Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups are not what they used to be. The changes of recent decades—and signs of change to come—have to do with far more than trading plain coats and bonnets for sport shirts and Nikes.

This was no more apparent, perhaps, than at the six-day Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this past July. Some 13,000 registrants—1,600 from 68 countries outside of North America—gathered for what resembled an international cultural festival as much as a church gathering. Participants were treated to Indonesian dance, lively African singing, and speeches by a host of Mennonites from nearly every continent in the world.

“Something has happened in our people,” said Mennonite World Conference executive secretary Paul Kraybill. Because of world conference gatherings, held every six years, he said, “we no longer need to be preoccupied with our ethnicity.” Indeed, people with names like Luis Lumibao (pastor of a 30-member Mennonite church in the Philippines) and Davadoss Madimadoogoo (from India) mingled with the Thiessens, Klassens, and Dycks—some of the more well-known family names of North America’s Anabaptists. And the evening worship services—held in the Winnipeg Arena, home of the Jets hockey team—were replete with lively contemporary Scripture songs, a song leader perched behind a Rhodes electronic piano, and high-tech projection screens. The convention was a smorgasbord of languages and cultures.

This international flavor makes leaders like Mennonite Church executive secretary Jim Lapp hopeful. “I think we’re going to discover some new definitions of being Mennonite,” he says. Although he is not sure what that new identity will be, he is confident it will “be enriched by events … that are transcultural and international.”

To varying degrees, other Anabaptist groups could tell a similar story of opening their doors to new faces, and coping with new influences. At the Church of the Brethren annual conference held this past summer in Milwaukee, delegates issued a call for overseas church planting (in Korea and the Dominican Republic) for the first time in 40 years, reversing a recent pattern of more service-oriented and ecumenical mission work. There was a clear call from the delegates to engage in mission that involves not only behind-the-scenes service (which Brethren are noted for), but also assertive proclamation.

In addition to new faces from other cultures, Anabaptists are coping with different environments within North America. With the exception of “old order” groups (found among Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren), it can no longer be assumed that Anabaptists escape the effects of urbanization (and suburbanization). A recent survey among members of five Anabaptist denominations (Mennonite, General Conference Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ, and Evangelical Mennonite churches) found striking changes since the early 1970s in the number found in cities (half now live in urban areas), the proportion with a college education (in 1972 one-third had gone to college; in 1989 it was 51 percent), and the variety of livelihoods (four times as many work in the professions as on the farm).

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In Search Of Identity

Among some Anabaptists, identity is a buzz word. “Almost everywhere one looks these days, the word ‘identity’ can be found in the title of study conferences, books, sermons, scholarly essays, and church publications,” asserts Mennonite educator John Roth in the Mennonite magazine Gospel Herald.

There are good reasons for identity questions to loom large for the Anabaptist denominations. An earlier emphasis on “nonconformity,” linked with largely rural locations and Swiss-German ethnicity, made it easier to maintain boundaries between church and the “world.” Good Mennonites or Brethren tended to select mates from among their own, often leading congregations to be filled exclusively with members of a few extended families.

Now, as a result of the increasing contact with North American culture, rank-and-file members of Mennonite and Brethren groups can no longer assume that their leaders will be “born-and-bred” Anabaptists. (A number of denominational leaders have in recent years come to the Brethren from other traditions, for example.) Aggressive work in church planting is leading to partnerships with American congregations representing a host of international and ethnic backgrounds.

As sociological distinctives become harder to maintain, what will be the “glue” that holds these denominations together? More than ever, Anabaptist groups are experiencing what Mennonite educator Rod Swatsky identified as “an inherent tension between sectarian separation from the world and missionary responsibility to the world.”

And the preoccupation with identity is being fed by more than sociological factors. There is discussion of a possible merger between the two largest Mennonite groups, the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonites. The two denominations are already working on a new confessional statement that both bodies hope to adopt sometime around 1995.

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Answers to Anabaptism’s identity crisis are taking on a doctrinal tone. Especially among the more progressive Mennonite and Brethren groups, conviction is growing that their reason for being must be found in a recovery of theological convictions. Says Marlin Miller, president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries: “People are now asking, ‘What are the core beliefs and practices?’ ”

Some Anabaptist groups answer the identity question by calling for a greater accent on evangelical beliefs. Observers like author Tom Sine, who now attends a Mennonite congregation and calls himself a “convinced Anabaptist,” worry that Mennonites may trade their historical distinctives for a stance more in keeping with an increasingly conservative, acculturated Protestantism. “They have the Christian radio on all day long, which is presenting a very different view of discipleship than, say, Donald Kraybill’s Upside-Down Kingdom,” a book that popularized Anabaptist understandings.

But the movement toward a more conservative theology also seems to be infusing new life into Anabaptist witness. A periodical with an “evangelical/Anabaptist perspective on current issues,” Kingdom Quarterly, began publishing this summer. It will be sent to ordained persons in five Anabaptist denominations.

Concern for recovery of evangelical distinctives was also visible at the Church of the Brethren annual conference this past summer. A regional executive of the denomination, Terry Hatfield, organized and convened an “Evangelical Leaders’ Breakfast,” giving an open invitation at the national meeting of delegates to any with evangelical concerns. Neither the early hour nor the lateness of getting word around discouraged 90 or more Brethren from attending, far more than the several dozen planned for.

Brethren sociologist Carl Bowman believes the survival of the Church of the Brethren (the church has lost around 50,000 members from its 1960 level of 200,000) hinges on its achieving a clearer identity. “Perhaps one of the causes of [the Church of the Brethren’s] rapidly declining membership during the past 25 years is that too many Brethren and too many outsiders now look at the Brethren and ask themselves, ‘Church of the What?’ ” Bowman suggested in a pamphlet published by the denomination. He concluded that in addition to demographic factors, the decline could be attributed to a loss of distinctiveness. “It may require a refashioning of a clear notion of what it means to be Brethren to turn it all around,” Bowman warned.

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This call for a recovery of distinctives comes at a time when churches in general find themselves confronting a more pluralistic society. The agenda for the church in some wings of Anabaptism seems to be set by liberal social causes, leading some leaders to warn that the Anabaptists, with their strong accent on service, community, and peacemaking have of any denomination one of the shortest roads to humanism. Indeed, Donald Miller, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren, recently noted in a denominational newsletter that during the sixties and seventies, “People were saying that God’s action is in the world, not the church.” To some extent, he contends, his denomination still “feel[s] the effects of that attack.” The effect is a tendency to understand peacemaking, service, and social action as the core of the gospel, not among the implications of the gospel. There seems to be a growing recognition in these quarters that the Christian message may not square as easily with liberal social agendas as was recently thought.

The recovery of spiritual distinctives has been fed, in part, by renewal movements and groups within a number of Anabaptist denominations. As a result of such efforts, says the Mennonite Church’s Lapp, “many of our congregations have moved to a much freer style of worship. It’s typical now in a congregation of the Mennonite Church to have a time on Sunday morning where people will share concerns and pray for each other. Some are free enough to lay hands on each other.”

While debate over women’s issues is not as heated among many Anabaptist groups as it is among some denominations (several groups ordain women, and the Church of the Brethren recently elected women as moderator of the annual conference and chair of the denomination’s general board), issues such as homosexuality and abortion will continue to push them to be clearer about the sources of authority for church life and faith. Some Anabaptists find their tradition’s emphasis on community and brotherliness impossible to reconcile with a strong stand against homosexuality, for example, though many of the denominations have moderately worded statements condemning an active homosexual lifestyle. The Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns maintains a visible, vocal presence at denominational meetings, and publishes a widely circulated newsletter.

A Time To Grow

One of the big issues for the Anabaptist denominations is growth. A sizable number of Anabaptists live in the slowest-growing areas of the U.S.—the rural sections of the eastern and midwestern industrial states. A graying membership in some denominations also does not bode well for numerical stability.

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But the search for identity seems to hold out the promise of growth. Paul Mundey, staff person for evangelism for the Church of the Brethren, hears on the grassroots level “a strong call to return to basics, to return to foundational strategies for changing human life.… When the church calls for new emphasis on evangelism and church planting, when it calls for new emphasis on youth and family life, when it talks about Scripture and heritage, I think those are all signs that the church wants to get back to the basics of its life and its history. We’re hearing increasingly that we don’t want to repudiate in any way our social witness but we want to balance that out with a new, more intentional emphasis on reaching persons for Christ and forming the church.”

And at a time when many Christian denominations are losing members, the Mennonite Church is showing modest growth. Much of that can be tied to Vision 95, their decade-long witness and stewardship campaign. Vision 95 represented bold (some say overly optimistic) goals to be met by 1995: 500 new congregations (at midpoint there are about 100), 50,000 new members (so far the net gain is only around 1,700), and an increase in overseas mission workers from 500 to 1,000 (there are still only a few over 500).

How will the Mennonites have fared when the process is over? A recent meeting concluded that the spirit of the goals was catching on in every regional conference and in many congregations, but that the numerical goals will not be achieved at the current pace.

Many Anabaptists are optimistic that their unique blend of piety and discipleship will not only attract new members, but have a positive influence on the wider church, as well. The Church of the Brethren’s Mundey observes, “In our best moments, [Anabaptist churches] exhibit a maturity in putting together personal faith and social action in a way that I think the contemporary church is seeking.”

Lapp concurs that the Anabaptists have special strengths that other churches will increasingly want to learn from. He mentions the way Anabaptists have tried to “champion the cause of the poor and the marginalized of the world.” He reflects, “Our own history of suffering in the sixteenth century and being something of a displaced, migrating people over the years gives us a sense of special concern for justice, a special concern for the poor. Related to this is our whole emphasis of peace and nonviolence. We find in the Christian church a mushrooming of interest in that theme.”

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Excitement was certainly not lacking at the closing worship service of the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Winnipeg. Tens of thousands of Mennonites—many drawn from the 60,000 Mennonites who live in and around Winnipeg—joined in an exuberant African song. Some waved their arms and most clapped to the African beat as a group of African and North American young people sang in an African language over and over again, “Let us go to Jericho to preach the good news.”

In their different ways, the Anabaptists do seem eager to “preach the good news.” In a materialistic, often militaristic, culture, they will remind society of sometimes costly, always freeing, ways of discipleship. Their growing willingness to do so may well insure that their unique witness will not die in the decades to come.

A Light on Capitol Hill

Can the traditionally Swiss-German, agricultural Anabaptists make an impact—or even survive—in an urban culture? The answer may be found in the emergence of congregations like Washington (D.C.) Community Fellowship.

The fellowship began in 1981 under the leadership of Myron Augsburger, who had just resigned as president of Eastern Mennonite College and Seminary in Virginia. He wanted to establish, as he remembers it, an “Anabaptist church without Mennonite ethnicity.”

Myron and his wife, Esther, came to start the church at the urging of Doug Coe of the Fellowship Foundation in Washington and Sen. Mark Hatfield. With the support of four Mennonite missions boards and the help of copastor Curtis Ashburn, Augsburger set out to gather a church that would become racially, socially, and culturally heterogeneous. “Our goal was to start at the middle-class level and draw in the down and out and the up and out,” recalls Augsburger.

They soon discovered a sizable group on Capitol Hill that had been praying for the formation of a strong evangelical and socially active church. Many were either Presbyterian or Baptist and not particularly interested in becoming Mennonites, but they saw Augsburger as a strong leader whose vision, especially in its evangelical emphasis, was similar to theirs.

Mennonite mission strategists had encouraged Augsburger to “let the body that emerges there determine its own shape,” so the Augsburgers and Ashburns worked with the emerging group to develop a biblically based membership covenant that would express their common faith. The covenant statement signed by members included the Apostles’ Creed, the Lausanne Covenant, and a ten-point statement of faith and practice, the latter stressing such Anabaptist distinctives as radical discipleship, community, baptism as a sign of commitment, peacemaking, and concern for the poor. The result was a “multidenominational congregation, which has chosen to affiliate with the Mennonite Church,” according to current copastor John Hays.

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Taking risks

As it approaches its tenth anniversary, Washington Community Fellowship is a growing congregation of about 180 official members and an average worship attendance of 350. Corporate worship, with strong evangelical preaching, is a major focus of congregational life. Seventy-five percent of the congregation participate in small “covenant groups,” where discipleship and accountability are central. Church members have developed a computer-based tutoring program for inner-city youth, a crisis pregnancy center, and a ministry to Central American refugees. Pacifism is strong among Mennonite members and some non-Mennonites, although many others hold a modified just-war theory.

Despite the vision for reaching diverse ethnic groups, Washington Community Fellowship is composed mostly of white, young urban professionals, with a number of internationals and African-Americans. The church is searching for ways to incorporate the poor into the life of the congregation, a goal made more daunting by the gentrification of the surrounding, predominantly African-American community.

Can a congregation in such a neighborhood become socially and culturally heterogeneous? Can Anabaptist character and distinctives survive in an interdenominational environment? (Interestingly, only 25 percent of the 180 active members are Mennonite.) Is it possible to blend a Reformed, marketplace theology of evangelism with a ministry to the poor of neighboring communities? And can a church maintain unity under the stress of such diversity? The Capitol Hill presence of Washington Community Fellowship and similar urban church-planting ventures suggest that Anabaptists are willing to take risks to answer these questions with a yes.

By Thomas A. Tarrants III and Fletcher L. Tink.

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