Sunday, January 12, 2014

How Mennonites Have Changed in My Lifetime

I have been in conversation with an number of Neo-Anabaptists who are trying to make sense of who the Mennonites are; one of the groups originating in the Anabaptist movement from the 16th Century. One of the questions was about how leadership is/was chosen for local congregations. Since I grew up in the Mennonite Church, it got me to thinking how much the Mennonite church has changed since my childhood.

I decided to make a list of the all the changes I have noticed. I divided them into three sections, 1) Related to church life, 2) Related to public life and 3) Related to personal morality. If the item begins with a "no," it means that many Mennonites now do these things. Just a few caveats. I avoid listing the changes in traditional dress codes and use of modern technology. I am listing these changes without commentary. I think some are good and some not so good. The changes probably all come from greater assimilation into the larger US American culture. Many who grew up in the Mennonite Church will have had different experiences from mine, depending on their conference and region. Some Mennonite groups still adhere to many of these principles.

Related to church life and organization
1.  Paid leadership instead of volunteer
a.     4-year contracts instead of lifelong commitment
b.     Chosen by search committee rather than by lot
c.     Leadership from outside the congregation instead of from within
2.  Footwashing at every communion service
3.     A preparatory service before communion
4.     Change from teaching on non-resistance to nonviolent resistance
5.     No following of the lectionary for worship, no Advent or Lent emphases
Related to public life
1.     No holding of a political office
2.     No serving on a jury
3.     No study of law
4.     No voting
5.     No joining of service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Elks, etc.
Relating to personal morality
1.     No purchasing of life insurance
2.     No alcohol consumption
3.     No wedding bands
4.     No dancing
5.     No participating in organized sports (unless church-related)

If you grew up Mennonite, you might have other non-dress and non-technology-related changes. What is missing on my list? 

If you are a Neo-Anabaptist, you may be wondering about the rationale for some of these principles. What are your questions?


  1. 1. Gave up the greeting with a holy kiss.
    2. Abandoned head coverings for women.
    3. Gave up fairly clearly defined definitions of modest dress.
    4. Added church constitutions and bylaws.
    5. Abandoned fairly strict Sabbath observance rules.

  2. Steve, Thanks for your additions! I almost included the holy kiss, but somehow didn't. It actually caused a huge cultural incident when I attended my first communion service in Honduras. Numbers 2 & 3, I considered part of the dress codes. Numbers 4 & 5 are excellent additions.

    Another thing I could have mentioned is no baby dedications.

  3. Why did they have an issue with life insurance?

    On another note it looks like they really slipped as they become assimilated, a lot of what was mentioned was pretty good I am sorry to see that they got away from them.

  4. YHWH Theologian. Thanks for your comments and question. Life insurance was considered denying the providence of God. Sort of betting against your own life. The community of faith was responsible to provide for any financial burden placed on the family of a deceased. Amish do not buy life insurance to this day.

  5. Mr. Klezmer:

    I wasn't familiar with #3 in public life specifically. I thought almost any profession or advanced studies (perhaps outside of medicine) were discouraged. Perhaps law was a little worse because it's closely linked to politics?

  6. David! Thank you for your comments. You are correct about all advanced studies being discouraged. But a lawyer was particularly difficult, because Mennonites were not to sue or take anyone to court. Being a lawyer put one in the middle of such "worldly" practices.

  7. What's with the ban on joining service clubs? And thanks for the interesting list!

  8. Dear annoyed! Thanks for your question and comment! The ban on service clubs had to do with joining any "secret" society which required an oath to join. Some of the initiation ceremonies and regular rites performed at each meeting were considered giving one's alliance to something other than Christ.

  9. Great list, Don. You can actually get written rules and regulations from the 50's and 60's in archives. I used two booklets from the Lancaster Conference when I wrote my memoir blush. Here's one for personal morality list: no "mixed bathing." Or organized sports or farmshows. The rules were much stricter than the practice, in many cases.

    Each conference, community, and congregation had slightly different rules and different spectrums of practice. In general, do Tonnies categories work? we were moving from "gemainschaft" to "gesellschaft"?

  10. Thank you, Shirley for your feedback. I didn't consult any of the booklets, I was going by memory and there are certainly more that could be mentioned. Mixed bating is certainly a good one. But holding hands while ice skating was not banned! A favorite teenage activity.

    Perhaps because of the varying practices across the country, the Mennonite Church was always more of a Gesellschaft than a Gemeinschaft except at the individual congregational level. But I still hold out the Gemeinschaft as the ideal. In Switzerland, the Mennonites call their congregations a "Gemeinde" rather than a church. Church for them means state church, and Gemeinde (community) is the local gathering community.