Will Schirmer tells a story about visiting a Mennonite congregation’s sewing circle and having one woman ask him,
Was your mother a Moyer?
When he replied no, and explained his mother’s original name was Koerber, Schirmer watched the woman’s face fall. She turned away, uncomfortable and disinterested. Schirmer
stood there in mid-breath, frozen, wanting to say,
I’m still a Mennonite; I’m still a Christian; I’m still a person.
In a lively and conversational style, Schirmer uses his personal life as a starting point to examine how Mennonite congregations sometimes exclude, both explicitly and implicitly, people who do not share a set of typical life experiences or ethnic names of common Mennonite communities.
Written in ten topical chapters with frequent Biblical references, the book appears directed towards those who understand the
comfort zones of Mennonite culture and desire to break down sharply defined boundaries between insiders and outsiders for a more authentic sense of community.
To that end, Ch. 8,
Reaching Out Beyond the Familiar: What Does It Require and Ch. 9,
Getting to Know People and Meeting Their Needs are helpful, citing specific examples of how church groups have changed and how Mennonites can think differently to encourage such changes.
While the book seems targeted to a large Mennonite audience at times, the author’s perspective is also strikingly narrow at other points.
Guess what? Not every family in your church comes from a Pennsylvania Mennonite family bloodline, he says.
Is that news to you? It shouldn’t be.
Indeed, the book refers frequently to Franconia, one regional conference in one Mennonite denomination, Mennonite Church USA. Most individual congregations mentioned are from Franconia, a group of 44 churches mainly in Pennsylvania. There are a number of comments about Pennsylvania Dutch ethnicity. I was confused if Schirmer understood his experiences to be rooted in one slice of Mennonite life or if he saw the book as a description of the normative Mennonite experience.
Schirmer draws heavily on the perspectives of three couples, one who came from evangelical church backgrounds and the other two who joined nondenominational congregations after having tried Mennonite churches. Their comments seemed to represent one perspective only out of many who do not feel at home in Mennonite churches.
I’m also troubled by the lack of explanation concerning MRN Ministry Resources, which seems to have a strong connection to the book; to not explain an acronym seems odd in a book about getting beyond Mennonite clannishness.
Schirmer’s inability to put his perspectives into a larger and helpful context speaks to how difficult it is for any group to break down the cultural and communication boundaries that separate insiders and outsiders. The lapses of a book dedicated to inclusion demonstrate how complex welcoming and accepting people really is.
But Schirmer is a brave man for having tackled a thorny issue. Reaching Beyond the Mennonite Comfort Zone is an honest book from someone whose vision of the church is compelling. I find the discussion questions at the end of each chapter to be thoughtful, interesting, and some of the best parts of the book.
Perhaps the conversations from such questions would prompt both first-generation and multi-generation Mennonites to speak candidly of issues related to identity, culture, and the mission of the church.
Because most Mennonites would agree with Schirmer that
since community is an important and coveted aspect of Anabaptist heritage, it is one of the best gifts that can be given to a hurting and alienated world.