all features
Features posts

Divergent: A way forward

5.3. 2017 Written By: Glen Guyton 985 Times read

Glen Guyton is Chief Operating Officer for Mennonite Church USA. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Mennonite magazine. You can read the full May issue online and subscribe to receive more original feature articles and columns like this one. 

If Mennonite Church USA was a young adult dystopian novel, I would be divergent, maybe even bordering on factionless. Since we are talking about a 15-year-old denomination, why not use an analogy that appeals to 15-year-olds?

Divergent is a trilogy by Veronica Roth set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. Something unknownbut- bad happened in the world and the survivors are divided into five factions based on their dispositions: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the intellectual. Every year, the society’s 16-year-olds take a test to determine which faction they are best suited for. Those who do not complete initiation into their new faction become “factionless” and are forced to live in poverty on the streets of the city and those who could potentially belong to a number of factions are considered “divergent.” Divergence is considered dangerous by the society and so these young adults often select one faction to join and try to hide their divergent identity in order to avoid becoming factionless.

I am not living on the streets in poverty, but like most Mennonites (90 percent) I see myself on the margins of this church. I am pretty new to all this, considering the history of Anabaptism. I was never really part of any of the factions that have taken a foothold in the bowels of this denomination. I am neither MC (Mennonite Church) nor GC (General Conference Mennonite Church). I have no familial ties to Lancaster, Pa., or Jacob Hochstetler, whose family was attacked by Indians in 1757. (Though I will confess that according to I do have a touch of Swiss-German running through my DNA.)

In my political views, I try to lean toward common sense. I consider myself independent and prefer moderate government. Depending on the issue, I may be a little more conservative or a little more liberal. If anything skews my worldview, it is the color of skin—but I had nothing to do with that. Every day something in the world reminds me I am part of a “faction” based on the biases of others and the world’s need to divide us.

Just like in the apocalyptic trilogy, in the Mennonite world there is a fine line between divergence and becoming factionless.

In order for Mennonite Church USA to survive moving forward, we will need fewer factions and more divergent leaders.

Divergence is the tendency to diverge from the norm—in this case, the mindset and way of thinking that factions provide. This institution, which was set up to equip people to share the gospel, has developed silos and factions that seek to divide and hoard power—so much so that we are afraid to change. Many of our leaders are afraid to loosen the reigns to allow God’s Spirit to transform us into the 21st-century church we can and need to be.

In Mark 8:34-36, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

This is a relevant message for our institutional church today. I could paraphrase it by saying, “If we want to equip the body to follow Christ, we must give up our power. We must tear down our silos and follow Christ. If we try to hang on to what was, we will lose our way. But if we give over control to answer God’s call, we have everything to gain. What will we benefit by holding on to our denominational factional power if we fail to live out our Christian mission?”

Let me be clear. I am not opposed to factions. We all have a core identity we hold dear. We have a heritage that helped form who we are. In the Divergent trilogy, the factionless are lost souls. The aim is not to be factionless but to rise above the limitations that suggest a faction is the only source of our strength and identity. “Faction Before Blood” was the first principle of the factions in the Divergent series. Faction before blood is a dangerous, limiting factor for us in Mennonite Church USA if we are people united in the blood of Christ.

Our agencies, our colleges, our congregations, our schools, our boards, our camps and congregations should exist to serve and equip the body. That’s it.

Yes, I am oversimplifying it, but maybe we need more simple analogies. If we are struggling to keep the doors open and our only purpose is to raise more funds or get more students, is this the future we want for the next 15 years?

Who wants their entire existence to be getting up, going to work to make money, coming home and pressing repeat? I sure don’t. I want my life to mean something. I don’t just want to exist for the sake of existing or live my life solely for the purpose of producing widgets but not getting the opportunity to live life.

I want to live a life of purpose where I am answering God’s call. I want to give others hope and share with them the transformative power of God’s love. We should want more from ourselves and from the institutions we have created.

Since the 2015 Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, some of the congregations and area conferences that left Mennonite Church USA have dug in and become smaller factions. Some marginalized groups have become more vocal about the factions they are part of. Some of our institutional factions are taking desperate measures to hold on to their power, like a body seizing in the last throes of death. Others have decided to become factionless and are slowly fading into the background or springing up online as a bitter society of marginalized former Mennonites. But there are a few divergent leaders who still believe there is hope for the future of Mennonite Church USA.

I am interested to see where the Future Church Summit in July takes us. Some who attend won’t be able to see beyond their factions and are going to miss a great opportunity to join in the rebirth of this valuable church.

I like how my friend Hyun Hur, co-founder and director of ReconciliAsian in Pasadena, Calif., frames it: “I feel we have lost our vision and it needs to be reignited. I came to this church to be part of a different narrative—a countercultural, anti-Christendom movement that follows a radical Jesus. The first Anabaptists chose to be radical— not assimilated to culture or the spirit of the age. We need to go back to the beginning—our Radical Reformation theology—and reignite an Anabaptist vision in our context.”

I leave you with this illustration from the Amity Manifesto, a message of trust and letting go:

A Son says to his mother, “Mother, today I fought with my friend.”

His mother says, “Why did you fight with your friend?”

“Because he demanded something of me, and I would not give it to him.”

“Why did you not give it to him?”

“Because it was mine.”

“My son, you now have your possessions, but you do not have your friend. Which would you rather have?”

“My friend.”

“Then give freely, trusting that you will also be given what you need.”

I hope we can learn to trust each other, to let go and to be the church that God is calling us to be.


This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Mennonite magazine. You can read the full May issue online and subscribe to receive more original feature articles and columns like this one. 

The Mennonite, Inc., is currently reviewing its Comments Policy. During this review, commenting on new articles is disabled; readers are encouraged to comment on new articles via The Mennonite’s Facebook page. Comments on older articles can continue to be submitted for review. Comments that were previously approved will still appear on older articles. To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments, and comments don’t appear until approved. Read our full Comments Policy before submitting a comment for approval.

8 Responses to “Divergent: A way forward”

  1. Wayne Steffen says:

    If 90 percent of Mennonites indeed see themselves as on the margins of the church, there is no central norm to diverge from. What does that say about any identity we might claim to have?

    • Lynn Miller says:

      Good point Wayne! Mennonite identity has been watered down by the infiltration of the world. The Word of God – the Standard is not being honored. Since the Word is not compatible with the LGBTQ agenda – the leaders are asking the Spirit to direct them (as if He ever disagrees with the Word.) If the Word was the standard, the infiltrators would be on the margins of the denomination, but obviously this is not the case now. See World – the MC USA loves you – and we are becoming just like you. Love, love, love……………………love is all we need.

    • GUYTON says:

      Wayne, in 1973, Richard Showalter wrote in the minutes from the Mennonite Church General Assembly: “Finally, we have come to the consensus that the Mennonite Church today lacks a clear sense of identity. We need a new vision. It is a question whether our present confessions of faith speak adequately to our confused sense of direction and pluralism in theology.” That was 44 years ago. Glen Guyton

      • Wayne Steffen says:

        So, perhaps nothing new under the sun. There’s always the issue of people thinking, “I don’t see a vision, so there isn’t one” or, “I don’t like the vision I see, so I won’t accept it.” Not making any claims as to what Richard Showalter meant, I can say, after working in higher ed for two Anabaptist denominations, that we regularly hear from people who feel the college or university has lost its way spiritually at the same time students are being ministered to greatly by faculty and staff.

  2. Tim Nafziger says:

    I’m curious about what you are referring to when you say: “Some of our institutional factions are taking desperate measures to hold on to their power, like a body seizing in the last throes of death.” Can you give an example?

    • Mike Shank says:

      This was a very good question. I would also like to see it answered.

    • GUYTON says:

      Tim, I think it would be better if others speak to their own demise. I will say that the majority of our institutions are facing tough economic and relevance challenges as the constituency changes and shrinks. I can speak to the program I manage, the national convention, the current format we use may not be viable moving forward. Do I try to save it, or do I look toward a different way of meeting after 2017? Many others in our system are wrestling with what to do with their programs. Glen Guyton

  3. Maybe Jesus was the most “divergent” of all, and that’s why the Son of Man had no place to lay his head.

Leave a Reply