October 04, 2004
Among the Anabaptists

Yesterday, in a somewhat unplanned fashion, I wound up at Hugo's old haunt, the Pasadena Mennonite Church. I'd had a vague notion all week that I was going to visit a new church on Sunday, but I didn't make up my mind till the last minute what it was going to be. I was thinking about the Salvation Army, so I called up the Santa Monica corps on Saturday, but I couldn't get any information on when worship services would happen. The recorded phone message just gave the church's address and business hours and told you to hang up and call an 800 number if you wanted to make a donation. (It has, by the way, been my experience that a whole lot of churches are this terrible about getting information out about themselves. When I was church hunting a year ago this was a major determinant of what churches I did and didn't visit.)

So I went to plan B, the Mennonites. Thanks to Hugo I was already aware of the PMC and their website, which really isn't much more than a Yellow Pages listing but at least tells you when they worship. It is kind of far away from where I live, however, so I hunted up a couple of websites that led to other Mennonite churches in the L.A. area. Here, once again, I ran into the inadequate-information problem. The two directories didn't entirely agree with each other about which churches actually exist, and again worship schedules were lacking.

Generally speaking, the L.A. Mennonite churches are in two areas: the eastern suburbs like Pasadena, Alhambra, Downey, etc. and the South Central area. The latter may be something a surprise since I doubt the word "Mennonite" makes most people think "inner-city blacks", but I'm not kidding, there's like ten of them there. I remember reading somewhere, actually, that the Inglewood church was kind of the flagship church in an effort by the Mennonites to reach out to nonwhites. There's also a sprinkling of Indonesian Mennonite churches in SoCal, and don't ask me to explain that one.

So anyway, I was sorting all this out on Sunday morning, and the only other real option besides PMC was one of the South Central churches called Riches of Christ. The pastor of this church is apparently from Africa, the service is two and a half hours long, there's a Wednesday evening "deliverance service" and a Friday "prayer warfare" session -- in other words, this appears to be a real two-thirds-world-style church. That in itself makes it rather fascinating, but I decided on the PMC for two reasons. One, since Riches of Christ was one of those churches that appeared on one directory and not the other, and since the website doesn't actually use the word Mennonite anywhere, I wasn't sure if it was still affiliated with the Mennonites. Two, I decided there was only so much novelty I was prepared to deal with in one morning, especially if there was going to be two and a half hours of it.

The PMC, as it turned out, was novel in some ways and familiar in others. It was started 18 years ago by some Fuller students, and one directory mentioned that it has an unusual number of congregants who are associated with academia in some way or other. And indeed, there was this boho-intellectual vibe going on -- men with beards and spectacles, women in shawls, etc. The crowd, which probably numbered something like 120, was notably younger than the Lutherans -- I don't remember seeing a single elderly person there, actually.

The service itself was a curious combination of the mainline and evangelical churches I've been to. The basic structure was the same as the Lutheran, although the elements were in a slightly different order: an opening hymn followed by a call-and-response session, then more singing, passing of the peace, offering, a Bible reading, sermon, prayers of the church, communion, another hymn, and a benediction. The liturgy was a lot more concise and less verbose than the Lutheran, but it was there.

The music was all over the map. It was literally all over the map, in fact, because a couple of the songs were in foreign languages. There was a hymnal with fairly traditional music, but there were also some songs I recognized from Christian Assembly. The praise band consisted of three singers, an amped acoustic guitar, an electric bass, and a baby grand piano.

The readings were from 1 Corinthians 14 mostly from 26 onward. What leaps out to my modern eye is all the strange talk of prophecying and speaking in tongues. But 500 years ago, the pastor said, the most controversial aspect of that passage was its affirmation that back in the first century, anyone and everyone could prophecy in church, and everyone else had to listen. It wasn't just the priests who had their say.

He segued from there into an explanation of Anabaptist church governance. It's a democratic model, but not the majority-vote type of democracy with which Americans are familiar. Instead, all voices are heard, and the church tries as much as possible to reach a consensus. He said he had his doubts about it at first, but over the years he's seen it work. I thought that is probably true for small groups, but Anabaptist sects have also remained small, perhaps partly for that reason. If a disagreement is to unbridgeable, people leave.

Still, he made a good point that Americans are taught that freedom of speech and of worship were rights that were secured for them by a series of wars, starting with the Revolution. But the Anabaptists, he pointed out, were exercising those rights nonviolently long before any government granted permission. It reminded me of Dash's post about "Pastor Flagworshipper", who lobbied for hanging a flag in Dash's church. The original comments aren't there any more but I remember one reason he gave was that America had given the church its freedom to worship. To which another commenter replied, funny, I thought God had granted that.

Given the smallish congregation, everybody noticed I was new, and a number of people came over and introduced themselves. Everyone asked how I'd heard of the place, and I answered honestly, though I wasn't sure how they'd react to my bringing up Hugo. If there were any hard feelings, however, they didn't show. They were so friendly, in fact, that they invited me out to lunch afterwards, in what I gather is a standing engagement among some of the members.

I met one man who was actually descended from Mennonites, but the others I talked to had converted from elsewhere. They seemed to be attracted to it for similar reasons as I was: the community, the pacifism, the social activism. I didn't get a greatly detailed picture of what the social activities actually consist of, though. They mentioned a monthly feeding of the homeless, and various peace-related protests and vigils they had participated in, but mostly they seemed to join up with projects created by others. I guess for a fairly small congregation that doesn't even own its own building (they're renting the Pasadena Church of the Brethren's church), that's understandable, although I hope there are more substantive things going on than vigil/protest types of activities because I don't see those as accomplishing much.

All in all, when I finally got home and collapsed sometime after three, I felt good about the experience. The place is so darned far away, though. It's a similar commute to Christian Assembly, meaning it's not so bad for Sunday mornings but you feel pretty cut off from everything else that's going on. While I was talking to some of the Mennonites one looked at the other and asked, "So why haven't we planted a church on the westside, anyway?" Good question.

Posted by Camassia at October 04, 2004 10:04 AM | TrackBack

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Being one of the folks from Pasadena Mennonite Church (PMC), I always find it interesting and instructive to get an outside view of PMC.

You brought up an issue that I often wonder about myself, "I didn't get a greatly detailed picture of what the social activities actually consist of." PMC does not have many outreach ministries. I care very much about church ministry, so much so that I obtained an MA from seminary in missiology. PMC has an unusual demographic. In some ways I feel it is more like a pastoral support group than a typical church. PMC has a high percentage of people in teaching and helping professions (non-profit workers, social workers, therapists, etc.). These people consider their work to be their ministry and are less inclined to take on substantial volunteer ministries. I wonder if it is enough for a church to minister through the efforts of its individuals or is it necessary for the church to have corporate ministries for its own health and obedience to its calling.

It was nice to meet you and have a chance to read your blog.

Posted by: Thea on October 5, 2004 10:52 PM
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