danner during a recent conversation.
 For a fascinating exploration of emergence and the New Testament understanding of sin, see “The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans by Matthew Croasmun.”
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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