Are Anabaptists God’s favorite children? Probably not. However, our heavenly parent loves us so unconditionally that it can be tempting to believe we must be. What divine parenting! Even if we’re not God’s favorites, God does work in and through us. Anabaptism is the spiritual stream I swim in and therefore an essential part of my approach to faith formation.
I understand Anabaptist faith formation as a lifelong process of walking with, and being shaped by, Jesus and his Anabaptist church family.
This includes holding on to (Palmer Becker’s short definition):
- Jesus as the centre of our faith
- Community as the centre of our life
- Reconciliation as the centre of our mission
We believe the life of faith and belief is to be carefully discerned and freely chosen. Until we are mature enough to do so, we believe the blood of Jesus saves us and covers our tendency toward sinfulness. Menno Simons articulated this position on the ‘complex innocence of children’ to counter Augustine’s theory of original sin and oppose the need for infant baptism. He did so to deal with the challenges of faithful living in his setting.
Today’s Practical Theologian, Bonnie Miller McLemore (also Believer’s Church, but not Anabaptist), responds to our current setting by stressing the importance of inaugurating children into the vocabulary and practices of being Christian. This means including them fully in the key rituals of the life of faith. That, in turn, raises questions for some of our traditional Anabaptist faith practices, particularly communion and membership.
Anabaptists believe, with other Christians, that wherever we are on the journey of faith, God has a place for us. We consider our unbaptized children precious parts of the family of God; we embrace their place in and contributions to our worship life, but we have not considered them part of the body of Christ before they reach the age of discernment and freely confess Christ and join the church through baptism.
Communion, one of our most holy and formative rituals, has moved from being observed in closed, semi-annual services to become a more frequent part of our Sunday morning worship. This change has made us struggle to find ways of opening the Table of our Lord to those who are part of the family of God, but haven’t joined the body of Christ by confessing their faith and requesting baptism.
These days, that includes more than the children. The society we live in immerses even our youth in a process of individuation, individualism, and exploration, even while indoctrinating them toward an accomplishment glorifying consumer culture. At the same time, the church calls them to commit themselves to a counter-cultural, community focused, body of believers through baptism. Do you sense the tension?
As we age, we inevitably encounter more of life’s difficulties and crises, whether or not we are Anabaptist. If we navigate those within the community of faith, practicing disciplines of reconciliation, centered on Jesus and committed to our faith community, we will weather these storms. We will increasingly sense God’s presence with us in our pain, nudging us toward the redemptive possibilities God sees in our communal brokenness as well as in our personal crises. Faith will become more muscular and gracious; more capable of handling life’s ambiguities, paradoxes, and uncertainties. We will become more aware of Jesus, our companion on the way, in whom we also find the End of our journey.
Today, people can expect to live for 20 to 30 years beyond 65. This last third of life is full of more transitions than any other, many of them downward transitions in which identity in Christ and in the Christian community face challenges and yet the only one of them we mark well as a faith community is our death. How are Anabaptists responding to these challenges and opportunities? Whether we are children, youth, midlife, older adults, or seniors, our lifelong journeys of walking with, and being shaped by, Jesus and his Anabaptist church family are worth walking, and worth marking in ways that help us and the world we live in see that we are headed toward God’s kingdom, on earth, as it is in heaven.
Elsie Rempel, Formation Consultant ministries with Mennonite Church Canada 2002–15, now exploring retirement.