The Church at the Intersection of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism

The Activist ImpulseOne of my favorite recent books is The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, eds. Jared Burkholder and David Cramer. It helps me better understand my own interest, as a rather pietistic evangelical, in the Anabaptist tradition, and my reservations about it. While the contributors don’t shy away from the tensions between these two -isms (the early essays from Mennonite historians Steven Nolt and John Roth are especially valuable here), they generally share the hope that Anabaptism and evangelicalism might enrich each other. Jared and David end their introduction in the “hope that these essays will offer a glimpse into the richness of Kingdom living that is at once irreducibly evangelical and unabashedly Anabaptist” (p. 5); Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary president Sara Wenger Shenk closes the volume musing that “An Anabaptist discipleship ethic and peace witness when seamlessly integrated with evangelical warmth of devotion and winsome confidence about Jesus as Savior and Lord has been potent good news to a watching world over and over” (p. 408). Reading this book, it is hard not to be drawn to a Christian witness that blends the both of these two worlds.

All of which makes the ongoing story of Woodland Hills Church so fascinating — and perhaps a case study for a sequel to The Activist Impulse.

Worship at Woodland Hills Church
Weekend worship service at Woodland Hills Church

Planted by Greg Boyd and Paul Mitton in 1992, Woodland Hills grew rapidly throughout its first decade, outgrowing a series of schools from which it rented space. By the time WH moved into its own building in 2001, it was a full-fledged megachurch, tenuously tied to the Baptist General Conference. (Now Converge Worldwide, that denomination also sponsors my employer, Bethel University. It’s just one of many Bethel-Woodland Hills connections. Greg Boyd was a Bethel professor throughout most of WH’s early life; current teaching pastor Paul Eddy is still on our faculty. And it seems hard to find a Bethel student or alum who hasn’t worshiped at Woodland Hills at least once.)

Attendance took a sizable hit (1000 people left, about 20% of the congregation), when Boyd preached a sermon series (“The Cross and the Sword”) in advance of the 2004 elections. As he explains in the book that built from that series (The Myth of a Christian Nation), Boyd

felt it necessary to preach a series of sermons that would provide a biblical explanation for why our church should not join the rising chorus of right-wing political activity. I also decided this would be a good opportunity to expose the danger of associating the Christian faith too closely with any political point of view, whether conservative or liberal. I had touched on this topic several times in the past but never as deeply, clearly, and persistently.

As it happened, I filmed an interview with Greg Boyd just a year or two later for a project in our Christianity and Western Culture class (which he had taught for a number of years). He explained his growing concern about “Constantinian Christianity,” particularly as it manifested itself in the evangelical embrace of American nationalism (and the wars fought for that cause), and he described his admiration for the nonviolent witness of the 16th century Anabaptists — to whom we devote a lecture in CWC during our unit on the Reformations.

Greg Boyd
Greg Boyd – ReKnew

What happened at Woodland Hills and Myth of a Christian Nation garnered Boyd a great deal of national attention (e.g., being profiled in the New York Times; being interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS), but also caught the eye of Anabaptist leaders and scholars, including some of those who contributed to The Activist Impulse. The editors cite him as one of a “growing number of evangelical leaders [to] have found in Anabaptism a robust alternative to the program of political involvement employed by the leaders of the Religious Right within their midst” (p. 3). Nolt tells of Boyd’s experience at a Mennonite conference in 2007, when he came back “excited, because I felt like I found a tribe I could passionately embrace” (quoted on p. 12 from this blog post). And David Swartz concludes his chapter on the Anabaptist influence on the “evangelical left” with a mention of Boyd’s Iraq War-era critique of American nationalism, which leads him to suggest that “At a time when many traditional Anabaptist denominations are declining in numbers and vitality, perhaps this renewed convergence will revitalize American Anabaptism as much as evangelicalism” (p. 287).

In my own circles, I’ve known many evangelicals who find something reinvigorating about the Anabaptist impulse, and it’s generally because (like Boyd) they’ve grown disenchanted by the fusion of faith and politics; searching for a Christ who is Victor but not warlike, they read John Howard Yoder and decide to try on Anabaptism.

(Which is perhaps why they’re not always enthralled by the born-and-raised Mennonites they encounter. In a 2008 blog post, Boyd argued that the Anabaptist tradition was the only one “that embodies what this rising breed of Kingdom radicals is looking for,” but also lamented that “just as millions like myself are running toward this treasure, many Mennonites are running away from it. In the name of becoming culturally relevant, the distinctive, radical aspects of the Anabaptist tradition are being downplayed by some as they become ‘mainstream’ American Christians.” As Janine Giordano Drake observed this morning in her review of Ervin Stutzman’s new Mennonite history, the mainstreaming of American Anabaptists — and their shift from “nonresistance to justice” — has been happening since at least World War I.)

But I’ve always wanted to ask them what else they know about Anabaptism besides its political theology. Are they prepared not only to reject nationalism, but to suffer persecution for their nonconformity? Perhaps so (remembering, per Rowan Williams, that there’s a difference between Matthew 5 suffering and feeling “mildly uncomfortable“), but would they also be happy to engage in a “hermeneutics of obedience,” reading Scripture not as self-governing individuals, but “within the context of Christian community”?

Here I’m quoting from a handout (“Anabaptists: Six Distinctives“) produced by Woodland Hills for a town hall discussion held this past February. It goes on to address ecclesiology a bit more fully:

The primary expression of church involves committed communities of discipleship and mission. Church communities are to be characterized by gift-based roles, mutual accountability, simple living, generous sharing, and plural leadership.

Perhaps you do desire such a community of discipleship and mission. Can a megachurch provide it? Boyd dealt with that ecclesiological problem head-on in a recent blog post:

Old Mennonite Church in Germantown, PA
Old Germantown Mennonite Church (which calls itself the oldest Mennonite congregation in North America), ca. 1900 – Library of Congress

Several times over the last few years I’ve heard statements like this: “Boyd may embrace an Anabaptist theology, but his church (Woodland Hills) cannot be, by definition, an Anabaptist church because an Anabaptist church can’t be a mega-church.” I’ve heard similar things about our sister church, The Meeting House, in Toronto Canada.  The reasoning behind these statements seems to be that in Anabaptist theology, the church is a community of disciples who model the love of God to the world by how they love one another and share life together. Moreover, Anabaptist theology has always stressed that spiritual maturity is impossible apart from the discipline of living in community with other disciples. This is impossible to do with a group of mostly strangers who gather together to listen to a sermon and worship together once a week. Unless a group of people are doing the fifty-seven “one another’s” that are commanded in the NT (e.g. “love one another,” “submit to one another”), the group is not a “church” by the standards of Anabaptist theology (and, I would add, by the standards of the NT).

His response is to draw a distinction between church and the worship gathering that happens in the Woodland Hills building on weekends:

[The weekend gathering is] a large event that provides us with an opportunity to teach the Gospel and to begin to make disciples by drawing weekend attenders into our much smaller house churches. The event, therefore, isn’t the church, but simply a means of building the church. In this sense, it would be more accurate to see Woodland Hills as a network of house churches that happens to have a “mega” week event than it is to see us as a mega-church.

After describing the nature of these “house churches,” Boyd affirms that it is possible to reconcile the Anabaptist understanding of ecclesiology with the evangelical phenomenon of the megachurch:

…we don’t have to chose between embracing the church as community, on the one hand, and holding a large weekend gathering, on the other. There’s nothing intrinsically anti-kingdom about large gatherings. After all, large crowds flocked to Jesus, and the early Christians in Jerusalem met in large groups in “Solomon’s porch” (Acts 5:16-19). The key, however, is to always remind people that the primary expression of church is not the large group, but the smaller communities that come together in houses to share life, study the word, worship and minister together.

Perhaps this represents a working out of the wish that Scot McKnight expressed at the close of his contribution to the Covenant Quarterly issue I recently helped to edit: that evangelicals would recognize the poverty of their understanding of church and learn from the Anabaptists, whose own ecclesiology

may have lacked sufficient connection to the ecumenical councils and to the work of God throughout history, but it believed in a believer’s church, that every Christian was called to be a disciple, and those who did not live as followers of Jesus were going to be called to account. Populist evangelicalism has almost no ecclesiology, and any sense of “accountability” provokes cries of justice fashioned on the working tables of a Western sense of freedom and not a biblical sense of fellowship. From the Anabaptists evangelicals today can find a window onto what it means to follow Christ in the rugged realities of persecution and how that pressure created a kind of Christianity that today would look like more than radical.


6 thoughts on “The Church at the Intersection of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism

  1. I remember hearing about Boyd’s sermon series and other public comments related to that series, and I decided that I badly wanted to interview him for the Wittenburg Door. Sadly, the magazine disappeared before I could pitch the idea to its editorial staff or to Boyd. His voice is refreshing in a world that all too often equates evangelicals with a particular flavor of politics. I never really thought of it along the lines of the intersection of evangelicals and Anabaptists. I appreciate your take on this.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the book. Boyd was definitely an influence on my own transition from generic evangelicalism into evangelical Anabaptism. I have my concerns with mega-churches but think, if you’re going to have one, it should be like Woodland Hills!

  3. In teaching at a MB university in California’s Central Valley I’m witnessing the nexus of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (and struggles that accompany). Prior to an outspoken shift towards Anabaptism, I learned and grew into a Menno-style Christianity at WHC. It’s wonderful to see the progression. I’m proud to have called WHC home for many years.

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