[This essay was written about twenty years ago while I was pastoring a small “neo-Mennonite” congregation in Eugene, Oregon, for a festschrift honoring Gordon Kaufman. By the time the essay was published in 1996, I had left Eugene, co-pastored with my wife, Kathleen Temple, in a large, rural, pretty traditional Mennonite congregation in the midwest for two years, and gotten a job as theology professor at Eastern Mennonite University. I revised the essay in 2002 hoping to have it published again in a theological journal. That didn’t work out. I’m putting it up now mainly because I realized I hadn’t posted it on my PeaceTheology.net site yet. I also think the ideas are still relevant as Mennonites continue to struggle with the future of their tradition.]
The early years of the 21st-century are a time of challenge for Mennonite faith. Mennonite churches are engaged in an intense conversation (not always self-consciously) concerning the meaning of Christianity in a tumultuous, rapidly changing world. One of the central issues in this conversation is simply whose voices will be heard. How will Mennonites define their faith, order their communities, prepare their young people – and who will have voices in this defining?
We face the challenges of defining major new ecclesiastical structures with the formation of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. This time of defining new structures has thus far been fraught with stress as various kinds of fault lines have been exposed and unprecedented conflicts have emerged.
This essay reflects on this issue of who partakes in Mennonite conversations about the future of their faith. I believe our best approach is to affirm that all the voices within the current broad community of Mennonites are to be respected parts of the conversation. To make such allowance requires an awareness of the identity of these voices.
I want to speak of one set of voices in particular, what I will call the voices of “neo-Mennonites.” I am a bit unsure of the best shorthand term for the general perspective to which I am referring. I will use “neo-Mennonite” as a non-value laden term to refer to people who affirm at least many of the elements mentioned by Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman in his 1979 book Nonresistance and Responsibility:
Many persons – especially younger professional people, well-educated and living in settings quite far removed, at least culturally, from traditional rural Mennonite communities – feel the need for an interpretation of the Mennonite perspective which breathes more freely the atmosphere of the contemporary life and culture in which they are so deeply involved. They do not wish to give up some of the basic insights and convictions of the faith in which they were raised, but the only interpretations of that faith which are readily accessible do not seem to address the questions and problems they are facing. 
I will argue in this essay that “neo-Mennonites” should be seen as a legitimate part of Mennonite conversations on all levels concerning the big issues that face Mennonites in the new millennium. I will focus my concern mostly on theology, but I mean to suggest that church-wide conversations on all aspects of church life should welcome the “neo-Mennonite” perspective as a legitimate part of the Mennonite “circle.”
I do not argue that the “neo-Mennonite” perspective should be privileged, but simply that it be respected as part of the conversation. That is, the process of discernment Mennonites are required to enter into will be most fruitful if understood as a process in which all the appropriate voices are heard and taken into account. One of Mennonites’ biggest danger in facing our contemporary challenges is to ignore or silence voices from within our existing communities.
The “neo-Mennonite” perspective exists now within the circle of the Mennonite church. Even if not well understood, or even acknowledged by many in the churches, it is part of what the Mennonite faith community has become. Rather than seen as an alien perspective, or one to be resisted, it should be seen as one voice in the Mennonite choir. Continue reading