A few Sunday mornings ago, I took an hour-long ride to visit a conservative Mennonite group. I had met a nice, bonneted woman selling baked goods at the Farmer’s Market, and she told me where to find them. It was way in the middle of nowhere, as they say, but it was a nice, 10-year-old, spacious, well-kept building. Here are a few observations.
Some things are the same but different. . . .
I heard some issues with vocal pitch, but they were more along the lines of crooning and slip-sliding whereas flatting and flat-out singing-out-of-key are the prevalent intonation “sins” in a cappella Church of Christ groups. In this 100-person Mennonite church, intra-congregational intonation was the best I’ve ever heard.
The Bible is certainly emphasized in both groups, both in Bible classes and in the assembly proper. In the former setting, the Mennonites traveled along similarly out-of-context tangents and loops, although the specific commentary had a distinct, other-worldly flavor. That is to say: (1) these Mennonites were other-worldly themselves, and (2) their dialogue compellingly emphasized the over-arching, compelling Kingdom of God and their place in it, and their interest in bringing others into the Reign. I take #1 as something between neutral and mildly undesirable, whereas I take #2 as convicting and absolutely to be desired.
Both groups have a plurality of teacher-pastors. Both seem to use relational terms such as “brother,” “sister,” and “Christian” frequently.
And some things are more different than same. . . .
One notable difference in a conservative Mennonite church is the seating: men are all on one side, and women, on the other. (I shouldn’t make a deal out of which side was which, because, assuming the leader’s lectern represents God’s vantage point, the women were on the “goat” side. I once had a similar communication issue with hanging “I Am” and “Jesus the Messiah” banners. I digress.) In thinking that anyone would actually have men and women separate in this day and age, most “modern” (and I use that term advisedly) people, Christian or not, will shake their heads in disbelief or disapproval, but the idea of sitting that way merits some consideration. Think of the better teen focus when no one is holding hands with the girlfriend of the month. Think of the “divide and conquer” that can occur in terms of parenting when men have their little sons and women have the daughters. And think of the solidarity in terms of vocal range and voice parts. The sound is surely enhanced by a sense of strength in numbers.
There were more coats and ties on the Mennonite men, but not all. (In any CofC building in my last 15 years, groups are down to something between 0 and 15% wearing a coat and/or a tie. Baptists are probably about the same.) Pants were mostly black or navy, but a couple had tan pants on. I saw only black shoes. All the women were in dresses, as expected. Children behaved better and still had great personalities. I would be naturally drawn to some of the families as I observed them.
Only the KJV Bible was used, but I couldn’t help feeling that that practice was more a subconscious, old-world habit than a conscious translation choice.
I believe all three pastors were on the stage, and I didn’t know what to make of that, because not all of them were really active per se. It was as though they were collectively “watching over the flock.” I would like to think they did that through the week in more meaningful ways.
A more subtle yet deeper difference was in what I would call a “thoughtful waiting” that characterized so many aspects and events. In Bible class, at least seven or eight different men spoke up at one time or another, and I noticed that there was some silence after each comment, as though everyone habitually considered everything that was said. Also, a couple of seconds transpired between stanzas of songs and hymns. I’ve heard that this is the habit in British churches of various stripes. It was almost awkward for me, but I think it would be worth getting used to. The quality of the sung thoughts was, not incidentally, much higher than the aggregate in any Church of Christ I’ve experienced in a long time—and at least on par with other church groups in my experience.
As indicated above, the Mennonites emphasize being in the world but not of it. They are pilgrims. (And that is an eminently biblical view, of course.) They pray more, and most prayers included kneeling.
They have their pet phrases, just as people of other denominations. One that I heard at least a dozen times, in conjunction with handshakes, was a hearty “Welcome here!” I believe they meant it. And I did feel welcome. I plan to return for singing one evening this winter.
For a few observations from a Mennonite pamphlet, please see my other blog here.