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  • Edwin Shank

Do Mennonites Have Walls Around Their Communities?

Our farm team is made up of ten or more plain church communities. We refer to each other as being a part of the larger plain community. None of us live communally.

Do Mennonites Have Walls Around Their Communities?

The man listened politely but shook his head almost imperceptibly. “No, you don’t understand. It would be ideal to follow the teachings of Jesus as you describe, but it would never work for us. Most of us live in the real world. It’s a jungle out here! You live in your sheltered Mennonite community. Just be thankful you don’t have to face the real world!”

I have often wondered when encountering conversations like this, just what those from outside our faith might picture when we say, "Mennonite community." Do these words conjure up an image of a commune? A colony? Possibly with communal land? Maybe we have walls or at least a fence around this sheltered community? Do they picture security guards? You know... to keep the real world out and the Mennonites in.

I’m exaggerating for effect, of course. I’m fairly sure that most of you understand our use of the word community better than this. But since we do get questions, let me give you a firsthand description for hopefully a more accurate picture.

The description of community that I’ll be giving is for the plain church groups that my wife, Dawn, and I and family are personally acquainted with and understand best: Mennonites, Amish, River Brethren and German Baptists and some other plain churches whose communities are similar in structure to ours. These groups are the plain groups that make up our team at The Family Cow.

The difference between a ‘community’ and a ‘commune’ is not that hard to explain. Both of these terms have at their root the words ‘common unity.’ Maybe the best way to differentiate between the two is that the common unity we experience in our plain church communities is the group unity of spirit, faith, vision, mission and commitment to practical obedience to the Word of God but is not as much about commonly held property and housing and living space as is implied by the term commune.

So, to put this into real life, this is what community looks like for our local congregation. Many other plain church communities would be similar though there are, of course, variations.

We do not live together with communal housing.

Most of our church families live within 5 to 15 miles of the church meeting house, but there may be a few who drive 20 miles or more. It’s not unusual for the homes of the local community to be sprinkled over a 30-mile diameter circle. The exceptions would be with the plain groups that use horse and carriage for transportation. The Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities for example, would mostly live within roughly a 10-mile circle of their local church people.

We do not own land collectively.

Each family lives on their privately owned or rented property. The properties may be large or small. Some are farms where their main income is from the farm. Some are 1 to 5 acres, semi-rural properties with space for gardens and maybe a home business. Some newly-weds may live in a housing development but since we do value children and large families, they usually will find a place with a little more space suitable for a family of 5-8 children as their family grows.

We do not all work together.

Our employment pursuits are varied. Some of us are self-employed. Some of us are employed for businesses owned by our church people. But others work in enterprises owned by non-plain folks. Some plain employers hire non-plain employees. The point is that we, like any other Americans, are free to find employment or create our own employment. We do though, place a lot of emphasis and value in a workplace that is safe spiritually, doing work that does not violate biblical principles.

So, since we do not live together, nor do we own land together, nor are we employed together in one collective enterprise, why do we call it a community?

Good question.

The answer is: We do almost everything else together.

We worship together.

We are at church every Sunday morning as well as some Sunday evenings. Many Wednesday evenings we participate in prayer meeting, hymn sings, or we go sing for elderly folks to cheer their lives or some other special service. Usually, one week out of a year we have ‘revival meetings’ with a minister from a sister congregation preaching every evening of the week. No, don’t pity us! We love our community and enjoy getting together. The visiting after the service as families is usually as long as the service itself. We are family. Church family. That’s why we call each other brothers and sisters. It’s the family of God and it is real to us.

We visit together.

The Sunday evenings when we do not have church or even at times throughout the week, you’ll often find our families visiting each other in their homes, playing games together, socializing and just sharing in conversation around the living room. Ministry with laity, old with young, married couples with the singles. Each is important to the beauty of relationships in the community.

We do school together.

The teachers come from our own people. The board is made up from the local congregation. The library books are provided and screened for spiritual and social safety and age appropriateness by local families. The school curriculum is mostly written, edited and published by the broader plain community. All of the school funding for teacher salary, textbooks, facilities, etc. is funded by contributions from the congregation. School trips and school hikes are planned and directed by the board with the help and participation of the patrons and enjoyed by all.

We care for our elderly together.

Most of our elderly are lovingly cared for by their own families in the home. If the care becomes too heavy for one family, the extended family may take turns by three months or so at a time having Grandpa or Grandma or Aunt or Uncle live in with the family. If the care needed is more than the family can do themselves, the plain community also operates elderly care facilities staffed by our own people. These nurses and hospice-type personnel are equipped to better care for the bedfast than a family can normally provide.

Together we bear each other’s burdens in the emergencies of life.

We call this brotherhood assistance. Most of us do not carry insurance. We actually teach against depending on and trusting in insurance companies for our financial and property security. We believe that the scripture teaches us to depend on God and on the family of God instead. We do this by each committing to financially and physically help our brothers and sisters in need. This commitment must be powered by true, deep love for each other. It will never work if each tries to live for self. When there is a medical need, a hospital stay, a car accident, a house or barn fire or maybe just a new baby born into the family... whatever the need, we lift congregational offerings to cover that need. Moms and dads, young and old, children and teenagers will show up to physically help with the work of cleanup and rebuilding when needed. If the loss is too big for the local congregation, sometimes neighboring congregations and communities will pitch in to cover the cost.

There are some exceptions to this no-insurance position. Sometimes banks may require insurance for taking out a loan or they may require liability insurance for certain types of businesses... but broadly speaking, we depend on our love-motivated brotherhood and God for ‘assurance’ rather than profit-driven companies for ‘insurance.’

We are committed to make real life applications to the principles of the Word of God together as a group and then submit ourselves to the same.

This commitment is undeniably the most powerful of the community-shaping forces of our plain communities. And this should be no surprise. After all, we are a faith community. We are a body of believers. We are a church. A church community of faith. And faith needs put into real-life practice if it is to be a real, living faith.

There is almost no part of our lives that is not touched by principles from the Word of God. Our people firmly believe that God, the designer and creator of all, knows best and has given his principles for healthy community, happy homes, holy living, respectful youth, and thriving civilizations. He wants His family to be happy and blessed and prospering spiritually and socially. He wants to save us from our sins, not only our past sins, but to also save us from the bondage of present and power of future sin. He wants us to live in victory over evil... not to be overcome by evil.

Yet those principles from our Father God are not usually spelled out in detail. He does not micromanage us but gives us principles and lets us work out the details. For community cohesiveness and group identity, community order and group strength, we believe it is necessary to agree together to a scripturally honoring code of conduct and to practical applications to those principles so that we can support each other in those practices.

The previous list of practices in our schools, churches, brotherhood assistance, etc. were only a small sampling of the scriptural practices that we live out unitedly together as a community. All these have their principles based in clear scriptural teaching. As we read the Bible together, pray together and truly seek the truth of God’s Word together and fully surrender ourselves to what we find there, we then agree together as a Biblical Church community on practical applications of those principles.

It is the plain people's commitment of faith to unashamedly obey God and His Word and to collectively apply it to our personal and community practices in a practical way (even unto death if it would come to that), that build the structures of unity in our communities.

It is our common unity.

And yes, the sincere applications to these timeless scriptural principles still do work. It does takes faith to step out onto the water with Jesus... (full story at Matthew 14:24-33)

Yes, it will be scary... the waves are high... but following Jesus in full faith, nothing wavering, still brings untold blessings to our faith community, our families, to our schools, to our little ones and sometimes even to our neighbors. And it still brings worship to Jesus as the Son of God! (vs.33)

Yes, even while living in and among the real world of 2023.

Blessings until next time,

Your Mennonite Christian friend,

Edwin Shank

P.S. There are large groups of plain folk Christians, the Hutterites for example, who do live in colonies and practice communal living including collective ownership of land. Their colonies are mostly in the mid-west USA and Canada. Their practices are remarkable and admirable, but their story will need to wait for another time.


Song of the Week

Confession: This week's post is longer than I intended and took more of my time to write than I had budgeted. As I was getting ready to post it, I was tempted to just skip the song this week. It would've been an easy excuse since I was rushed for time... But it just didn't feel right to skip it. So many of you say how much you look forward to the song! I didn't want to disappoint you :) So here is a really meaningful one that we sing often in church. ENJOY!

Click the title to play the song:

How gentle God’s commands!

How kind His precepts are!

Come, cast your burdens on the Lord,

And trust His constant care.

Beneath His watchful eye,

His saints securely dwell.

That hand which bears all nature up,

Shall guard His children well.

Why should this anxious load

Press down your weary mind?

Haste to your heavenly Father’s throne,

And sweet refreshment find.

His goodness stands approved,

Unchanged from day to day:

Come drop your burden at His feet,

And bear a song away...

and bear a song away.

Just let the message sink into your heart. Sing along if you wish. Remember... it's only the message of the words that feeds the soul!


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