Modern Mennonites Traditions may change, but members still keeping their faith

Modern Mennonites Traditions may change, but members still keeping their faith

Pastor Matt Mattesonleads the Concord Mennonite Church. From left, Franklin Hartness, Franklin Hunsberger and Catherine Hunsberger, listen to his message.

Jeannine F. Hunter

January 26, 2002 - A century ago, the typical Mennonite community was self-contained, all-white, insular and farm-based.

Today, a large number of the world's Mennonites are nonwhite and live in urban and rural settings worldwide. Asian and Hispanic congregations are the fastest growing segments in the church.

Shifts in the church are evident at West Knox County's Concord Mennonite Church, which sits on a postage stamp-sized tract of land overlooking westbound Interstate 40 and the Lovell Road bridge expansion. Church pastor the Rev. Matt Matteson also teaches at Laurel High School.

A previous church dress code has been relaxed. The traditional plain-frocked attire of some of the congregation blends with the latest clothing sold by local retailers.

Not all, but many members, including the pastor, were raised in other Christian denominations before they became Mennonites. This clearly indicates a shift from the days when affiliate churches solely contained generations of cradle Mennonites.

Nationwide, congregations are considering what steps they ought to take as they consider changes and issues similar to those facing other faith communities. Among them are determining ways to appeal to youths and growth and retention as membership rises in other denominations and faiths.

The Mennonite or Anabaptist faith movement began in Europe in 1525 when a small group of believers challenged compromises made due to the Protestant Reformation and called for adult rather than infant baptisms.Growth in the ideology occurred between 1575 and 1850.

Waves of European immigration helped established the faith tradition in the United States. The first American Mennonite missionaries were commissioned to overseas service in 1898.

The United States has close to 20 formally organized groups of Mennonites but variations in lifestyle, religious practice and affiliation make this tradition a very diverse one. Some churches whose history is steeped in the Anabaptist movement may not have a formal affiliation with any of these groups. The commonality among the churches is their emphasis on simple living, conflict mediation, peacemaking and communal cooperation.

Some 1 million Mennonites live in about 61 countries.

Jesus Christ is central to their worship and daily living. The Bible is God's inspired word, and membership is voluntary. Adults are baptized following a decision to follow Christ. They believe that God exists and became flesh through Jesus Christ. They also believe in the Holy Spirit, who inspires Scripture.

Matteson, wearing a cloisonnA(C) lapel pin that depicts MCUSA's symbol: a dove and olive branch with the words "Pray for Peace," said church members are regarded as equals, regardless of their length of service.

"It is hard to tell the difference between the head cheese and the new kid," Matteson said. "There is honor given to those who have served long and served well but there is also openness shown to those who are new. And respect."

They are committed to telling the truth, avoiding the swearing of oaths and living in faithful stewardship of all God has supplied them. Their strong commitment to peace, as taught by Christ, compels many Mennonites to choose not to participate in military service; to object to government military expenditures and for a few, to choose not to pay a percentage of their annual income tax that's designated for military purposes.

"I am not sure I am a 'pacifist'," Matteson said. " The popular term in the Mennonite Church is 'nonresistant.' I'm not 'nonresistant' because I can point to Scripture that says resist the devil but I do make every effort to be nonviolent. I think silence can be violent. I grew up in a time where segregation was prevalent. I remembered 'colored' water fountains. Yet my silence, though a child and a young man, was doing violence."

Often, Mennonites are confused with the Amish, whose roots also date back to the 16th century Anabaptist religious movement. The Amish are known for their conservative lifestyle and use of horse and buggies and simple dark-colored clothing.

When asked about the misconceptions he encounters about his religious affiliation, Concord Mennonite elder Jim Foster cites the following: " 'Where's your horse and buggy? Do you use electricity and are y'all Christians'."

"When I get asked about a horse and buggy, I point to my 2000 Honda Civic," he said, with a chuckle.

He said he became a Mennonite after he and his wife began a quest for a family-oriented church.

Foster said he values the communal aspects of the faith whose doctrine is not that foreign to Protestant churches.

Mennonites embrace modern technology, participate in ecumenical and interfaith activities with other religious communities and volunteer service to those in need such as those suffering through hardships caused by hunger, natural disasters and poverty.

Church literature bears the Mennonite Church's vision: "Healing and hope for a world divided by misunderstanding and mistrust."

Concord's a congregation of about two dozen but the quantity in the pews doesn't diminish the role they play in each other's lives and the larger community.

Last June, Concord Mennonite Church sponsored peace-building seminars at the church and at First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge. Topics attendees covered included the fundamentals of peace building, religion (source of conflict, resource for peace) and conflict resolution approaches in multicultural settings. This is an annual institute that the church sponsors along with other faith groups such as BahA!i, Baptist and Presbyterian.

©Copyright 2002, MSNBC

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