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Last updated March 01.

February 28

Mennonites or 'Ethnonites'?

By Chris Lenshyn and Robert Martin

A post by Tim Nafziger published at explored the relationship between ethnic or cradle Mennonites and what he calls, ACFs — Anabaptist Camp Followers.

Nafziger quotes one such ACF, Mark Van Steenwyk:

I’ve met folks who have been Mennonites for decades who still feel like outsiders. We welcome folks with our words but often push them away with our actions and cultural hang-ups. To be a Mennonite, for me, means accepting the reality that I’ll never be as Mennonite as other people.

The following conversation is compiled from recent blogs in the Anabaptist community in response.

From Chris Lenshyn:

Is there such a thing as an ‘ethnonite?’

The practice of Mennonite as ethnicity, and the practice of Mennonite as faith tradition is a tension felt in many Mennonite circles. I remember my father, a Mennonite pastor for 18 years, reflecting on the implications of being, what he referred to as ‘a non-Mennonite, Mennonite.’ It wasn’t ethnicity that connected my father with the Mennonites, it was the practice of its wholistic, radical, peace theology.

There is 500 years of practice in Mennonite history. Stuart Murray calls this an ‘earthed history.’ Within those 500 years is the richness of experience and the birth and development of an ethnicity.

Today — as people continue to wonder and explore Mennonite Anabaptist faith — ethnicity as part of a rich, earthed history, is both gift and burden.

Mennonite Anabaptist practice which facilitates a deep radicalism tends to come face-to-face with the ‘way things have been done before’ of ethnicity. It appears that to be an ‘ethnonite’ is to carry an unrelenting commitment to a past that is not informing the present. Rather, it is a past that is losing its grip on the present by carrying on with what Van Steenwyk calls, ‘cultural hang-ups.’

It’s tragic really, to think that in some circles, to not be Mennonite by ethnicity is to be slighted in community.

For Mennonites to grow in this particular time and place is to invite all people, no matter what ethnicity, to participate in the practice of Mennonite Anabaptist theology.

continued on next page »


  • Speaking as an Ethnic Mennonite, I would like to hear more from non-ethnic Mennonites on this topic. If you are interested in providing your own view, I would LOVE to have you guest post on my blog. Please e-mail me at tristaanogre at gmail dot com.

    - Robert Martin (feb 28 at 2:45 p.m.)

  • I have been affiliated with Mennonites for most of the last 40+ years. I was a Mennonite Church pastor and church planter in the past. I became a United Methodist after serving in MCC and growing weary of the ethnocentric character of the Mennonites I knew. While I am now a member of a Mennonite Church congregation, I do not call myself, Mennonite. I consider myself an ecumenical Christian who happens to be a member of a Mennonite congregation because I am a pacifist.

    - Gary Olsen-Hasek (mar 1 at 5:07 a.m.)

  • Gary,

    Is pacifism the only draw for you to the Mennonite church? The reason I ask is that there are other Christian groups who preach pacifism that are not necessarily Anabaptist or Mennonite so I'm wondering if there is something more to your draw.

    Also, if you would like to elaborate on what about the ethnocentrism of some Mennonite congregations turns you off, I would welcome a longer writing to include on my blog. My e-mail address is in the comment above.

    God bless!

    - Robert Martin (mar 1 at 8:28 a.m.)

  • The more ethnic diversity we achieve in the Mennonite Church, the more included new Mennonites will feel. I am sad that Gary does not feel he can call himself "Mennonite"--but it is an indictment on how Mennonites have often framed their own identity. Looking at things globally (check Mennonite World Conference) can help break down perceptions of ethnic exclusion. I also see the prospects of new Anabaptists joining the Mennonite Church (see recent MWR article on Greg Boyd's congregation) as another way of pushing beyond this ethnic exclusivity that new Mennonites often feel.

    - Byron Rempel-Burkholder (mar 1 at 12:56 p.m.)

  • Byron,

    I, too, see Greg Boyd entering the conversation as extremely significant in overcoming that problem of our ethnicity. Add to that folks like David Fitch of Northern Seminary who, while not aligning with the Mennonite church, certainly has become a leading theologian for Anabaptist theology.

    The question is that, as folks like Greg and David start to engage as well as other non-celebrity folks start to come into the Mennonite denominational "herd", how will we who are "cradle" Mennonites make room for them to (borrowing from the Borg) "add their distinctiveness to our own"?

    - Robert Martin (mar 1 at 1:24 p.m.)

  • Everyone agrees diversity is a wonderful thing. And the Mennonite Church has paid a lot of lip service to the concept of making MC-USA more diverse. And yes, there are now many African-American, Hispanic, Indonesian, Hmong, etc., Mennonites out there. But here's the problem (and John Powell recently made this point): On Sunday mornings the African-American Mennonites worship with African-American Mennonites, the Hispanic Mennonites worship with Hispanic Mennonites, the Anglo Mennonites worship with Anglo Mennonites, and so on. This is not the way to create a diverse national body. In fact, it actually increases stratification, misunderstanding, and, yes, prejudice. The burden is clearly on the Anglo Mennonites to change this. Among other things, they should: Invite non-Anglo Mennonites to become part of their heretofore-all-white Mennonite club, at the local level, and make them feel sincerely welcome. (If your response is: We're comfortable with the way things are at our church, you might want to consider the possibility you have a race prejudice problem.) Also, Anglo Mennonites should go out of their way to visit non-Anglo Mennonite churches and get to know its members, on a one-to-one personal level. And do so with humility. And a focused effort on NOT being patronizing. And NOT carrying a hidden agenda. Every Anglo Mennonite church should make a top priority the task of building genuine personal relationships between its members and members of the non-Anglo Mennonite church that is closest to them geographically. Have Anglo families invite non-Anglo families to their homes for meals, not just a token one or two times but regularly and frequently. Get the children to socialize with each other. And I repeat: DO NOT PATRONIZE. There are a few Mennonites churches out there (primarily urban ones) who have been able to accomplish an admirable level of congregational diversity. They should be called upon as resource groups, to train and educate others.

    - Charlie Kraybill, Bronx, NYC (mar 1 at 2:11 p.m.)

  • Charlie, thank you SOOOO much for that response.

    I was recently part of just such an exchange. There is a congregation (Solidarity and Harmony) in Philadelphia that is a Haitian congregation with services in creole and with very much a Haitian flare to it. My (now former) home chuch, Bally Mennonite, had an exchange where we invited folks from that congregation to come up to our little rural place and share a morning service with us after which folks from Solidarity and Harmony dispersed to the homes of the congregants for meals and fellowship time. It was a WONDERFUL time for my wife and I and our family to share our home and our meal with a couple of fantastic young men. And no... we were not patronizing... we simply opened our home and tried our best to accommodate their needs...and made some new friends in the process.

    Several months later, we reverse the favor and had a chance to experience some really cool teaching times with their Pastor and an AMAZING Haitian pot-luck (love me some beans and rice).

    What the next stage is, though, is as you said... we need to make room in our little enclaves for other cultural streams to merge and blend and inform. I hope that as more exchanges as I described occur, we'll see more of the breaking down of those ethnically centered walls.

    - Robert Martin (mar 1 at 2:26 p.m.)

  • Robert, your exchange of visits with the Haitian congregation sounds wonderful. It's exactly what I'm talking about. My only further suggestion would be to not consider the project to be done after one round of visits. In my opinion, it needs to be an ongoing, regular, frequent series of exchanges, so that members of the participating groups become part of each other's lives. (And it needs to be replicated across the Mennonite church, around the country.) Even better, in my view, would be if people from rural Anglo groups would move into cities like Philadelphia, and find work and housing in the non-Anglo congregation's neighborhood, for the express purpose of becoming part of their group's day-to-day experience (without threatening their style or practices). It's going to take that kind of radical action for real diversity to come to MC-USA.

    - Charlie Kraybill, Bronx, NYC (mar 1 at 3:33 p.m.)

  • Agreed, Charlie. When last I knew, Franconia Conference was looking at the next stage of that city-country exchange thing... I'm not longer in the loop at the congregation any more so I'm not sure what else has been done.

    I, personally, am on the lookout for ways of being more intentional in cultivating diversity within the church. Doesn't hurt that the pastor of our home congregation is an ex-Muslim ex-Broadway dancer out of Wilkerson's discipleship ministries at Times Square. ;-)

    - Robert Martin (mar 1 at 4:00 p.m.)

  • I view this issue from a rather unique perspective. My mother is an ethnic Mennonite who grew up in a conservative, covering-wearing family, while my father is an ethnic Jew. My parents were divorced when I was 2 and she promised him she wouldn't bring me up in any particular tradition, but we lived with her parents for a number of years, so I consider myself ethnically Mennonite as well, even though I never joined a Mennonite church until I was well into adulthood.

    I love so many aspects of my ethnic Mennonite heritage. The singing, the food--well, mostly the singing and the food. No, also the community. I've felt excluded my whole life for not being as truly Mennonite as the rest of my family, but now, I find myself attending Germantown Mennonite Church, partially as a way to connect with my heritage, which has been very healing. Ironically, none of my cousins who grew up Mennonite now identify as Mennonite. I would estimate that half of GMC's regular attenders are not of ethnic Menno background, and I love the diversity that it brings to the church. I think that ethnic exclusion isn't the only, or even primary, element putting off non-ethnic Mennonites. If more Mennonite churches were as radically welcoming as GMC, they could begin attracting more ethnic and non-ethnic Mennonites alike.

    - Katherine Ernst (mar 1 at 4:30 p.m.)

  • The church that I planted and now pastor is part of Mennonite Church Canada. Like myself, most members have no personal heritage as Mennonites. On one hand, there has been wonderful welcome from the wider Mennonite community and much support for some of our projects.

    That said, there is still a subtle (and sometime less than subtle) privileging of Mennonite leaders who have that heritage connection. The dynamics, at times, bear resemblance to the early Jewish/Gentile dynamics we read about in Acts, etc.

    I am Anabaptist and hope to remain Mennonite. I think that how this dynamic plays out in the future will determine it in the long run.

    - Jamie Arpin-Ricci (mar 1 at 6:26 p.m.)

  • Adding my voice as a non-menno menno - I grew up non-denominational, baptized by a radical universalist. I discovered the Anabaptist tradition when I went to Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford and discovered after the fact that it was a Mennonite College.

    I have fallen in love with the Menno / Anabaptist tradition - not just the pacifism, but the emphasis on the Kingdom of God being among us here today; the acceptance, at least in theory, of God's heart for the poor and the marginalized; the commitment to taking seriously the words of Christ as the primary revelation of God, and interpreting everything else through that lens... other things as well that I'm sure I'm forgetting.

    I prefer the term 'adopted Mennonites' - it makes me feel more included :)

    - Jordan Shaw (mar 1 at 10:11 p.m.)

  • Part of my situation has come as someone who is of northern European ethnicity, but I'm not Mennonite in heritage. "White" people can feel culturally excluded in a bit different fashion than so called "people of color." I look like the dominant group and they can more easily assume I share the same cultural identity. I don't. I am an urbanite, as well, in the midst of rural values. Mennonites, I believe, should have an ethnic lodge as other ethnic groups do. Maybe then, the people who want to have that experience can do so without it being called church and believers could more easily focus upon following Jesus Christ in life regardless of ethnicity.

    - Gary Olsen-Hasek (mar 2 at 3:55 a.m.)

  • Jamie,

    Yo, fellow MennoNerd! That is an interesting dynamic concerning the potential for preferential treatment of "heritage" Mennonites in leadership. It would be interesting to hear how folks in leadership (like Ervin Stutzman or others) would respond to that charge. I would say that there are some non-heritage leaders I've come across in my life that are excellent Anabaptist teachers and leaders where the heritage is certainly not necessary in order to be able to lead from that position.


    Thank you for sharing! There are some charges made about the "non-ethnic" Mennos who come into the Mennonite church for only one particular issue (usually the peace position). It seems you've answered that challenge, though, by expressing a root Anabaptist core of following the radical Jesus.


    That is an interesting proposal. And it is something that I know some Mennonite congregations have worked out. There are celebrations of the heritage carved out as additional bits of the congregational experience but are separated somewhat from the mission and general teaching of the church. It is one of those "pros" I hinted at in my article where the Mennonite tribe adds a flavor to the congregation by bringing the history to bear without making that history and heritage central to the congregational work.

    - Robert Martin (mar 4 at 8:54 a.m.)

  • In my opinion, it is not simply unity of new anabaptist practitioners and old (or cradle) we are striving for. New Mennonite Anabaptists engaging a rich faith tradition of 500 years, baggage and all, need to belong. Given conversations on here, and in my post above which is a response to yet another article, this has not gone as well as many hope or think... particularly in the North American context (in my experience).

    Hospitality, means more than welcoming or affirming cultural difference, it means creating a space that facilitates belonging for those who do not claim Mennonite Ethnicity and empowers a radical Anabaptism. Not just serving a mean perogie. ;)

    If we find Mennonite Ethnicity in a place where it prevents the beautiful praxis of Anabaptism, Mennonites will, simply put, putter out. this is a very real danger.

    - Chris Lenshyn (mar 4 at 2:14 p.m.)

  • What Chris has mentioned is something that "outsider" Anabaptists have been warning for a while. When I shared this article on twitter, Greg Boyd responded:

    "For 6 years this is what I've been telling the Mennonites they need to dump! If they can, they'll thrive. If not, they'll die."

    There is nothing wrong, intrinsically, with celebrating heritage. When we too closely link that heritage with "belonging", then we have problems.

    - Robert Martin (mar 4 at 2:38 p.m.)

  • Here's another issue I've not seen anyone address: geographical proximity. How are Mennonites supposed to reach out to new constituency groups when their church buildings are hidden away in the countryside, or in the suburbs? Yes, it's true that Mennonites have been moving into cities for a long time, and MC-USA has several hundred city churches in its congregational directory. But the reality is that most "urban" Mennonite churches are actually located on the periphery of their cities, up against the border lines, far away from the dense downtowns. It's amazing how rural the outskirts of some cities can be. But the outskirts seem to be the favorite places for "urban" Mennonites to locate their sanctuaries. If getting to a church requires the use of an automobile, I don't think one can really consider it an "urban church." The best way to recruit from outside one's gene pool, in my opinion, is to connect with the folks who daily pass by on the sidewalk outside your front doors. But before that can happen, you have to have a sidewalk outside your doors, and be in a part of town where people walk by on a regular basis. Unfortunately, that description (of pedestrian accessibility) applies to precious few Mennonite churches today.

    - Charlie Kraybill, Bronx, NYC (mar 4 at 3:02 p.m.)

  • An excellent point again, Charlie.

    We can't, however, simply move ALL Menno churches to urban settings... HOWEVER... we do need to make sure that, if we are intentional about ministering in "urban" settings, the church building should, itself, be urban. Check out Ripple in Allentown, PA, sometime.

    - Robert Martin (mar 4 at 3:30 p.m.)

  • Agreed Charlie.

    Where we are located speaks to what kind of community we want to be. Place matters.

    Historically speaking, Mennonites are a VERY rural people. Often withdrawing. To make the jump into an urban context is a gift many new to Anabaptism bring.

    - Chris Lenshyn (mar 4 at 6:28 p.m.)

  • Preamble: I am an ethnic-non-ethnic Mennonite "convert" (i.e. I'm from similar racial and ethnic backgrounds as many Mennonites, but do not have any familial or cultural Mennonite background)

    One thing that has always seemed strange to me, given the origins of Anabaptism, is that there is such a preponderance of, and reliance on, the familial passing on of Anabaptist culture and faith.

    If baptism and discipleship are not dictated by the State, the Church, or Parents, why wouldn't we assume that the greatest quantity of Mennonites would arrive from outside the familial and cultural echo chamber?

    - Todd Grotenhuis (mar 6 at 12:02 p.m.)

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