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Sports and Mennonites Don’t Mix. Or Do They?

As good as it is to reconnect with former pastors and see old church photos, there's a lot more you can do to plan a meaningful church anniversary in your congregation or denomination. A feature story exploring the celebration of church anniversaries.

Rich Preheim, interim director of Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee, says Mennonites try to follow the directive “be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2).

“There have been understandable prohibitions against tobacco and alcohol use, gambling and such. Some church circles have also prohibited lipstick and competitive athletics. Participation in competitive athletics was considered too worldly, a waste of time, antithetical to love and community, self glorifying, and so on,” Preheim says.

“One of my favorite stories happened about a hundred years ago, to a minister who was on the faculty of a Mennonite college. As he was walking across campus one day, a football bounced away from a group of boys who were playing a pick up game.

“The minister professor, being a nice sort of fellow, kicked the ball back to the players. That apparently got the rumor mill going, because he soon had to defend himself against charges of violating church standards.

“By the way, the college in this story qualified in 2006 for the NAIA national soccer championship tournament,” he adds.

To learn more about Mennonite culture, Preheim recommends reading An Introduction to Mennonite History by Cornelius J. Dyck.

You can also learn a lot by visiting Menno-Hof, a museum in Shipshewana, Indiana, that tells the story of Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterities—all part of the Anabaptist family.

The Winning Words of Charles Wesley

“Most of my academic interests boil down to the Trinitarian aspect of all worship and the aesthetic and artistic qualities of sound
theology,” says Lester Ruth, professor of Christian worship at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

His Charles Wesley Tercentennial project of taping testimonies of people touched by Charles Wesley’s hymns combines all three interests.

Ruth himself has been touched by the Wesley hymn “Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose.”

“That song helped me get my wife. Early on, I asked if she had a favorite hymn. ‘Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose’ is not a song I grew up singing in Methodist churches in Texas. But she sang it in her church growing up in Ohio.

“So before our next date, I went out and memorized it…so I could recite it and impress her. And now we’ve been married for 21 years,” he says.

The song, which is about the comfort Christ brings into life, has become a favorite for Lester Ruth as well. “When I was a pastor, and things were difficult, I’d often sit alone at the piano in the sanctuary and play and sing that song,” he says.

Testimonies from the past

As Methodist churches observe the Charles Wesley 300th Anniversary, Ruth suggests that older congregations, especially, explore their history, and all congregations reconnect with Wesley hymns.

“It’s good for churches to look honestly at their history,” he says. His book Early Methodist Life and Spirituality tells the story of dozens of early American Methodists—black and white, slave and free, women and men, well known and obscure.

His book A Little Heaven Below: Worship at Early Methodist Quarterly Meetings can help Methodist churches that wonder whether being true to their roots means focusing more on liturgy or on seekers.

Ruth recommends studying church records and interviewing older members about specific issues. “In congregations that started among single ethnic groups, it could be interesting to document the congregational shift from the dominant language to English. Or you could look at the ethnic shift in last names on church baptismal or membership rolls.

“In interviews, you could ask about the dynamics in making those ethnic and language changes. How did the congregation keep older members from feeling disenfranchised during those changes? This is an issue that lots of Asian American congregations face,” he says.

Singing Wesley hymns

For churches interested in exploring the Wesleys’ theology and hymnody, Ruth has several suggestions.

  • Look for verbs of seeing or sight—see, look, behold, and so on—in hymns Charles Wesley wrote for the great festivals, such as Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Tie this in to a Wesleyan theology of the arts.
  • Buy a critical edition of The Works of John Wesley Volume 7: A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. It gives scriptural references and allusions for every line or stanza. Discuss how Wesleyan hymns embody a lively understanding of Scripture.
  • Order a facsimile collection of Charles Wesley’s Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord. Or read the public domain text here. “There is archaic wording. You may need some guidance to sing and pray these songs. But an instructive pastor could help singers see how the nativity hymns emphasize humanity participating in the divine nature. Today, we don’t often say, ‘In Christ, we can share in the divine nature.’ But this perspective opens up the possibility for holiness in this life,” Ruth says.