Chapter 3: Some Conclusions and Questions for Reflection
By Conrad Kanagy
The Global Anabaptist Profile provides the most comprehensive window to date into the differences and similarities of beliefs and practices among member conferences of MWC. In this summary we have attempted to describe the distinctive characteristics of individual conferences while also noting several general areas of unity and diversity across the global Anabaptist church.
In this final chapter we pull back from the particularities in order to suggest some final conclusions, recognizing that such broad brush strokes can disguise important caveats and nuances. Given these challenges, what can we conclude?
First, Mennonite World Conference is clearly being shaped and defined by the rapid growth of the conferences in the Global South and the relative plateauing and decline of the conferences in the Global North. This has immediate implications, but the greater consequences of this shift have yet to be realized.
The church has three engines of growth—retention of its children and young people, the addition of new recruits by conversion, and increases in birth rates. The data from the Global Anabaptist Profile suggest that these engines are functioning more successfully in the Global South than in the North. What does the Global Anabaptist Profile reveal along these lines?
- Ninety-three percent of all converts in the Global Anabaptist Profile sample since 2001 have been from the Global South—or nine out of ten.
- In terms of percentage of new members, Latin America has grown most rapidly in recent decades; Africa is second.
- Differences in growth exist among the three affiliations—Mennonite conversions have been greatest since 1991 (51%), followed by the Brethren in Christ (49%) and, more distantly, the Mennonite Brethren (40%).
- Converts in the Global South are generally older—these churches are successfully winning to Christ adults from other religious traditions or who are not religious. The younger average age of converts in the North suggests that these churches are depending on their own children for membership growth.
- Members in the Global South are more likely to have parents who were part of their conference when the respondent was a child, suggesting that Global Southern churches are more effectively retaining the next generation at a higher rate.
Second, the differences among member conferences in the Global Anabaptist Profile are best explained by the differences between southern and northern hemispheres rather than by affiliation as Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, or Brethren in Christ.
In terms of demographic variables, two important findings stand out: those in the North are much more highly educated and those in the South are much younger. We also know that those in the South are more rural and experience greater poverty and deprivation.
There are also differences in faith and practice:
- Members in the Global South are more actively engaged in evangelism and more vocal about its importance.
- Those in the South are more likely to read the Bible literally; those in the North are more likely to read it within a broader context.
- Those in the South see both Testaments as having equal relevance; those in the North are more likely to believe that the New Testament is most relevant.
- Europeans and North Americans are more likely to believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through individuals and through the church, while those in the South are more likely to believe that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to individuals. Those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are also much more likely to have experiences with the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit than are those in the North.
- Respondents in the Global South are much more likely to believe that the Bible promises that followers of Christ will be more blessed and have better health than non-Christians.
Several differences regarding engagement with the broader culture and society also stand out:
- Global Southerners are more committed to cultural non-conformity in their opposition to divorce, alcohol use, tobacco, premarital sex and homosexual relations, eating food offered to idols, bribery, and being present at ancestral ceremonies.
- Northern MWC members are much likely to believe that Christians can, and should, engage in public protests.
- Those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are more likely to have experienced persecution, with the greatest likelihood being among African members.
And there are some differences between South and North on questions of identity:
- Southerners are more likely to identify as Mennonite, while those in the North are more likely to claim an Anabaptist identity. Those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are more likely to claim a Charismatic/Pentecostal identity than are those in Europe and North America.
- Members of northern conferences are much more aware of Mennonite World Conference than are those in the South.
Even while acknowledging these differences, there also important commonalities—or at least areas of relatively less difference—across the two hemispheres that reveal the reality of “shared” convictions among Mennonite World Conference conferences and members:
- While Southern and Northern Anabaptists differ in whether they identify primarily as Anabaptist or Mennonite, an Evangelical identity was very important to those in both hemispheres.
- A Pentecostal/Charismatic identity is relatively less important to members in both hemispheres, compared with an identity as Anabaptist, Mennonite, or Evangelical.
- MWC members in both South and North are equally committed to the belief that it is important to be saved or born again.
- Members across hemispheres attend weekly church services at the same rate—though Southerners are much more likely to attend more than once a week.
- Members in the Global South and Global North are equally committed to rejecting mandatory military service.
- Members in both hemispheres strongly affirm Jesus’ life and teaching as the most important reason for peacemaking.
- Most respondents in virtually all participating groups say that their local congregation teaches members to reject violence, to share with those in need, requires an instructional class prior to baptism, and expects members to be accountable to the church.
Within these similarities and differences in the global church, social and cultural context clearly plays a critical role in shaping religious practices and theological perspectives. At the same time, forms of cultural resistance and assimilation vary from church to church and within continents, revealing the complexity of carefully discerning what it means to walk faithfully with Jesus.
It is our hope that the results of the Global Anabaptist Profile will become part of that ongoing process of discernment—for individuals, within congregations and conferences, and across the Mennonite World Conference family as a whole.