Asher Witmer

rediscovering Jesus

Dropping Denominationalism and Rediscovering Jesus communities of Gospel-centered faith

Throughout this whole series we’ve been looking at the question “What’s the big deal about being Mennonite?”

worship service

Photo credit: DnL Photography

Part one told my story of waking up Mennonite. Part two looked at the tension people feel in their churches whether to be Mennonite, or a Disciple of Christ. Part three talked about when people leave the Mennonite church, and some of the questions I’ve had as I watch people go. And part four asked the question “What are we looking for?” in which I suggested we are looking for a place to live the vibrant Holy Spirit life in a community of love and care.

This whole discussion surfaces primarily because so many are leaving Mennonite churches, today. But leaving one’s church isn’t only a Mennonite phenomenon. It’s happening nationwide.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, people are not necessarily leaving because of biblical illiteracy or because they are throwing out their faith.

 

A 2011 Barna study revealed how a decline Biblical literacy is certainly real in mainstream society, but not among people within the church. Furthermore, the same study showed that six out of ten people are walking away from church because of disillusionment with the institutionalized church; not because they are letting go of their faith. Only one in nine people let go of the faith they were raised with.

What causes people to feel disillusioned with the institutionalized church is the inability on the part of the church to connect meaningfully with people where they are at. To put it in their words, “I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in,” “I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me” and “I feel stuck between the comfortable faith of my parents and the life I believe God wants from me.”

(This info comes from three separate studies outlined in the following articles: Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts, Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church, and The Real Reasons Young Adults Drop Out of Church.)

In other words, many of those frustrated with church are not so much kicking God (or even church) under the buss.

 

They simply aren’t experiencing in real-life what they believe the Christian faith is all about. Along with disillusionment over the institutionalized (or incorporated) church, they are tired of denominationalism and Republican Christianity. Instead, they trend toward more intimate communities with theological diversity and tend to be more progressive on social issues.

They don’t want shallow Christianity that feeds cliché answers to real-life issues and fails to live-out the radical call of Christ to love all people and make disciples.

As a millennial, myself, I wholeheartedly identify.

 

And what is happening in the “Mennonite” or “Conservative Anabaptist” world merely mirrors what’s taking place on a larger scale across America, today.

I don’t consider my experience in the Mennonite church to be negative. In fact, for the most part I consider it good. But it has certainly been mixed with unhealthy moments. Let me explain.

My father stepped down from leadership of a Midwest Fellowship church back in the mid-nineties. Through that experience our family faced a season of isolation and criticism from many people within the Midwest conference and other conservative circles. But the church Dad helped start later on was still Mennonite; just “progressive,” as some would say. We were “non-denominational,” which, in that day, was supposed to be the great solution to all the problems of various denominations.

Only, that church ended up having as many issues as the one before.

 

Without getting ugly and unnecessarily agitating old wounds, let me simply say that my experience as a pastor’s son in our new, non-denominational, “progressive” Mennonite church left me with greater affection for Conservative Anabaptism than liberal “free from legalism” mantra. Because I was still relatively young through a lot of that, I’m sure I don’t understand the whole story; but it still shaped my view of church.

I clearly remember lying in bed one night feeling like I had two options I could choose: reject Christianity altogether (because what I had experienced up to that point did not attract me), or live wholeheartedly for God. Either way, I had to stop playing the game of church. I chose the latter. I wanted to get real about walking close with God and making disciples.

Sometime after that decision, my family moved to Los Angeles, California, to begin a church plant in the inner-city.

 

There were no conservative Anabaptist churches in LA, and that was part of the burden directing Dad’s vision there. At first, I really struggled with the move because I left behind a lot of close friends. But eventually, God molded my heart and I began seeing the needs all around me and actually wanted to help.

A few years after moving to LA, I attended Bible school for twelve weeks and thoroughly enjoyed my time. Unfortunately, I gave more attention to making good friends than digging into my studies, but my experience there (at a conservative Mennonite school) was really good.

The following year, I attended another Mennonite Bible school, only this one was overseas. Its mission was to train young people in ministry. Particularly, cross-cultural ministry. This experience was even better than the first. Not only did I meet my wife there, by this time I was more serious about my studies, and I truly wanted to learn to engage people with the Gospel.

After spending time overseas, and a few months dating, I got married.

 

And if you’ve read my blog much at all, you know the story of our wedding. How Mom was killed a few days before, and how our first year of marriage was more like a dark season of life than a honeymoon. I have such mixed emotions through that time.

On one hand, the Mennonite church showed its usual overwhelming support in a time of need and grief. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people shared in our grief by coming to the funeral, sending cards, giving financial gifts and so much more. But on the other hand, I felt really lonely through that time. Perhaps it was because I didn’t know how to ask, but I felt there was no one to really share with about what was going on inside my heart. Both my wife and I felt that way.

A few years later, with our young son, we moved back overseas to begin teaching at a small international school, affiliated with the Bible school we had attended a couple years before.

 

We were excited to begin this new season of life because we would be with people we highly respected and in a part of the world we had grown to love.

But our experience there was not without its trials, some of them things that left us excruciatingly discouraged. We deeply love the people we worked with and still have great respect for them. But because of what happened, at times we wrestled with whether this is how things really ought to be.

My experience in the Mennonite church is not the legalistic, works-based salvation, exclusive club type that many who read my blog talk about.

 

In fact, often what I illustrate about the church in my writing is not necessarily true of my own story. Because of what I’ve come to know of my readers, I seek to empathize with them, so I share illustrations true to their stories. I can’t say I’m convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that Mennonites are controlling, legalistic, heavy-handed rulers, because I have not necessarily experienced that.

At the same time, I have heard enough stories. I have close friends who have gone through horrific church experiences, I know some Anabaptist communities really are as evil as people make them out to be.

Even so, my concerns for the Mennonite church aren’t any different than concerns I would have for any church I am a part of. No matter where I was, I’d probably blog about church and how we could do things better because I love to see things grow and improve (and I know they can).

But there is an element of the conservative Anabaptist church that causes me to struggle most.

 

Actually, this happens in most churches, and it’s something all millennials are getting disillusioned by.

That is, there seems to be a strong sense of denominationalism.

What I mean by denominationalism is the belief (even if only subtle) that our denomination is best or that such and such denomination is bad. To categorically label people in a way so we can write them off or jump in the boat with them without actually getting to know them is nothing but the result of denominationalism.

Next month, I will begin Bible college at Eternity Bible College in Simi Valley, California. It’s a small school founded by Francis Chan (woot, woot). But what seems to be of most importance to some is that it’s not Mennonite. In fact, almost everyone in Mennonite circles asks me, when they find out it’s not a Mennonite college, if we’re leaving the Mennonite church.

At first it was frustrating because there is no conservative Mennonite college for one to go to if they wanted to get a Bible degree.

 

We have small schools; but, at best, we study one book of the Bible for six weeks. Not sixteen. As I already mentioned, I have been to two Bible schools so far, and I really appreciated my experience at both of them. But I always came away feeling like I just scratched the surface. There are liberal Mennonite colleges, but conservative Mennonites feel almost worse toward liberal Mennonites than non-Mennonites.

Now, however, I’m no longer frustrated; more amused. Sometimes we seem so scared of being wrong that if anyone gives attention to people with other beliefs we feel threatened.

But here’s the deal: I’ve been involved in ministry one form or another for the last six years.

 

And I feel so shallow. I don’t feel I have a very solid theological foundation. I’m not blaming anybody but myself. My choice to go to college is because I want to grow. I want to study rigorously. And while I’ve idealized for several years that I could self-study, I’m realizing I need an excuse to just dig in.

If I am going to make disciples, if I’m going to write and teach and stand in the gap between people and God, I want to know I’m doing my best at interpreting His Word so I know how to live it out. I hear so many pastors say they wish they could have more training—that’s why I’m going. To get more training, now.

This is not our way of leaving the Mennonite church.

 

Not that we think the Mennonite church is flawless. We don’t consider Mennonite communities or interpretation of Scripture to be superior to that of other Christians. And even though we believe there are weaknesses and things that need changed, neither do we believe they are inferior to communities and interpretations of other Christians.

Our desire is to grow closer to God and live more faithfully to His Word. Where that leads us to change something that is uniquely Mennonite, we are willing to do so. Where it leads us to keep something that (at this point) is uniquely Mennonite, we’re willing to do that as well.

In fact, I am in the process of pursuing mentors from within the Anabaptist community who have also gone through Bible college or have a solid theological foundation because I want to wrestle with as many sides of theological thought as I can while studying, myself. I am not going to any college for the purpose of arbitrarily “throwing” anything away.

While I am unwilling to carry the exclusive attitude of many conservative Anabaptists today, I am also unwilling to carry the legalistic, exclusive, lifeboat type mindset into whatever new community I may ever be a part of in the future. I’m done with shallow, splashing back and forth. I want to know God, I want to live faithful to His Word, in-step with His Spirit, filled with His love and life.

I am dropping denominationalism to rediscover Jesus.

 

When I say that, I don’t mean I am leaving a particular church. I certainly don’t mean that I think we should get rid of denominations. That only started another denomination (nondenominational).

What I mean by dropping denominationalism is getting rid of this attitude that one denomination is above the other. Whenever I get the panicky feeling inside of me because someone is leaving my church or no longer doing life the way people in my denomination do it, I am living out denominationalism.

In the same way, if I leave, and look back all-condemningly of the church denomination I left, I am also living out denominationalism.

And as the millennial generation is beginning to believe, this is really sick.

 

What the institutionalized church has become is so far removed from the church Christ birthed. It’s time to rethink church. It’s time to re-evaluate our structures, ways of doing things, and most importantly, our core values.

It’s time to become communities of Gospel-centered faith.

aw_creating_change

justinkendra/Depositphotos.com

Each denomination has its own culture, and that’s fine. We can choose which culture we like best. But let’s not cut off fellowship with each other. The church needs diversity. We need diverse input. No denomination—no church group—is without its flaws and heresies. Let’s not write-off one denomination based on a few church experiences.

Instead, let’s get back to Jesus, the Gospel, and what it means to be transformed by His Spirit.

 

As one of my friends recently put it, when God looks down from Heaven, He does not see denominations. He sees hearts. He sees hearts that are either pointed towards Him and His plan for their lives or hearts that are pointed at self.

I completely agree. His Word completely agrees.

The trajectory of change in Christianity we see in the millennial generation is encouraging to me. I believe, in many regards, we’re getting back to what God intended.

But there is one area that leaves me trembling at times: are we staying grounded in God’s Word?

 

You see, I believe God speaks to us outside of the Bible through His Holy Spirit. The Bible explains this. His Spirit has been given to us to help guide us into all truth. One of the things many are frustrated with today is the way the Bible has been stuffed down their throat by people who seemed to be more in-love with knowledge than Jesus. They knew the theological terms, but seem to have no concept of love. So, people begin wondering if the Bible actually leads to anything healthy.

The Bible is not a book to hang over people’s heads. It’s not a playbook or instruction manual. It’s barely a roadmap for life. The Bible is a compilation of books that give a message, tell a story of the One who designed this life, this world. It tells the reason things are so messed up and explains God’s plan for redeeming it all. The purpose the Bible serves is to help us get to know the Person the Bible shows.

Not at all unlike love-letters help a young lady get to know her groom-to-be.

 

The Holy Spirit, never contradicting what God has already revealed, continues to open up His Truth to us as we walk more faithfully to Him. In fact, without God’s Holy Spirit, we cannot understand even the Bible.

But, what I may think is the Holy Spirit speaking to me is always susceptible to my misinterpretation.

Maybe it is God, or maybe it is not. Maybe it’s Him, but not saying what I think He’s saying. Or maybe it’s another spirit trying to distract me from God. Or maybe it’s just my flesh getting in the way. What feels like the peace of God may actually just be peace because I’m giving in to something my flesh does (or doesn’t) want.

This is why the Bible, God’s written Word, is so essential to the Christian faith.

 

It helps us understand what is of God and what isn’t of God. Does it explain everything, does it have an answer for every situation in life? No. It doesn’t have to. It tells us the Gospel, God’s design. It gives us enough information to know whether what I’m sensing is truly the Holy Spirit or something else.

However, unless we are grounded in God’s Word, we will float away to nothingness. And I wonder sometimes, if in our disillusionment with church we begin heading in a direction of life not in search of something we know to be true of God, but in reaction to something we know we never want again.

This is my number one concern with our generation.

 

My Dad has said domineering parenting breeds rebellion and permissive parenting breeds confusion. The parents of Dad’s generation tended to domineer, and so within his generation the church saw a lot of rebellion. But he feels his generation then tended to parent with a lot of permissiveness, which has now bread confusion.

This makes a lot of sense to me as I look across the landscape of Christianity, today. We have so many stripes and types of Christianity that even true heresy is now becoming acceptable in church.

We are becoming increasingly confused.

 

We’re all about dropping denominationalism, and we’re even about rediscovering Jesus. But I wonder sometimes if our drive to rediscover Jesus is really because we want to know Him, or if it’s just a ticket, at this point, out of denominationalism.

I believe time will tell. I can’t discern anyone’s motive or heart. I have many good friends I am confident are headed in a good direction. But life throws plenty of curveballs and I don’t know what hidden vacuums may be lying in their hearts even now that may swallow them in moments of disillusionment.

No, I can’t tell exactly what is in the hearts of my friends. But I can be honest about what is in mine.

 

And that is where I plan to walk. I plan to pursue people as best I can. To lovingly and gently walk with people through life. And I plan to do this even if they make choices I would maybe wish they didn’t.

Because I am dropping denominationalism so I can rediscover Jesus.

There are many Christ-loving, obedient Christians grounded in God’s Word who may come out at a different place than me doctrinally. I want to rediscover how Jesus transforms my life and the way I relate with fellow Christians. I want to rediscover what it means to make disciples. I don’t think it means I proselytize people with my denominational values. I want to rediscover the Gospel so I am grounded firmly on the foundation of my faith.

Ultimately, I want to rediscover Jesus so I can truly know God.

 

I want to rediscover Jesus so I know how to better address modesty, music, church structure, sexuality, dating, marriage, politics, humanitarian aid, biblical doctrines, headship, healing—the Bible itself—not through the glasses of my denomination, but through Jesus.

Will you join me? Will you, too, drop denominationalism and rediscover Christ?

While the rest of the journey is obviously still being taken, and many curves and hills are yet to be navigated, this post brings a close to this series on “What’s the Big Deal about Being Mennonite?” Thanks to all of you for your feedback and input, whether public or private. I always appreciate hearing other people’s stories, and I’d love to continue hearing your thoughts in the comments below. God bless!

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About Asher Witmer

I am a son of God, husband, father, and difference maker. I love helping people sort through hard questions they face and rediscover Jesus. I have written three eBooks dealing with church frustrations, and send out daily posts addressing faith, church and relationships.

  • Ernest Witmer

    “Ultimately, I want to rediscover Jesus so I can truly know God.” This statement nails it, son! Jesus Himself said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Even after all these years, I am still on this journey too… to know the Father through Jesus.

    And this I know, and can identify with the apostle John who said, “I have no greater joy than to see my children walk in truth.” Keep walking in truth, son… “…as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21).

  • Rose Mary Nisly

    Learning just to learn is such an honorable pursuit. Opening the door to new information can be life changing/have unexpected results. Of course there are also people whose study does not lead them in a different direction, churchwise anyway, but I believe their lives are still richer.

  • JeffHochstetler

    Asher, thanks for your perspectives. I would also want to encourage you to take one class at a Mennonite college or seminary. It’s interesting that you suggest that “liberal” Mennonite colleges are almost worse than other christians. In my experience, going to a Mennonite college and visiting with other kinds of Christians was exactly the type of freedom in Christ that I found. In the end, I reaffirmed my faith through such a college, worshipping Jesus with people I didn’t always agree with. Mennonite colleges would benefit from having their conservative cousins on campus, who hold much more strictly to holiness and personal piety. But I think conservative and plain Mennonites would also benefit by opening their world up to the broader Christian Church (that includes my Indonesian and Ethiopian Mennonite friends. Both of whom worship in Mennonite settings that look much different than North America).

  • Bryan Wengerd

    I can relate to much of what you have written. Blessings as you study!! Consider: Jerusalem University College https://www.juc.edu/index.html.
    One of our pastors (anabaptist) studied there and a few more of our congregation are preparing to go as they are called to disciple.
    Nothing like walking the land and experiencing the culture and context of the word. I’m sure you get plenty of suggestions but I won’t apologize for it:)

  • Asher, thanks so much for being vulnerable and sharing your heart. I hear you, brother, and I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I, too, desire to drop denominationalism and focus on Jesus.

    One thing that God has been dealing with me about is my judgmental attitudes toward those who believe and/or practice differently than I do. One big area is looking at women who don’t cover their heads as being “less Godly” or less in touch with God. My perspective was, for a long time, that such women were disobedient to God, and therefore “out-of-relationship” with God, to some extent.

    Now, I’m not saying that headcovering is wrong, that our teaching is all wrong, and that women never need to cover their heads. But what I have had to realize is that each person is at a different place in their walk with Christ. There are probably things in my life that God will be working on me in the future, things that I have no idea about right now. And here’s the other thing: what if someone’s obedience to 1 Cor. 11 is less important to God than it is to us?

    I have realized that in my own life, and I believe in the lives of many others, we have put obedience to Jesus at the center, rather than Jesus Himself. It is a very subtle twist, but it makes all the difference in the world. It is the difference between being a disciple of Christ, and being a Pharisee who kills Christ.

    When we focus on obedience to Christ, we end up on tangents and enforcing our own applications. Because, after all, “obedience to Christ” is really obedience to what we BELIEVE Christ said. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not preaching relativism. But I do believe that it’s important that we remember that we have just as much chance of being wrong as the other person. We do not hold a monopoly on correct Biblical interpretation. No one does.

    Yet, whenever someone else interprets Scripture differently than me, I tend to act like I know it all. At least I used to. I hope that as God has been working on me, I have started to listen to others better than I used to.

    I know some people will read what I have said, and say, “Yes, but if Jesus is at the center, we will obey Him.” Of course! But here’s the question I leave with you: next time you want to judge or condemn a fellow believer, ask yourself: “Is this person my brother or sister in Christ?” You, of course, do not know their heart as God does. Nonetheless, we may be able to get some sense of where they are in their relationship with God. If, then, we believe that this person is also part of our family, it behooves us to treat them and look on them as part of the family.

  • Hector Troyer

    What am I looking for? I am looking for a community that truly loves their brother. John
    said it best “How can I say that I love God and do not love my brother?” The thing that I come back to as I ponder the question of the head covering and women’s dresses and many other things that are considered to be Mennonite cultural issues is that they are part of a package and this package includes loving our brother. Many Mennonites are accused of not loving their brother and I believe that is entirely so in some ways. But on a global kingdom scale no one loves their brother like Mennonites do. I do not know of any other group that is as strongly opposed to suing or killing their brother, enemy, or spouse. Killing your brother is entirely possible if Christian patriots from two different countries fight each other in war. This is such a ridiculous concept that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around what is marketed as spiritual life. How could someone with spiritual life go out and kill their brother? This just does not make sense to me, it is an absolute foreign concept to my mennonite mind. Seldom do I see anyone go straight from the Mennonite church to war but it is very common for someone to go straight from the Mennonite church to a church that no longer wears the head covering. In most churches that do not wear the head covering they are teaching Calvinistic or similar doctrines and teachings that not only allow for but encourage war and other types of unloving legal action. So if we could get past the killing thing maybe I could accept their claim of spiritual life. But we’re going to fight in war and kill one another? And sue people? So what is love? What is spiritual life? Other things that I value are community, accountability, and stable homes. What kind of spiritual life and what kind of love allows for divorcing your spouse, which is supposed to be the most intimate relationship we have on earth? This is another ridiculous postulation.Then we have all the side questions of filthy entertainment, immodesty, women preaching, worldly securities and the list goes on. So what’s not to love about the Mennonite church? It’s a piece of antique furniture that needs some tightening up and adjustments. But let’s not trade it in for a piece of white washed cardboard furniture!

  • Glicks

    Love this series. Thanks for sharing!!!

  • Steve

    Interesting series, Asher…
    “They don’t want shallow Christianity that feeds cliché answers to real-life issues”…. seems to me, like all Mennonites are being labelled as shallow, and full of cliche answers….. yet……
    “To categorically label people in a way so we can write them off or jump in the boat with them without actually getting to know them is nothing but the result of denominationalism.”
    Wasn’t sure how to process that.

    “however, people are not necessarily leaving because of biblical illiteracy”
    “However, unless we are grounded in God’s Word, we will float away to nothingness. And I wonder sometimes, if in our disillusionment with church we begin heading in a direction of life not in search of something we know to be true of God, but in reaction to something we know we never want again”
    These two things together, bring a ring of truth to this last statement…..
    “I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me”

    The world around us is run by a devil. It seems to me that many today, are simply tired of the conflict between Christ and that ‘spirit that now works in the children of disobedience’, and would like to merge them somehow, make friends, end the conflict. This alarms me more than any of the differences theologically of people who choose another denomination.

    It is not too hard to trust your heart in the matter.
    I wish that were more true across the board.

    • Thanks for sharing, Steve. The first quote you quoted refers to a general trend in Millennial Christians today, it’s not talking about one particular denomination. Millennials don’t want shallow Christianity (and these are millennials in all kinds of denominations).

      And while I agree and also see what you’re referring to about the conflict between Christ and the world (I don’t believe that’s a new conflict), what I take the studies on Millennials “wanting to be a Christian without separating themselves from the world and them” to mean is they want to engage the world for Christ. Much of American Christianity has created so many boxes for people to fit into, we’re not doing a good job making disciples. They don’t want to be separated from the world in a way that causes them to have no influence on those around them.

      I can identify with such desires… I also see what you’re saying. I’m curious what “making friends” or “merging Christ with the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience” looks like to you?

  • Charles Rohrer

    Blessings on your studies Asher! Many of us are searching out the things you’ve written about. With a family of teenagers this all seems doubly critical. But I think you hit an important point when you mention the heart. I have no idea what shape the churches, Anabaptist, Evangelical, Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, or Emergent will take in the coming years, but the world cries out for honest hearts, men of character, men and women that stand in the presence and fear of God more than the fear of men. Men and women of character who, when they see the right thing to do, simply do it. Rhetoric is cheap. “Spirituality” is in vogue. But there is a more excellent way. Suffering love passionately poured out in a lost world is costly…but leads home.

  • Merle Burkholder

    Asher…God bless you in your studies. There is a new Anabaptist College in Boston that offers a degree. Here is the link to their website: http://www.sattlercollege.org/

    • Zack Johnson

      From Sattler’s website below!

      “Sattler College provides an education that is grounded in the historic Christian faith. This encompasses the traditional beliefs of the church with respect to doctrine and practice. While the College has no specific denominational affiliation, the beliefs upon which it is established correspond most closely with the persecuted, suffering churches of history, such as the ante-Nicene church, the Waldensians, the Wycliffites, and the Anabaptists.”

    • Thanks, Merle! I’ve been getting to know Sattler College in the last month. Seems like a good thing going there! And yes, they know how to pitch to Mennonites. 🙂