Can Traditional Anabaptists Change to Embrace Neo-Anabaptists?

Can Traditional Anabaptists Change to Embrace Neo-Anabaptists?

By Gregory A. Boyd

Over the last ten years or so I’ve become increasingly aware of something exciting I see God doing around the globe. An ever-increasing multitude of individuals and groups are being captivated by the same vision of God and his kingdom that captivated me around the turn of the century. One small reflection of this is the fact that at Woodland Hills Church where I teach and where this vision is expounded on almost every week, we’ve seen our weekly podcast downloads skyrocket from several hundred to over twenty thousand in just the last six years.

The theology and practices that accompany this vision of God and his kingdom tend to differ significantly from those of Christendom. Indeed, the only stream of the Christian tradition that resembles them is the Anabaptist stream. Yet, in other fundamental respects this rising movement doesn’t look anything like traditional Anabaptism. For this reason, I like to refer to this movement as a Neo-Anabaptist movement. Yet, because they share much of the theology and practices of the Anabaptist tradition while also wanting to be anchored in a Church tradition, many Neo-Anabaptists are considering making some version of this stream their home.

This may mean that Mennonites and other traditional Anabaptists denominations will experience a tremendous revival in the decades to come. There is a significant obstacle to this happening, however, especially for Anabaptists in the western world. Because they were persecuted almost to the point of extinction in the 16th century, early Anabaptists tended to isolate themselves in safer rural areas. As a result, outside of their missionary activity to non-western people groups, Anabaptists have for the most part remained ethnically and culturally homogeneous. The challenge is that the movement that God is raising up today is anything but homogeneous! Precisely because God is the One raising it up, this movement crosses national, ethnic, cultural, and denominational lines.

In this light, I believe that if Anabaptists are to welcome in Neo-Anabaptists, they will need to aggressively pursue three interrelated and very challenging goals.

1) They will need to detach their identity, values and mission from their distinctive ethnicity and culture as much as possible and instead anchor these in their distinctive kingdom theology, values and practices.

2) They will need to let go of whatever vestiges remain of the isolationist mindset of traditional Anabaptism and to instead intentionally move outside their comfort zone to forge, cultivate and nurture relationships across ethnic and culture lines. In keeping with this, they will need to learn how to not merely tolerate, but authentically celebrate, the diversity of other ethnicities and cultures. Imagine a worship service in which an older white ethnic Mennonite happily dances to loud Reggae rock while a Jamaican Neo-Anabaptist with waste length fluorescent dreadlocks joins in four-part harmony, and you have a glimpse of what traditional Anabaptist groups need to strive for.

3) Finally, I believe that for traditional Anabaptist groups to welcome Neo-Anabaptists, they will need to explore creative ways of connecting with them as they assume a learning posture in dialogue with them. And one of the most important things traditional Anabaptists must be willing to receive is a rekindled appreciation for, and a fiery passion for, the beautiful vision of the kingdom that was given to them five hundred years ago, but that has for many come to take for granted.

Obviously, pursuing these three goals will not be easy. Some might even argue that one can’t intentionally change outlooks or behaviors that are deeply embedded in the culture of a people-group. What gives me hope, however, is that what has also been deeply embedded in Anabaptist culture are the values of humility, service and of following God’s lead, even if it means run up against long established traditions. These are precisely the values required to accomplish these three goals, though this time around the traditions God is leading Anabaptists to run up against happen to be their own.

Dr. Greg Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and president of ReKnew. He has authored or coauthored 18 books, including the best-selling Letters from a Skeptic (David C. Cook, 1994). His most recent books are Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now (Zondervan, 2010), and Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker Books, 2013). Greg received his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and his MDiv from Yale Divinity School. He is one of the featured speakers at Pastors Week, taking place January 26–29, 2015.