The Young People’s Conference Movement and the Church of the Future

Jason B. Kauffman

Note: The following is an abridged version of a sermon I gave on Sunday morning, April 15, at Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, OH) during the congregation’s “Historical Reflections Weekend.” It was the first of three events planned for 2018 to celebrate Oak Grove’s bicentennial.

What does it mean to be the church together in a time of uncertainty and crisis?

Crisis is the stuff of history but, as a community of believers, conflict and confrontation often make us uncomfortable. We want to preserve harmony and unity at all costs so we don’t adequately address disagreements when they arise. It’s often easier if we just don’t talk about it.

But if the history of Christianity is any indication, conflict is unavoidable in the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth during a time of significant uncertainty. Factions and competing allegiances were developing and Paul wrote to remind them to put their trust in God instead of themselves.

This morning, I want to share another story of crisis that involved many people from the Oak Grove community. This is the story of the Young People’s Conference movement and its emergence during a watershed moment in the history of the (old) Mennonite Church in North America.[1] I’ll end by drawing some parallels between that story and the crisis that our denomination is facing today.

In the years following World War I, the institutional Mennonite Church was barely twenty years old and its growing pains were readily apparent.[2] The new denomination was in crisis over a polarizing conflict between traditional elements of the church and a new generation of reform-minded leaders.

One well-known example comes from Goshen College. Critics felt that the college was overly influenced by the modernist wave that had overtaken many other Protestant denominations. In 1905, the Mennonite Board of Education took oversight of the college to exercise closer control over its operations.[3] In 1923, ongoing financial troubles forced Goshen College to close for the academic year. Around the same time, Mennonite conference leaders in Indiana, Ohio, and Ontario revoked the credentials of multiple pastors deemed “at variance” with the church’s teachings on things like dress and the purchase of life insurance. In response, hundreds of people left their churches and joined other congregations from the General Conference Mennonite Church. Others left the Mennonite church altogether.

It was within this context that the Young People’s Conference movement was born. Its leaders included many from Oak Grove, including Jacob Conrad Meyer, Vernon Smucker, and Orie Benjamin Gerig. They were part of a new generation of Mennonite men and women who came of age during these first few decades of conflict in the church. Many graduated from Mennonite colleges and embraced new initiatives in home evangelism and overseas missions.

1917 J C Meyer

Portrait of Jacob Conrad Meyer taken in 1917, shortly before he left for France. MC USA Archives

More importantly, they came of age during World War I, the deadliest war in history to that point. During the war, hundreds of Mennonite men lived in work camps as conscientious objectors. Many felt abandoned by denominational leaders who they believed had not equipped young people to face the challenges of being a CO during wartime. They also came away with a renewed conviction that the church should adopt a more outward focus, one centered on service, peace, and engagement with the rest of the world.

After the war, several dozen young Mennonites acted on this conviction by volunteering to assist the reconstruction efforts in France. Here they gained firsthand exposure to the destruction of war. They also met regularly to discuss their concerns about the Mennonite Church. One of the key organizers for these meetings was Jacob Conrad Meyer. He and others became increasingly critical of what they saw as weak leadership and lack of support for the concerns of younger members.

01 WWI COs with American Friends Service Comm France

Attendees at the first Young People’s Conference in Clermont-en-Argonne, France, June 20-22, 1919. MC USA Archives

Eventually, these relief workers organized the first Young People’s Conference at Clermont-en-Argonne in June 1919. At the end of the conference, they produced a list of priorities for the “church of the future.”[4] They also drafted a constitution and elected an executive committee to provide leadership for the emerging movement. Of the six committee members, three were from Oak Grove: Vernon Smucker, J.C. Meyer, and O.B. Gerig.

04 Report Mennonites in France page 1.jpg

However, the YPC movement was short-lived. After returning to the United States, leaders planned and organized three annual meetings between 1920 and 1923. But the movement faced steady opposition from denominational leaders who accused its leaders of unorthodox theology. Ultimately, the YPC movement couldn’t convince church leaders that it sought to work with rather than against them. By 1924, the movement was over.

How should we interpret the failure of this movement?

In 1 Corinthians 3:11-13, Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.”

For those involved in the YPC movement, its failure after just a few years must have been a big disappointment. Here were young, intelligent leaders ready to offer their gifts to the work of the church, only to see their ideas met with suspicion and rejection. Indeed, O.B. Gerig was so disillusioned that he left the Mennonite church entirely. In a letter to J.C. Meyer in 1921, Gerig wrote, “I have come to the point where I can no longer view all problems only in the light of our own little branch of the church. We have a larger project in view. In the end, our plan will live after all their intrigue has passed on the blemished page of history.”[5]

As we now know, Gerig’s words turned out to be prophetic. One hundred years later, most of the reforms that the YPC movement advocated have been implemented.[6] Indeed, many have become central to the identities of multiple generations of Mennonites who grew up during the twentieth century. For example:

  • The YPC wanted the church to take a proactive stance with the U.S. government on issues of peace and conscientious objection to war. In the 1930s, the denomination worked with leaders from other historic peace churches and the government to create the Civilian Public Service program. During WWII thousands of Mennonites served with CPS as an alternative to military service and active peacebuilding remains a key focus for Mennonites today.
  • The YPC called for a stronger emphasis on service and relief to those in need. Over the course of the twentieth century Mennonite Central Committee has emerged as one of the most highly respected inter-Mennonite institutions in North America and abroad.
  • The YPC called for more dialogue between Mennonites of different national and cultural traditions. Today, Mennonite Mission Network continues its good work and Mennonite World Conference brings together people of Anabaptist faith from across the globe.

It took the fresh eyes of new leaders to articulate a new vision for the Mennonite Church in a complex and changing world. Through these young people, God planted a seed. Over the last 100 years, you at Oak Grove have watered that seed, dedicating your lives to the work of Christ in both large and small ways. Back in 1918, and even more so in 1818, the future of the Mennonite Church was anything but clear, but God has been faithful and God—not us—caused the seed to grow.

Today we are entering a new phase of uncertainty in the history of the Mennonite community in North America. Like the church 100 years ago, our newly merged denomination—Mennonite Church USA—is less than 20 years old and the growing pains are readily apparent. Our Mennonite colleges and universities are struggling financially. Our missions, service, and publishing agencies have drastically reduced operations in the last few decades. And our denomination is experiencing a rapid decline in membership, including the departure of entire conferences. As in 1918, the current crisis grows from a conflict based largely upon differing views regarding the kind of church Christ is calling us to be.

Last summer, MC USA organized the Future Church Summit at the bi-annual convention in Orlando. The goal of the summit was to gather voices from across the denomination to identify core convictions and chart a new course for the church. One tension that I observed throughout the FCS was between denominational leadersusually heritage Mennonites, usually middle agedand younger participants, many of whom did not grow up in the Mennonite church.

I heard resentment from younger leaders about the unwillingness of the “old guard” to let go of control. And I heard older participants lament the exodus of young people from the church and their “indifference” and lack of commitment to MC USA and its ministries. But I was also impressed by the many articulate and passionate young leaders who are committed to working for positive change from within the denomination. Their words echoed many of those voiced 100 years ago at Young People’s Conferences. They were filled with the same optimism, energy, and hope.

It is a fact that church attendance among Mennonites and many other denominations is declining. Many young people no longer see the church and its institutions as relevant parts of their lives. Yet, as I look out over the pews, I am struck by the number of young people and children here at Oak Grove. So, in closing, I want to speak to you and leave you with a few questions.

Why have you chosen to stay connected to the church? What about Oak Grove made you want to invest your lives in this community? Now, more broadly, what is important to you about being Mennonite? What is your hope for the future of the church…here in Wayne County, in North America, and around the world? Do we still need institutions like MC USA, MMN, or MCC to help us do the work of God in the world? I would argue yes. These institutions connect what is now a truly global church and allow us to accomplish much more of Christ’s work than we could on our own.

But these are tough questions, ones that I continue to struggle with as a 35-year-old Mennonite by choice. As you seek answers, I challenge you to take inspiration from Oak Grove’s history and consider the “cloud of witnesses” that has gone before you. For 200 years, the community of believers gathered at Oak Grove has found a way to remain in fellowship, even in the midst of crisis. In 100 years, how will your grandchildren and their children look back on you? What will you do to help continue this work? We aren’t perfect and we will make mistakes but I pray that we will “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

OakGrove200


[1] Originally an Amish Mennonite community, Oak Grove was part of the Eastern Amish Mennonite Conference from 1893 until 1927 when the conference merged with the Ohio Mennonite Conference to form the Ohio Mennonite and Eastern Amish Mennonite Joint Conference (later the Ohio and Eastern Mennonite Conference), affiliated with the “old” Mennonite Church. From 1947 to 1970, Oak Grove held no conference affiliation. In 1970 the congregation became a dual affiliate of the Ohio and Eastern Mennonite Conference and the Central District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. The Young People’s Conference movement engaged leaders mostly from the “old” Mennonite Church.

[2] Before the establishment of the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1860 and the (old) Mennonite Church in 1898, Mennonite communities in North America functioned mostly as a loose association of local districts and conferences without any centralized institutions.

[3] Most of the context and background for this section comes from a well-researched essay by Anna Showalter, “The Mennonite Young People’s Conference Movement, 1919-1923: The Legacy of a (Failed?) Vision,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 85:2 (April 2011), p. 181-217.

[4] The full list is printed in Showalter, “Mennonite Young People’s Conference Movement,” 196.

[5] Ibid., p. 182.

[6] Anna Showalter and James O. Lehman make this same point in their analyses of the YPC. See Showalter, 212-217, and James O. Lehman, Creative Congregationalism: A History of Oak Grove Mennonite Church in Wayne County, Ohio (Smithville, OH: Oak Grove Mennonite Church, 1978), 211-212.

Centennial Histories Symposium at Eastern Mennonite University March 24, 2018

20180324-centennial histories conference-001-1000pxPhoto credit: Macson McGuigan/EMU

In celebration of Eastern Mennonite University’s centennial year, history professors Mary Sprunger and Mark Sawin planned a symposium centered around the centennial histories of the five MCUSA colleges: Bethel1, Goshen, Bluffton, Hesston, and EMU. They brought together the five authors of centennial histories as well as past presidents to share their reflections on the histories of the schools. The symposium offered an opportunity for consideration of how the past of these schools plays into their present and future.

The first session was a panel discussion where each author gave a brief overview of the histories of their institution. The authors shared in order of school age; Keith Sprunger from Bethel first, then Susan Fisher Miller from Goshen, Perry Bush from Bluffton, John Sharp from Hesston, and finally Donald Kraybill from EMU. It was interesting to hear parallels in the motives for some of the schools’ foundings. There was a common thread of these schools starting in order to save Mennonite students–both to save them from the evils of the world and to save them from leaving so that their talents could be used in the church. All of the authors recognized that loyal faculty and staff have seen the schools through very difficult times. They also echoed a theme of change and adaptation across the five schools stories. But some differences were apparent as well–Midwest vs. East coast, “liberal” vs. “conservative”, and an openness to the world vs. a fortress mentality. Past presidents Loren Swartzendruber and Victor Stoltzfus and outgoing Bluffton president James Harder also shared their reflections.

In the second session the authors shared about challenges throughout the schools’ history. Keith Sprunger shared about Bethel first, mentioning issues like financial struggles, low enrollment, difficulty in finding quality faculty, and diversity. These topics would be echoed by many of the authors on the panel. Susan Fisher Miller discussed declining Mennonite enrollment and pondered whether the Mennonite institutions have become victims of their own success–did they nurture strong minds early on who then moved on to “greener pastures” of more prestigious education and subsequently encouraged their children to do the same? Perry Bush spoke about how Mennonite institutions are now a part of the national marketplace of higher ed and have to contend with issues like being competitive cost-wise, offering good value for money, and finding support outside of traditional church and parachurch organizations. John Sharp mentioned the historic lack of cooperation between Hesston and Bethel even though they are located just a few miles apart. Don Kraybill spoke of the particular issue of encouraging diversity at EMC while contending with the Jim Crow-era South. The authors all acknowledged ongoing “sibling rivalry” between the institutions, but noted that early attitudes of isolation and competition have since been replaced with an attitude of cooperation.

The third session was a time where groups of faculty, students, staff, administrators and authors gathered around tables for conversation. Participants discussed the morning’s sessions as well as questions from a prepared handout that asked:

  • What should the guiding mission and purpose of Mennonite schools be in coming years given the changes in both the church and the student bodies?
  • Is being distinctively ‘Mennonite’ important?
  • Institutions by necessity grow and change. How will Mennonite institutions need to change to remain relevant in the future? What are the ‘givens’ that must remain? What are the traditions that may need to change?

There was a second handout highlighting enrollment trends at the Mennonite institutions over the past fifteen years. It broke down enrollment by MCUSA conference, trends of Mennonite student attendance, and overall full-time Mennonite traditional undergraduate enrollment at the schools. These graphs can be found here: http://bit.ly/MennoHS & http://bit.ly/MennoSystem

These questions and the data sparked fascinating conversations surrounding Mennonite identity and population at the institutions, what it means to be a Mennonite institution in the face of dwindling Mennonite attendance, and what impact larger societal trends are having on these institutions.

In the final session the authors gave their final thoughts on how the first centuries of these institutions will inform the next. Many reiterated the distinctiveness of these five institutions in maintaining their Mennonite identity over their histories and the importance of loyal faculty and alumni. Susan Fisher Miller highlighted the benefits of diversity and an international focus. Perry Bush reminded the group of how radical and attractive the Anabaptist perspective can be to students, both Mennonite and non-Mennonite, and said he believes remaining distinctly Anabaptist and following a Third Way is the best path forward for our schools. John Sharp posed the question: who are we serving if the church that we serve is scattering? Don Kraybill had to leave early but left remarks that were read reflecting on the difficulties of maintaining Mennonite institutions of higher education without a critical mass of Mennonite students and strong church support. Finally, students responded to what they had discussed in the afternoon. They spoke of their appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about the history of their institutions and called for more cooperation and conversation between the student bodies of the schools.

Many in the Q&A sessions voiced a wish that these conversations had taken place long ago and a desire to see them continue in the future. It was a hopeful time for me to see such cooperation and engagement across a variety of sectors in our Mennonite institutions and I, too, hope that these conversations continue as we all work toward our common goal of providing distinctive, faith-based, Anabaptist education. As I reflect on the symposium, I feel that it is clear that the Mennonite institutions of higher ed are entering a new era. The old models are unreliable and in order to survive and thrive there must be an openness to new ways of being. This brings uncertainty, grappling with questions of identity, and, at times, pain. But it feels necessary to ensure the survival of these beloved institutions in their second centuries. As someone who was shaped by Mennonite education and feels privileged to work at EMU, I hope that the challenges facing the institutions will spark creativity, cooperation, and positive change and allow for the continued flourishing of our Mennonite institutions.

Special thanks to Mark Sawin, Mary Sprunger, Barbara Byer, Scott Barge and all others who contributed to facilitate this fantastic symposium.


  1. Bethel’s history was written to commemorate its 125th anniversary. 

Juanita Lark Building Dedication at Goshen College

Regina Shands Stoltzfus

On February 10, Goshen College officially renamed its Welcome Center to honor Juanita Lark, the college’s first African American graduate. The daughter of James and Rowena Lark, mission workers and influential church planters, Juanita Jewel Lark graduated in 1943. On the day of the dedication, members of the Lark family visited the campus, and Linda Lyons, a niece of Juanita Lark, shared stories of her aunt’s time at Goshen College.

James Lark was the first black minister ordained in the Mennonite Church, becoming a bishop in 1954. The Larks planted six churches and spent much of their time in the 1940s, 50s and 60s as consultants to Mission Boards, conferences and congregations regarding planting new churches in black and urban areas.

rowena-lark-rehoboth-campground-ca-1955

Born in 1888 in Savannah, Georgia, James Lark was baptized there at age sixteen in a Baptist church. He attended the Quaker Institute for College Youth in Cheney, Pennsylvania (now Cheney State College). James and Rowena married in 1918, and the couple had six children. In 1927 the family made their first contact with Mennonites when they moved to a farm near Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Members of the Rocky Ridge Mission Church invited the children to Sunday School; Rowena Lark also began to attend and eventually became a member. Later on her husband and three of their children became members. Rowena Lark later reflected:

“It was the literal fulfillment of scripture that caused me to join Rocky Ridge Mission. As I saw these faithful Christians coming eight or more miles from their homes and gathering up in their cars Italians, Poles, Dutch, American Negroes, and Germans, to take them to the house of the Lord, I was made to feel that here is a group of Christians who are really making their religion practical.”1

For Rowena Lark, Mennonites represented Christians who took their faith seriously; the evidence of this was the willingness to traverse racial and cultural boundaries to bring the word of God into the lives of all people and also meet their physical needs; the willingness to rub shoulders and share possessions. This was later reflected in the couple’s own ministry, when James Lark became the first African American Mennonite minister in 1944 with Rowena a capable partner in that work.

In February 1945, the Larks had become full time workers in Mennonite mission work in Chicago. They organized and presided over children’s activities, including boy’s club, girl’s chorus, and camp program. In 1949, the Larks purchased ten acres of land in rural Hopkins Park, Illinois for a Sunday School camp for children; in gratitude, Rowena named it “Rehoboth” after Genesis 22. This was the site that eventually became Rehoboth Mennonite Church.

The 1940s continued to be a relative swirl of activity concerning the convergence of African American and white Mennonite worlds in the midwest. The Voluntary Service unit that was established in Saginaw, Michigan eventually lead to the planting of Ninth Street Mennonite Church (now Ninth Street Community Church), and the Gladstone Mission was initiated in Cleveland. That mission led to the planting of the Lee Heights Community Church. Yet the Larks found themselves frequently impatient with the slow pace of white administrators who held the purse strings and made final decisions on various urban ministries. The work was urgent; as Rowena wrote to a friend – there was so much to be done. She also was sharp with those who would denigrate Black people and Black culture.  According to Leroy Bechler, Rowena Lark

“grieved and was not always patient with those who reflected an inflexible or critical spirit of the Black community or Black worship.  She was a woman ahead of her time – reading, studying – learning Spanish and going to Mexico to live for a number of months after she was 70 years old.”2

The Lark family legacy, realized in part by the naming of the Juanita Lark Welcome Center on the Goshen College campus, is an important reminder of this history of interracial partnership and the broadening nature of Mennonite identity, and an acknowledgement that this work continues into the present day.


  1. James and Rowena Lark Collection, Hist Mss 1-566, Box 1, Folder 4a, Bethel Mennonite Church (Chicago, Il) Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana (MCA-G) 
  2. Urban Pioneers Interview, #2003-49, Box 1 Historical committee, Urban Pioneers Interview Project 2001-02. 

Faithfully Your Fellow Watchman

Joel Horst Nofziger

A collection recently donated to the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, included a diagram depicting “Goshen College and the Fruits Thereof.” It shows six main branches, with a plethora of fruit growing from them: worldliness, unsound literature, hypocrisies, disloyalty, unsound teachers, and modernism. In the bottom corner, a note—”Lest we Forget! JHM”1

Tree Diagram Modernism.jpg

(Bishop) John Heer Mosemann was heavily concerned with Modernism, which he saw as seducing the youth away from the Church and pointing to false spiritual answers elsewhere. In 1904 Mosemann was ordained a minister by Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, Lancaster Mennonite Conference, part of a new wave of leadership alongside Peter R. Nissley and John H. Shelly. In 1926 he became bishop of the Lancaster district, and was a well known as an evangelist and ardent conservative voice. He was strongly influenced by George R. Brunk and Brunk’s Mennonite Fundamentalism. Mosemann was involved in missions, education, publishing, and conference work.2

In a letter addressed “To my dear fellowbishops” dated March 2, 1929, Bishop John H. Mosemann justified his suspicions about “the brother working in our midst,” either Ernest E. Miller or George J. Lapp, both missionaries to India. After listing the suspicious involvements he states,3

Naturally the question arises how can he do these things? There are reasons for this which may find their explanation in the following items.

  1. He received his education in the former Modernistically corrupt Goshen College. He does not seem to have shaken much of this teaching off. [Formatting in original document]
  2. This Modernistic College intended to Liberalize and Modernize the entire Mennonite Church. For years they were wishing to have a faithful lieutenant in this County. They are seeking to Liberalize the Church every where and are succeeding rapidly as one faithful old pillar after another is passing away in the Church.
  3. They taught Modernistic doctrines. evolutionary ideas. World Betterment views. Against the “Faith of the Fathers.” They opposed the doctrine of the Plenary Verbal Inspiration of the Scriptures. They disbelieved in the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. They denied the efficacy of the blood of Christ and believed the self righteous doctrine of Salvation by Works – good character. In other words the delusive doctrine of Unitarianism.
  4. They were taught to al[m]ost worship Harry Emerson Fosdick the noted Modernist – veneered and polished Infidel as well as other present day Modernist’s. [sic.]
  5. They were taught to be rebellious to their Church leaders and to their Conferences.
  6. They were encouraged to return to their homes and revolutionize their Church and Community. A vivid example we have seen in the workings of Pre. Amos Geigly.
  7. Another aim they seem to have was to get their product in all manner of positions in the Church [. . . .] Some years ago it was easily seen that the Goshen element were seeking to control General Conference [. . .]
  8. It was the purpose to compel every prospective missionary to complete their education at Goshen College, which accounts for the large number of liberal missionaries now on the field. Thus every missionary would eventually become of the liberal type.

[. . .]

The Liberalists in the Dunkard Church have pushed this matter to the limit so that the conservatives are powerless to do a thing unless they wish to leave the Church. We are heading in the same direction but may be able to do something if it is done quickly, firmly, courageously and uncompromisingly. [. . .] If I am in error on any point I wish to beg pardon. However I must clear my skirts and therefore speak in plain terms.

Faithfully your fellow watchman

It should be noted that while Mosemann and others made numerous and loud accusations suspecting the India Mission in particular of “un-Christian activities,” no doctrinal deviation was ever proven.4

Today, Mosemann’s exhortation, “lest we forget,” is still true, but for reasons he might not recognize. Suspicions about Goshen College have mellowed. In some ways, the conflict within Mennonite churches over Modernism feels settled, though the results can be seen across the strata of Anabaptist groups existing today (the conflict within MC USA today over sexuality has clear antecedents in the same fight, with the method in which scripture is used being a clear indicator). And it can be easy to dismiss Mosemann as misguided in the same way he would have thrown out the Modernists from the Church, or write him off as a cautionary tale about being on the wrong side of history.

But John H. Mosemann was doing his best to live a faithful Christian life. When doing history, it is important to remember that the subjects of inquiry were real and are deserving of respect on the basis of their humanity. Perhaps we differ from Mosemann on how to live our faith today, or perhaps not, but we should not forget that he was trying his best to produce “good fruit.”


  1. John H. Mosemann, “Tree Diagram,” n.d.,Noah L. Landis Collection, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa. 
  2. John L. Ruth, The Earth Is the Lords (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 770-71, 881, 907; Mosemann, John H., “Moseman, John Heer (1877-1938)” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mosemann,John_Heer(1877-1938)
  3. John H. Mosemann  to “my dear fellowbishops,” March 2, 1929, Noah L. Landis Collection, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa. 
  4. John Allen Lapp, The Mennonite Church in India 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1972), 61.