Visit to Vineland Mennonite Church

Yes­ter­day the fam­i­ly vis­it­ed Vineland NJ Men­non­ite Church.

We were com­ing after 8:30 Mass at Julie’s church and arrived a few min­utes before the wor­ship ser­vice while they were doing their reli­gious edu­ca­tion pro­gram. But the dis­tinc­tion between reli­gious ed and wor­ship was min­i­mal, almost non-existent. Atten­dance at both was near-universal (about 110 total) and much of the wor­ship itself was reli­gious edu­ca­tion. There was a series of 15 minute’ish ser­mons (deliv­ered by var­i­ous men), bro­ken up by some four-part a capel­la singing (beau­ti­ful), recita­tions from a Bible verse they were mem­o­riz­ing and kneel­ing prayer (a sur­prise the first time, as they all spin around sud­den­ly to face the back, kneel and pray).

It’s prob­a­bly one of the most reli­gious­ly con­sci­en­tious com­mu­ni­ties I’ve seen. A lot of the ser­vice involved review­ing belief struc­ture. Their book of dis­ci­pline is very slim, not much more than a tract, but it’s some­thing they use and they spent part of the time read­ing from it. Much of the wor­ship hour was meant to rein­force who they were, why they were and how they were – to explain over and over why they led their dis­tinc­tive life. Theirs is a vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tion for those who agree to fol­low the author­i­ty of the group’s teach­ings. I sus­pect that every adult in the room could give a detailed pre­sen­ta­tion on con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite faith and give detailed answers about points of doc­trine. At the risk of insert­ing my own opin­ion I will ven­ture that the wor­ship ser­vice felt a bit dry (as Julie said, there wasn’t a ounce of mys­ti­cism in the whole pro­ceed­ing) but I don’t think the mem­bers there would feel offend­ed by this obser­va­tion. Excit­ing the sens­es is less impor­tant than review­ing the val­ues and liv­ing the moral life.

Visu­al­ly, the group is strik­ing. Every man in the room wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt but­toned all the way up, dark pants and black shoes; all had short hair and only one or two had facial hair. I was more dis­tinc­tive­ly plain in my broad­falls and sus­penders but the effect of sixty-or-so men and young boys all dressed alike was visu­al­ly stun­ning. Like a lot of plain peo­ples, the women were more obvi­ous­ly plain and all but one or two wore lightly-colored cape dress­es and head cov­er­ings (I lat­er learned that the excep­tions were new­com­ers who weren’t yet mem­bers). Seat­ed was seg­re­gat­ed, women on the left, men on the right. Gen­der roles are very clear. There were kids – lots of kids – all around, and a big focus of the ser­mons was fam­i­ly liv­ing. One extend­ed ser­mon focused on dis­cern­ing between pro­vid­ing well for one’s fam­i­ly vs. greed and the bal­ance between work­ing hard for your fam­i­ly vs. giv­ing up some things so you can spend time with them. Kids were present through­out the ser­vice and were rel­a­tive­ly well behaved.

The church itself was called a meet­ing­house and was plain – no cross­es of course. Peo­ple sat in pews and there was a raised area up front for min­is­ters and elders. The build­ing dou­bled as a school­house dur­ing the week and its school­rooms had a lot of Rod and Staff books, famil­iar from our own home school­ing. A mem­ber described the school as one leg of the three-legged stool, along with church and fam­i­ly. If any one part of the equa­tion was lack­ing in some way, the oth­er two could help insure the child’s moral wel­fare. School was free for church mem­bers but was open on a tuition basis to non-Mennonites. These out­siders were required to make cer­tain lifestyle choic­es that would insure the school stayed rel­a­tive­ly pure; the most impor­tant require­ment was that the fam­i­ly not have a tele­vi­sion at home.

My reg­u­lar read­ers will have one ques­tion on their mind right about now: did any­one invite us to lunch? Why yes they did! We didn’t even have to prompt it. We knew a cou­ple there – M and J, who run a restau­rant in the local farmer’s mar­ket, a favorite Sat­ur­day morn­ing stop for us. They took us under their wing when they rec­og­nized us, sit­ting with us dur­ing wor­ship and then show­ing us the school. J said that if we came back again we could come over for lunch. Then she back­tracked and offered that we could come now, explain­ing that the church had had recent dis­cus­sions over whether it was too pushy to ask first-time atten­ders to lunch or whether they should restrain them­selves and invite them on the sec­ond vis­it. Wow, a church that thinks about this?!

So we fol­lowed them to their place for lunch. It was a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask more ques­tions and get to know one anoth­er. Meals are impor­tant. Julie and I had won­dered why there were Men­non­ites in Vineland NJ of all places – and two Men­non­ite church­es at that! Short sto­ry is that there had been a civil­ian pub­lic ser­vice facil­i­ty in Vineland for con­sci­en­tious objec­tors and Lancaster-area Men­non­ites decid­ed that “the boys” sta­tioned there need­ed the ground­ing of a local church com­mu­ni­ty (appar­ent­ly oth­er C.O. camps were scenes of debauch­ery – Men­non­ite drag rac­ing in Col­orado Springs was cit­ed). This became Nor­ma Men­non­ite Church, which still exists and is anoth­er local church I’ve been mean­ing to vis­it for years (hi Mandy!). In the 1960s, there was a great round of lib­er­al­iza­tion among Men­non­ites, an unof­fi­cial aban­don­ment of the dis­tinc­tives cod­i­fied in their books of dis­ci­plines. Many church­es split and the Vineland Church was formed by those mem­bers of Nor­ma who want­ed to main­tain the discipline.

This prob­a­bly explains the strong focus on the rules of the dis­ci­pline. For those want­i­ng more of the his­to­ries, I com­mend Stephen Scott’s excel­lent “An Intro­duc­tion to Old Order and Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite Groups” along with any­thing else Stephen Scott has writ­ten. The Vineland con­gre­ga­tion is part of the East­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Men­non­ite Church con­fer­ence, pro­filed on pages 173 – 176. A lot of the Men­non­ite issues and splits are echoed among Friends and we’d do well to under­stand these cousins of ours.

The result is a church that’s big on group prac­tice: the dress, the lifestyle. M. told me that they don’t believe in the­ol­o­gy but in Bib­li­cism. He explained that they don’t think the Bible con­tains the word of God but instead that it is the Word of God and he paused to let the dis­tinc­tion sink in. The Bible is not to be inter­pret­ed but read and fol­lowed, with spe­cial atten­tion giv­en the gospels and the let­ters of Paul.

So no, I’m not going to go Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite on you all. I have a TV. My pro­fes­sion is web design (they’re not into the inter­net, natch). I’m mar­ried to a pracitic­ing Catholic (I don’t know how they would bend on that) and at this point my brain is wired in a curi­ous, out­ward way that wouldn’t fit into the nor­ma­tive struc­tures of a group like this. Doctrinally-speaking, I’m a Friend in that I think the Word of God is the Inward Christ’s direct spir­it and that the Bible needs to be read in that Light. There’s a lot of peo­ple who wouldn’t fit for var­i­ous rea­sons, peo­ple who I would want in my church (they main­tain a hard line against remar­riage after divorce and I didn’t even ask about gay issues). But I have to admit that the process and struc­ture puts togeth­er a real­ly great com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple. They’re hard-working, kind, char­i­ta­ble and not near­ly as judg­men­tal as you might imag­ine – in prac­tice, less judg­men­tal than a lot of pro­gres­sive reli­gious peo­ple I know. Non-resistance is one of the pil­lars of their prac­tice and they were gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in Julie’s Catholic church and my expe­ri­ences among Friends and we talked a fair bit about Islam.

Nor­mal­ly I’d give a big thanks to the church and M & J here, except I know they won’t read this. I am grate­ful to their kind­ness in shar­ing their church, beliefs and fam­i­ly meal with us.

  • Chris­tine

    I recall that my Brethren grand­moth­er always invit­ed new­com­ers for Sun­day din­ner. (So did my moth­er, for that mat­ter). Although I thought of this as west­ern (or mid-western) hos­pi­tal­i­ty. It’s some­thing I need to get back to. 

    I find a prac­ti­cal spir­i­tu­al­i­ty among both Men­non­ites and Brethren…loving neigh­bor as self is just who these folks are, no mat­ter how hard it may be. 

    In teach­ing Quak­erism at a rur­al meet­ing, I’m build­ing on the innate hos­pi­tal­i­ty of that meet­ing (which had a com­bined memo­r­i­al for a friend of the Meet­ing with the local Men­non­ite com­mu­ni­ty yes­ter­day). We may dif­fer in respect to out­ward ordi­nances, but can learn from each oth­er in terms of more open spir­i­tu­al and prac­ti­cal hospitality. 

    The dif­fi­cult thing to do is to get Friends here to talk about their beliefs with each oth­er. We don’t learn this by osmo­sis, or at least, I didn’t. Friends talked about what they believed — in Meet­ing, over lunch, and on hikes in the moun­tains. Some of the talk was quite plain, too… I was asked to wait to apply for mem­ber­ship until 1) I was set­tled in a com­mu­ni­ty, and 2) had some work to do on learn­ing about the vari­ety pos­si­ble among Friends. 

    The thank­ful­ness may be in us all learn­ing to pass this along. A Beachy Amish elder once advised that in order to take this into “the world”, we need to work on our inner­most selves… whether this is for­give­ness or hos­pi­tal­i­ty or respect for oth­ers’ beliefs. 

  • Bill Rush­by

    See Daniel B. Lee, *Old Order Men­non­ites, Rit­u­als, Beliefs, and Com­mu­ni­ty*, for fur­ther insights into the East­ern Penn­syl­va­nia group. No, they are not an old order church, but they are used in the book as a coun­ter­point to the Horn­ing Men­non­ites. Lee’s study is very insightful.

    After you vis­it the Nor­ma Men­non­ite Church, you might try the Old Ger­man Bap­tist Brethren (espe­cial­ly Old Con­fer­ence), who are in some respects more sim­i­lar to old fash­ioned Ortho­dox Friends. Their clos­est con­gre­ga­tion would be in Lan­cast­er County. 

  • Emele W.

    I just took such a trip to a con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite fel­low­ship in my area! Only, they were hav­ing a group meal at the church that day. I real­ly enjoyed myself, espe­cial­ly the singing as well. I also seemed to get the “It’s nice to but not me” rev­e­la­tion out of the trip too. Love­ly peo­ple, and I didn’t know any­one but a woman took me under wing through the entire ser­vice. I’m glad to hear about some­one else who is crazy like me to attend such a tight knit group service. 

  • Harold

    My wife and I have been going to Cen­ter­ville Men­non­ite Church here in Lan­cast­er Coun­ty. It’s the same group as the Vineland Men­non­ite Church, just that all the mem­bers here were born Men­non­ite none are from “the out­side world.” My wife and I and our two chil­dren are the only ones attend­ing every week that were not from grow­ing up Men­non­ite with Men­non­ite her­itage. So far I have learned a lot and it’s been very good for us. It’s a con­stant strug­gle just like any­thing else that would be worth it. I grew up in New Jer­sey and attend­ed a Luther­an church. In the 80’s I moved to PA where I attend­ed a small bible teach­ing com­mu­ni­ty church, Non Men­non­ite. I have been deal­ing  with the Amish in the area for over 23 years. I nev­er had any deal­ings with the Men­non­ites before. I did know one from anoth­er area at work where the boss was Amish. He was inter­est­ing to talk to. From where I came from and where I am now, I can see and under­stand what a tourists would see and know why they would think what they think. At the same time learn­ing what I have learned liv­ing among the Amish and now of course my expe­ri­ence with the Men­non­ite group, I see it now from the inside as well hav­ing an under­stand­ing that goes beyond any oth­er under­stand­ing to have unless you took my path. Now here is the shock­er for you. I am a divorced and re-married man. We have two chil­dren, and I agree with what we are being teached and what I a am learn­ing. With­out writ­ing a book let me say that this is a group of peo­ple that take the bible and go line by line try­ing to live exact­ly like the bible says to. Oth­er church­es have to black­en out lines in the bible in order to be able to func­tion. It’s not that they want to do that it’s because they haven’t been strong enough to stand against the “world.” Now, I read some of this blog, not all of it because right now I don’t have time but, yes this life is for you as well, it’s for every­one. The dev­il uses all kinds of things to keep us from it. It will be easy for you to find rea­sons not to fol­low the Lord exact­ly like you should be. It’s not impos­si­ble for you or any­one else. Men­non­ites draw a lot of anger from peo­ple just like we do based on just what we look like. Some of it is being afraid of the truth because you think the truth is going to make you have to do to much to change and no one likes change. Oth­er rea­sons are being afraid you might find out your not a good par­ent and no one wants to hear that or that your liv­ing wrong when you can’t see ever being able to change some things so you get defen­sive right off the bat. I can go on and on. Instead I will leave my email address if any­one has any ques­tions for me, but I am not the one to answer all ques­tions remem­ber that. If you vis­it the Vineland church you can’t just go once. In order for you to real­ly under­stand it take a com­mit­ment to go for the bible is a big book. Even the Men­non­ites liv­ing with the bible all their life are still learn­ing new things all the time. Peo­ple say in this area that the Men­non­ites are pos­si­bly the only group on the face of the earth that are most account­able. I was con­fused on this issue then came to under­stand. This is because there is less to no excuse for them to live against the teach­ing of the bible, because of the expo­sure all their life to under­stand­ing the bible hand­ed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. At the same time the Men­non­ites are just like every­one else, Sin­ners and they under­stand the bible says we are all sin­ners. I can answer ques­tions in a lot of areas, espe­cial­ly in the area of “works” that oth­er church­es try to use against them. There is no way any­one can reject the under­stand of a God attend­ing a Men­non­ite church on a reg­u­lar basis. I’m sure that scares satin beyond under­stand­ing. Harold-

  • Steve

    Inter­est­ing take on a Men­non­ite church.… where I grew up.