“I was too stubborn to believe [the facts of drift]. Today I have two children who are divorced and remarried. You have a beautiful family and I have nothing.”
—Lancaster Conference man to Ivan Martin, Sr., years after the division
In 1967, CBS News responded to a request by Goshen College communications Professor J. Daniel Hess to do a documentary on the Mennonites. The twenty-eight minute documentary, titled Mennonites: The Peaceful Revolution, portrayed quite well from a secular point of view what was happening among the Mennonites. The secular producers seemed to have had a better grasp on the big picture than the Mennonites themselves. The heart of the Mennonite message issued from a circle of students, including Daniel Hess, who moderated the discussion. One young Mennonite college girl responded to Daniel Hess’s inquiry into her values by saying, “It is important that you fulfill your life outside the home first. I don’t think the young person getting married today will settle down, have kids, bake pies, and keep a clean house. I would be more excited about having a career. Who said our role is to have children? This has always been assumed that a Mennonite has six kids, they raise them, and have their nice stable family unit. Is this what we are called to do still?”
Hess directed a question to DeVoss, an aspiring jazz musician, who responded, “We as Mennonites must get out and meet the public. The idea of humility in the performing arts is dropping away. The old idea of watching the world go by cannot go on any more. If you want to be a performing artist, which I wish to be some day, I have to get out there, to associate with these people. This might be my Christian witness. I cannot isolate myself.”
Another young man commented, “A pruning process is going on where you cut off the peripheral ideas to get down to the core. I no longer distinguish myself from the world by dress. Rather, it is a heart-core matter, a style of life, which is different, which is unique.”
Hess himself noted, “Back ten or twenty years ago when a Mennonite young man began to question some of the things of his home community, he knew there was no future in the Mennonite churches, so he left. Now in my generation there are church leaders who are sympathetic and a lot of change is taking place. They anticipated the problems we would face. What do I do when I realize that some of the beliefs [my home congregation] hold sacred I do not accept in total as they do? I had to reorient myself. Will I be a Mennonite? I would have to adjust and they would have to adjust to accommodate some of the young Turks.”
“Some in the more conservative churches would find themselves immediately at home in a more progressive church. My wife and I can go back to our home congregations in Pennsylvania and feel very much at home because they have been involved in the process of change too.”
“The leadership of the Mennonite Church is quite progressive. We can show you intellectuals who are quite enlightened, quite understanding.”
The documentary concludes with more than a dozen young Mennonite male singers using accompanying guitars to sing “Old Leather Britches, Shaggy, Shaggy Locks,” a song about Quaker founder George Fox, written by Sydney Carter in 1964. Ironically, the song was being performed at the recently-built Mennonite Biblical Seminary chapel at Elkhart, Indiana.
There’s a light that is shining in the heart of a man,
It’s a light that was shining when the world began.
There’s a light that is shining in the Turk and the Jew,
And a light that is shining friend in me and you.
Old leather britches shaggy, shaggy locks.
Old leather britches shaggy, shaggy locks.
With your old leather britches shaggy, shaggy locks,
You are pulling down the pillars of the world George Fox.
“With a book and a steeple with a bell and a key
They would bind it forever but they can’t,” said he.
Oh, the book it will perish and the steeple will fall
And the light will be shining at the end of it all.
If we give you a pistol will you fight for the Lord?
“No, you can’t kill the devil with a gun or a sword.”
Will you swear on the Bible, “I will not,” said he,
For the truth is as holy as the Book to me.
“There’s an ocean of darkness, and I drowned in the night,
Then I came through the darkness to the sea of light.
And the light is forever and the light will be free,
And I’ll walk in the glory of the Light,” said he.
Old leather britches shaggy, shaggy locks,
Old leather britches shaggy, shaggy locks,
With your old leather britches shaggy, shaggy locks,
You are pulling down the pillars of the world, George Fox.
The song was incredibly prophetic and the documentary was incredibly perceptive!
The documentary aired on September 19, 1967, at 10:00 AM. Theologian John Howard Yoder, featured in the documentary, commented about the experience two years later in a public address:
Thousands of Old Mennonites, perhaps tens of thousands, whose preachers as recently as ten years before had condemned watching television as wrong for the Christian, on this Sunday morning postponed Sunday morning services--in some congregations the first time this had happened in living memory—or even brought receivers into the sanctuary to watch as the network editors played back to them what they had seen in a week of filming….
This was not sensational journalism like some of the Sunday picture supplements that like to get Amish pictures, but a very sensitive piece of editing by a man who was professionally qualified to edit religious documentaries….[The editor] saw Mennonites as a group with a very strong cultural ethnic unity, which until recently had been maintained by withdrawal from the city and by a strongly disciplined pattern of social life. This isolation is now breaking down so rapidly that it must be spoken of as a revolutionary change. The question which arises is then whether the denomination can maintain its identity or even its existence when the form in which it had survived has to be abandoned…
The other question is how Mennonites reacted to how they were seen. They were very concerned about the whole matter. The initial reporting to the effect that this film was going to be prepared called forth a very wide attentiveness. The number of Old Mennonites who gathered that morning to watch the electronic mirror, in order to see what image it threw back to them, was probably the largest number of Mennonites who ever in four centuries of history were caught doing the same thing at the same time. What they were doing was watching with great concern what picture of themselves other people were likely to have….
A second observation about how Mennonites reacted to the film was that they thought it was pretty good. They thought it projected a picture which not only was not unfair but was actually favorable. In none of the several group evaluations of which I heard was there any regret that we had projected predominantly the image of a social group threatened by social change. No regret that there was nothing said explicitly or implicitly about the meaning of discipleship or service or mission or that there had been no reference to Jesus except by the seminary teachers who were interviewed. Mennonites are thus people who are happy to be known through this ancient image, as long as it is not made fun of….
More than a generation—forty years—later, in 2007, Herald Press published the book Road Signs for the Journey, a compilation of survey results collected in 1972, 1989, and 2006 from the Mennonite Church USA, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ denominations. John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen College, wrote in the Foreword:
Mennonites, of course, have long taken a certain pride in being ‘a people apart.’ Traditionally, practices like nonresistance, church discipline, mutual aid, and simplicity have kept them slightly out of step with the dominant forms of public Christianity. But as Conrad Kanagy makes abundantly clear in the troubling book you are about to read, this self-image may no longer square with reality. On the basis of Kanagy’s recent survey data, the Mennonite Church USA is now facing virtually all of the same challenges documented among the larger Protestant denominations.
Like a surgeon wielding a scalpel, Kanagy lays bare a host of painful facts about the current state of Mennonite affairs. With the exception of a growing number of ‘racial/ethnic’ congregations, the average age of Mennonite Church USA members is rising, while overall membership is declining. Compared with the results of a similar survey in 1989, Mennonites today are less able to articulate theological distinctives, they are less inclined to support conference and denominational leadership, and they are more likely to regard Mennonite beliefs as an impediment to the message of the gospel. Despite a strong affirmation for the principle of a missional church, there is little evidence that Mennonites today are all that eager to actually share the gospel with their non-Christian neighbors.
Although the evidence it presents is sometimes painful, Road Signs for the Journey is a book that everyone who cares about the future of the church will want to read carefully and ponder well. Like a good physician, Kanagy knows that the path to health and wholeness must begin with a clear appraisal of the symptoms….
Framing the challenge … does not diminish the need for Mennonite leaders to respond urgently and creatively to the difficult facts Kanagy presents in Road Signs for the Journey. But it does mean that the outcome of that response – the future of the Mennonite Church USA – rests finally in God’s hands rather than our own.
It is my prayer that a generation from now, a revived and stronger Mennonite church will look back on this book not only as a wake-up call but also as a road map that pointed the way to a more faithful identity.
Kanagy himself wrote in the Preface, “My goal in this book is to communicate with persons in the pew more so than with scholars and academics. This book is not an analysis primarily of Mennonite Church USA as a denominational organization or of its congregations. Rather, it is a study of members of the denomination and their social and spiritual location at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”
Nor was this the end of Mennonite surveys. In August of 2014 another survey was sent to 2,000 credentialed leaders of Mennonite Church USA. This survey found that 31.9% of these leaders believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) individuals should be members of congregations without conditions. Twenty-one percent believe that only individuals who remain celibate or are in committed monogamous relationships should be members. Thirty-nine percent believe that of LGBTQ individuals, only those who remain celibate should be members, and 8.2 percent believe that LGBTQ members should not be members under any conditions.
Among credentialed leaders, 19.5 percent believe that LGBTQ individuals should have opportunities to serve in leadership roles in the church without any conditions. Twenty-six percent of all leaders believe that those in committed monogamous relationships or who are celibate may serve in leadership roles. Thirty-six percent of all leaders believe that of LGBTQ individuals, only those who are celibate may be leaders and 18.5 percent of all leaders believe that LGBTQ persons should not lead.
Aaron Shank was fond of the saying, “A weather vane is a small thing, but it shows which way the wind is blowing.” He saw that rejection of plain dress by missionaries pointed into an ill, worldly wind. Chester Wenger, one of the missionaries to Ethiopia who shocked Lancaster Conference leaders by meeting them in a lapel suit coat and tie in 1959, was relieved of his ministerial credentials by Lancaster Conference in 2014 when he officiated at his son’s gay wedding.1, 2
According to Kanagy’s statistics, one-fourth of all leaders would like to see conference authority strengthened, another approximate one-fourth are satisfied with the current structure, and another one-fourth are not sure of their preference on the matter. More than ten percent (10.7) would like to see stronger leadership at the denominational level.
Aaron Shank said, “The Bible teaches and history proves that we cannot maintain the full structure of Biblical truth without maintaining a consistent position on nonconformity in attire.” He would probably feel grieved, but vindicated, by Kanagy’s statistics on nonresistance. By the year 2006, twenty-one percent of Mennonite Church USA members stated that they were willing to enter into military service.
Kanagy concluded, “A question emerged for me that I have been unable to shake in years since [I wrote Road Signs for the Journey]. ‘What if the Holy Spirit is dismantling the church as we know it?’” The question was raised in response to his findings of:
• Declines in denominational membership
• Decreases in evangelistic activity
• Rapidly upward socioeconomic mobility
• Increased political engagement
• Dramatic changes in definitions of morality
• A sense of marginalization within the denomination felt by people of color
• Relative lack of experience with the Holy Spirit
• Lower birth rates, exiting young people, and a rapidly aging denomination
Mennonites were not the only ones to experience struggles like those which Aaron Shank and his co-laborers did in the late 20th century. In his 1984 book The Great Evangelical Disaster, Evangelical author Francis Schaeffer included the following lament. As far as I know, Aaron had no contact with Francis A. Schaeffer, but evidently both men understood some of the same basic concepts. Francis wrote from the evangelical Single Kingdom perspective (no Two Kingdom Concept as we understand it) and thus held a different theology than Aaron. But Schaeffer’s basic concerns about obedience to the absolute authority of Scripture and how that must be implemented in a context of people who most likely will not appreciate it, resonates quite harmoniously with Aaron’s perspective.
Accommodation. Accommodation. How the mindset of accommodation grows and expands. The last sixty years have given birth to a moral disaster, and what have we done? Sadly, we must say that the evangelical world has been part of the disaster. More than this, the evangelical response itself has been a disaster. Where is the clear voice speaking to the crucial issues of the day with distinctively biblical, Christian answers? With tears we must say that largely it is not there and that a large segment of the evangelical world has become seduced by the world spirit of this present age. And more than this, we can expect the future to be further disaster if the evangelical world does not take a stand for biblical truth and morality in the full spectrum of life. For the evangelical accommodation to the world of our age represents the removal of the last barrier against the breakdown of our culture. And with the final removal of this barrier will come social chaos and the rise of authoritarianism in some form to restore social order.
Whether we see this as the judgment of God (which surely it is) or the inevitable results of social chaos makes little difference. Unless the mentality of accommodation within the evangelical world changes, this is surely what we can expect. This will certainly mean that the fiction of a united evangelicalism will have to be faced with honesty, and some will have the courage to draw a line – drawing a line lovingly, and drawing a line publicly. There must be loving confrontation, but confrontation. This also means not accommodating to the form that the world spirit takes today as it rolls on with no limits, claiming to be autonomous. In contrast to this, the Bible offers true freedom with form and a way of life which meets the deepest human needs. The Bible gives not just moral limits but absolutes and truth in regard to the whole spectrum of life.
…To accommodate to the world spirit about us in our age is the most gross form of worldliness in the proper definition of the word. And unhappily, today we must say that in general the evangelical establishment has been accommodating to the forms of the world spirit as it finds expression in our day. I would say this with tears – and we must not in any way give up hoping and praying. We must with regret remember that many of those with whom we have a basic disagreement over these issues of accommodation are brothers and sisters in Christ. But in the most basic sense, the evangelical establishment has become deeply worldly.
…We must indeed give a practical demonstration of love in the midst of the differences. But at the same time God’s truth and the work of Christ’s church both insist that truth demands loving confrontation, but confrontation. And to know that it is not as if we are talking about minor differences. The differences are already there in the evangelical world, and trying to cover them over is neither faithfulness to truth nor faithfulness to love. There are three possible positions: 1) unloving confrontation; 2) no confrontation; and 3) loving confrontation. Only the third is biblical. And there must be a hierarchy of priorities. All things may be important, but not all are on the same level of needing confrontation at a given time and place. The chasm is: not conforming to the world spirit of autonomous freedom in our age, and obedience to God’s Word. And this means living in obedience to the full inerrant authority of the Bible in the crucial moral and social issues of the day just as much as in the area of doctrine. Obedience to God’s Word is the watershed. And the failure of the evangelical world to take a clear and distinctively biblical stand on the crucial issues of the day can only be seen as a failure to live under the full authority of God’s Word in the full spectrum of life.
Yes, there must be balance and holiness standing together with love. But that does not mean constant and growing accommodation and compromise – moving along step by step, fitting into the world’s position in our day. It does not mean pretending that there is such a thing as a unified evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is already divided at the point of watershed. And the two halves will end up miles apart. If truth is indeed truth, it stands in antithesis to nontruth. This must be practiced in both teaching and practical action. A line must be drawn….
Chester Weaver January 28, 2020
1 John Sharp, “‘Regulation garb’ and the gospel,” http://mennoworld.org/2014/11/24/columns/regulation-garb-and-the-gospel/ (Accessed December 19, 2019).
2 Kelli Yoder, “Lancaster Conference terminates retired pastor’s credentials,” http://mennoworld.org/2014/11/10/news/lancaster-conference-terminates-retired-pastors-credentials/ (Accessed December 19, 2019).