Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship

A few months ago I attended a book discussion at Lancaster Mennonite High School that revolved around the book "Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship" which was put out by Herald Press and edited by Joanna Shenk. The topic of the book revolving around discipleship and new forms of being church intrigued me and so I took my friend Jeff and we went, even though I am not Mennonite.

A few weeks later I got the chance to receive a copy of the book from Herald Press to review it and blog about it. It didn't take long for me to read it but it has taken me some time to digest it and also have time to write about it.

The first thing that I will say about this book (and it is in jest) is that they didn't widen the circle enough to include other experiments in Christian discipleship from an Anabaptist perspective. I say that in jest because I know Herald Press is a Mennonite Book Publishing House and so I should not be surprised that all the of the experiments mentioned are all from the Mennonite perspective. I would have liked to seen other experiments that are thoroughly Anabaptist but not necessarily Mennonite. Maybe some day someone could compile some stories from communities who are planting new faith communities and are experimenting in Christian Discipleship and are part of the wider Anabaptist movement (Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, etc...)

So being a part of the Church of the Brethren (I couldn't bring myself to call myself Brethren) I was interested to read this book from an "outsiders' perspective. The thing about that "outsider" perspective is that it only lasted a few pages, as I could thoroughly identify my experience in the Church of the Brethren with what I was reading. I realized again that Mennonites and Church of the Brethren are so closely related. The things that were shared, struggled with, embraced, "fought over" and the values that underlined each chapter are the same regardless of being Mennonite or Brethren.

I would have to say that the chapter that has stuck with me the longest and had the most profound impact we me was Chapter 15 called 'ThirdWay Community: From MegaChurch to Mennonite" written by Seth McCoy. The reason that it struck me the most was because the similarity in my journey with the journey that Seth is on (though I have never worked in a Mega Church). Seth was a Youth Pastor, so was I. He began reading "Anabaptist" books from the likes of N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, and also Greg Boyd (who he then went to work for at Woodland Hills). I came into Anabaptist thought and theology much the same way, but also had the benefit of being part of a Youth Group and a Community which embodied the values and theology so that it became the air I breathed and I became Anabaptist almost by osmosis.

The quote that resonated the strongest with me and was almost like Seth got into my head and into my thoughts is this quote from Page 178: "Three churches have been planted in our neighborhood in the last year, all using 'seeker sensitive' models. Honestly, I am a bit jealous. After all, it would not be difficult for ThirdWay to do the same thing. But since most of us have experience with rapidly growing churches, we recognize that the Sunday morning service can easily become the main focus. This still leaves folks feeling lonely and making discipleship difficult."

I also loved that Seth got to answer questions like "What has been hard about planting a new faith community?" and "What has been joyful about planting a new faith community?" I loved his answers and his openness and authenticity behind them. We are in much the same place as Veritas, and it helped to know that there are other people planting new faith communities from an anabaptist and missional perspective out there and that we aren't alone in this journey. (So thanks Seth)

The other two chapters that spoke to me the most was Chapter 13 entitled "Letting Go of the American Dream" by Mark Van Steenwyk and also Chapter 16 about the Little Flowers Community written by Jamie Arpin-Ricci. The one quote, which stood out to me and hit me square in face, from Chapter 13 was, "To turn toward God, one must turn from Empire. The Kingdom of God and the American Dream are essentially incompatible." OUCH!!! That is a hard pill to swallow, but I believe it is true.

And the one quote from Chapter 16 that struck me, revolves around the idea that we seek to play out in Veritas, is in relation to the importance of Scripture and Community. "The historical and practical foundations of Anabaptism, where community is the central place to interpret Scripture, have been critical to our continued formation as Little Flowers Community."

The one issue that I struggled with a great deal, not only in this book but also in my dealings within the Church of the Brethren, and also in wider dealings with those in the Anabaptist circle is best summed up by a quote from Chapter 14. In this chapter the author says, "The Mennonite Church taught me to pursue justice." Now at first glance, it looks great. We are definitely supposed to be about justice and making the word a more just place. But when we look deeper, this, to me, is a sad statement. That justice has replaced Jesus as the primary focus of a faith community. If something replaces Jesus, no matter how good, right, and worthy it is, it is still idolatry. If the author would have said, "taught me to pursue Jesus who led me to pursue justice". (which I believe He does) than all is right. But unfortunately justice has, in my opinion, taken the central place where Jesus should be. This issue, I believe, is common not only in the Mennonite Church, but in other Anabapstist communities, as well as the wider Christian community.

Overall, I was appreciative of the chance to read and review "Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship" and want to thank Herald Press for the review copy of the book. It was good to read about new faith communities exploring discipleship from an Anabaptist perspective and it was good to know that we aren't alone in this experiment in Christian Discipleship. (I should also thank Joanna Shenk for the hard work she did in compiling all the stories in the book.)