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The Direction of a Quirky Church

by Berry Friesen (July 17, 2017)

What is the take-away from the recently concluded Mennonite Church USA convention? Three terms have been highlighted in Mennonite media reports: “a list,” “a quirky church,” and “the direction of our national body.”

As we consider each term, implications of the convention become a bit clearer.

The List

“The list” is a 154-item, 9-page document that captures the key points of discussion from 97 focus groups that participated in the Future Church Summit (FCS).  The points are grouped under 12 different headings.  Some are styled as items on a to-do list, some as words of affirmation or criticism, some as aspirations.

Taken together, “the list” reflects a wide-ranging discussion generating many ideas and options from people with varied experiences and perspectives. 

For a denomination riven by disagreement over whether to do this or that, “the list” makes sense:  it provides an abundance of options.  Think of the difference between an exclusive, high-end restaurant offering only a handful of entrees on a one-page menu, and the local Asian buffet offering scores of choices in a booklet-sized meal guide. Among a diverse group of diners, which is more likely to elicit satisfaction and approval?

A Quirky Church

The final FCS document affirms our denomination for its “nonconformity to empire . . . speaking truth, simple living and quirkiness.” 

Staff at Mennonite World Review (MWR) sourced the use of the word “quirky” to a seminar led by mainstream Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans: “What the church needs most is to recover some of its weird.  In the ritual of baptism we act out the bizarre truth of Christianity: we stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love. There’s nothing normal about that.”

It’s hard to tell precisely what is meant by this reference to “quirky.”  For Illinois pastor Hillary Watson, “Anabaptism at its best is very similar to hipster culture at its best,” according to MWR.  This suggests a kind of trendy nonconformity to conventional cultural norms.  

As quoted by MWR, delegate Tim Frye provided a slightly different take: “For the past 100 years we’ve tried to be normal. . . . We need to go back to being weird again and be a contrast community and speak with prophetic voices.”

So to be quirky, is it a matter of standing out and being distinctive?   Or is it a call to embrace the oddness—the out-of-stepness—that is an inseparable part of following an ancient way? 

The Direction of our National Body

In its final business session, the Delegate Assembly faced the difficult task of translating “the list” into an action for the wider church.  It declined to endorse such an amorphous collection of observations, aspirations and options as the “direction” for coming years. Instead, the delegates commended the FCS report to the denominational Executive Board, expressing the hope that conferences, congregations, constituency groups and agencies would use it as a kind of agenda to “guide further discernment for living in God’s calling.”

Wise as the change from “direction” to “guidance” was, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the FCS consultation clearly signaled a new direction for the future of the church. We no longer want to be a church of the narrow way; instead, we want to be a church with many choices and many options, a kind of Anabaptist buffet where Jesus-followers of varied flavors can freely and joyfully participate.

Or as someone put it, we no longer want to focus on rules and regulations in determining who is included and who is not.  We want to focus on relationships and dialogue.

Could such a church be “quirky?”  Or would it be inevitably mainstream, thoroughly aligned with liberal Western culture in prioritizing choice, autonomy, self-expression and a live-and-let-live tolerance?

It’s easy to assume the latter.  Here in the West, it is generally assumed a positive and relevant worldview brings together a determination to look forward with the confidence that we are smarter and more insightful that our ancestors and can do a better job than they did at most any aspect of life.  The FCS methodology and results—though focused specifically on our calling to follow Jesus—easily fits within such a worldview.

But please, let’s not jump to that conclusion. What if we were to combine the traditional orientation of religious faith—looking backward to ancient practices and sources of wisdom, inspiration and redemption— with a new openness to variety in the expressions of religious faith? That would not be mainstream at all.  Instead, it would be a surprising fusion of tradition with grace, the rigor of biblical teaching with the gentleness of mercy.

And yes, it would be quirky too.


  1. I question the whole premise of trying to be "quirky," "distinctive" or "radical," whenever those terms are defined in relation to the world or to other churches. That mires us in cycles of reactivity. Scripture calls us to "look to Jesus" and let him conform us to himself. However different or "noncomformed" that makes us from the world or from other churches is secondary to the degree of our conformity to Christ. Focusing on the former is a recipe for pride and identity wars of ever-multiplying distinctions; the latter, the basis of humility (because of how far we fall short) and solidarity with everyone as fellow broken and beloved people. The truly "ordinary radical" realizes how radically ordinary he or she is, as both sinner and saint.

  2. Well said, Mathew. And I imagine you counsel followers of Jesus to expect experiences of both the "ordinary" and the "odd" on their journeys through life.