As Anabaptist denominations in the United States prepare to host the 16th Mennonite World Conference (MWC) Assembly in Pennsylvania next July, a new survey sheds light on the strengths and challenges of Mennonite Church USA’s (MCUSA) existing global connections.
The survey, designed and administered by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen College, sought to collect concrete data on the scope and frequency of global connections within MCUSA member congregations and the denomination’s relationship to MWC at the congregational level.
“I have visited many MCUSA congregations in recent years,” said ISGA Director John D. Roth, “and I am always impressed by the wide range of international connections evident in these local congregations. Yet I don’t think we have a very good sense yet of the larger patterns these relationships are taking.”
MCUSA congregations connected globally
A preliminary analysis reveals a high level of global connectedness among the 307 MCUSA congregations who responded to the survey. This includes everything from sister church relationships to direct financial support.
The most common way that congregations are connecting globally is through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Mission Network (MNN); nearly all responding congregations reported giving to one or both of these agencies, sharing news from these institutions with congregants, or sending and receiving MCC and MMN workers.
Yet, the survey also reveals a web of connections that expand far beyond the work of MCC and MMN.
Congregations with a high percentage of members born outside of the United States tend to be more closely connected with the global church and are more often directly involved in both international and domestic church life and ministry.
“We have a significant number of immigrant families and persons in the congregation,” wrote one respondent. “This has shaped our identity and connects us to the broader church, both Mennonite and non-Mennonite.”
Many churches fund learning tours and delegations to visit other congregations and conferences outside of the United States, and a number of pastors have used their sabbaticals to either study about the global church or to visit international churches.
Not all connections lead congregations to reach beyond the physical borders of the United States. Some congregations have helped to host and start immigrant congregations in their own community, while others support domestic programs that work with immigrants locally.
Individual contacts proved critical for many congregations, as they have hosted international students, counted immigrants among the church’s congregants and leadership, or sent and received church members in international service and mission.
Sister church relationships have been particularly meaningful for some MCUSA congregations, though some congregations acknowledged that these relationships also come with a high level of commitment that can be difficult for individual congregations to maintain in times of transition and crisis.
Despite the challenges present in establishing and maintaining these connections, 66 percent of respondents classified global relationships as “good and necessary, central to our reading of the Gospel.”
Those who ranked global church connections as a low priority often referenced complications at the local congregational level that have temporarily prevented a more global orientation.
Rural churches noted that their isolation was a challenge, keeping them from connecting with other MCUSA churches outside of their regional conference, not to mention global churches.
Connecting to MWC remains a challenge
For the majority of responding congregations, however, these global connections do not appear to translate into a clear partnership with Mennonite World Conference.
Although 87 percent of respondents reported that their congregation shares or “somewhat shares” similar convictions with other Anabaptist-Mennonite groups globally, there was little consensus on how MWC, the international fellowship of Anabaptist-related churches, is part of the picture. In fact, a majority of churches report weak connections to MWC programs and members.
“Whereas we have a high level of international connections,” said Roth, “our congregations don’t necessarily have a very strong sense of connection to Mennonite World Conference, which is the strongest framework that we have for expressing our connectedness as a global body.”
There are, accordingly, few churches that contribute directly to MWC, although many assume that a portion of their contribution to MCUSA is passed on to MWC. While MCUSA does make contributions, it is far below the annual “Fair Share” amount that MWC has requested, based on a formula that takes both MWC’s needs and member churches’ relative resources into account.
Due to the gap between MWC’s expenses and incoming donations, the “Fair Share” formula is currently under review. One proposal would ask that all church members annually contribute the cost of one lunch to MWC, either fasting or sharing a communal lunch to make up the difference.
When congregations in the ISGA survey were asked about their willingness to make a contribution equivalent to the cost of a lunch for each member, 65 percent affirmed the idea, suggesting that congregations may be open to increasing connections and relationship between MCUSA member churches and MWC.
Survey results to be shared
After a more thorough analysis, the ISGA will share the survey results with MCUSA and MWC. Most immediately, the survey results could aid MCUSA as it prepares to serve as one of the host denominations for the MWC assembly in Pennsylvania next summer.
“My hope is that the results of the survey can assist Mennonites in North America in coming to a deeper awareness and appreciation of the global nature of our fellowship,” said Roth.
“We need to be attentive to the remarkable growth in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church and to ask how we can share more directly in the energy and vitality that is evident in these churches.”
– By Elizabeth Miller, Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism