WHY CHURCH MATTERS: MAST MAKES HIS CASE
A 2010 poll of so-called "millennials" (adults ages 18-29) found that their generation is leaving the church.
While 64 percent of those surveyed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicated that they believe in God, 25 percent were unaffiliated with any faith and only about 18 percent attended church regularly. At the same age, roughly 15 percent of baby boomers said they weren’t affiliated with a particular faith and 26 percent went to church regularly.
Citing those figures at a Sept. 27 gathering of Mennonite pastors at Bluffton University, Dr. Gerald Mast reiterated the argument for church attendance made in his 2012 book, "Go to Church, Change the World: Christian Community as Calling."
"Living in community with our brothers and sisters in Christ is our calling—no matter where we are and no matter what occupation we have," the Bluffton communication professor noted. The communal, church life, he maintained, makes all our other involvements relative, and energized.
"This life in community involves fairly basic Christian practices that are familiar to most of us," added Mast, who addressed 14 members of Bluffton’s Council of Church Leaders. "It is our task to remind one another of the importance of these practices because they are undermined on every side by consumer culture around us."
Those practices include baptism, communion, singing and studying Scripture together, and while many people object to church because of their repetition, he pointed out, others object to any experimentation with something new. Regardless, the church must explain "why we do the same thing again and again," and that’s because doing so can help parishioners follow Christ more faithfully, he said.
Mast quoted Aristotle, who said in his work on ethics that "a state of character arises from the repetition of similar activities." They must be "the right activities," the Greek philosopher stressed, also emphasizing the importance of practicing them "right from our youth."
Offering a vivid example of how powerful that kind of practice can be was Jane Roeschley, a 1977 Bluffton graduate and now an associate pastor at Mennonite Church of Normal (Ill.). She recalled the forgiveness extended by the local Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., after a man shot 10 Amish girls—five of whom died—at the West Nickel Mines School in October 2006.
Members of the community recited the Lord’s Prayer daily, Roeschley explained, and though they didn’t necessarily feel like forgiving while grieving the loss, their response arose from "reflexes for reconciliation" nurtured by their practice. "That speaks volumes to me about the power of the mundane," she said.
Other pastors at the presentation reinforced the focus on community.
Dave Maurer, lead pastor of Bethel Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio, said the "community dynamic" is part of what drew him to the Mennonite faith. Scriptures, and experience, tell us we need each other to grow in faith, added the 1999 Bluffton graduate, saying "we weren’t created to be on our own."
"Experience of true community is irresistible," said Anita Rediger from Emmaus Road Mennonite Fellowship in Berne, Ind. "Once it happens, we long for more." And students who enjoy their college experience should be reminded that "this kind of community doesn’t just have to be for four years of your life," she said.
"It’s better to go to church and participate than to skip it, even though life in church can sometimes be frustrating," added Mast, whose book was published last January by Herald Press. "It is through both the delights and the challenges of church life that we learn how to enjoy and to change the world around us."
At the end of each chapter of "Go to Church, Change the World," a reflection is provided with questions to provoke thought and discussion in Sunday school and Bible study audiences, among others. "My hope is that the book is a vehicle for conversations in the church that lead to new appreciation for essential and basic practices by which we live the Christian life, and by which we become disciples of Jesus Christ," the author noted.
Bluffton public relations, 9/28/12