An Overview of Mennonite Worship

When I came to faith in Christ, I asked to be baptized into the Mennonite congregation in which I had grown up. In the preparation for church membership, we, the candidates for baptism, were told, among other things, what baptism and Communion meant. The minister made it clear that baptism does not save you; it is your act of witness to the work of grace in you. Similarly, Communion is not a corporeal eating of Christ, it is a memorial of his death and a celebration of the unity of his body, the church. Then the day came when we were baptized. As the service proceeded, I recall thinking, There is more going on here than they told us, more than what I have words for.

I consider my experience at this point to be typical of the Mennonite understanding of the sacred actions of the church, which Mennonites usually call ordinances. The Reformation protest against sacraments that automatically convey grace is still in the marrow of Mennonite bones. The first thing that is usually explained when the rites of the church are explained is what they are not. At the same time, these ritual moments are taken with utmost seriousness. For example, my uncle, who led a congregation that had just broken away from my family’s church, bore with the strain that accompanied his return to the parent congregation in order to be at my baptism. Especially in traditional congregations, a deep quietness and a suppressed (not repressed) emotionality accompanies the celebration of the ordinances, especially the Lord’s Supper.

This congregational attitude is due in part to the ecclesiological significance of these acts. In other words, when I am baptized, I enter a covenant with Christ and the church to follow Christ in all things. At the breaking of bread, Mennonites renew and restore that covenant of baptism with one another and with their Lord. For Mennonites, the individual meaning of these actions is inescapably part of a communal meaning. So, many Mennonites are taught early on that they better be serious about these ordinances or not participate in them at all.

But Mennonite participation in the ordinances has other aspects. There is a sense that something more is happening than what the participants in the ordinances are doing. It is striking that, once it is clear that salvation comes by grace through faith, some of the Anabaptists speak of the Lord’s Supper as partaking of Christ or as union with Christ. (see J. Rempel, The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism [Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1993]). This view is also evident in the confessions of faith written before the twentieth century (see H. Loewen, One Lord, One Church, One Hope and One God [Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, n.d.]). Only in twentieth-century literature is the drama of the Lord’s Supper reduced to an act of human memory. This reductionism is the fruit of the popular rationalism that has afflicted liberal and conservative Protestantism alike.

Beyond this historical musing, how do Mennonites today experience God in worship? Like most other denominations, the Mennonite church has become remarkably diverse in its worship and piety in the past quarter century. Almost all the impulses and influences have pushed the church to loosen or even discard traditional patterns. Mennonites found the uniformity of practice stifling and graceless. One of the first experiments in the reform of worship was a more conversational tone in worship leading, and Communion in the context of a fellowship meal. I remember one woman who had enthusiastically helped to plan their congregation’s first Communion meal, being accosted by her baffled mother during the event with the question “Isn’t this sin?”

Although there are reservations similar to this mother, the quest of Mennonites for worship that has immediate meaning and personal warmth has led to a revolution in worship attitudes and practices. I observe two dominant styles among Mennonites. One of them could be loosely described as charismatic, the other as free form. Sometimes both exist in the same congregation. Both styles have theologically liberal and conservative forms. By charismatic, I mean an emphasis on freedom of expression for leaders and worshipers. The leadership style is informal; the worshipers share personal experiences. By free form, I mean an emphasis on a prototype that is adapted from week to week. Two of the Mennonite conferences and the Church of the Brethren have issued the Hymnal: A Worship Book (Newton, Kans.: Faith and Life Press, 1992), organized according to the acts of worship. How that pattern is carried out each week varies—one week the call to worship might be verses from a psalm, the next week it might be a mime.

There is a core of sacred actions common to almost all Mennonite congregations: baptism, Communion, ordination, matrimony, and dedication of parents and children. In charismatic circles, baptism is a joyful, informal occasion, often performed by immersion, even in Mennonite conferences that have traditionally practiced sprinkling or pouring. Communion tends to be celebrated monthly with a focus on the experience of forgiveness. In free-form circles, baptism is a more solemn occasion guided by a liturgical form. Communion is celebrated less often and more quietly, with an emphasis on fellowship and memorial. Some congregations of both approaches retain a preparatory service before Communion or a penitential rite at the beginning of Communion. Some retain footwashing as part of Communion once or twice a year.

Ordination (of women as well as men) is thought of as the act of setting aside a minister for lifelong service. For the most part, deacons are commissioned (a kind of short-term ordination); and bishops, where that office is retained, are appointed. No pattern of commissioning has developed for lay ministries—strangely enough for an anticlerical denomination—although some congregations induct officers into their roles. Behind this is the assumption that baptism is the basic and universal call to ministry, but this assumption is seldom articulated at baptism or in settings where people are chosen for ministries. (For an articulation of the view which understands baptism as making the ordination of a “caste” of leaders superfluous, see J. Yoder, The Fullness of Christ [Elgin: Brethren Press, 1987].)

The wedding service is widely perceived as the event in which the love of two people for each other is transformed into a covenant of marriage. This transformation comes through God’s blessing of the vows and the covenant which is established between the couple and the congregation. For a generation, weddings had become elaborate dramas with no role for the congregation. The older pattern of congregational singing, a sermon, and a very simple entrance rite—often only the couple coming in together—has made a comeback.

The dedication of the parents and children was practiced in some Anabaptist circles, but has become the norm among mainstream North American Mennonites only since World War II. It does not have a clear theology. The general understanding is the ceremony is an opportunity to thank God for the birth of a child and to commit the child to the care of God, the parents, and the congregation. The goal of all three “partners” is to lead the child to Christ and the Christian way.

Anointing with oil is a traditional Mennonite practice, but like infant dedication, it does not have a clear theology. People with life-threatening illness are anointed and prayed over as a way of making God’s healing power immediate and concrete and of committing them to God’s care. It is often said that the purpose of anointing is as much to come to terms with a suffering person anxieties as with physical symptoms. The charismatic stream of Mennonite church life has breathed new meaning into this ordinance.

Excommunications and the reception of repented members is the most difficult of traditional Mennonite practices to carry out in the intended spirit. If the person identified as grievously sinning is unresponsive to the pattern set forth in Matthew 18:15–20, that person is excommunicated. If and when the sinner repents, the sinner confesses the sin and shows contrition before the congregation. Then, the person is received back into the church in the presence of the congregation with assurance that the sin is forgiven and forgotten both by God and the sisters and brothers of the church. The 1992 Hymnal has the congregation speak the words of reconciliation admitting its own failure to surround the person with grace and guidance(no. 800).

A public service of worship in the church prior to burial is the almost universal funeral rite among Mennonites. In earlier times, the sermon often warned people that they too would one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. In the past generation, the emphasis has been on the grace of God rather than the achievements, or lack thereof, of the person who had died. Therefore, eulogies were held to be inappropriate. More recently, the emphasis on being personal and warm in worship has led to the introduction of personal tributes as an additional part of the service or of the funeral meal which usually follows.

The practices of the church, as described above, are deeply significant to and usually carefully prepared for by Mennonite worship leaders and congregations. Twin impulses continue to be at work in the Mennonite mind. One is that whatever God gives to us as Mennonites and does for us, we receive by faith. This understanding limits the meaning ascribed to ceremonies or to the spiritual reality behind them. The other impulse—which leads Mennonites to anticipate these sacred occasions—is the certainty that reality is condensed in these sacred gestures and that there is more going on here than we have words for!

Adapted from The Sacred Actions of Christian Worship, Star Song Publishing Group. Used by permission.