My (Ana)baptism

I’m an Anabaptist.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not Mennonite, Hutterite, Brethren, or Amish and my name is Rozko for Pete’s sake! But I’m an Anabaptist nonetheless.  I may have been baptized in an Episcopalian church when I was a baby, baptized again in a Church of Christ in high school when my faith became my own, ordained in the Christian Church tradition, and I may be part of a church community that is part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination and work for an American Baptist seminary, but I’m an Anabaptist nonetheless.

“How’s that work exactly?” you ask.  Good question.  In fact, it’s the question behind this post which is itself the result of a conversation I had with my good friend Dave Stutzman (he’s my Anabaptist passport for those of you skeptics out there ;) ).

Well, here’s my brief answer.  It works because I’m one of thousands of seminary-trained people between the ages of 25 and 35 who have been orphaned by the Christendom-shaped theology and ecclesiology that raised us.  Like many, many others, left to fend for ourselves among the cultural wilderness that is Post-Christendom, Anabaptism has provided me with the theological and ecclesiological shelter and nourishment that I needed to sustain and guide me as I’ve sought to make sense of the world and my personal and ministerial place in it. 

To be a bit more specific, as Christianity has moved (been pushed?) from the center to the margins of our society, by and large the responses of the Church have come in two types: 1) Fight – here I have in mind the typical right-wing Christian response of scraping and clawing through powerful maneuvering and campaigning to “take back America for God” in order to regain a place of power and privilege believed to be, if not rightfully ours, God’s ultimate aim for his people.  2) Ignore – here, there is either a complete lack of awareness (especially in the South) of the growing reality of Post-Christendom or an apathetic attitude toward what is simply dismissed as an inevitability. Anabaptism, I believe presents a third way, a posture more faithful to a biblical (at least through the lenses of Anabaptist theology & ecclesiology) vision of what it means to be the people of God living under the reign of God in the midst of a world that, while fallen, remains deeply loved and addressed by God.  It was this humble and hopeful vision that drew me in.

My initial touch points with Anabaptism came through a handful of professors at Fuller Theological Seminary such as Wilbert Shenk (anyone else think Wilbert needs to start a blog already?!), Nancey Murphy, and Glen Stassen (though there’s a palpable Anabaptist current throughout much of the school) and some time at Pasadena Mennonite Church.  These opened me up to the world of Anabaptist theology and missiology, which has worked to powerfully shape both my identity and the contours of my life.

Anabaptist theology has had a profound impact on my thinking and practice with regard to, among many other things, missional church, politics, preaching, theological education, and the Gospel.  In fact, it was these touch points and their consequent exposure to the unique features of Anabaptism that inclined me to further study with Wilbert Shenk and James Krabill as part of DMiss cohort at Fuller focused on Anabaptist Perspectives in Missional Ecclesiology.

Interestingly, the one thing that my exposure to Anabaptism didn’t do – and I suppose this might be the real point of the post since it seemed to be one of the things Dave and I talked most about in our conversation – was incline me to seek out and join a (traditionally thought of) Anabaptist congregation.  I think there are three primary reasons for this.

1) There are only a couple “denominationally-Anabaptist” congregations near me and they are all incredibly introverted and insular – a startling reality in light of the fact that the inherently missional dimension of all Anabaptist theology was one of the things I initially found so freeing.

2) I have experienced and continue to understand Anabaptism as a theological and ecclesiological paradigm that defies denominational hegemony.  This of course relates to the first point, but personally, inasmuch as I have come to see Anabaptism as a theological (as opposed to denominational) tradition, I actually feel like I would be close to betraying my Anabaptist convictions to not seek to live them out in whatever other contexts to which it seems God has directed me.

3) Lastly, I am surrounded by people who share my story – people who, while having no official exposure to or experience with traditionally thought of Anabaptist congregations, have discovered, through any number of different means (books, blogs, classes, friends, conferences, etc.), that Anabaptism is the theological tradition that best expresses their core convictions. Thus, I am far more inclined band together with these folks to see the Anabaptist vision carried forth and lived out across an array of denominational and other contexts rather than to isolate myself to one of the few traditionally recognized contexts.

The point I suppose is this: there is a large and growing population of Christians who resonate with Anabaptist theology and ecclesiology.  It sure would be awesome if those who have been part of historically Anabaptist traditions were leading the way on this, but as of yet, that just doesn’t seem to be the case.  I don’t claim to have any divine insight or wisdom on this, but I think this much should be apparent: as Christendom continues to crumble, as denominational identity comes to mean less and less, and as more and more Christians/ministers have to figure out how to make sense of the world and their relationship to God and God’s work in it, there is a HUGE opportunity for those who espouse Anabaptist ideals to speak up and lead the way.  I represent a group of people who would gladly welcome the guidance!


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7 Responses to My (Ana)baptism

  1. isaac says:

    I’d be interested to hear why you would say that the Mennonite congregations in Chicago “are all incredibly introverted and insular.”

    • JR Rozko says:

      Hi Isaac. I deliberately tried to stay away from speaking too broadly by stating that I was referring to just a couple, not Mennonite, but “denominationally-Anabaptist congregations near me (not across Chicago),” and this observation comes from my own experience of visiting as well as the perspective of friends who are “insiders” and shared this perspective with me.

      • isaac says:

        Okay. I guess I thought you were saying that the only Anabaptist congregations near you were quite insular and introverted. I thought that strange because I know that there are a few Mennonite congregations in Chicago that are definitely not insular or introverted.

        I’m also a newcomer to the Anabaptist family. But it appears as if my experience has been opposite to yours. The Mennonite congregations I’ve spent time with are quite involved in their communities in various ways.

  2. Great post, JR; thanks! That photo, by the way, is classic. I’ve found phenomena similar to what you describe at the end in my own tradition which claims historical Anabaptist influence: the Church of the Brethren. I didn’t really discover the ecclesiological and missiological genius of Anabaptism until I came to a Mennonite seminary. Now I wonder: “Why don’t my Brethren peeps dig into this stuff?!” (Some do, and I try to seek them out wherever they may be found!)

    But I also realize there are many Mennonite congregations who don’t embody it well, either, instead being mostly patterned by the various currents of American Protestantism (whether it be of the liberal-mainline or conservative-evangelical variety). A strongly Anabaptist witness short-circuits those choices, offering what you and others call that “third way.”

    One of the reasons I favor the term “neo-Anabaptist,” which sociologist James Davison Hunter uses in his recent book, To Change the World, is that it names the burgeoning theological tradition following in the steps of John Howard Yoder (a traditional Anabaptist) and Stanley Hauerwas (not a traditional Anabaptist). That theological tradition is clearly having an influence outside the academy and outside the bounds of historical Anabaptist groups/denominations. You’re living proof! That gets me jazzed. Thanks again for posting!

    • JR Rozko says:

      Hey Brian. Yeah, I think the neo-Anabaptist title may yet lend some help to those of us who identify with the theological perspectives of Yoderian Anabaptism. Hope our paths cross at some point.

  3. Michele Hershberger says:

    Great article. And I’m so glad we’re in the same place—Anabaptist—and trying to be Anabaptist in the best sense of the word.

    I come from a Mennonite background. I agree that a lot of Mennonite churches are insular. And I think that the best way to keep from being insular—for Mennos and other denominations—is to keep growing. As we remember the reason for our existence—to be vessels of God’s love to the world—the tension of structure and missional openness to the new become a creative dance.

    And it is a tension but . . . . . the church, for all its warts, is still important, I think. Renewal creates a tradition and traditions need renewal. And renewal takes on a structure after a while, because we need that too. The continual dance between tradition and renewal, organism and organization. . . .

    The movement needs a base community.

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