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Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Fervent Prayer For Church Restoration and Repair

While Mennonite Church USA is widely recognized as a "peace church", we Mennos seem to be far better at severing ties with each other than we are at repairing and restoring them.

In my fifty years as a member of Virginia Mennonite Conference, we have gone from being one of three Anabaptist-related communions here in Rockingham County (the other two being Old Order Mennonites at variance with each other) to having over a dozen separate spin-offs in our area today, none of which have any kind of regular communion fellowship with each other.

One example of severed ties particularly painful to me was when our neighboring Cornerstone Church of Broadway (established in 1986 as a VMC congregation separated from Trissels Mennonite), left our Conference in 2001. I had been pastor of the neighboring Zion Mennonite church for twenty years prior, and many of its founders were my friends. I even suggested the "Cornerstone" name to its lead pastor.

During its first decade the Cornerstone church experienced dramatic growth, establishing daughter congregations in Elkton, Mt. Crawford, Port Republic, Waynesboro and Richmond, Virginia, and as far away as Charleston, South Carolina, and Versailles and Hannibal, Missouri. According to my 1997 Mennonite Yearbook, Cornerstone had become a network of nine churches in its first ten-year of existence. It was an exciting and blessed time, and later even more congregations were added, as far away as Florida.

Since then most of the 17 pastors listed in the 1997 Yearbook have severed their ties with both the parent Cornerstone group and the Virginia Mennonite Conference (a part of Mennonite Church USA), and are leading growing evangelical congregations with names like New Life, Crossroads Community Church, Freedom Fellowship and Abundant Life. A number of the pastors involved continue to fellowship and work together on an informal but regular basis, and I know of at least two who are an active part of a VMC church today.

I've always liked "cornerstone" as a church name, a term the Apostle Paul used for its founder (Jesus) in his letter to the Ephesians. And in his first letter to believers at Corinth Paul begs the church to maintain unity based on the conviction that "Other foundation can no one lay than than which is already laid, Jesus Christ", a verse Menno Simons attached to all of his many writings. In other words, all who are built on that one foundation, with Christ as cornerstone, and who partake of one bread, are vitally connected both to each other and to their Lord.

A year after Cornerstone's departure, the five congregations in VMC's Mountain Valley District, most within a fifteen mile radius of here, also withdrew. I couldn't keep from crying when this happened, at one of our two 2002 Conference assemblies. These occasions have always been for me a kind of reunion of my "freundschaft", my spiritual extended family. Now we were experiencing yet another painful breakup.

The largest of the Mountain Valley churches, Dayton Mennonite, has since affiliated with the Conservative Mennonite Conference. The other four smaller Mountain Valley congregations continue as an independent network.

I am beyond saddened that followers of Menno, along with all too many Christians today, are so prone to divide and re-divide from each other with distressing frequency. This in spite of Jesus' fervent prayer that his followers "remain one as I and the Father are one", so that "all may know know that you are my disciples."

So here's my own fervent prayer:

That all parts of the former Cornerstone network, the Mountain Valley congregations and all other former members of Virginia Mennonite Conference reunite with each other and renew a collaborative working relationship in all areas possible.

That all area conferences who were formerly a part of the "Old Mennonite" or "General Conference Mennonite" family of churches make peace with each other and commit themselves to prayerfully maintaining their "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace", meanwhile extending a hand of fellowship to more conservative Amish and Old Order Mennonite congregations as well.

That Anabaptist/Mennonite groups also reach out to the Protestant communions from which they were separated nearly 500 years, ago and explore ways of strengthening ties with each other as followers of Jesus.

That all Protestants seek ways of reuniting in table fellowship with Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions around the world, in order to celebrate our being "one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth".

I know that sounds impossibly ambitious, but what lesser vision would be worthy of our daily petition that God's "will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? Isn't this what Jesus' prayer is all about?

It is, after all, his church, not ours. He is the One True Vine, and we are mere branches. He is our only connection to the divine roots on which our lives depend.
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