By Jessica Farmwald
DENVER, Colo. (Mennonite Church USA)—It was a casual water-cooler conversation: One co-worker asked another what she had been doing with her musical hobby lately; she told him she was singing once a month at a bluesy jam session at First Mennonite Church (FMC) in Denver. Knowing he was also a musician, she added that he should bring his guitar and come check it out sometime. And that’s exactly the kind of opportunity for nontraditional, nonconfrontational “evangelism” that Vern Rempel, FMC’s senior pastor, was hoping to create.
Challenged by a comment from André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, that Mennonites “tend to love service, flirt with peace and are allergic to evangelism,” Rempel came back from his summer 2011 sabbatical with a prescription: to create more open settings to invite newcomers to experience FMC’s community of love.
“For some reason, when it’s church, we have all these hesitations: ‘I don’t want to tell people; they’ll think I’m evangelizing them.’ But what occurred to me is that everybody needs good community in their lives. And I thought, I can invite people to community, where the goal would be not for me to tell them what I know that they need to know, but for us to meet each other and discover what the Holy Spirit has between us,” Rempel says, adding that he came to this more relational, less “preachy” brand of evangelism in part through conversations with well-known evangelical Ted Haggard and author/educator Parker Palmer.
Rempel started by brainstorming some outreaches that would flow out of his own passions, and that he thought he would enjoy doing with new people. “I knew that if it didn’t feel that cool to me, it wouldn’t feel cool to anybody else,” Rempel says.
A love of jazz and blues resulted in what Rempel calls a “Mennonite Pentecostal Contemplative Service” in the FMC sanctuary on Sundays at 12:30 p.m. Since late October, this 45-minute “improvised music and improvised reflection” service has grown to a group of five to 10 musicians and more than 35 participants. Hymns done in more of a gospel style mix with jazz standards such as Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and other familiar tunes such as “My Funny Valentine.”
Herm Weaver, conference minister for the Mountain States Mennonite Conference, comments, “When you do different types of outreach, you get beyond the ethnicity that’s housed in our present worship services. My sense is that we’re pretty ethnic about the way we do church, and it’s often hard for people other than Mennonites to access.”
Carlene Hill, a four-year member of FMC with a Pentecostal background who assists with preaching for the blues service, says the more relaxed atmosphere is helpful for community outreach. “We don’t want newcomers to feel as though they are on the outside looking in, but to feel part of the worship experience. The best way we can achieve this is by creating a space that isn’t intimidating—which a highly structured church service can be if you’re not familiar with a church’s protocol.”
Another new initiative sprang from Rempel’s work and study with Palmer on “circles of trust.” In 75 minutes every Thursday night, participants gather in a home for a facilitated time of confidential, judgment-free story sharing and reflection. Usually 10 to 15 people participate on a given night out of a total of around 30, many of whom do not attend FMC.
First, Rempel reminds the group of touchstones such as, “Always invitation, never invasion” (no one is ever required to speak) and “No fixing, advising or correcting.” After a “warm-up” story prompt—a poem or Scripture reading—and 20-25 minutes of silent contemplation, everyone is invited to “share into the circle.” During this time no feedback is given in any way to the person speaking—not even through body language—as all participants are asked to avoid eye contact and instead focus on a symbolic centerpiece.
To help make extending invitations easier for both new programs, Rempel has created business cards that attendees can take to hand out. However, the goal of these expressions of evangelism is not necessarily to add to FMC’s membership; instead, he hopes that one or both of the new programs will become church plants.
“There’s a lot of openness and desire for the message of community, grace, love and justice—things that we as Mennonites care about very deeply,” Weaver says. “I think the time is really right for us to move beyond the churches that we have now and try to create new circles of people who can be the next iteration of what it means to be Anabaptist in the city.”
Musicians lead an afternoon blues and folk music worship time at First Mennonite Church of Denver: (left to right) Vern Rempel on guitar, Chad Pittman on guitar, Taylor Berry on harmonica and Tony Pfeiffer on drums. (Photo provided by Vern Rempel)
Musicians lead an afternoon blues and folk music worship time at First Mennonite Church of Denver: (left to right) Vern Rempel on piano, Chad Pittman on guitar, Gary Wahl on drums, Taylor Berry on harmonica and Tony Pfeiffer on drums. (Photo provided by Vern Rempel)
Musicians lead an afternoon blues and folk music worship time at First Mennonite Church of Denver: (left to right) Vern Rempel on piano, Chad Pittman on guitar, Taylor Berry on harmonica, Gary Wahl on drums and Tony Pfeiffer on drums. (Photo provided by Vern Rempel)