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The priesthood of all believers at Chapel Hill Mennonite

8.4. 2017 Written By: Thomas Lehman 235 Times read

Photo: Meghan Florian, one of the preachers at Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Fellowship, stands before the congregation. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is the author of a 2017 book, The Middle of Things. Photo provided. 

Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Fellowship (CHMF) first met for worship late in 2001. It existed for its first five years without a pastor and established a pattern of rotating sermon responsibilities among worshipers. In the past three years, CHMF has heard sermons from 20 different preachers. Isaac Villegas, the pastor, gives about half the sermons. In a recent quarter, five men and three women were scheduled to preach. Worship is based on the Revised Common Lectionary.

Almost all of the preachers are regular worshipers at CHMF. That so many are willing to preach is primarily due to nearby Duke Divinity School, which has attracted Mennonite students and additional students who are drawn to Mennonite worship and practices. Some other members have ties to the University of North Carolina.

CHMF is a learning experience for future pastors. Of the six preachers who have accepted Mennonite pastorates after their CHMF experience, all but two have come to Mennonite Church USA from membership in other denominations. The six currently serve congregations in Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, Pennsylvania and two in North Carolina. The congregation thus functions as a port of entry to MC USA.

CHMF has always been a blend of believers raised in Mennonite homes and believers raised in other traditions who have been drawn to Mennonite church life.

To explore the impact of this diverse preaching on our congregation, I sought the opinions of members in response to three questions and condensed their responses to appear in the next three paragraphs.

CHMF has had sermons from people finishing doctoral studies in religion and from people with practically no formal study of the Bible or religion. Is the difference noticeable and do you have different expectations based on the preachers’ backgrounds?

Responses:

  • Differences stem much more from the personal style of the preacher than from his/her educational background.
  • These different approaches indicate that the individuals preaching are coming from different theological viewpoints.
  • I do find the sermons by the “untrained” to be more accessible.
  • I like the variety of voices and perspectives.
  • The Duke students have typically been younger and therefore their sermons are flavored with ideas that reflect their current studies.
Are there points of disagreement among CHMF preachers? That is, has one preacher said something that another one would not dare to say? Allowing for different preaching topics and styles, are we getting a consistent Christian message?

Responses:

  • Differences among preachers often point more toward variance in life experiences, personalities, passions, styles, etc. than to theological disagreements per se.
  • We get a fairly consistent message from our preachers.
  • There are things one preacher might say that another might feel uncomfortable saying. I think this is a strength for us to get different points of view.
  • I have not encountered anyone using the pulpit to disagree openly and specifically with another preacher.
In a typical worship service, CHMF will have as many as nine people taking part in front of the congregation. Is this a “parade“ of too many people?

Responding members gave this feature strong support, especially the inclusion of children in reading Scripture during worship. It’s better, one said, to be participatory than polished. CHMF is not trying to put on the best show in town. The sharing of worship duties is part of our welcome to new attendees.

The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective is valued by our congregation, but seldom directly cited. More generally, major elements of Christian belief are often assumed, but there is never emphasis on fine points of doctrine. Individual beliefs are not scrutinized and diversity of belief is tolerated. One preacher described the congregation as living its doctrine, not declaring it.

Mennonites seldom use the word “priest” when referring to denominational worship. GAMEO, the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, declares that “Mennonites have neither developed a common understanding nor elaborated a particular view of ‘the priesthood of all believers.’“

Choosing a loose definition of the term, it is expressed in the commitment of a congregation to involve as many of its worshipers as possible in the service itself. So defined, CHMF is a priesthood of all believers. The rotation of preachers is mirrored in the rotation of hymn leaders, worship leaders, readers of Scripture, prayer leaders and child caregivers. CHMF has also participated in two Mennonite Disaster Service projects, as well as supported local causes.

There’s a place for everyone. May it always be so.

 

Thomas Lehman is a member at CHMF. 

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