In the 1950s & 60s, a group of American Anabaptist graduate students got to talking about the place of Mennonites in the modern world. One product of this conversation was an influential series of pamphlets.
With Mennonites asking similar questions today, Laura Schmidt Roberts, Ph.D., professor of biblical and theological studies at FPU, has worked with Wipf and Stock Publishers to republish the original pamphlets, adding contemporary voices to continue the conversation into a new generation.
Shaped by The Anabaptist Vision, H.S. Bender’s influential 1944 essay, and critical of Mennonite practices increasingly at odds with it, between 1954-1971 the group—known as the Amsterdam Seven for the location of their first meeting place in the Netherlands while all were getting their education and/or doing post-war relief work in Europe—began a process that led to a series of 18 pamphlets with contributions from more than 50 authors called CONCERN: A Pamphlet Series for Questions of Christian Renewal, that took up important Anabaptist themes that shaped a generation of thinking.
The new publications include material from the original pamphlets in volumes grouped by theme and add new articles by contemporary writers. In all there are seven books: four edited by Roberts, two finished more than a decade ago by Virgil Vogt and one started by Vogt and completed by Roberts. The last volume was completed in April 2022.
The series addresses issues—belief, structure, governance, witness and engagement with the world—that are still concerns today. “The call issued to discern what it means to be a faithful church in and for the times—ever the church’s call—is one we face with growing urgency. What theology, imagery, and practices are adequate to the work and witness of disciples in this time and place? What is church for?” Roberts said.
“[CONCERN was] a place to test ideas, raise questions, challenge practices, even change one’s mind,” Roberts added. “This example of dialog across difference as a shared path toward renewal is welcome in the current increasingly polarized context, where disagreement seems more likely to end a conversation than begin one.”
Part of the funding for the project came from awards of $2,500 CAN from the Gerhard Lohrenz Publication Fund at Canadian Mennonite University and $1,000 US from the Schafer-Friesen Research Fund at Mennonite Historical Library located at Goshen College.
The four books Roberts edited are:
- Concern for the Church in the World: Essays on Christian Responsibility, 1958–1963 Amid the mid-twentieth-century post-war relief and rebuilding efforts, reconsideration of views on nonviolence and civic engagement was also underway for North American Mennonites. What peace theology was adequate to recast the church’s role in the world as it was emerging, including its economic and political systems? Essays explore these questions through intentional dialog across diverse viewpoints, including some in tension with the Mennonite hierarchy and broader Mennonite majority of the time. The writings provide a resource for Christians today wrestling anew with such issues amid the unprecedented upheaval of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Melissa Florer-Bixler’s contemporary response pursues this intersection of peace theology, economics and political ideology, calling for critical self-reflection on our participation in economic systems and their accompanying ideology today.
- Concern for Church Renewal: Essays on Community and Discipleship, 1958–1966 From its first issue, the pamphlet series identified itself as an independent publication whose purpose was to stimulate study and discussion through intentional juxtaposition of viewpoints. What constitutes the church? Do existing structures engender or hinder the church’s ever-present need for renewal? What approaches might more effectively “structure” its renewal? These essays address these themes in reference to a believers’ church or Anabaptist framework, reflecting both differing viewpoints and a shared sense that community and discipleship. Contemporary responses by Suzanne Guenther Loewen and César García reflect current iterations of these questions, shaped by pronounced concerns over the exercise of power within the community and the role structural, systemic inequalities play in discipleship.
- Concern for Church Mission and Spiritual Gifts: Essays on Faith and Culture, 1958–1968 The writings explore the role of culture and context in the church’s mission, lived faith and theological articulation through the global church and the ecumenical movement, Christendom’s legacy of colonialism and cultural accommodation, critique of rigid and outdated ecclesial structures and forms and the complexities of the unavoidably enculturated nature of faith as proclaimed and lived. Contemporary responses by Hyung Jin Kim Sun and Andrés Pacheco Lozano offer postcolonial critique, demonstrating that such topics continue to be of critical concern in today’s globally interconnected yet fragmented world.
- Concern for Church Polity and Discipline: Essays on Pastoral Ministry and Communal Authority, 1958–1969 The initial group viewed the increasingly hierarchical denominational structure, the emergence of centralized, professionalized, pastoral ministry and the resultant changes in polity and practice as fundamentally incompatible with a believers’ church. Essays discuss the reconfiguration of pastoral and communal authority and the assertion that reclaiming a disciplined priesthood of all believers is the path of Christian renewal. Contemporary responses by Kimberly Penner and Isaac Villegas discuss what institutional forms might best structure the leadership, authority and shared life of congregations, marked by particular concern about the exercise of power within communities of faith.
Other titles in the series are:
- The Roots of Concern: Writings on Anabaptist Renewal 1952–1957, ed. Virgil Vogt (2009). This volume republishes the content of the first four CONCERN pamphlets. Discussion revolves around the recovery of an Anabaptist view of church life and discipleship, planting the seeds of a theme that would gain much attention in later years: the primary identity of the church as an alternative community as opposed to its positive identification with the world. The 14 articles cover a variety of issues such as form and spirit in the church, preaching, fellowship, discipleship, dissent and property.
- Concern for Education: Essays on Christian Higher Education, 1958–1966, ed. Virgil Vogt (2010). This volume republishes CONCERN essays from 1966 as well as two previously unpublished papers by John Howard Yoder and one essay by Yoder and Paul Lederach, all addressing issues in Christian higher education. Writers explore how church might be formed within the life of a college community, drawing characteristics from the New Testament and presenting case studies on initiatives to form such churches at Bethel College, Conrad Grebel College, Bluffton College, Tabor College and Eastern Mennonite College.
- Concern for Anabaptist Renewal: A Radical Reformation Reader, 1971, ed. Virgil Vogt and Laura Schmidt Roberts (2022). A Radical Reformation Reader, first published in 1971, called for a Christian movement as vigorous and radical as the original Anabaptists. The authors were confident the past could—and did—offer practical theological guidance for following Jesus in the contemporary world, asking what forms of church are appropriate to the heirs of such a radical tradition, especially in a time of escalating individualism, violence and economic disparity? The essays republished in this volume explore divergent responses and invite readers to do the same.
The original group included Irvin B. Horst, John W. Miller, Paul Peachey, Calvin Redekop, David A. Shank, Orley Swartzentruber and Joh Howard Yoder. Learn more about the books Roberts edited at wipfandstock.com/author/laura-schmidt-roberts/