What possibilities await conservative Anabaptism? What challenges should be anticipated? This booklet explores five dimensions of the conservative Anabaptism community, calling attention to challenges and opportunities within each dimension.


Writing about vision for the church is incredibly humbling for me. I care deeply about the church, but I know that the church is far dearer to the heart of the Triune God. I am nearly overwhelmed when I think of what went on in the heart of the Father to see His Son serve and suffer in faithful love and then return to the eternal glory. I am amazed to read how the divine seal of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the early gathered believers. This is a great work of God! His gracious work in Jesus transcends all time and draws believing men and women from every tribe and tongue. And we have the inexpressible privilege of being part of this huge and glorious work of God! I am humbled to be included. 

What is offered here does not ask all the necessary questions, and falls even shorter in providing answers. My hope is that it draws the reader into grateful devotion to the Lord of church and a heartfelt commitment to do all that we can to live out His intentions for us in our time.

I begin this paper with a few reflections on the words of Jesus after Peter’s confession of faith.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:17-19

Among the many things that could be said and should be said about Jesus’ words here, I want to consider two thoughts to set the stage for my reflections on conservative Anabaptism.

First, the church is His church. “I will build My church,” Jesus said. We are not our own. Belonging to Jesus anchors us firmly in an identity that supersedes any earthly or temporary identity we may have. We have been called Anabaptists for our practice of baptizing adult believers who had been previously baptized as babies. And we have developed into a stream of believers with a number of distinct emphases in belief and practice. But we must see ourselves as belonging to Jesus. We are His, not our own, and our vision must be shaped by who we are in Him, not by what others have called us or by what we may have evolved into through the centuries. Ultimately, there will be no such entity as the Baptist Church or the Methodist Church or the Mennonite Church. There is only the church of Jesus Christ. We have no authority or freedom to make the church other than His church.

“Our hope for the church is in Jesus, not in ourselves. “

The second observation is that Jesus has purposed to build His church and has committed to doing that against all opposition. To talk about vision for the church is to enter His work and His intentions. Where we develop our own plan, our own work, or our own vision, we will fail. Concerning the church of Jesus Christ, we have the commitment of Jesus to do the impossible—to carry forward God’s plan for a people of faith in Jesus against anything the “gates of hell” devise against us. Consequently, any consideration of vision for the church must first fully embrace God’s plan for a people in Jesus, and then, when we enter that plan, we must place all hope of fulfillment in the power and person of Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth. Our hope for the church is in Jesus, not in ourselves. 

Today we are facing huge and varied challenges which change even as we attempt to address them. If we were on our own, we would easily lose hope. But because of Jesus, each of the challenges we face likewise has opportunities. In this paper I will identify six current challenges and their corresponding opportunities with the full realization that only the presence of Jesus will be adequate for us in these times.

Challenge #1

To build strong, committed church communities in an age of individualism and reluctance to commit

Major cultural shifts typically take place as correctives to good ideas and practices gone wrong. The “Age of Enlightenment” was a reaction to many abuses of institutional authority both in society and in the church. Enlightenment thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries argued against long-standing class distinctions that gave nobility great privileges and kept the masses of common folks in poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance. The equality of man became one of the new doctrines, and nowhere was it embodied more boldly than in the New World. The Declaration of Independence asserted, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Of course, as we know looking back, for most of our nation’s history (in the words of George Orwell) some people apparently were “more equal than others.”1

The resultant cultural shifts, however, have been in favor of the individual—rights, freedoms, beliefs, choices, gifts, and potential are primarily about oneself. In the West, we simply can’t imagine anyone but me being the ultimate determiner of major choices in life, of what beliefs and values I hold deeply, and nowadays even of what I think is right and wrong. Any group of which I am a member that attempts to dictate (or even strongly urge) what I ought to do or not do with my life, or what I ought to believe or not believe, or what is right or wrong for me is seriously out of place at best and abusive at worst.

Many cultural correctives that happened with the Enlightenment were understandable and right—correctives such as casting off oppression of the lower classes, doing away with torturous punishments, bringing in just laws, freeing slaves, offering education to all, and reining in corporate highhandedness. But the pendulum has swung to such an opposite degree that today every person easily considers himself as the greatest good and the highest authority. This shift has resulted in a significant reduction of legitimate authority (whether that of parents or church leaders or policemen) and has weakened, and in some cases wrecked, legitimate and necessary social structures. 

“Never before in the history of the planet have so many people – on their own – had the ability to find so much information about so many things and about so many other people. … There is no bigger flattener than the idea of making all the world’s knowledge, or even just a big chunk of it, available to anyone and everyone, anytime, anywhere.”

Thomas Friedman

Adding to the shift toward individualism, recent access to information via the Internet has contributed to what various sociologists have termed a “flattened society.” New York columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “Never before in the history of the planet have so many people – on their own – had the ability to find so much information about so many things and about so many other people. … There is no bigger flattener than the idea of making all the world’s knowledge, or even just a big chunk of it, available to anyone and everyone, anytime, anywhere.”2

If information is power, then every person with access to the Internet has power, and this has been a huge contributor to individualism. We no longer rely so heavily on the authority of a doctor, for example. We do the research ourselves. More and more we make decisions on our own. And while it feels liberating to be able to make independent decisions, it contributes to the desire to be unhinged from any group or community that threatens this independence. 

So the upside is that we feel more informed about important matters, but the downside is that we easily assume we are better informed than we actually are. In spiritual understanding, particularly, it makes us susceptible to the danger of trusting our own understanding. The Scriptures in both covenants warn us that it is not safe to trust our judgment alone.3 Our selfish desires and immature attitudes easily influence these decisions, and we easily forget our limited understanding. The New Testament model for understanding the mind of God is through the Christian community. No one member has all the wisdom necessary for the functioning of the body.

Specifically, concerning church, authority has been so undermined that if a congregation decides to require something of its members, it is commonly labeled legalistic or uncaring; and if it attempts to enforce what its members have agreed to require, it can even be labeled abusive.4 (As an aside, we need to acknowledge here that we have contributed to this erosion of authority by our splintering as well. An errant member can simply move down the road to another church that permits or ignores his error.)

“Our individualistic culture is a culture of loneliness, rejection, and relational disaster.”

The consequences of overcorrection in this matter are huge. A culture overemphasizing individual rights and choices at the expense of group strength and solidarity limits its ability to meet basic human needs both personal and social. Our individualistic culture is destroying family structures, marring thousands of children and teenagers for life, as husbands and wives move on when the marriage no longer serves their personal interests. Our individualistic culture kills well over a million babies each year in the U.S. because individuals pursue sex for their own interests and decide they don’t want the resulting baby.5 Young people are encouraged to plan and dream and pursue what will make them happy, only to find that their self-interests destroy the very character and lifestyle habits necessary for community. Then, they wonder why they don’t belong anywhere, why they have no one to listen to them, why no one cares for them, and why life is such a waste. It only gets worse as they grow older. Our individualistic culture is a culture of loneliness, rejection, and relational disaster.

With the breakdown in community and relationships, people today not only value their own opinions, plans, and desires, but they also have become increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to anything beyond immediate and foreseeable ends. They are willing to go to college, for example, or take a job or do close and intimate activities with their friends, or as Christians go on short-term mission trips. But they hesitate to get married and will more readily attend a church than join (or if they join, they want the understanding that it will not interfere with their personal pursuits). People today value mobility and freedom, and want the option of getting out or moving on if things don’t work out or if they wish to follow future urges. Ours is a restless age, looking for quick and easy satisfaction. Consequently, fewer people are experiencing the deeper and richer rewards of roots, of long-term commitments, or of growing old surrounded by family and friends and church communities that care.

It is easy to place all the burden of this restlessness and reluctance to commit upon the shoulders of young people. They are the ones we observe living in the footloose zones of delayed adolescence or emerging adulthood. But Kendra Deans, who has been involved in extensive youth studies in the last decade, says Christian young people’s reticence to commit has largely to do with the tepid faith of their fathers. It is the outgrowth of what she and others have identified as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” the dominant Christianity of North America. In this view, the “central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”6 The God of this worldview is kind and caring and available when I have a problem, a kind of benevolent counselor who says only positive things about me, or perhaps a personal crisis manager, on call for getting me out of scrapes and helping me in desperate times.

“… Jesus said He would build His church, and we must trust that He is with us for such a time as this.”

Building strong communities in an individualistic age can feel overwhelming. But Jesus said He would build His church, and we must trust that He is with us for such a time as this. In an individualistic age we have many opportunities. To name a few, we have the opportunity:

  • To demonstrate the wholesome goodness of submitting to one another 
  • To show love for others above ourselves 
  • To humbly dedicate personal talents toward the good of the kingdom of God rather than using them to pursue personal fame and fortune 
  • To forgo marriage in some situations to be more free to serve Jesus and His people 
  • To run a business in ways that support kingdom goals and projects rather than simply to accumulate profits 
  • To abstain at times from personal liberties that may cause offense in younger or weaker believers 
  • To demonstrate servant leadership as a model of church authority that is distinct from the prevailing understanding

Older Christians face the challenge and the responsibility to understand the times, to pay attention to the influences shaping young people, to evaluate honestly the authenticity of our faith, and to engage heartily in the mission of Jesus. Young people need to experience the robust call to live like Jesus and to place one’s life and resources at His disposal in an age when the pull is strong to live for oneself.

We can expect our world, with its individualistic values and ideals, to misunderstand our communities. They may at times even refer to us as a cult. Certainly, we must avoid the errors of dictatorial authority or of resorting to harsh or coercive tactics, but we must embrace the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles that the church is a community functioning under authority. We must teach and practice strong community values like love, humility, submission, sacrifice, and commitment as taught clearly in passages like Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 & 13; for it is only in such communities that individuals can thrive and become all that God intended.7 Furthermore it takes strong communities to receive, support, and nurture the social casualties of an individualistic culture.

Challenge #2

To maintain healthy families where children grow up in the security of love and commitment

This is a subject in itself and is addressed in a separate paper, so I refer to it only briefly here. A huge challenge facing the church is that of nurturing families in a culture where families are disintegrating. This includes holding an unyielding commitment to lifelong marriage, calling children to obey their parents and honor their elders, teaching parents to love and train their children, training children in the ways of God, and not fearing to exercise loving discipline.

What we need to note here is that families must not be left on their own. The church can support strong family values by teaching biblical family structure, promoting healthy relationships, organizing support groups, promoting Christian education, and practicing discipleship.

Without healthy families, the church will struggle to be what Jesus intended, which means that one of the first priorities of churches in family-defunct cultures is to work at restoring strong-family ways of living.

Challenge #3

To minister to people around us whose lives have been broken by sin and adverse cultural circumstances

I have already described some of the societal repercussions of individualism and selfishness. Two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul predicted the conditions of the last days with these words:

“But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away.”

2 Timothy 3:1-5

We are not to follow in their steps; rather, we are to turn from their ways of living. But we do live among them, and we are called by the example and teaching of Jesus to minister to broken people. The personal, relational, emotional, and psychological consequences of sin are many. Today we see hurting children, angry teenagers, single moms, addicts, homeless men and women, hardened prisoners, and many people who have learned to rely on government assistance for housing and basic necessities. 

The moral and relational breakdown in our culture results in crisis needs, chronic needs, emotional needs, and multiplied unhealthy and sinful behaviors. People struggle with depression, suicidal tendencies, neglect, abuse, hyperactivity, eating disorders, self-mutilation, anxiety, panic attacks, and many other personality and behavioral disorders.

Conservative Anabaptists, generally coming from strong home structures that offer love, relational stability, a sense of personal responsibility, moral absolutes, a healthy work ethic, and respect for authority, although not immune to emotional and relational needs, find themselves mercifully shielded from many of the sorrows and troubles rampant in general society. We find it tempting to isolate ourselves, to focus on maintaining what we have, and to avoid the messy work of engaging with broken people in society around us. When we are willing to engage, we face the challenges of relationally empty people latching on to us like leeches, undisciplined people wanting the benefits of our more disciplined lives but resenting the necessary disciplines themselves, and people who have gotten themselves into impossibly tangled relationships wanting us to help them make their mess work.

We are easily overwhelmed. 

“The church is the body of Jesus, and where the body is willing to follow the Head, Jesus has promised to be in our midst, doing what we cannot do, bringing His life and light to situations beyond hope.”

But Jesus said He will build His church. As we look at Jesus’ own ministry, we find encouragement that He didn’t try to change broken systems or create perfect social circumstances. He ministered to people one at a time. He engaged with them, spoke words of truth and healing, refused to let people simply use Him for their selfish purposes, called them from their selfishness into the good ways of God, and walked with those who were willing. We have countless opportunities to do the same. The church is the body of Jesus, and where the body is willing to follow the Head, Jesus has promised to be in our midst, doing what we cannot do, bringing His life and light to situations beyond hope. We don’t have to solve all our neighbors’ problems. We don’t have to reconcile all estranged relationships. But we can love. We can listen. We can care with words and actions charged with the presence of Jesus. The possibilities of showing Christ’s love to a broken world are endless.

I want to note several things about reaching out to people in our culture. First, we must be willing to love them as they are and extend grace in the process of change. Our minds easily go to where needy people ought to be. God’s love starts with us when we are yet sinners. Our love to others must do the same. It is rare that we can help people toward better ways of living if we do not love and accept them where they are. Accepting people does not mean we approve of all they do. Sometimes we are afraid to associate with, smile at, or show goodwill toward needy people unless or until we know they want to change. I think we fear that being open-hearted toward them will mean we are giving our stamp of approval on their lives, and so we feel compelled to point out where they are wrong.

“Accepting people and being kind toward them does not mean we accommodate their sin or join them in it.”

Second, we must not compromise who Jesus is or what He calls His followers to, even as we exercise grace and forbearance. This point balances the first. Accepting people and being kind toward them does not mean we accommodate their sin or join them in it. We would not help drug addicts by giving them money. Jesus was a master at engaging with sinners in ways that drew them to Him but also drew them away from their sin. Showing respect for them as persons and seeing their deeper needs seemed to open the way for their own consciences to work and to prepare them to hear His call to better ways of living.

A third consideration in reaching out to people in our culture is that we must be okay with what can appear to us as wasted time and resources. As I mentioned above, we ought not simply to give handouts. Our genuine love for them (our sacrificial commitment to their good) would forbid indiscriminate giving. But sometimes they will take advantage of us. Sometimes what we give will seem wasted. Sometimes we will pour countless hours into their lives only to have them turn away from us. At such times, we will be tempted to think our time or our resources have been wasted. And certainly we sometimes make mistakes that we should learn from. But we must trust that nothing we do in the name of Jesus is wasted. 8

Challenge #4

To engage with technological innovations, taking advantage of the potential without succumbing to the dangers of sinful uses

In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote his international best-seller Future Shock, describing the stress and disorientation that comes from rapid societal changes. Technology continues to change our lives, far beyond what Toffler wrote about in 1970. What brought us the telephone eventually brought us the cordless phone and now has produced cell phones and smart phones, rendering much of our former phone equipment obsolete. An ad in a 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics boldly declared, “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” Fifty years later, computer companies were advertising laptops that weighed less than five pounds. Today, handheld smart phones do far more than either of these former computers and do it faster. These changes in products correspond to and often cause significant changes in job opportunities. It is impossible to keep up with all that is changing in the technological revolution—changes in medicine, research, education, production, communication, and transportation. We can communicate with people around the globe. We have instant access to information that formerly took researchers hours, days, even years, to find. Toffler, by the way, was the first to describe “information overload.” The reality of “information at our fingertips” has increased exponentially since his time. People can browse the web, skipping from news to weather to maps to music to blogs to pricing on products, and then on to games all in a matter of minutes.

For years conservative Anabaptists simply avoided much of the new technology, together agreeing not to listen to the radio or watch television, for example. But as computers have been harnessed to enable efficiency across all sectors of society, it has become increasingly difficult simply to abstain from technology. We use the Internet now not only to access information, but also to make purchases, find parts, communicate with friends and family, enable Bible translation, and spread the Gospel in hard-to-reach areas of the world. Instead of relying only on printed texts of the Bible, for example, some missionaries are distributing flash drives or specially designed mini computers or Bible apps that people can download onto their phones.

The dark side, of course, is that Anabaptists using their smart phones to get information or connect with family and friends also get caught in the underbelly of the Internet. Pornography has never been easier to access. Texting and sexting have been the downfall of too many people, married and unmarried, in the Anabaptist community. Titillating movies are easily accessible. Electronic gaming holds young (and sometimes older ones) in hours of spellbound button-pushing. 

Furthermore, the net effect of being able to do things faster, say things faster, and get things faster has been to speed up the pace of life. We run here and there (in our cars, of course). We hurry to get home so we can go away. And when we get home again, we fall into our beds numbed in mind and body by our frantic schedules. Neil Wiseman says one of the things in our culture that increases our emptiness and thus our “hunger for the holy” is what he simply calls ceaseless motion. He writes, “Too many daily activities overload our emotional circuits. Most of the time, we feel as if the whole world is running a marathon race to who-knows-where.”9 Stillness and silence become strangers to us in such a culture.

Future shock indeed!

One of the ironic consequences of electronic connections and activities is the toll on relationships. I recently was traveling with my wife and son, and as we sat down to eat in a restaurant, I looked around and noted how many of the occupants at the tables (sometimes whole families) sat silently, all of them looking at their cell phones and oblivious to each other. It is past time to teach both tech restraint and cell phone etiquette. Furthermore, we will need to plan activities that get us outdoors and off our sofas. Our vision for the future must be relationally proactive. Here are a few suggestions:

  • We must not let email and texting keep us from the richness of face-to-face communication.
  • We must spend time together as families in all dimensions of life—working, eating, laughing, relaxing, worshiping, playing, and serving; and we must resist the temptation to use tech to entertain our children while we are busy elsewhere.
  • We must make opportunities to visit one another as families, and we must learn to incorporate those who have no families into our family interactions.
  • We must intentionally slow down and take the time to think, talk, see, hear, and taste. What are positive opportunities for electronic technology?
  • Using Bible programs to enhance accuracy and efficiency in Bible study
  • Projecting sermon notes, charts, and quotes to enable audiences to follow the presentation
  • Projecting music and readings for congregational worship
  • Reducing paperwork and office work for ministries through computerized record keeping
  • Analyzing record keeping and other data to maximize ministry focus
  • Offering biblical teaching and thought-provoking commentary on current issues through blogs, websites, or forums
  • Staying in touch with others serving in remote areas
  • Speeding up translation projects
  • Making Bibles and other Christian literature available in hard to-reach areas
  • Networking with other Christian ministries
  • Offering services to relieve missionaries in remote areas

Each of these opportunities, of course, has the potential to lead us off course. Too much reliance on Bible programs in Bible study or on electronic gadgetry in sermon delivery can actually divert us from the presence of God. Computer analysis of Christian ministry may move us toward marketing strategies which overlook less efficient but more Christ-like ministry opportunities. The challenge always is to make the tools serve us rather than us serving the tools, especially when the tools have a magnetic attractiveness themselves.

Challenge #5

To cultivate spiritual maturity so that weak and struggling members are nurtured

With the increase in relational dysfunction and the resultant increase in emotional, psychological, and spiritual problems, many people need soul care. Our culture’s response has been to study human problems and to train experts to address these problems. I personally believe that there are people with psychological and emotional problems who need professional care, especially those whose problems are rooted in physiological malfunction—e.g., schizophrenia, manic episodes, dementia, Alzheimer’s, learning disorders, and some forms of depression and anxiety. But having spent years in counseling, I also believe that many problems people face are the result of stress, selfish living, poor lifestyle choices, troubled or broken relationships, misplaced values, misplaced devotion, unresolved anger and bitterness, and faulty belief systems (about God, self, and life in general), all of which can result in burnout, depression, anxiety, and related emotional dysfunction. These emotional problems, when growing out of unwise or sinful lifestyles, are not resolved simply by medicating them or by periodic visits to professionals.10

My belief is that the church is largely losing its way here, turning the care of souls over to people who, too often, are trained only to manage symptoms or who employ tactics that are suspect or outright damaging.

In the past twenty years, a host of counseling centers to care for troubled people have sprung up in conservative Anabaptist communities. Most of the counselors at these centers are not professionals, but neither have they been commissioned by the church as seasoned, mature teachers—disciplers in the ways of Jesus. Consequently, many counselors quickly face situations and problems they do not have ready answers for and they soon feel overwhelmed. Some then look to other Christian resources for background and training. This is not a bad thing in itself until one surveys the “biblical” approaches to dealing with these problems. The reality is that there is a wide range of approaches being used by Christians to address human problems. Some identify “idols of the heart” as the root problem. Some see personal sin as the universal reason for all problems, search the heart for sin, and call the sinner to repentance. Some look for “core lies” and seek encounters with Jesus to speak “God’s light” to the troubled person (the theophostic approach). Some use charts to get people to identify and confess specific sins. Some follow the deliverance model, commanding spirits of fear and lust and anger to leave. Some call people to identify and confess the sins of their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers in order to pull down strongholds of sin or to break generational sins and curses. And others follow modified forms of secular psychologists, addressing poor self-esteem or pain as the main human problems or using talk therapy or primal therapy (screaming out one’s anger) as a way to deal with those problems. 

The challenge facing the church is to recover robust communities of faith where authentic soul care can take place. My opinion is that the approaches I mentioned above generally have some truth in them (which is what makes them believable) and therefore could have valid application in some form in given situations. But of major concern to me is that too often a counselor (or a counseling center) will largely focus on one method and try to force all human problems through the same mold. 

[Jesus] simply understood the problem, both in its surface manifestations and in its root causes, and He addressed the problem in life-giving, life-changing ways.

As we observe Jesus caring for people around Him, we seldom see Him employing the same method. He simply understood the problem, both in its surface manifestations and in its root causes, and He addressed the problem in life-giving, life-changing ways. Jesus did not ignore either the physical or the spiritual or the circumstantial contributors to human problems. With the woman at the well, He indicated she was driven by an inner emptiness (or thirst), and that this thirst, which had never been quenched by the men in her life, could be satisfied by what He had to offer. With the woman bent over by a spirit of infirmity, Jesus laid His hands on her and loosed her from eighteen years of being bound by Satan (Luke 13:10-17). But when the disciples assumed that a man’s blindness was due to sin, either in his life or the lives of his parents, Jesus said the man’s blindness was not because of sin but for the purposes of God, as a means of revealing God to those who were spiritually blind (John 9).

Inasmuch as Jesus commonly addressed physical needs along with spiritual needs (and often did link the two), we must avoid false assumptions on either side of human need. On the one hand, we must not assume, when people have a physiological problem, that they do not need soul care. And on the other hand, we must not assume, when people have an emotional or spiritual problem, that they do not need physiological care. Either assumption can keep us from ministering to the whole person

To be more specific, recent advances in understanding the intricate workings of our bodies has shifted the professionals in our society to assess and treat emotional problems pharmaceutically, and it is easy for Christians to accede to the false assumption that drugs will take care of the problem. On the other hand, other Christians, observing the abuse of drugs, can falsely assume that drugs are always an attempt to replace or avoid the work of God in a person’s life. 

“The same Jesus who called people to repentance and drove out demons also touched lepers and guided His disciples to use healing oil on the sick.”

We need men and women who are willing to engage in the scientific discoveries of human physiology, who likewise are grounded in theology, and who are thus equipped to care for both body and soul. Whether people are sick in mind or body, the presence of Jesus is necessary. The same Jesus who called people to repentance and drove out demons also touched lepers and guided His disciples to use healing oil on the sick (Mark 6:13). Indeed, the presence of Jesus is more powerful than surgeries or drugs ever will be, even when those are helpful and necessary ministrations. For this reason, even young Christians who know Jesus have something to offer those who are sick and suffering.

I believe the church community has a tremendous opportunity to minister the life of Jesus to a broken, hurting, and emotionally distressed world. I do not believe that the ministry of the church replaces all professional care, but that it ought to work along with it. Sometimes medication enables troubled people to lead normal lives. I think of a missionary friend of mine who, without medication, would have manic episodes that made him delusional, but with medication was able to function well. And as I said before, people who need medication still need the ministrations of Jesus-filled believers.

I believe there is a place for church-run counseling centers. Such centers can provide an intensity of discipleship that is difficult to provide in many churches. But I have a concern that these centers have the creeping tendency to take over soul care that very well could happen in the local church. Furthermore, I strongly believe that such centers should work in cooperation with local church and family members. It is my opinion that counselors are at times making little progress and at other times actually worsening the situation when they try to address problems in people’s lives in a setting completely removed from the families and churches in which those problems developed. I fully understand the need for confidentiality and the benefit of fresh perspective in a tangled relational problem. Still, the truth remains that counselors simply aren’t in a good position to advise wisely when they have only one-sided information. 

We need men and women in the church who:

  • Are committed to discipling others and are filled with the presence of Jesus
  • Are knowledgeable in health care and current with medical discoveries
  • Have a rich and biblical understanding of God and humans. That is, they are spiritually mature and theologically grounded.
  • Are discerning: Along with the advances in understanding how humans function have come a host of theories from godless psychologists that have led many astray. And unfortunately, it seems to me, many conservative Anabaptists both in our churches and in counseling ministries have tried to implement theories of human understanding and methods of addressing human dysfunction that are both foolish and unbiblical. 

On the last point, I want to clarify that there is danger in either extreme. We can naively accept ideas and therapies with little evaluation, using methods that bypass the power and presence of Jesus. And we can also develop reactionary habits that automatically reject observations, ideas, or helpful pointers solely on the basis that they come from non-Christians. Neither approach is exercising the discernment we need in these times.

Challenge #6

To work toward better articulation of our understanding of theology

The teachings of Jesus and the Apostles (referred to as traditions and doctrine by New Testament writers) are relevant in any culture in every time. They constitute the standard of orthodoxy for all Christian thought and teaching. Of this we must be certain

Jesus clearly intended for the church, however, to understand, articulate, and live out that truth in the nuances of different cultures and eras, and for that responsibility He promised His Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. We face situations, decisions, opportunities, and ideologies the Apostles did not face. Even in our time, the challenges in Western culture are not the same as what the church faces south of the Equator or what the house churches in China encounter. The teachings of Jesus are relevant everywhere, but followers of Jesus will have different emphases in different cultural situations, simply because the challenges they face are unique to their time and setting.

“An articulated theology should never supersede or take the place of a lived theology, any more than a map should take the place of a journey.”

Furthermore, we see God and understand God and His ways from different vantage points. As conservative Anabaptists, we have traditionally focused more on living our faith than on articulating it. Ours is a theology worked out in life, what Robert Friedmann calls an “existential theology.”11 In our lived theology, we have understandings of who God is, what His intentions are in Jesus, how He saves us, and what it means to follow Jesus. Although Friedmann argues that attempting to systematize such a theology works against its very essence, Anabaptists from the outset recognized the need to articulate their faith. An articulated theology should never supersede or take the place of a lived theology, any more than a map should take the place of a journey. But without more thought and work given to theology, we are in danger of getting off the road, ruining the journey, and perhaps even missing our destination. Indeed, what we often do not realize is that we can live our way into error as easily as we can live our way into understanding.12

More emphasis on articulation is a great opportunity and would have a number of benefits.

  • It would require more discipline in our thinking and preaching. We are far too sloppy both in our formal preaching and teaching13 and in the informal answers we give to those who ask us about our life and faith. I’m thinking not only of questions that come to us from without but also of the questions that come from the thinking young people among us. Our young people need to know that the faith of their fathers can stand the test of hard scrutiny.
  • Articulating our faith would provide us a base from which to work toward better unity. We must not assume, of course, that an articulated orthodoxy by itself would assure unity. But clearly the New Testament writers (as well as the church leaders in the early centuries) worked from the premise that right doctrine was an essential part of their unity. Their understanding of heresy was not simply false teaching, but more doctrine that divides. They understood the integral connection between doctrine and living and thus between unified faith and a unified church. When they faced challenges to their faith, they got together and did the hard work of dividing the false from the true, articulating the true, and standing together by the creeds (faith statements) they hammered out. We continue to benefit from their labors on issues such as the Incarnation, the nature of Jesus, and the Trinity with little consideration of the hard work it took them or on how much we depend on them for our own understanding.14
  • Working harder on articulating what we believe given the challenges of our time would also have the benefit of correcting where we stray. While there are good things to say for our emphasis on living, our neglect of theology brings snares as well. As I noted above, we can live our way into error as easily as living our way into understanding of truth. I will offer one example without attempting to resolve the issue. The New Testament writers clearly taught that there is one body, no doubt working from the passionate prayer of Jesus “that they all may be one” ( John 17:21). We have lived our way into being okay with splitting and splintering (even feeling obligated to do so), creating factions between brothers in Jesus to such an extent that anyone coming into one of our groups soon gets confused with all the factions. This, I suggest, reflects a faulty ecclesiology, an ecclesiology that needs to be corrected. We do not have the option of adjusting the truth of the New Testament to fit our ways. Our excuses will not justify our unhappy behaviors. I do not believe there is an easy way forward, but we will make no progress at correction until we align our understanding of church with what Jesus and the Apostles taught.
  • With a corrected ecclesiology, I believe we could find better ways forward in working together. There are cultural and missional needs that call for significant resources from the church. In our splintered condition, we offer what we can. But with greater working together there is much more that we could do. I offer one example. The breakdown of marriage and family is creating incredibly tangled marital and family messes. If we continue to hold to lifelong marriage in a culture where people are in second, third, and fourth marriages with children in and out of those relationships, and if we have the courage to engage in these messes, we need far more resources than we are currently offering. I’m thinking of such potential resources as offering concentrated teaching to broken families, help with child care, financial support for single parents, or counseling for teens and adults caught in personal and relational turmoil. The needs are immense. They call for pooled resources, but we will need to work together.
  • Articulating our theology would, I believe, make a contribution to the larger body of Christ. As I have indicated above, different vantage points have the potential to increase our understanding. I believe the larger body needs the perspective of Anabaptists, particularly on what it means to follow Jesus. In recent years a number of evangelical writers have begun to explore this subject and have had the courage to stand up and call for change in their own ranks. And they have drawn heat from their own people for daring to speak out. Ironically, some Anabaptists have joined in the criticism of these writers instead of noting the good theological and lifestyle shifts they are calling for. While an articulation of our perspective may likewise generate criticism from those with a different theological view, I can’t help but believe that it would be a welcome voice to others.
  • Articulating our theology would bring greater consistency to our own study. We typically borrow from the hard theological work of others (even while critiquing some of their doctrinal positions) for such crucial functions as sermon preparation, teaching assignments, writing, and other studies. Isn’t there something inconsistent in this approach? It seems to me that if we were willing to do the hard work of theology, we would have a better premise for engaging in theological discussion and critique. And even as we would hopefully contribute to the understanding of others, we could better appreciate the contributions they make to our understanding.

I have discussed six challenges facing the conservative Anabaptist church community. In further discussion with students and fellow presenters after this paper was presented, I realized there are a number of additional challenges I did not address, two of which I will mention. Their brevity does not mean they are lesser challenges, only that they need more consideration.

Challenge #7

To develop a framework for change

As conservatives, obviously, we are concerned with preserving. Calling for a framework for change may seem at first to be contrary to our desire to preserve. But we must differentiate between the things that must be preserved and the things that can change and sometimes need to change.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” says the writer to the Hebrews (13:8). And Jesus assured us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The Apostle Paul, arguing passionately for the true Gospel against a “different gospel” said, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8). We must be clear, then, that some things cannot change. And certain changes that people try to make, we must resist.

But truth must always be lived out in a context, and when that context changes, former ways of doing things may not be the best for the new context. We can become so focused on avoiding change, that we miss opportunities for improvement. Or we may continue to promote answers to questions that are no longer being asked. 

Here are a couple of considerations for change:

  • We are obligated to change where we do not find ourselves honoring the teachings of Jesus or the Apostles (the Scriptural term here is repentance).
  • We should not fear changes that make us more Christ-like (2 Corinthians 3:18).
  • We should always be looking for ways to show Jesus more clearly and understandably to the world (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).
  • We should embrace changes that make the church community stronger, more effective, and more like Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-16).

On the other side of the issue, we must observe cautions when considering changes. If we change in reaction to something we don’t like, we easily overcorrect and embrace a position or a practice that is equally problematic long-term. Change invariably results in losses. We must be careful to weigh whether the benefits of new ways will offset losses of older ways.

When God’s people do not find a way forward to make healthy changes, it seems to me it sets us up for a number of unfortunate potentialities: 1) We become so focused on preservation (even of good things) that we neglect more important things. 2) We are in danger of spiritual stagnation. 3) We become increasingly irrelevant and inaccessible in our culture. (And, ironically, we will readily point this out in groups that are more conservative in practice than we are.) 4) We offer the appearance of preservation, even while actual changes are happening by default with or without our awareness. 5) We lose sight of the value of current practices that actually are shaping us in good ways, making younger, idealistic members particularly susceptible to poor choices in change.

In a time of rapid cultural change, the truth of God does not change, but practices do. Practices have a shaping effect on us. We must give careful thought to practicing our faith in ways that glorify God, contribute to spiritual vitality, and enable the lost to find Jesus.

Challenge #8

To provide a way for individuals with an artistic nature to thrive

Conservative Anabaptists are known for being practical and down-to-earth. We want to be useful—do useful work, give useful advice, and make useful things. We love to make something work, and then improve it. We can spend a lot of time and energy on something we can eat, or wear, or work with. We can even appreciate beauty to the extent that it serves a clear purpose—food, quilts, art (for storybooks), or music. But when there is no discernible usefulness to an activity or a product or idea, we struggle to see the value. 

But some people thrive on beauty. It nourishes their soul to see and hear and articulate sounds and connections and thoughts on abstract levels where practical-minded people find it hard to follow, let alone appreciate. Artistic people in a down-to-earth culture can feel misunderstood and even smothered.15

The primary way artistic people in conservative Anabaptist churches have found an outlet is through music. In recent years particularly, excellent a cappella choral groups have emerged, providing opportunities for gifted musicians to develop and explore new music and more artistic forms. But this is one avenue only, and it is often more accessible to single people who are able to do extended tours away from home. Furthermore, it seems to have the blessing of the conservative community because of its direct tie to usefulness. Music is an avenue of worship. We don’t have a clear way forward for people to develop art beyond useful, realistic scenes; or music other than sacred, a cappella choral music; or literature beyond realistic stories or straightforward exposition. In sculpture and architecture (beyond functional), we have neither eye nor heart, easily assuming it to be poor stewardship at best or idolatry at worst. 

It seems to me that this calls for deeper discussion and discernment. First, we must recognize that to provide a way for artistic people to develop and thrive among us would change us. I think that change could have good dimensions, for true beauty is rooted in the nature of God, and any exploration of new dimensions of God should deepen and strengthen us. The danger of the fine arts, of course, is that they can become expressions of human pride rather than the glory of God. But it should encourage us that the most powerful expressions of art in the West are found in the Christian tradition.16


The challenges facing the church are many. We have the pledge of Jesus to build His church. Consequently, we have the obligation to lay down anything in our understanding or our practice that runs counter to His intentions. And we have the opportunity to offer our lives and our resources to the cause that forever will bring glory to the Father through Jesus Christ.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you agree with the perception that young people today are
    more reluctant to commit to the church? And if so, what do you
    see as the contributing reasons?
  2. Do young people still respond to strong challenges and
    high callings?
  3. What opportunities do you observe for Anabaptists ministering to people in western culture who are in broken families and
    strained relationships?
  4. How do you see technology being used in useful ways in the
    church to advance the Kingdom of God?
  5. How do you see technology being a distraction to
    kingdom building?
  6. What is your evaluation of the counseling movement in conservative Anabaptism? Overall is it helping or harming?
  7. How would you envision equipping the church to care for her
    members with personal and interpersonal struggles?
  8. Is conservative Anabaptism in doctrinal peril? If we had a clear
    articulation of conservative Anabaptist theology, what effect do
    you think it would have on the church?

This article is the second part of a compilation of essays titled “Where To?”

Works Cited

  1. George Orwell, Animal Farm
  2. Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat (New York, Strauss and Giroux, 2006).
  3. See, for example, Proverbs 3:5, 6 and Romans 12:16.
  4.  Probably all of us can recall examples of individual members promoting their own understanding above that of the group and feeling hurt when asked to submit to the understanding or decision of their local church. We have record of this happening even in the early days of the church (see, for example, 2 Timothy 2:16-18). The point here is that a culture of individualism lends legitimacy to a person standing up for himself and his own ideas against a church and its leaders, even championing such individualism as necessary for being “true to oneself.”
  5. The Guttmacher Institute reports that half of the pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended and that four in ten of these unwanted pregnancies are aborted. Since 1973 when abortions were legalized in the U.S. more than 57,000,000 babies have been aborted. That is more than 50 dead babies for every one soldier killed in all the wars in U.S. history put together.
  6. Kendra Deans, Almost Christian (Oxford, University Press), 14.
  7. For an excellent call to strong Christian community written by a non-Anabaptist, see Joseph Heller, When the Church was a Family (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2009).
  8. For a helpful discussion on giving without harming, see Glenn Schwartz, When Charity Destroys Dignity (Lancaster, Pennsylvania, World Mission Associates, 2007).
  9. Neil Wiseman, Growing Your Soul (Grand Rapids, Fleming H. Revell, 1996), 21.
  10. For a thoughtful differentiation between “chemical imbalances, brain disorders, and disobedience” see Edward Welch, Blame It on the Brain? (Phillipsburg, NJ, P&R Publishers, 1998).
  11. Robert Freidmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania, Herald Press, 1973), especially part 1, 27-35.
  12. James K. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom shows clearly and biblically that who we love is more fundamental to being Christian than what we believe. This is the reason a true theology can never be reduced to a system. It is also the reason we can still be followers of Jesus in spite of a certain amount of immaturity and even misunderstanding in our theology. But it does not negate the need to articulate our faith, or as the Apostle Peter says, to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
  13. This assessment of preaching in conservative Anabaptist churches is not meant to be unkind and is certainly not universally true. We hear many good sermons. In my opinion, however, it has been too common to proclaim good thoughts and nicely structured talks that are only loosely connected to biblical texts. In such preaching we easily develop our own ideas rather than the rich truth of biblical text.
  14. In his book Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism, D. H. Williams documents the hard work that went into the creeds, and how much we depend on that work today. He asserts: “I am claiming the late patristic period functioned as a kind of doctrinal canon by which all subsequent developments of theology were measured up to the present day. The great creeds of the period, the development of Trinitarian and Christological theology, the finalization of the biblical canon, doctrines pertaining to the human soul and being made in the image of God, to the fall and redemption, to justification by faith, and so on, find their first and (in many cases) enduring foothold in this period. All theological steps later taken, in confirmation or denial, will begin on the trail marked by the early Fathers” (p.139).
  15. Chaim Potok explores this struggle in a conservative Jewish setting in his book My Name is Asher Lev and its sequel The Gift of Asher Lev. Conservative Anabaptist youths with a strong sense of the arts have found these stories deeply moving.
  16. For a discussion of the place of beauty in the realm of literature, see Leland Ryken, Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVaristy Press, 1979). Although I don’t come out at the same place Ryken does on all points, he offers a biblical and thought-provoking case for the place of beauty as a Christian value.