Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Questions

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The techniques for evangelism known as the Church Growth Movement, were first introduced to North America in 1961. I use the word techniques deliberately, as the movement sought to use sociological research to select social groups that could be reached through the use of modern marketing methods. The key assumption of the movement was that people are most likely to feel comfortable with and trust people like themselves.

Does this sound like an opportunity to share the gospel more effectively?

Or does it sound like a description of the problem that we should expect the gospel to overcome?

Why are churches still the most segregated places in North America?

Has the Church Growth Movement done anything to heal tensions between ethnic groups?

How many close friends do you or I have who are of a different skin colour or different ethnic origin?

How open are we to changing that?

This is where we need to accept that the best way to change the world is to start with ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. If we are to make any lasting friendships with people who are not just like us, we are going to learn that we have not always been such nice people as we thought we were. That might be painful, but it can be liberating, too.

Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:11 (Substitute the peoples in your city for the underlined words.)

The Quiet in the Land

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Throughout Christian history, there has always been a united, visible body of believers who professed much the same faith regarding conversion and a personal relationship with God but who refused to conform to the state enforced form of worship of their day. The Martyrs’ Mirror catalogues the faith, and the persecution of these people because of their faith, from the time of the apostles up to the time the book was published in 1660.

Other people decided to live their faith in a way that would not bring persecution. They conformed to the outward practices of the state church, Reformed, Lutheran or Roman Catholic, but professed an inward piety and heartfelt devotion to God

The label of pietism first appeared in the seventeenth century. Some members of the Lutheran Church professed to have received forgiveness of sins through a conversion experience that warmed their hearts and led them to a deeper communion with God. They remained in outward fellowship with the Lutheran Church, attending worship services regularly, receiving communion, and baptizing their babies, but sought fellowship in private gatherings with like-minded people to testify of what God had done for them.

Sometimes the pietists called themselves “the quiet in the land”, from Psalm 35:20. That term, and pietism itself, appealed to large groups of Mennonites who had grown weary of persecution, and may even have forgotten why they had been persecuted. When Mennonites from Prussia settled on colonies in Ukraine 200 years ago they agreed not to proselytize the Russian people. Around them were other German colonies, Roman Catholic and Lutheran. The Mennonites absorbed pietist teachings from Lutheran pietists and called themselves “The Quiet in the Land.”

That term is not part of our Mennonite heritage. Indeed, I feel it marks the abandonment of that heritage. Menno Simons wrote a lengthy article in 1539 entitled Why I do not Cease Teaching and Writing. In other articles he wrote:

This is my only joy and the desire of my heart, that I may extend the borders of the kingdom of God, make known the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed the hungry souls with the Word of the Lord, lead the stray sheep to the right path, and so win many souls for the Lord, through His Spirit, power and grace,” and

We preach, therefore, as much as is in our power, both day and night, in houses and in the open air, in forests and in wildernesses, hither and thither, in this and in foreign lands, in prisons and in dungeons, in water and in fire, on the scaffold and on the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writings at the risk of possessions and blood, life and death; as we have done these many years.”

The reluctance of the pietists to unite with the persecuted church may have saved them much physical suffering. The result of this individualistic approach is the tendency to interpret the Bible in the light of one’s own experience, rather than subjecting one’s experiences to the light of Scripture. They are convinced that they have attained to a level of spiritually and communion with God that is not shared by the common run of professing Christians. Such a person may conform to the outward practices of a church for the sake of avoiding censure or persecution, but does not feel bound to give account of his faith and life to other Christians.

Francophone Anabaptists

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We may think of the Anabaptist faith as having originated among people who spoke German and Dutch. But before them most Anabaptists spoke French. Does that have any significance for us today?

Most of the original explorers and settlers of New France were Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church in France soon moved to prevent further Protestant emigration to New France and the sending of Protestant pastors. For hundreds of years, most Quebeckers have considered Catholicism as essential to their identity.

The Roman Catholic Church of Québec claimed to be the only defender of the French language, saying that if someone left this faith he would also abandon the French language. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the church controlled schools, hospitals, and warned members not to employ a Protestant or buy from a Protestant-owned business.

Times have changed. Almost all denominations known in the rest of Canada are now established in Quebec, including the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Yet even in the 21st century, most Quebeckers consider other Christian denominations to be foreign intruders, even though only 6% of them regularly attend Roman Catholic services.

This historic dominance of the Roman Catholic church creates a dilemma in sharing the gospel in the French-speaking world. French is spoken and taught on every continent and virtually every country, but the penetration of the gospel remains much lower than in the English-speaking world. Interest in the gospel is growing; evangelical revival is happening in France; evangelical churches are growing rapidly in many French-speaking African countries.

However, evangelical Protestantism is not the faith once delivered to the saints. That statement may shock some readers, but Protestantism was originally a diluted version of the Anabaptist faith, created by people who feared persecution, and therefore made compromises with the civil authorities. The original Protestant settlers in Québec came from those areas of France where Anabaptists once thrived, but had been persecuted into oblivion.

We want to share the unadulterated old faith with the French-speaking world. To do this, we have to overcome their prejudice that it is a recent invention by North American Anglophones. We must not give the impression that people have to learn English to understand our faith and that the only reliable source documents are written in English. For those of us whose mother tongue is English, we can easily give that impression without realizing we are doing it.

Nine hundred years ago Anabaptist congregations, known as Albigenses and Waldenses, existed across the south of France and in the Alpine valleys France, Italy and Switzerland. Some writings from that period have survived and they teach the same faith that we hold today. The old French needs updating to be read today. I have tried to do that on my French blog, as I feel we should familiarize ourselves with this legacy and make it available to others in the French-speaking world.

Some early Mennonite leaders in the Low Countries spoke French as well as Dutch, such as Dietrich Philips, Jacques le Chandelier, Jacques d’Auchy and others. A book of their writings was published in French in 1626. This book could be a valuable resource for showing the antiquity of our faith, if it was updated to language more accessible to today’s readers.

Many languages are tools to maintain ethnic or tribal identity. French has been used in that way in the past, but now serves more as a bridge between ethnic groups. This is why so many people are learning it as a second language. It is reported that 100 million people are currently learning French.

There are French-speaking people all around us, but they slip below the radar of those who do not recognize French when they hear it spoken. There are eleven million people in the United States who speak French, as many as in Canada. There are 750,000 in western Canada.

The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite is present in seven French-speaking African countries. There are also French-speaking members in Haiti and Quebec and interest in France. We are working hard to make more French literature available, for church members and for those who are seeking. We are developing a presence on the internet, the most effective means of evangelism in the 21st Century.

Some more thoughts on evangelism

OK, we need to strip the gospel message down to the pure Bible-based essentials and restore all those essentials that have been cast away. Now, when we come to sharing this vital message, we need to strip away all the verbiage and attitudes that hide the message rather than revealing it.

Here are some thoughts about how to share the Good News, as much for my benefit as anyone else’s.

1. Be curious —In the end, the gospel message is the same for everyone. But not all start at the same place. We need to get to know people, find out what are their greatest concerns. The best way to do that is to ask questions.

2. Hide the hammer — If someone doesn’t understand our message, or doesn’t want to listen to it, hammering away at the same point isn’t going to help. We may need to go back to step 1.

3. Stick a needle in the hot air balloon — Impressive words, adjectives, adverbs, a round about way of speaking and Christian jargon are not the stock in trade of a good communicator. A pompous speaking style pumps hot air into our balloon, we go floating away and lose contact with the person to whom we are speaking.

4. Get down off the pedestal — The message is important; we are not. A servant does not try to impress you with how important he is. Let’s take a lesson from the apostle Paul: “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more,” (1 Corinthians 9:19).

6. Admit you don’t know everything — The Bible is the source of all truth; I am not. In evangelism, if I am always the teacher and the other person is always the student, I have failed. The goal of evangelism is to lead others to dependence on God. Jesus is the Master, we are all disciples (students), always learning from the Master and from one another.

Some thoughts on evangelism

Each time the Apostle Paul stopped in a new location during his missionary journeys, he first went into the synagogue to teach. This always ended with the Jews rising up in opposition, sometimes with great violence. Roland Allen, in Missionary Methods, St. Paul’s or Ours, expresses the view that it was Paul’s intention to make it plain to the Gentile population that he was not teaching the faith of the Jews. He often put his life in danger by doing so, but it aroused the interest of the Gentiles so that they wanted to hear the message Paul was bringing.

Nine hundred years ago, someone among the Christians we know as Waldensians wrote a treatise called Antichrist. The writer may have been Pierre de Bruys, an active evangelist of that era. The treatise made it very clear that the Waldensians had no relationship to the Roman Catholic church or any of its teachings. A dangerous move in that era, but it must have seemed important to those Christians to say what they did not believe in order that people might listen with interest to find out what they did believe.

Five hundred years later, Menno Simons did much the same thing. He also referred to the roman Catholic church as Antichrist, but he also had the new protestant denominations to contend with. He offered to debate publicly, and wrote many books to counter false teachings of other churches. He wrote in one place that he believed there were some true believers in each of the churches, but they were not building on the right foundation to form a church that would maintain the pure faith and pass it on from generation to generation.

Menno was considered a dangerous man, because he aimed his writings at the general public. What if we could do that in our day? Point out all the non-Christian teachings that have attached themselves to the various denominations of our day? If we proclaimed that we were not encumbered with any of that debris, but preached solely the gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught in the Bible. I realize that many other denominations claim to be doing just that; that is why it becomes important to point out all false claims.

The mark of the apostolic church and the Anabaptist churches that followed was purity. The purity of the church which accepted as members only those who were genuinely born again and walking in obedience to the Holy Spirit. The purity of the lives of those members. Purity in family life, in business and in relationships with others. Purity of doctrine, of brotherly love and of ministers who do not preach for popularity or financial gain.

Are there people who would willingly hear such a message today? Let’s not shrink back from trying to find out.

  • Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? by Roland Allen. © 1962 World Dominion Press

Intriguing book titles

These are two of my recent reads, with titles that seem to need a little explanation. Randy Newman’s book, Questioning Evangelism, is not about questioning the value of evangelism, which might be your first impression. Rather, he is advocating asking questions as a means of evangelism.

Forty-five years ago, Tom Skinner published a book entitled If Christ is the Answer, What are the Questions?  His theme was that we are not helping anyone find salvation if we prattle on with ready-made answers but don’t know what are the pressing questions of the person to whom we are speaking. Randy Newman takes us down that same road, with suggestions of how to deal with some of the pressing questions of our day.

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Yes, Nazis had a conscience. Adolf Hitler was a powerful evangelist for his cause and inspired the masses of the German Volk to believe in his promise of renewed purpose, purity and hope. He proposed himself as the role model of revived German manhood. And yes, he had a hidden agenda. For many years he said very little about his belief that the Jews were the main obstacle to the promised renewal of the German Volk, only dropping hints here and there to reassure those who believed as he did that he was still heading in the right direction.

By the time he got around to putting his final solution into action, he had the German people solidly behind him. When he spoke to a crowd, often for an hour or more, he was very adept at reading their mood and leading them to believe that he alone could bring the renewal for which they longed. In the end, the majority had fully bought into the belief that the only right thing to do was to eliminate those people whom Hitler told them were the obstacle to realizing their dream.

The Nazi Conscience is a chilling book; Claudia Koonz has thoroughly researched the Nazi era and brings to life evidence of how the well-educated German Volk reacted to a charismatic leader who offered them hope.

Why am I juxtaposing these two books, so different in their message? For one thing, I’m not so sure that they are so different. Both books lead me to question the trustworthiness of charismatic leaders who work on people’s emotions. Both books are implicit warnings about having a hidden agenda.

If we are going to share the gospel we need to get to know the people around us, understand their deep questions and longings. We should make sure we understand them before we leap in with an answer. A few thoughtful and considerate questions might help us to understand and lead them to look at things a little differently. That will often be the most appropriate starting point for us.

We should not be looking for the approval of people who think like we do, rather we should try to introduce a new thought to someone who has never looked at things quite that way before. To do that, we need to speak plain English. Slogans and religious jargon that are readily understood by people within our circle are meaningless to those outside that circle.  

A popular saying in our day says : “be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s good advice, as long as we don’t think that we have attained to a higher level of understanding and need to help others to climb up to our level.

Another danger is to think that other people’s sins are worse than ours. We can’t help them if we only want to talk about how horrible their sins are and never admit, seem quite oblivious to, our own sins. Our task is to point people to the Creator and the Saviour, not to ourselves.

Sometimes we hear it said that the people around us are not interested in the gospel. Could the real problem be that we are not interested in the people around us? Randy Newman ends his book on a hopeful note:

I believe that the soil in which we now plant gospel seeds is better fertilized. Plausibility structures are being rebuilt. Assumptions are more favourably disposed in our direction. And the notion that faith is  relevant to all of life is no longer considered nonsense. The opportunities for evangelistic fruit might be about to increase dramatically.

Questioning Evangelism, Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did, © 2014, 2017 by Randy Newman. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids MI, The quote above is from page 259.

The Nazi Conscience, © 2003 by Claudia Koontz. Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA

The brief career of a fervent preacher

Levi Young was born in Eastern Pennsylvania in 1841. The date of his conversion is not known, but he became a member of a small Mennonite denomination at the age of 21. Not long after, he became an itinerant minister and evangelist in that group. He never married.

He was on fire for the Lord, striving to do His will in all things and always ready to speak a word for the Lord. By the summer of 1865 he became troubled about the church to which he belonged and came to the conclusion that he needed to separate himself. In June he travelled to Wooster, Ohio to visit John Holdeman, the leader of another small Mennonite church. He spent several days visiting with Holdeman and other members of his church, then returned home.

Over the following months Levi Young exchanged letters with John Holdeman and received a visit from him. In December he returned to Wooster, Ohio and was baptized by John Holdeman.

From there he travelled with John Holdeman to Wakarusa, Indiana where there was a congregation of Holdeman’s church. They returned to Ohio and on the last day of the year left for Ontario.

It appears that this was at least the second visit of John Holdeman to the Baden, Ontario area as Levi Young identifies several people as brethren in his diary: Jacob Litwiller and wife, bro. Yutzy and bro. Schott. Meetings were held most evenings, often in homes, at least twice in a school house and once in Hamacher’s meeting house of the Evangelical Association. Several times Levi Young mentions that “I preached and brother Holdeman exhorted.”

Levi Young then returned home to Pennsylvania and continued preaching in homes when that opportunity would arise. It is evident from his diary that he was a sick man and growing weaker. He makes plans for the disposition of his goods after his death and the last entry in his diary is from July 13, 1868, breaking off in mid sentence. He died August 14 at the age of 26 and was buried near Coopersburg. It appears likely the cause of death was consumption, now known as tuberculosis.

It is interesting to me that John Holdeman encouraged a newly baptized brother to preach in his evangelical outreach in Ontario. That kind of does away with any picture I may have had of John Holdeman as a stern, authoritarian person. John Holdeman returned to Ontario another 25 times. The members in Ontario mostly moved to various locations in the USA in later years and have numerous descendants in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

Another point of interest is that during the last two years of Levi Young’s life the two families he had the most to do with were Minningers and Stauffers. Thirty years later, in 1898, John Holdeman and another minister visited near Souderton, Pennsylvania and Hiram and Lottie Mininger were baptized, as well as Lottie’s parents, Isaiah and Lavina Stover. Stover is a spelling variant of Stauffer, and Souderton is not far south of the area where Levi Young lived. There were more baptisms in that area in later years; Hiram Mininger became a very active and well-known minister in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

JOY

“I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein

A bleak, hard and cold view of life. Wittgenstein, a native of Austria who spent much of his life in England, is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He feared that people didn’t understand what he was trying to say. I certainly don’t.

A century ago, Billy Sunday, the most prominent U.S. evangelist of his time, said “God is not an explanation, God is a revelation.” We can label that statement as simplistic if we wish. We can call Billy Sunday simple-minded, too. But he was right.

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If we ignore what God has revealed in His Word and believe only what is revealed by our mind we will be like Mr. Wittgenstein. The heroic endeavour to make the human mind the measure of all that exists has led many great thinkers to conclude that all is empty, meaningless, hopeless, joyless.

If we trust what God has revealed in His Word we will find that life is full and meaningful. There is hope, and there is joy. Despite the dour and drear thought of Mr. Wittgenstein, it is God’s will that we should enjoy ourselves.

Psalms 5:11 But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee.
Psalms 16:11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
Psalms 30:5 For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
Psalms 32:11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.
Luke 2:10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
John 15:11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

Happy 2019

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A friend was going from place to place, checking and re-filling displays of gospel tracts that had been placed in various businesses. He walked into a grocery store in a small town with some tracts in his hand. Seeing that he needed more, he left those on the counter and went back to his car. When he came back in, the clerk at the cash register was reading one of the tracts.

“Don’t read that!” he said, “— unless you want to change your life.”

She looked up at him and said “Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?”

I suppose that’s why the making of New Year’s resolutions appeals to so many. Even if they know they’ll never be able to keep them and it’s just an exercise in futility. Here is a better way:

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
(Proverbs 3:5-6)

May we trust in the Lord throughout the coming year and allow Him to direct us in all we do.

WISHING YOU A BLESSED YEAR IN 2019!

The truth can stand by itself

A friend likes to preface many of the things he says with:“Without a word of a lie.” For some reason I don’t find such a statement all that convincing. It makes me wonder if he is not accustomed to telling the truth.

I guess that’s why Jesus instructed us: “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matthew 5:17). In other words, tell the truth all the time and people won’t have to wonder whether or not you are telling the truth this time.

Sometimes we attempt to shore up the truth with big words and adjectives, for fear that the unadorned truth is too weak to stand on its own. We’ve got that wrong. Our attempts to buttress the truth, to make it stronger, weaken it.

Do we plant dandelions and thistles in our flower beds for emphasis? If that sounds ridiculous, and it should, it’s just as ridiculous to think that we can add emphasis to the truth by throwing in a bunch of adjectives. They draw the hearer’s or reader’s attention away from the truth we are trying to present.

Christian jargon is just as bad. We may know exactly what we are trying to say, but to the hearer it is probably an unknown tongue. Words and expressions that have a profound meaning to a Christian have no meaning at all to most other people. If we wish to communicate the truth we need to use simple words that everybody can understand. That may take some time and effort on ur part. The thing about jargon is that after a number of years it becomes a way to avoid thinking about what we are saying.

The truth of the gospel does not need our help to stand. But it must be told. Let’s tell it simply and often.

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