I have a friend named Paul. Paul is the outgoing youth pastor at Douglas Mennonite Church. Paul has decided to go back to school, but before he leaves his congregation, he left them a gift. Paul wrote a book called Before I go, in it he records his 9 most important devotionals from the past 10 years of ministry. He had this book professionally printed and gave a copy to each of his youth.
This Sermon is my “Before I go,” This is my last Sunday here, next weekend I’m taking the youth on a retreat, Wednesday the 23rd we have a final chat and play and then I’m gone.
As I leave, I offer you a vision for what North Kildonan Mennonite Church could become. While you might not agree with the specific recommendations that I am going to make I trust that you can at least appreciate the underlying ideas and take them for yourself.
Two months ago, it was my turn to give the devotional at worship committee. We each take turns bringing in an article, or a poem, or an excerpt from a book that we think speaks to us.
I brought in this book: Preparing Sunday Dinner by June Alliman Yoder, Marlene Kropf and Rebecca Slough.
In it, one of the authors, tells a story. Growing up, she often heard her parents say “there’s always room for one more” meaning that they made their resources- beds, chairs, or food at the dinner table, generously available to guests. Sometimes there wasn’t room on the family’s main dinner table, so they would bring out card tables. Her mother would insist that the card table receive the same fine table cloth and bouquet of flowers that the main table had. In no way were the extra quests to be made to feel second-class.
Later she references the Mennonite Central Committee Cookbooks “More with Less” and “Extending the Table” describing how these books have encouraged generations of cooks to expand their culinary horizons. I myself make a mean Pakistani Kima.
The author’s point is that it might be easier to make room on our dinner table, and to try new foods than it is to extend the table of worship. Planning worship that includes people of all ages, differing cultures and economic groups, and varying theological perspectives can be difficult, but it is the mission of the church. Each element of worship has the potential to either be an act of hospitality or to be a barrier preventing others from joining us in worship.
I’d like to take it a step further and suggest that every aspect of how we live in community can do the same because as James H. Charlesworth from Princeton Theological Seminary said:
“Jesus was trying to break down barriers that separated people. All these Tremendous Barriers; Jesus was a barrier breaker.”
Someone on reddit once said, “If you are more fortunate than others, it's better to build a longer table than a taller fence.”
I want to propose Three things that we can do to be more hospitable.
Three different tables that we need to build longer.
First, we should build a longer dinner table
Last Winter, the young adult group was facing a bit of a slump, As you know Maginot Lion meets every week on Tuesdays. Usually for a bible study or a games night. In January and February we were only having 4 or 5 young adults out on a Tuesday. Then Valentines Day happened to fall on a Tuesday, so Chris let us know that he was bringing soup, and 12 young adults showed up. Two weeks later was Pancake Tuesday so we had a breakfast food potluck, and this time 16 young adults came including guests! That’s when we learned that the way to a young adult’s heart is through their stomach and we’ve been having monthly meals since.
One of the single greatest things that NKMC does in this community is to serve as a Winnipeg Harvest distribution site. It is really impressive to watch the volunteers run the distribution line. It is in spaces like that where our congregation truly acts as the church.
A couple of years ago, Gary discovered that there were a fair number of families in our congregation with classic vehicles, slowly he and a group of congregants put together a plan to hold our first annual Show and Shine. On Pentecost, they threw a bunch of hotdogs on the barbecue parked their cars with the hoods up, and invited everyone to check out their sweet rides.
And people came. There were tons of people from the community, people that have never had any connection with NKMC besides the fact that they live close by. In fact so many people came that we ran out of hot dogs! Someone ran to the store to get more so that the party didn’t stop.
What if we did this regularly? What if we had more meals that we invited the community to? What if we posted on our sign when we were having a potluck? Or our Christmas dinner? What if we hosted more events in the parking lot? Members of our Geographic community might feel more welcome to come and join us!
One of the primary reasons I’ve been told we don’t do that is because we are concerned about making sure we have enough food for everyone.
As we have seen with the show and shine, running out of food isn’t a problem. If push comes to shove we can run to the store to get more!
As Pastor Franz said last week, “You Can tell a lot about people by the parties they put on.”
In scripture Jesus tells a story about a feast, but when the feast was ready nobody who was invited came they all claimed that they were too busy, so the host had to send his servants into the highways and byways to find the poor and the lame and invited them to come to the table.
We prepare great feasts on a regular basis, perhaps it’s time we break down the walls of this church and open it up to those in our community.
The next type of table that we should build longer is the Board table.
By this, I mean we need to invite more voices into how we make decisions.
When you consider how to move forward, my hope is that you find ways to include the youth and young adults in meaningful dialogue. They need to feel like their voices are valued.
In the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy there is what’s known as the Seventh Generation Principle. It says that every decision we make should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.
It’s a principle often used in regards to environmental stewardship, but the Iroquois saw it more holistically, including sustaining relationships.
When we make decisions as a church, do we consider how our decisions will affect future generations?
Will there be a North Kildonan Mennonite Church in Seven generations?
We have benefitted from those that have gone before us. Those who have made it possible for us to have faith.
What can we do to encourage our children and our children’s children to follow Jesus?
Recently at a Youth Minister’s Fellowship, we were discussing the Fuller Youth Institute’s “Growing Young” research. Churches are both shrinking and aging as more young people disengage. Based on research with over 250 American churches, Growing Young is a strategy to involve and retain young people.
One of the key points in this research is giving youth the keys to the church.
Now, clearly, this refers to the metaphorical keys, and not physical keys. Giving the youth the keys to the church means giving them real, tangible responsibilities.
But more than giving them responsibilities, it means giving them the ability to have their voices heard.
One of the other youth pastors suggested that when we hand the keys to the church over to our youth, that they will open different doors than what we are expecting, and that this is a good thing.
Two years ago, Mennonite Church Canada’s Future Directions Taskforce released what was supposed to be their final recommendations, which in light of current economic realities called for severe structural changes to our denominational offices. This included many layoffs from key positions, as well as eliminating or transferring ownership of certain programs.
Many people were upset, I know I was upset when I heard that the faith formation worker was released. So a group of students from Canadian Mennonite University got together and wrote a series of documents responding to the recommendations. Calling ourselves the Emerging Voices Initiative, we sought to bring in voices that weren’t heard in the initial consultation. This included Missions workers, their mission partners, and young voices. Our blog became a major partner in the ongoing restructuring process.
When working groups were put together to work on the recommendations, we noticed that the “token young person” on them were mostly in their 30s. So we reached out, and several of our members joined the teams.
We weren’t given the keys to the church, we had to actively reach out and take them. Of course when we did take them, MC Canada was more than willing to give them to us, but what if this had been different? What if instead of laying off a formation consultant tasked with helping child grow in faith, we hired more of them? IF we want the church to survive into the future, we need to encourage children to own their faith. What if MC Canada had included all of these voices earlier in their deliberations?
North Kildonan is facing similar demographic challenges that the National church is facing. Look around this sanctuary. The congregation is getting older. It is a simple matter of demographics. Families aren’t having as many kids as previously, and people move away for a variety of reasons. If this church doesn’t attract young families in the next 10 to 20 years, the congregation will not survive.
If we believe that what we’ve built is worth preserving, then we need to be willing to allow new ideas.
Human beings don’t like to change the status quo. We’ve realized that if we find the safe option and stick with it we will be comfortable. We are like a ship in a harbour during the storm. John Shedd once said “A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” Young people can have ideas that are radically different than what we have done previously and can bring in a new life to this congregation.
However if we put them on the spot and ask them for their ideas, they are going to go blank. But if we find ways for their voices to be heard and they are encouraged to bring ideas forward as they develop, then they will feel welcome to continue bringing ideas forward.
The Third table that needs to be made longer is our study desk.
Theology is a messy thing. As Ryan mentioned last month, we are finite created beings trying to describe an infinite, non-created being. We are going to screw up when we do theology.
Take for example the Trinity. We affirm monotheism, that there is only one God, and yet we say that God is three distinct persons. When we try to explain it we can overemphasize one side or the other.
I don’t believe that there is actually a good way to describe the trinity, rather, by formulating and understanding both sides of the discussion, we can rest in the knowledge that the truth is somewhere in the middle.
One of my favourite bible studies that I’ve done with the youth is the bubble study.
In it I describe Rene Descartes’s concept of knowledge structures. Ideas get built on top of other ideas.
But then sometimes we realize that foundational ideas we hold aren’t the truth, and knowledge structures come tumbling down.
I proposed to the youth that instead of knowledge structures, we should make knowledge bubbles. That are made, and are good for a time and then pop, but it’s not the end of the world, because half the fun is in blowing new ones!
We need to hold our theology loosely because we could be wrong, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do theology.
One example is our stance on Homosexuality. I used to be a staunch defender of the Orthodox, Biblical perspective that marriage is meant for one man and one woman for life. Based on my reading of the scriptures, this was clearly the only way that we could be faithful to scripture.
I knew we hadn’t treated LGBTQ people well in the past. And I thought, we needed to do better at hating the sin but loving the sinner, but scripture was clear!
I had heard that there were theologians who were LGBT affirming, but clearly they weren’t being faithful.
I also have a really good friend, he and I studied Theology and Philosophy together at CMU, and we had many deep, real conversations about our faith. He was a good Christian.
And THEN he came out to me. He told me that he was gay.
This really threw me for a loop. How could my best friend, a good Christian be gay?
So I actually started reading those affirming theologians.
And I found good faithful Christians, who had good hermeneutics and exegesis.
But instead of a beginning with a reading of the law, they began with Jesus, and how He welcomed the outsider in.
These theologians used solid understandings of the historical background of the biblical text to challenge common assumptions about passages like Romans 1, or 1 Corinthians 6:9, etc.
And I realized something.
Both sides of the debate are full of good Christians trying to be faithful to their understandings of scripture.
This debate is ripping apart the church as a whole, it is dividing our denomination. Churches are leaving conference because they can’t be in communion with each other.
When I watch my friend’s siblings refuse to celebrate his birthday with him and his boyfriend. When family members send him emails calling him an abomination. I realize that this can’t be the right way to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ and has pushed me towards a more affirming position.
Just because people disagree with us does not mean that we can’t worship together, work together, be church together.
So again, I say we need to build longer tables so we can invite the outsider in. Tables of food where we can invite those outside our doors in. Tables of decision making where we can invite those who don’t have power to share their voice, tables of study where we can learn from those that disagree with us.
Finally, I want to share how you’ve already extended the table… to me.
When I started here, you took a chance on me. Sure I have a degree in Bible and Theology, but I had no real experience working with youth.
In Fact, Stephanie is better qualified for this job than I ever was. Her degree was Youth Ministry, and she has experience as a sponsor at Sargent.
Thank you for being hospitable to me, and allowing me to develop my gifts for ministry. I know that it can be difficult to understand me sometimes, but I feel like I have improved immensely from where I began.
Thank you to the Children, the youth, and the young adults. And thank you parents. It has been an immense pleasure being a part of your lives. I hope that God has used me some small way.
Thank you for extending the table to my family. Thank you for your support when Simon was in the hospital, and thank you for all of the lovely gifts you gave us. I think that Simon could have a new blanket every night for a month.
As we leave, please extend the table to others as you did to us.