Contents of Volume
January 2001 Number One
The Mennonite Year in Review:
Mennonites in the Year 2000
JOHN A. LAPP*
Mennonites in the year 2000, although richly diverse, maintain a conspicuous sense of peoplehood. The Mennonite World Conference (MWC) reported in July that there are now nearly 1.2 million Mennonites (M), Brethren in Christ (BIC), and Amish living in sixty-four countries, worshipping in more than 10,000 congregations, belonging to 200 different conference bodies, using eighty different languages. In North America alone there are 438,000 worshipping in nearly 5000 congregations, belonging to fifty conferences, using twenty languages. Even the most representative worldwide Mennonite organization, the MWC, finds it difficult to maintain a connection with all the spiritual richness and faithful work of this vast cloud of witnesses. By focusing on one small Christian tradition we also illuminate what is going on in the broader vibrant Christian movement of two billion people living in 190 countries, worshipping in more than a million congregations, belonging to “33,800 distinct and organizationally separate denominations,” using hundreds of different languages.
The journalist William Shawcross wrote this year that reconstructing contemporary history is similar to archaeology, collecting the stones of a vast mosaic which are “at best fragments of the entire piece.” This essay should be read as one of those “fragments of the entire piece” of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in the year of Our Lord 2000. At best it is illustrative, certainly not comprehensive. I have not read the dozens of periodicals or glanced at the numerous web pages or reviewed the minutes of church boards and standing committees or the annual reports of any congregation except my own, nor have I attended the dozens of meetings that helped to shape the events or establish the tone of this millennial year.
The television journalist Bill Moyers observes that the most important news is about the routine, the essences of life: births, deaths, baptisms, marriages, work and play, community functions and organizations. This article is premised on that important insight. The most important events in the Mennonite world, year in and year out, are the routines of the congregations, conferences and institutional structures. Gathering for worship, periodic meetings for decision-making, the work of ministry in the pulpit or in the office, the faithful practice of discipleship, stewardship, nonviolence and evangelizing are the primary realities of the church. Most of this work goes on unrecorded and too often unrecognized. It is these routines, while we listen to God’s Spirit, that give life and meaning in the congregation and energy for a worldwide fellowship. In the repeated practice of following Christ in relationships, worship and prayer, the ways of God are manifest. To love God and to love one another is the fundamental routine, the essence of church life.
In order to understand Mennonites in the year 2000, we not only need to reflect on who we are and what we do but we also need to recognize the contexts in which we live and work. Here we have space only to observe that some of us live amidst considerable prosperity but the great majority of us live as the poor of the world. Some of us have considerable freedom to express the Good News of Jesus but many of us live in religious cultures or political settings that restrict public witness. Some of us live where modern media overwhelm us with messages while others of us live with few if any books or radios or computers. Some of us are caught up in the fever of electoral politics but the majority of us will be far from any such levers of power. The church lives and witnesses in a context that is both local and global, both religious and secular, both influential and influenced. Particularly important for any Christian group is the larger Christian context. No one congregation or conference or denomination exists apart from the powerful impact of shared history, public religion and establishment theologies. There is the continuous impact of saintly character and prophetic practice. Mennonites in the year 2000 found themselves in all these settings and yet more.
ONE LOCAL CONGREGATION: LITITZ MENNONITE CHURCH
Historians like to be as concrete as possible. That requires lived experience or documented information. As a way of grounding this essay in actual realities, I begin with what I know best-my own congregation. The Lititz Mennonite Church is neither typical nor unusual. It is unique only because of location, history and personality. I want to describe the congregation here in such a way that it might be seen as representative and illustrative. Perhaps by looking at one congregation, we can gain insight into the experiences of other Mennonite and Brethren in Christ congregations. By focusing on the congregation we also highlight a fundamental understanding of Mennonite theology-that church begins in belonging to and participating in a local community of faith and practice.
Lititz Mennonite Church is located in a 250-year-old town in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. For its first 100 years the town was populated exclusively by its Moravian owners. Mennonites who lived in the surrounding townships began moving to town in the 1870s. The first Mennonite meetinghouse in Lititz was erected in 1906 at its present location. It has been renovated and enlarged several times since then. This year renovations included a new carpet and window treatment in the sanctuary.
The congregation was incorporated in 1997, when its most recent by-laws were adopted. The mission statement adopted then states that “we desire to follow Jesus Christ, demonstrating God’s unconditional love and hope for all people.” The church structure is based on congregational meetings, a church council, program coordinators and a gift discernment/nominating committee.
Lititz has an active membership of 195, with some thirty inactive members. Average attendance is 166. This year there were two baptisms, six new members by transfer, two deaths, one transfer to another congregation with several additional transfers out expected. The congregation meets weekly for Sunday school and worship. During the course of the year there are four communion and two foot-washing observances. There are six Sunday evening services a year. Prayer groups meet regularly on Wednesday mornings and Wednesday evenings. There is a popular weeklong summer Bible School. Every Memorial Day weekend the congregation sponsors a neighborhood yard sale. More than half of the adults are in small groups that meet once or twice a month. A large contingent of older members meets regularly. There are junior age activities and an active Mennonite Youth Fellowship (MYF). Once each quarter the congregation eats Sunday lunch together. In addition to the weekly bulletin, there is a monthly newsletter.
Most of the members live within a five-mile radius. They represent a cross-section of occupations: farm families, male and female business leaders, a female township tax collector, professionals in education, nursing and social work, and many in skilled trades. Twelve students are currently attending college, three of whom are in Mennonite-related institutions. Fifteen members have had significant overseas service with Eastern Mennonite Missions and Mennonite Central Committee. One has had extended service through Youth With a Mission.
Since 1906 the congregation has had six lead pastors. Our current pastor, Dennis Ernest, began his service in 1994. A well-regarded preacher, his sermons this year came largely from the books of Esther, Genesis and Revelation. The Peace Sunday sermon from Genesis 4 on the origins of violence was original and much appreciated. One of the major congregational events of the year was a mid-term evaluation of his ministry. This proved to be positive and affirming even though the pastor “finds it stretching to serve all the diverse personalities, different theological viewpoints and varied life experiences” represented in the congregation. One result of the evaluation was a recommendation that the pastor be granted a three-month sabbatical for personal enrichment and to enhance his ministry. Ninety-five percent of the congregation voted to provide the sabbatical, the first such provided in our 94-year history. The pastor will be engaged in a Clinical Pastoral Education program at nearby Philhaven Hospital.
In another significant development, the congregation named its first fulltime Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry and Outreach, Rodney Martin, a recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
Lititz is a generous congregation. The budget for congregational ministries-$154,000-represents sixty percent of the monies raised in church offerings. Most of the mission offerings of $84,600 go to Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM), Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and to individuals on short-term missions. A small part of the $22,500 contributed to Lancaster Mennonite Conference went to the larger Mennonite Church. In addition, a number of designated causes both in the church and Lititz community received significant support. We do not know how much members contribute directly to their favorite causes. The congregation’s Stewardship Committee annually encourages the wise use of our assets. This year they sponsored a Sunday school elective promoted by the Giving Project-Michele Hershberger’s A Christian View of Hospitality (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1999). They also sponsored Lynn Miller, the stewardship evangelist, for a special Sunday of teaching.
Missions, both domestic and overseas, are a priority for the congregation. There are Moments in Mission in our worship services to report on developments and urge special prayer. Much mission promotional material is available. One member organized work teams to rebuild houses in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. This year five members participated; last year, fourteen. Other members this year participated in short-term missions in Romania and Somaliland. One youth is in ministry in Atlanta, Georgia. Another plans to serve in Denver, Colorado. The MYF spent a week of service in Queens, New York City. Visiting speakers from Ethiopia, Tanzania and Indonesia reminded us of our participation in a worldwide movement.
It is not easy to generalize about a congregation of any size. Compared with some neighboring congregations, Lititz is reasonably united with a good sense of family. Of course there are disagreements. A persistent concern is a relatively stable membership. There are new families but they primarily replace those who leave. About one-third of the members are over the age of sixty and quite a few are in the eighties and nineties. Closely connected to the membership issue is the question of identity. The pastor and others strive to articulate a coherent notion of what it means to be a Mennonite. But more than a few times others indicate that for them the term “Christian” is sufficient identity. As evidence of the concern for outreach and growth, the congregation decided at the end of the year to embark on a process called “Natural Church Development.”
A continuing debate for more than a decade regards the role of women. The congregation has been somewhat exceptional among Lancaster Mennonites in using women as teachers and in music since the 1930s. Women serve on the church council and lead the worship, stewardship and service committees. But when a woman pastoral team member (like elders in other congregations) assisted in serving communion this past summer, one family left the congregation in protest and others boycotted the service. A woman would not be called to pastoral ministry at this time.
Discussion continues over the kinds of music used in worship. Since the 1970s a piano and electronic organ have been placed in the sanctuary. The Hymnal: A Worship Book is the main hymnal with Life Songs #2 also in the pew racks. Several music teams specialize in contemporary music. Most services have a mixture of music styles except during holidays, when traditional music prevails. The chair of the worship committee said in her year-end report that their goal is to use “music that has stood the test of time and music that might well test our times.”
In these and other points of disagreement, one discovers several groupings. The most obvious divides the traditionalists from those who are easy with change, if not promoters of change. Neither group is monolithic and both divide further, depending on the issues at hand. A more common divide is somewhat tripartite between the traditionalists who like present patterns and those who promote doctrinal practices and worship in a Mennonite perspective. This group encourages the use of Mennonite Sunday School material, periodicals, schools and colleges. A third group, more evangelical in character, reflects a spirit and style widespread in Lancaster County much influenced by the impact of Christian radio. Some left the congregation this year for more charismatic, evangelical and flashy contemporary alternatives. The Lititz style, if there is such, flows out of the interaction of these three groups.
Lititz Mennonite Church has many connections to the larger church. A number of members serve on Lancaster Conference committees and on the boards of local or more distant Mennonite institutions. One member, Elaine Wenger Good, is President-elect of North American Mennonite Women. Another member is Vice President of Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA). Others serve or formerly served with EMM, MCC, Lancaster Mennonite High School and Landis Homes Retirement Community. The pastors are active participants in the Lititz Ministerium, which sponsors a number of inter-church activities, including community worship services on Good Friday and Thanksgiving and summer evening services in the community park. This year the congregation participated in the Lititz Mayor’s Millennial Challenge, a city-wide emphasis on spiritual growth and evangelism. The church hosted this year’s ecumenical Women’s World Day of Prayer. The congregation cooperates with the Lititz Evangelical Congregational Church to distribute the quarterly tabloid Together throughout the town and in neighboring Warwick Township.
The primary relationships for the congregation are with the other congregations of the Hess-Landis Valley Bishop District and with Lancaster Conference. Nelson Martin, the bishop, participates in many congregational meetings and preaches several times a year. No longer a controlling power, the bishop is more the connector, reporting on such conference activities as the licensing of women for specific ministries, the change in moderators from Ervin Stutzman to L. Keith Weaver, the departure from the conference of sixteen congregations to form the Keystone Fellowship in 1999 with an additional sixteen leaving to form the Good News Fellowship in Alabama and the Florida Gulf Coast this year.
As elsewhere among North American Mennonites, the fastest growing Lancaster Conference congregations are those of Hispanic and other ethnic groups in Lancaster city, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York. Fifty of the conference’s 220 congregations relate primarily to ethnic minorities. In Lancaster County itself, the fastest growing Mennonite groups are those identified as “Old Orders.”
Rarely is there discussion of the growing distance among some of the Lancaster Conference congregations. Lancaster Conference practices are increasingly centered on a single congregation, which accentuates diversity. Some of these congregations express strong convictions favoring participation in the uniting MC/GC church. Others are equally suspicious. Periodically, Pastor Dennis reports on the process of integrating the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. Some members of the Lititz congregation appear to have reservations but there has been no structured congregational discussion of the issue. The pastor will be a delegate to the Nashville 2001 convention, which will mark the formal beginnings of the reorganized church.
At the September session of Lancaster Conference Myron Augsburger spoke forcefully to encourage active participation by the conference in the Mennonite Church U.S.A. Some Lancaster congregations will likely relate to the newly formed Association of Evangelical Mennonite Congregations. In neighboring Atlantic Coast Conference ten congregations in the Hopewell district announced their decision to leave that conference because of “differing vision and values within our present denominational structure.”
If we are to understand the Mennonite frame of reference in the year 2000, we should begin by highlighting the central role of the congregation in expressing, nurturing and transmitting the faith. In the tension between the local and the denominational, the story of Lititz, while not typical, might be viewed as representative of North American congregations. Each story will be different. Each story will also have commonalities. That is why we can talk about such a phenomena as “Mennonites in the year 2000.”
THE NORTH AMERICAN CONGREGATION
If Lititz Mennonite congregation has its diversities and complexities, North American Mennonites and Brethren in Christ might constitute a labyrinth. The figures noted above regarding the number of people, congregations and conferences do not describe the enormous institutional framework that emerged-particularly since World War II-for nurturing the faithful, for caring for the aging and the ill, for remembering the denominational stories or for expressing the faith. The Mennonite Directory 2000-representing only two major, but likely the most fully organized, groups in Canada and the U.S.- includes most other Mennonite conferences in their listing of 14 publishers; 70 periodicals and newsletters; 38 mission agencies; 36 mutual aid societies, aid plans, foundations; 48 historical societies and libraries; 47 welfare and disability programs as well as mental health centers; 109 retirement homes; 89 camps and retreat centers; 19 colleges and seminaries; 92 elementary and secondary schools. Organizations with multiple programs appear to be a kind of churchly corporate conglomerate. Add to this list conference commissions, committees, boards, task forces and their staffs, and it becomes clear that Mennonites are a highly institutionalized group. While the labyrinth is extensive, it is navigable.
As congregations have their patterns, so conferences have their routines: listening to the voice of the Spirit and the voices of one another; determining policies and holding programs accountable; responding to new invitations for mission; clarifying the shape of faithfulness. Conferences are regional, country- wide and continental. Can we dare to call this constellation the North American congregation?
Many of the activities of a congregation like Lititz are duplicated in conference and inter-Mennonite activities. Church agencies choose, train and nurture leaders and administrators. They organize, administer and evaluate programs. They design budgets and raise funds, develop policies and coordinate programs. Each of these activities reveals the priorities of conferences and boards. Since Mennonites are divided and decentralized, there are often overlapping and competing activities. While some attention is given to coordination and cooperation, one can long for a greater commitment to a church order that would insist on a better stewardship of resources and less duplication, a better division of labor and less need for everyone to be involved.
This year there were no general continental meetings. The Mennonite Conference of Canada held its first meeting as a united GC/MC entity in Lethbridge, Alberta on July 19-23, focusing their attention on what it means to be a global church. The U. S. Mennonite Brethren had their annual meeting in Denver, Colorado on July 27-30, where they established an integrated conference-wide fund-raising program. The conference of Mennonite Brethren in Canada in July debated and then approved a resolution that would prevent members from belonging to more than one congregation. A critical discussion at the Evangelical Mennonite Church convention, which met in Upland, Indiana, August 3-6, dealt with a proposal to drop the term Mennonite in their denominational name. The proposal was narrowly defeated.
Maintaining these congregational, conference and organizational structures requires an enormous investment of people and financial resources. We do not have adequate numbers to report with much confidence. We know there are 3500 Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church ministers. There are likely over 6000 Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and Amish ministers in North America. It would be interesting to know how many members are employed in church offices and the vast array of institutions.
The Mennonite Directory 2000 has a contributions report for 1998. In that year General Conference Mennonites contributed $53,958,668. Of this, $43,000,000 was for congregational budgets.. The Mennonite Church, based on less complete reporting, was projected to have raised nearly $107 million. About $85 million or 75% of the total was used by the congregations. These figures imply that many church-wide institutions had to rely on their own fund-raising to maintain their programs. No one has been able to put together a financial picture of the entire MC/BIC organizational and conference experience. All conferences together might have raised $260,000,000 in 1998 and perhaps $290,000,000 in the year 2000. Church institutions probably raised an additional $100,000,000 from church-related sources. Mennonite foundations in Canada and the United States now have assets of over $500 million and disburse over $30 million annually, mostly to church programs.
One of the notable givens of Mennonites is their activism. Mennonites in their congregations, conferences and institutions are very busy people. There are numerous general and specialized meetings, local and long distance mission endeavors, and various special interest groups promoting their cause. Many congregations are working on renewal and local mission. In both Canada and the United States some congregations are working through the process called Natural Church Development. Other congregations continue to encourage local evangelism through the Living in Faith Evangelism (LIFE I and II) programs. Individual Mennonites and some congregations are active in many inter-church Christian mission and service programs, and in causes such as international debt relief and gun control, or opposition to family violence and abortion.
History is the story of change. What made the year 2000 different for Mennonites? In reviewing the North American Mennonite press for the first ten months, I was impressed by all the anniversary events. No doubt the biggest moment was the celebration of the fifty years of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) in Hesston, Kansas, June 2-4, where the vision for such a program emerged in 1950. Lowell Detweiler, the third MDS executive director (serving from 1986 to 1998), compiled a well illustrated record of the fifty years entitled The Hammer Rings Hope (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000). MDS has had a notable record of caring for people distressed by flood, fire and storm. No other Mennonite organization attracts such large numbers of volunteers from as many Mennonite groups as does MDS.
Other anniversaries marked by congregational meetings, special observances by boards and special publications included the 125th anniversary of Mennonites living in the West Reserve in Manitoba; the 100th anniversaries of Bluffton College, the General Conference Commission on Overseas Mission and Mennonite Brethren Missions and Service International; the 50th anniversary of MCC’s International Visitor Exchange Program; the 25th anniversary of the Hispanic Mennonite Convention; the 25th anniversary of MCC Canada’s Ottawa office; and the 20th anniversary of EMM’s YES program. Over 200 former church workers in Vietnam held a reunion July 6-9 at Harrisonburg, Virginia.
There were several notable meetings with well defined themes. The annual meeting of the Council of International Ministries was devoted to the theme of spiritual warfare. Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (AMBS) sponsored a one-day exploration of church discipline using the biblical phrase “Without Spot or Wrinkle.” Eastern Mennonite University sponsored a conference called “Confronting the Powers: Overcoming Evil with Good.” Bethel College hosted a gathering, “An Anabaptist Vision for the New Millennium: A Search for Identity.” The theme for the annual convention of Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) was “Building Bridges in a Global Community.”
Each year there are notable transitions and appointments. Everett Thomas, former President of the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries, became the new editor of The Mennonite, replacing J. Lorne Peachey, the first editor of the merged magazine that succeeded The Mennonite and Gospel Herald. James Schrag, the leader of the Transformation team for the Mennonite Church USA, was named Executive Secretary of the restructured church. Jeff Swartzentruber replaced Randall Jacobs as the head of Mennonite Foundation (U.S.). Two Mennonite seminaries appointed new deans: Loren Johns, former professor of Bible at Bluffton College, became Dean of AMBS, and Ervin Stutzman, former moderator of Lancaster Conference, became Dean at EMS. Marvin Heim, long-time Mennonite Brethren leader, retired as general secretary as the Mennonite Brethren church in Canada and the U.S. organized separately. There were many new pastors, including Heidi Regier Kreider, who became pastor of the Bethel College congregation. Darrel Fast, the former pastor of the Bethel College church, began service at United Mennonite in Leamington, Ontario. Noah Kolb, conference minister in Iowa-Nebraska conference, became a conference minister in Franconia conference. Two Mennonites, pastor Arthur Boers and professor Gerald Schlabach, became Benedictine Oblates, a connection beyond their Mennonite identities.
As always, some who served the church through the decades, returned to the bosom of God. These included David Thomas, long-time Lancaster Conference moderator; Gertrude Roten, beloved professor of New Testament Greek at AMBS; Delbert Gratz, a leading historian and librarian at Bluffton College; C. A. DeFehr, a well-known business and church leader in Winnipeg; Dwight Wiebe, a post-World War II MCC Pax Director and Mennonite Brethren Voluntary Service administrator; Tilman Smith, onetime President of Hesston College and leader in services for the aging; Donald Rittenhouse, the youthful director of Laurelville Church Center; John Y. Byler, Lancaster County Amish deacon who for four decades coordinated the Amish collection for MCC; and Verna Zimmerman, MCC nurse in post-war China and later Director of Nursing Education at Goshen College.
The major event for Mennonite higher education was the opening of the Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). For most of the past decade Concord College (1944), Canadian Mennonite Bible College (l947) and Menno Simons College (1988) have worked to bring into being a joint university. They enrolled 255 students in this first year of operation on its own campus in Tuxedo, a suburb of Winnipeg, across the street from the present CMBC campus. Another interesting event in higher education was the warm reception given the EMU Chamber Singers in Cuba during a spring tour.
The publication of “A Welcoming Open Letter on Homosexuality” in the February 17 issue of The Mennonite Weekly Review generated considerable comment. Prepared by a small group and signed by 650 people across North America, the statement expressed the convictions of a significant, but apparently minority, point of view, on a controversial subject. While adding little to the widespread discussion, it highlighted the pain of church members or would-be members who are being excluded from church membership. The statement called on the church to “bless monogamous relationships of same-sex couples who affirm covenant vows.”
It is difficult to discern the church consensus either on homosexuality or of a churchly response to it. The contentiousness involves all levels of church life, including the process of uniting the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church.
At the end of September Clinton Frame Mennonite Church near Goshen, Indiana hosted a day long conference on “healing and hope” for people with homosexual orientations. Both the Mennonite Church Canada and the Conference of Mennonites in Alberta (CMA) spent many hours determining how to respond to the Calgary Inter-Mennonite (CIM) congregation’s more open attitude toward homosexuality. With a number of congregations prepared to leave the Alberta Conference, the CIM announced that it “voluntarily withdrew from participation in the CMA for a period of five years.” This had the effect of putting the issue on hold, awaiting further resolution.
Amidst the lively discussion, one creative voice appeared in Richard Kauffman’s article in the May 2 issue of The Mennonite, entitled “A Third Way Between Fight and Flight.” Kauffman appealed for a careful discernment process rather than “a battle to win public opinion.” He called on the church “to be ready to make some tough, discriminating decisions” in a world full of ambiguity. Such discrimination should be more than simple problem-solving; rather, a corporate seeking for “the mind and will of God.” He wondered whether Mennonites could accommodate “a few congregations who, as part of their mission, [might] welcome some non-celibate homosexual members'” Kauffman’s article did not generate a large response. Perhaps this article with its call for humility and an appeal to not have the “church defined by homosexuality, either for it or against it” gives some clues for future resolution.
The larger Mennonite conferences in Canada and the U.S. were preoccupied this year with the process of integration now called Transformation. A ten-person Transformation Team provides general direction and coordinates the work of the Education Integration Committee, the Mission Transformation Steering Committee, the Resources Integrating Consultation Group and three regional implementation committees.
Bringing together the two largest conferences has been a process underway for decades. Church-wide conventions in Wichita (1995) and St. Louis (1999) were the culmination of long cooperation and preliminary step by step work. Good will had to be supplemented by hard thinking as these long-cooperative bodies began to deal with differing structures and polity. While the General Conference (GC) is known for its congregational vision, it had a more tightly controlled national organization. The Mennonite Church (MC) had strong regional conferences and strong boards which were not as tightly coordinated. The extended process has to deal with these differing polities rooted in differing histories.
Much of the discussion this year had to do with membership guidelines. It is noteworthy that heretofore neither the General Conference nor the Mennonite Church had denominational membership guidelines. In the General Conference, membership was a congregational issue. In the Mennonite Church, membership was determined by local or regional conferences. The issue of homosexuality appears to be the driving force in modifying these long-established polities.
The struggle to integrate not only generates many meetings and much paper, it is also a costly process. The announced costs of $800,000 cover only the recent years. The committee appealed for church-wide offerings on Reformation Sunday, October 29 to help meet these costs.
The decision to use the term “transformation” in place of “integration” was an attempt to define a new vision rather than simply combine what has been. In spite of structural and polity differences, the reorganizing of administrative systems may be easier than formulating fresh vision. Perhaps the freshest thinking has been done by the Mission Transformation Team, which designed a common reading process for boards and staff, sponsored a major consultation on mission, vision and strategy (largely ignoring the eighty-year history of the most integrated Mennonite and Brethren in Christ missional body, the Mennonite Central Committee), and urged that every congregation and institution “be oriented toward proclamation of the reign of God by word and deed.”
When the Mennonite Church reorganized in 1971, the move to tighten central structures quickly gave rise to rejuvenated regional conferences. Something similar may be happening with integration. One non-MC/GC observer suggested that, rather than integration, he observes “realignment.” This began with a more autonomous Mennonite Church Canada where the process of integration has been rapid and positive.
One dimension of integration in the U.S. will be the merging and strengthening of regional groupings. This process began on the west coast and now includes most of the regions. In June the MC Iowa-Nebraska Conference merged with the GC Northern District to form the Central Plains Conference. Shortly thereafter the GC Central District and three MC conferences-Illinois, Indiana-Michigan and Ohio-took steps toward the formation of a Great Lakes Conference. Another regional merger includes Rocky Mountain, South Central and Western District. One of the most interesting conversations at present-but only among conference leaders-includes Atlantic Coast, Eastern District, Franconia and Lancaster Conferences. These conference groupings may represent a more authentic coming together than the merging of denominational offices; they may also portend a revitalized regionalization.
As transformation proceeds at the national and regional levels, there continues to be considerable disquiet in some congregations and among a number of pastoral leaders. The GC Eastern District (ED) in March rejected a proposal not to affiliate with the new church. Several ED congregations are active in the newly formed Association of Evangelical Mennonite Congregations (AEMC). The AEMC wants to be an “alternative affiliation” for congregations who oppose or who have reservations about the new structure. The prospectus for this association says the MCUSA is too doctrinally diverse. It is ironic that this association uses an ancient Christian formula widely used in the General Conference: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty.” Their doctrinal formula includes a fundamentalist statement on the Bible as “inerrant and infallible” and rejects “any form of macroevolution as an explanation for the origin of the universe.” Right now it is unclear how many congregations will be interested in this new body. In some cases, pastors are interested but their congregations prefer maintaining membership in existing conferences. The congregations in Alberta and British Columbia who have opted out of local conferences do not appear to be part of the AEMC discussions.
Transformation has consumed enormous energies. One wonders what part of MC/GC church life may not be receiving full attention. Is unity the central church issue for these years? One apprehension is that by concentrating on the merger of two Mennonite bodies, interest in broader inter-Mennonite cooperation may be waning.
Some smaller groups are apprehensive about the impact of one dominant Mennonite body. Luke Keefer, in his positive review of Calvin Redekop’s Leaving Anabaptism (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 1998), reflected these concerns when he noted the “subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways we have felt that other Mennonite denominations are reluctant to consider us as Anabaptists.” There is such a thing, Keefer continued, as “leaving Anabaptism but there is sometimes a hidden factor at work where groups are being repelled from Anabaptism.” More “transformation” should be expected. Some people see this developing in the growing self-confidence of Mennonite World Conference.
THE WORLDWIDE CONGREGATION
At the first conference of the Mennonite Church Canada held at Lethbridge, Alberta, July 19-23 the Guatemalan Gilberto Flores, who serves in the Hispanic Ministries of the GCMC, made a powerful presentation: “Dare to become a global church.” Flores observed that:
Although the Mennonite World Conference is making efforts to value the resources of the global Mennonite church, the United States and Canada continue to be great islands. The church in North America has given the impression that she can survive without other Mennonites. She has the resources and knows how to use them. And even though this is only partially true, it influences the way Mennonites around the world see the church in the North.
Flores pointed out the “asymmetries” between a comfortable church in a wealthy dominating culture in the North and the church that is poor and in conflict with the “system in the South.” Yet both churches have blessed and continue to bless each other. Globalization, he said, “must insure that the maturity of the church in other parts of the world is recognized.” Ninety years ago an Indian, V. S. Azariah, who soon became the first indigenous Anglican Bishop, told the Assembly at the Edinburgh Missionary Conference: “We ask also for love. Give us friends.” Now Flores updates this appeal: “The churches of the South want a relationship with the churches of the North and the North has sent administrators.” Relationships require respect, which is an essential for ministry.
One of the most significant Mennonite and Brethren in Christ meetings of the year was the Global Anabaptist Mission Consultation (GAMCO) held in Guatemala City, July 12-16. At this meeting and the accompanying meeting of the MWC General Council, one of the major themes was the concern of Flores: “A new incarnation of the missionary task . . . [where] the church does not come to the world solely as a mission but as a community already established in a local context.”
What gave GAMCO a special flavor was the presence of active mission leaders from the global church. One primary agenda focused on how well-established agencies in the North can partner with the evangelistic enthusiasm of newer churches. What role should MWC play in representing the global family with North American agencies? MWC has been using the word “communion” both as metaphor and envisioned reality to describe a greater sense of mutuality and solidarity within the worldwide Mennonite and BIC congregation. The president of MWC Mesach Krisetya sees this as a “new paradigm for our relationship.” MWC wonders whether a name change from “conference” to “communion” might represent a new church order and style. The GAMCO summary document calls us “to walk with our sisters and brothers in difficult situations in the midst of persecution” and “to [create] more effective models for sharing and using the resources God has given us.” Meetings like GAMCO are significant not only for building relationships of trust and respect but also as a time for sharing information and mutual encouragement.
GAMCO was the largest inter-Mennonite missions consultation yet held. Such meetings also expose extraordinary division. While the Guatemala Mennonite church hosted the meetings, there were five other Mennonite mission/church groups in Guatemala who did not participate. Bethel Fellowship has one congregation in Guatemala; Mennonite Air Missions has seventeen; Nationwide Fellowship Churches has five; Eastern Pennsylvania Conference also has five. There are also Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman) congregations.
The General Council of the MWC confirmed in its meeting that the next MWC general assembly will be in Buluwayo, Zimbabwe in August 2003. They also heard reports from its several projects, authorized a commission to update the constitution by bringing a proposal to the 2003 assembly and named Nancy Heisey of Harrisonburg, Virginia as president-elect.
Gilberto Flores rightly reminds North Americans that we cannot ignore the growing but struggling church of the South. The long course of the Christian movement has always been a rhythm of advance and recession. As MWC observed its 75th anniversary, it was recalled that the most vigorous appeal for a world Mennonite body in 1925 came from Mennonites in the former Soviet Union. That church has almost disappeared. Mennonite church membership in Germany and the Netherlands has been declining but the influx of new immigrants (Aussiedler) from the former Soviet Union has added new congregations and seems to be energizing the conferences of western Europe. Substantial membership growth has occurred in the churches of the South, especially Zaire, Ethiopia, India and Indonesia, and among Asians and Hispanics in Canada and the United States. Already these churches are providing fresh energy and direction in the global body.
With the Mennonites and Brethren in Christ membership in the South reaching 60% of the worldwide total, every dimension of church life will have to be redefined. North American Mennonite economists this year helped to point new directions with their statement: “Release the poor people from the bondage of debt; a statement in support of Jubilee 2000.” After pointing out that “the number of families unable to meet their basic needs doubled during the decade of the 1980s” with an expectation that “this number will have doubled once more during the 1990s,” the economists urged support for governmental actions-to forgive debt as a way of releasing those in “debt bondage” and to restore dignity and hope in the poor.
Much more has been going on in the worldwide Mennonite family than any one person knows or can be reported. Some significant events include the election of Danisa Ndlovu as the bishop for the Brethren in Christ Conference in Zimbabwe. His predecessor, the greatly admired Bishop Stephen Ndlovu (no relation), died in May. Harold F. Miller, longtime EMM and MCC worker in East Africa, was one of two expatriates to participate in the August meeting of the All Africa Theological Conference, where he also served on the findings committee. That report welcomed the fuller participation of African instituted churches in ecumenical events, urged “churches to tackle vigorously the root causes of HIV/AIDS” and recommended that churches “acknowledge and value the dreams of young people” for building the church of the future.
On July 2 the Fernheim colony in Paraguay celebrated the arrival of immigrants from Russia in 1930. The Mennonite Church in Honduras celebrated its 50th anniversary on July 16. Old Order Amish teachers from the U.S. were resource persons at teacher workshops sponsored by Mexican Old Colony Mennonites.
The Dutch director of Inloophius (community center) in Almere, Netherlands, Jaap de Graef, spent part of his sabbatical visiting urban mission centers in the United States and Canada in May. In the same month Lithuania Christian College-a liberal arts college with strong Mennonite support located in Klaipeda-had a grand opening and dedication of its new administration building.
European Mennonites also had a number of major meetings. The faculties of the three-year-old Theological Seminary at the Bienenberg (Liestal, Switzerland), and those of the 200-year-old Algemene Doopsgezinde Societeit (ADS) Seminary in Amsterdam met together for the first time. The European Mennonite Conference (MERK) met at Ludwigshafen, Germany, June 1-4, using the theme “God’s Wide Space.” The seminary at the Bienenberg sponsored a conference on the theology and ethics of John Howard Yoder in September. The German Mennonite Conference sponsored theological study days on “Peace Theology and War in the Bible,” which attracted fifty students and pastors. Dutch Mennonites also had a one-day Landtag, a meeting attended by over 1200 at Menno Rode (formerly Elspeet) in September, highlighting creative congregational ministries.
Also in the Netherlands, the MWC’s writers for the proposed global Mennonite History met for a workshop, October 25 to November 2 at Fredeshiem, a rural retreat center. As part of its commitment to the global family, the ADS established a fund for training students in Holland. This workshop was the third in the last four years devoted to the ministry. Six of the eight writers were present, all from different countries, as well as resource persons from North America and Europe.
Around the world, many Mennonites are caught up in conflict situations. Ethiopian and Eritrean Mennonites are divided by war. Indian Mennonites and Brethren in Christ feel the impact of the Hinduization movement, which is both anti-Christian and anti-Muslim. Congolese Mennonites live with persistent civil conflict. Indonesian Mennonites and their fellow Christians continue to be under pressure from Islamic groups who want to restrict Christian witness. In July the MWC General Council sent letters appealing for peace to the governments in the Congo and neighboring states. Another letter was sent to Bogota, Colombia, several European governments, the European Union and the U. S. government regarding the proposed massive increase in American military assistance. Three Colombia Mennonite groups (GC, MB, BIC) united with other churches to oppose the repression and militarization of the conflict. Before the Guatemala City meeting, MWC sent a delegation to Colombia to express the solidarity of the world church with those churches in the midst of their struggle. (The MWC General Council had hoped to meet last summer in Bogota but the church there reported that the situation was too precarious for such a meeting.)
Overseas churches, although in many places growing rapidly, also deal with issues of disunity. Sometimes this is the result of competing groups from the North that work in close proximity. Congo and Colombia are models of how different groups work together with respect and mutual support. In Haiti and Kenya cooperation is less apparent. More likely, however, divisions are based on local cultural differences. That appears to be the case among the General Conference and Mennonite Brethren churches in India. A notable reconciliation took place this past summer in the Javanese Mennonite Conference (GITJ), ending a decade-long division. The reuniting of the conference was celebrated November 10 and 11 with Dutch and North American participants. Dutch and North American agencies provided funds and expertise to assist the healing process.
Global Mennonite churches have a rich set of connections with other Christian groups. German Mennonite pastor-teacher Fernando Enns is the first Mennonite to sit on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. He was influential in getting the WCC to declare this decade as one to overcome violence. Mennonites in Europe, Africa and Asia are active in their national councils of churches. This past summer Mennonites from Asia, Africa, and Latin America were among the 10,000 evangelists brought together in Amsterdam by the Billy Graham Association. James Lapp told his Franconia Mennonite Conference staff in September, “We increasingly want to appreciate the breadth of God’s family in the world.”
Mennonite World Conference has been a major link for Mennonites to other Christian groups. Executive Secretary Larry Miller meets annually with the heads of the Christian World Communions, which this year met in South Africa. MWC represents Mennonites in a sustained conversation with the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church. There were meetings in 1998, 1999 and again in 2000. The 1999 meeting concentrated on the doctrine of the church. This year’s meeting at the Thomashof church in South Germany addressed topics regarding peace as well as the implication of the Constantinian era for the contemporary church.
One fascinating ecumenical connection for Mennonites has been with the churches of the Middle East. Mennonite Central Committee has walked with churches in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and even Iraq. For the past eight years MCCers Roy and Marin Teymars Hange and Eldon and Jane Emile-Wagler have been teachers at the Syrian Orthodox Seminary in Damascus. These workers have discovered deep fellowship and many mutual interests between an old church of the East and a younger church of the West. Eldon Wagler noted that his Amish heritage didn’t prepare him for the complex liturgy of the Syrians. But he likes “the idea that you do your best to bring heaven to earth when you worship.” In October the Emile-Waglers hosted a North American choir visiting churches in Syria. The Eastern churches live in an Islamic context. The experience with Coptic and Syrian churches helped MCC make connections with Shiite Muslims in Iran where Roy and Marin Hange taught in 1998. In May of this year Gary and Lydia Harder of Toronto visited a Muslim seminary in Iran. The director noted that “you are the first Christian cleric in the fourteen-century history of Qom invited by and hosted by a Muslim Institute.” Harder wonders what might be the “eternal significance” of these relationships.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE YEAR 2000
Mennonite historian Steve Nolt wrote in the October 1999 Mennonite Historical Bulletin that “history tells us what happened; memory tells us who we are.” When we remember we take broken fragments of words, images and events and put them together into something whole, “something that makes sense and has meaning.”
We have looked at fragments from Lititz Mennonite congregation, from the influential North American Mennonite scene, from vigorous global Brethren in Christ and Mennonite churches. Do these memories fit together? Do they make sense and carry meaning? It takes more than one year to determine the answer.
What we do know is that there is much reason for gratitude. The word of the Lord goes forth in a Mennonite perspective on six continents and in sixty countries. In spite of glaring disunity there is a growing commitment to partnership and a sharing of common convictions. In an ecumenical era our tradition continues to make a valued contribution. Even the challenges presented by the new Mennonite majority in the two-thirds world represent opportunities for renewal and reformulation.
There are also reasons for concern. Worldwide nearly every congregation and conference is challenged by a greater sense of diversity. These same entities struggle with defining and transmitting the essence of the tradition to new members. Sometimes the voices of the churches are contradictory or muffled. In North America the pressures to conform to prevailing economic models and consumer fads often influence both church life and practice in detrimental ways.
For much of the past century observers in Europe and North America have noted an identity crisis among Mennonites. Identity has to do with a compelling story that is embodied in shared convictions and a shared history. Whenever the story becomes dim or the convictions dissipate, identity is threatened. The classic words that once permeated Mennonite and Brethren in Christ self-consciousness-words like church, community, discipleship, cross-bearing, peace, mutuality, humility, separation, mission-appear less pervasive than they once did. We are being compelled to give more attention at all levels of church life to clarify what kind of church we want to be.
For Mennonites and Brethren in Christ, identity appears to be always at risk in the tensions between congregation and the larger peoplehood, between a convictional movement and ethnic/national belonging, between a storied memory and missionary vision.
In this year 2000 the identity crisis at Lititz Mennonite grows out of a declining memory-the story is told less often-and the powerful influence of popular American evangelical Christian culture which prefers “nondenomina-tional” as its identity. The identity crisis for North American Mennonites and Brethren in Christ grows out of the lack of local clarity as well as the pressures to denominationalize a peoplehood increasingly diverse, socially and culturally. The identity crisis for the worldwide church is rooted in the multiple histories of the many historically related churches. But it also grows out of tensions generated by powerful forces that promote globalization and localization. This dialectic between global and local varies from place to place and time to time, threatening the developing sense of a uniting story. The reality of a reconciled and reconciling church in a deeply divided world can only reflect the work of God’s Spirit. Perhaps in this time of rapid and massive change, the unifying story can be no more, and surely no less, than the Pauline commitment to “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2).
Of one dimension of identity we can be sure: if European Mennonites primarily defined Mennonite identity before 1900 and North American Mennonites primarily defined this identity in the twentieth century, the future definition of Mennonite identity will increasingly come from the new majority of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ living in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Amidst great historic changes European Mennonites learned new roles and relationships within the world family. Now North American Mennonites and their institutions are having to learn new roles and relationships. All Christian groups are part of this historic transition that for Mennonite World Conference means new opportunities for leadership by the newer members of the family.
Mennonites and Brethren in Christ exist because their understanding of the Gospel as expressed in the Scriptures calls for incarnating and embodying the divine light for the world. Maintaining clarity of vision and commitment to mission requires enormous effort in a time of extraordinary mobility amidst a cacophony of messages. Local congregations, particularly in the North, appear to have less and less time for discerning and testing the spirits. Conferences and agencies appear to be more adept at marketing a cause than nurturing renewal.
What can be deeply satisfying for Mennonites and Brethren in Christ at the beginning of the twenty first century is to find the long cherished vision expressed within nearly every Christian tradition. One such voice, Wheaton College professor Robert Webber, captures this old yet new vision with striking clarity:
In the post-modern world the most effective churches will be led by those who turn their backs on the corporate market-driven view of the church and return to the theological understanding and practice of the church as the community of God’s presence in the world. It is this kind of church that will grow not only in numbers, but in depth and openness to others.
TWENTY-FIVE SIGNIFICANT BOOKS IN THE YEAR 2000
JOHN A. LAPP
Mennonite and Brethren in Christ publishers produce over 100 volumes annually. Other publishers produce an unknown number of books and articles by Mennonites or about Mennonites. What follows illustrates the Mennonite contribution in this one year.
Augsburger, Myron S. The Robe of God: Reconciliation, The Believers Church Essential. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000.
Biesecker-Mast, Susan and Gerald Biesecker-Mast. Anabaptists and Postmodernity. Telford, PA: Pandora Press, U. S., 2000.
Bush, Perry. Dancing with the Kobzar: Bluffton College and Mennonite Higher Education, 1899-1998. Telford, PA: Pandora Press, U.S., 2000.
Callen, Barry L. Radical Christianity: The Believers Church Tradition in Christianity’s History and Future. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 1999.
Driedger, Leo. Mennonites in the Global Village. Toronto, ON: U. of Toronto Press, 2000.
Epp, Marlene. Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War. Toronto, ON: U. of Toronto Press, 2000.
Friesen, Duane. Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000.
Grimsrud, Ted. God’s Healing Strategy. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2000.
Horst, Isaac. A Separate People: An Insider’s View of Old Order Mennonite Customs and Traditions. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000.
Janzen, Waldemar. Exodus (Believers Church Commentary Series). Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000.
Johns, Loren L., ed. Apocalypticism and Millennialism: Shaping a Believers Church Eschatology for the Twenty-First Century. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000.
Klaassen, Walter. Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant. 3rd edition. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000.
Kreider, Alan and Stuart Murray. Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000.
Loewen, Harry, ed. Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000.
Loewen, Jacob A. Educating Tiger: My Spiritual and Intellectual Journey. Winnipeg, MB: Center for M.B. Studies, 2000.
Longacre, Doris Janzen. The More With Less Cookbook. 25th Anniversary Edition. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000.
Murray, Stuart. Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000.
Oyer, John S. “They Harry the Good People Out of the Land”: Essays on the Persecution, Survival, and Flourishing of Anabaptists and Mennonites. Ed. John D. Roth. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 2000.
Redekop, Calvin W., ed. Creation and the Environment: An Anabaptist Perspective on a Sustainable World. Baltimore, PA: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000.
Regehr, Ted. Peace, Order and Good Government: Mennonites and Politics in Canada. Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 2000.
Reimer, A. James. Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatical Foundations for Christian Ethics. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000.
Sampson, Cynthia and John Paul Lederach, eds. From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding. Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2000.
Shenk, Wilbert R. By Faith They Went Out: Mennonite Missions, 1850-1999. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2000.
Swartley, Willard M., ed. Violence Renounced: Rene Girard, Biblical Studies and Peacemaking. Telford, PA: Pandora Press, U. S., 2000.
Weaver, J. Denny. Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium. Telford, PA: Pandora Press, U. S., 2000.
[J]ohn A. Lapp is the Executive Secretary Emeritus of Mennonite Central Committee and coordinator of the Global Mennonite History Project for Mennonite World Conference.
1. These statistics are compiled from Mennonite World Conference, World Directory 2000 (Strasbourg: MWC, 2000); The Mennonite Directory 2000 (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 2000); David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 2000,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Jan. 2000, pp. 24-25. For more conservative groups, but not the Old Orders, see Mennonite Church Information (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publication, 1998).
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. Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1999), 81-82.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Mennonites in the Year 2000