Steven Wall with Rev. Randy Smart
with contributions from Anne-Marie (Goertzen) Wall
with contributions from Anne-Marie (Goertzen) Wall
Traditional Mennonite Evangelicals maintain a consensus-style, congregational intellectual process that is antithetical to the concept of hero-worship.
The EMB have always been on the intellectually engaged side of Mennonite culture. The historic Brüderthaler often assumed leadership roles in establishing schools in pioneer North American communities. Isaac Peters, the senior Bishop of the EMB, is commended by P. M. Friesen and Delbert Plett for his intellect, his scholasticism and for his understanding and valuing of traditional Mennonite intellectual sources. John Funk befriended Peters and enticed him to repeatedly contribute to Herald der Wahrheit.
In Peters’ shadow, the EMB were noted for pursuing intellectual careers as educators, missionaries, pastors, nurses and writers, rather than farming. Lacking a school of their own, they adopted and contributed to the success and growth of Moody Bible Institute, Grace University and Briercrest Bible College. In 1911, Evangelical Mennonites established der Evangelisationsbote as the universal intellectual organ for Mennonite Evangelicalism. Early EMB conferences were attended by the intellectual leadership of both Russian and American Anabaptism and much of the impetus behind the failed Evangelical Mennonite Conference of the 1950s was an attempt by EMB intellectuals to cure a shortage of available pulpits and possibly found a united Evangelical Mennonite seminary.
Unlike other Mennonite groups which depend on conference schools and seminaries for educational development and leadership, the engines of the Mennonite Evangelical intellect are, and have always been, the Sunday School, congregational dialectic, the unified conference and workshops, and arguably, the pastoral library. From our Kleine Gemeinde roots, we also retain a strong sense of Pietist reflection on the everyday and the lessons God places within the simple living of simple lives. Outside resources such as newspapers, literature and books of science and politics circulate freely and commonly amongst congregations and between churches, informing both personal studies and group dialogue. Intellectual fellowship is definitive of the culture and a constant activity.
Culturally, the need to go beyond the bare minimum in secular knowledge and in Scriptural study, distinguish Mennonite Evangelical culture from many of their neighbors. Regrettably, the rural agrarian nature of Mennonite society and a lack of financial resources for attending post-secondary schools, severally curtails such aspirations. Notably, EMB youth attended high school at a time when this was still considered unnecessary for a successful farmer, though many EMB, unable to afford college, did become farmers. In fact, this wide-spread poverty probably influenced EMB intellectualism more than any other factor in that the most aspiring youth often found their way to the tuition free Bible colleges such as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Even G. P. Schultz’s transfer from Goshen to Moody was probably an economic rather than cultural decision.
Today, the pursuit of higher education and the necessity of leaving traditional rural communities in pursuit of careers, is probably the greatest affecter of declining traditional EMB populations.
The traditional Evangelical Sunday school closely resembles the catechetical courses of other denominations, but is life-long. While most Evangelical Mennonite churches today employ professional pastoral staffs, the traditional spiritual and intellectual leadership of the laity manifests itself clearly within the Sunday School department. Sunday School comprises Biblical studies, social studies, church history and missiology, sex ed, home economics and training in music while supplementing secular education in reading, comprehension, rhetoric, research and presentations, possibly being quite similar to the cultural aspect of the Jewish day school.
Ethnic evangelical Mennonites differ from their American neighbors in that they have a distinctively mitigated sense of the individual or self which is based in part on participation in this consensual communal dialectic. Though greatly compromised by recent dependence on non-Mennonite pastoral staffs and educational materials, it remains viable in the oldest and most rural Evangelical Mennonite churches. The individual functions as a part of a greater whole – the fellowship community. Participation in the fellowship community facilitates spirituality, the cultural intellect, many economic relationships and church governance.
Intellectually, the pastor is valued as a teacher, less so as a manager. The pastoral library and the church library are important and essential resources for Mennonite youth – especially in rural areas where the church and school libraries tend to be small and access to public resources is limited.
A scarcity of resources mandates that, as Smart states, these church assets are often built around sound basic reference materials – both spiritually and intellectually. There is not a lot of room or money for fluff such as devotional books or romances. Certainly, authors such as Chuck Swindoll and James Dobson provide much needed and trusted guides for the family, emotional development and relationship resources. One might criticize churches for depending on such secondary writers, but most church members do not have access to the educational backgrounds enabling them to deal with Freud, Jung or Piaget directly and effectively.
C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer reach a church starved for cultural information and accessibility. Their failings as ideological writers must be considered in light of others who failed to reach out at all to financially challenged, rural households such as comprise traditional Mennonite Evangelical congregations. In truth, Mennonite Evangelicals are often observed to be voracious readers and prefer radio Bible seminars and coursework to simple music stations.
Intellectualism is the purposeful engagement of the intellect for personal and communal development. In this, Mennonite Evangelicals are exemplars, not villains. Culturally, deeper questions regard the lack of financial access of poor students to traditional Mennonite schools and the intellectual flight of those who do read and might expound upon Kant, Jung, Freud and others from traditional evangelical and Mennonite congregations and communities.
The weakness of the open-minded, inclusive, consensus-driven intellect of the congregational Mennonite Evangelical community is that the process can only absorb, digest and expound upon the resource base available to it. This culture has done much with limited and isolated means. What they need from others are not judgment and derision as much access and participation.