Toward a History of the Future of Mennonite Church USA

Jason B. Kauffman

In 1975, the Gospel Herald published a series of articles focused on the church of the future. Over the course of several issues, editor Daniel Hertzler invited authors to offer suggestions on “models for the next quarter century” in relation to the institutional church, the family, economics, and education.[1] The point of the series, Hertzler explained, was not to predict the future or to prescribe an exact formula that the church should follow. Instead, Hertzler hoped the articles could “suggest patterns of response to the issues that are likely to face us.” He believed that a proactive approach would help the church to choose models that “honor[ed] the lordship of Christ” instead of simply being “swept along by the late-twentieth century tide.”[2]

Hertzler commissioned this series of articles in the midst of a historical moment in which the charismatic movement was gaining increasing attention and influence in Mennonite circles.[3] The movement itself was diverse in its origins and expression, but key tenets included the central role of the Holy Spirit in the life and mission of the church and the practice of New Testament spiritual gifts. With its emphasis on renewal and church revitalization, the charismatic movement was a forward-looking project. While it was not widely adopted by Mennonites in North America, the movement did help, in part, to spur Mennonites to think more about the future.

This particular moment of self-reckoning and its impulse towards renewal was just one in a long line of such moments in the history of Anabaptism. Another came 100 years ago in 1919 when the Young People’s Conference compiled a list of priorities they hoped would guide the “church of the future.” In the 1980s, both the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church adopted statements calling the broader church to renew corporate commitments and set goals for the future.[4] More recently, MC USA’s Future Church Summit gathered Mennonites in Orlando to identify the renewed commitments that will guide the denomination on its Journey Forward in the coming decades.[5]

Such periods of introspection and looking to the future exercise an important function in the life of the church. They help us to take stock of where we have come from and to chart a course for where we want to go. As John W. Miller put it in 1975, “By thinking about the future we can become more intentional about the present. We can decide whether or not we want that future that we see taking shape on the horizon.”[6] This was the main goal of the Future Church Summit and, at this summer’s convention in Kansas City (July 2-6), delegates will hear how multiple Mennonite communities are seeking to journey forward in their own contexts.

I would add that any efforts to chart a course for the future should pay close attention to the voices of young people. After all, these people will lead the Mennonite community forward in the coming decades and the decisions we make today will affect them the most. We are entering a phase in our history when MC USA will need to make decisions about how the denomination, its agencies, and related ministries can best serve a rapidly changing church. Young people should have multiple opportunities to speak into this process. The move to include youth as full delegates at convention this summer is a step in the right direction.

The Mennonite Church USA Archives is also planning a pilot, oral history project at convention that seeks to document and preserve the voices of young people that are part of MC USA. A few weeks ago, we sent invitations to all people who registered for convention between the ages of 20-40 and, so far, the response has been much greater than we anticipated. We are currently working to find extra team members who will help to conduct interviews with as many participants as possible. At this point, we anticipate that all interviews will take place at convention.

We realize that the interviews we gather will not represent the voices of all young people who identify as Mennonite, and that is not our goal. Instead, our goal is to record the voices of young people who have chosen to participate in this gathering of the broader church. Due to the nature of convention, these are most likely to be pastors, congregational delegates, youth group sponsors, and employees of church agencies and institutions: some of the people most likely to shape the direction of the broader church in the future. We believe the project provides a unique opportunity to learn about the lives and experiences of the diverse, young voices that make up our denomination. We hope that the project will capture a historical snapshot, documenting the hopes, challenges, and dreams of the church of the future.


[1] The articles appeared between August 19 and September 30, 1975. Authors included Ann and Paul Gingrich (church), David Schroeder (family), Henry Rempel (economics), and Dean R. Chamberlain (education). Digital copies of all issues are available online at the Digital Mennonite Periodicals website at: https://archive.org/details/gospelherald197568hert_0/page/n95 (accessed 5-16-2019).

[2] Daniel Hertzler, “Some Models for the Future,” Gospel Herald 68:35 (9 September 1975), p. 644.

[3] By 1975, Mennonite Renewal Services emerged as an organization to represent the interests of charismatic Mennonites and in 1977, the (old) Mennonite Church adopted an official statement in response to the charismatic movement entitled, “The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church.”

[4] The Mennonite Church statement was entitled, “Vision ’95,” and the General Conference statement was entitled “A Call to Kingdom Commitments.”

[5] At the global level, Mennonite World Conference’s Renewal 2027 events are designed to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Anabaptism and, among other goals, “to renew and deepen our understanding of Christian faithfulness as shaped by the Anabaptist movement.” See the GAMEO article on Renewal 2027 at: https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Renewal_2027 (accessed 5-16-2019)

[6] John W. Miller, “The Mennonite Church in 2025?” Gospel Herald 68:32 (19 August 1975), p. 573.

Encounters with the Spirit: Anabaptists and Charismatic Renewal (Part 2)

In October 2016, I teased a multi-part series sharing some of my research into Anabaptist engagement with the late twentieth century charismatic renewal movement. In that post, I pointed to the dearth of writing on Anabaptist-charismatic influence and to the larger historiographical problem represented by that silence.

Today’s post picks up where that post left off. I want to share at least three reasons why I think this research matters for scholars of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.

First, engagement with the North American charismatic renewal movement represented one of Mennonites’ first ecumenical encounters. The last two decades have seen growing rates of participation by Anabaptists in ecumenical dialogue, mostly through Mennonite World Conference.1 For instance, Mennonite and other Anabaptist media gave significant coverage to the 2010 service in which the Lutheran World Federation formally asked Mennonite World Conference for forgiveness “for the violent persecution of Anabaptists in the sixteenth century and for the way negative portrayals of Anabaptists and Mennonites have been allowed to continue within their communities and theological institutions.” But these high-profile ecumenical encounters of recent decades tend to obscure earlier forms of interchurch engagement, including with the charismatic renewal movement — a movement that, as numerous scholars have pointed out, was often quite ecumenical.

For instance, when charismatic Christians from various denominations—including Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and many others—came together in 1977 for the Kansas City Charismatic Conference, Mennonites were highly involved. Retired (Old) Mennonite church missionary Nelson Litwiller sat on the organizing committee, and hundreds of Mennonite laypeople and leaders were among the 50,000 people who crowded into Arrowhead Stadium for the week-long event.2 Worshiping alongside and rubbing elbows with Christians across the denominational spectrum would have been anathema to (Old) Mennonites a generation or two beforehand. Yet by 1977, engagement with religious beliefs and practices from outside the Mennonite tradition had drawn these men and women into contact with other believers. As the historian Perry Bush has demonstrated, Mennonites engaged in ecumenical conversations before 1977.3 But the Kansas City conference had symbolic significance as an ecumenical encounter: Mennonites were known, active participants and partners in a widely-reported, transdenominational religious gathering.

Arrowhead Stadium, the site of the Kansas City Charismatic Conference in 1977 (Wikimedia Commons)

Arrowhead Stadium, the site of the Kansas City Charismatic Conference in 1977 (Wikimedia Commons)

Second, while some Anabaptists cut loose their denominational ties as a result of their encounters with the Spirit, other Mennonites and Brethren in Christ attempted to forge a distinctively Anabaptist variety of charismatic renewal. At the cutting edge of this endeavor was Mennonite Renewal Services, a grassroots denominational agency that formed in the mid-1970s by two Mennonite leaders sympathetic to charismatic expressions. The organization planned conferences and published a magazine, Empowered, in order to promote charismatic renewal within local congregations while simultaneously attempting to stop charismatic Mennonites from seeking fellowship with and guidance from non-Mennonite charismatics.

But perhaps their most enduring contribution emerged in their efforts to promote a distinctively Mennonite “brand” of charismatic renewal. For instance, in the inaugural issue of Empowered in 1983, one writer opined that the baptism of the Spirit was important, but that there were many signs or sets of signs—not just one singular sign—that could confirm it. He wrote that “difficulty, severe testing or spiritual challenge may be a more typical consequence of the baptism” than signs such as glossolalia or prophecy.4 The writer’s appeal to suffering and “spiritual challenge” spoke directly to the longstanding Anabaptist conviction that hardship and adversity are expected outcomes of Christian discipleship, beliefs that reflect a living memory even among twentieth­-century Anabaptists of their ancestors’ sixteenth­-century persecution.

The predominantly African-American congregation at Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Virginia, are more open to charismatic expressions than some of their fellow white Mennonites. With about 2,200 members, this congregation is the largest in Mennonite Church USA.

Third, the growing presence of African American, Latino/a, and Hispanic Anabaptists after 1980 helped to sustain charismatic expressions in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. Although pockets of resistance to charismatic beliefs and practices continued to exist within some segments of the Mennonite denominations and the Brethren in Christ Church into the 1980s and beyond, by the last decades of the twentieth century most denominational hierarchies relaxed their older, outright opposition to the movement. Such gradual embrace was a boon to Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in the 1980s, as both groups increasingly welcomed African Americans, Latino/as, and Hispanics into their church communities.5

For these Anabaptists, charismatic expressions did not necessarily conflict with the tradition’s other beliefs and practices. For instance, as the historians Steven Nolt and Royden Loewen have argued, Latino Mennonites “were [often] puzzled as to why so many white Mennonites seemed surprised by, or even opposed to, dramatic expressions of divine activity,” such as speaking in tongues or divine healing.6

A recent demographic study of Mennonite Church USA confirmed these dynamics. Only forty-four percent of white church members claimed that they had “ever personally experienced . . . gifts of the Spirit” such as casting out demons, speaking in tongues, prophesying, or receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, seventy percent of African-American, Latino/a, and Hispanic church members claimed those experiences.7

Since we scholars still have much to learn about African American, Latino/a, and Hispanic Anabaptists in North America, paying attention to the emergence of, ongoing presence of, and tensions resulting from charismatic beliefs and expressions within Anabaptist communities may help provide fresh insights into these late twentieth century developments.

Stay tuned for more posts on these “encounters with the Spirit,” as I continue to share insights from my ongoing research into Anabaptist engagement with the charismatic renewal movement.

NOTES:


  1. See, for instance, the recent collection by Fernando Enns and Jonathan Seiling, eds., Mennonites in Dialogue: Official Reports from International and National Ecumenical Encounters (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2015). 
  2. On the Kansas City Charismatic Conference, including Mennonite involvement, see Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 260-264. 
  3. Perry Bush, “”Anabaptism Born Again: Mennonites, New Evangelicals, and the Search for a Usable Past, 1950-1980,” Fides et Historia 25, no. 2 (Winter-Spring 1993): 26-47. 
  4. Daniel Yutzy, “The Baptism with the Spirit,” ​Empowered, Spring/Summer 1983, n.p. 
  5. Historians of North American Anabaptism are only beginning to understand how and why African Americans, Latino/as, and Hispanics became involved in groups such as the Old Mennonites and the Brethren in Christ, groups historically comprised of members with Swiss­-German ethnic heritages. For some early considerations of this development, see Tobin Miller Shearer, ​Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), and Felipe Hinojosa, ​Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). 
  6. Steven M. Nolt and Royden Loewen, Seeking Places of Peace: A Global Mennonite History–Vol. 5: North America (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books; Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2012), 262. 
  7. Conrad L. Kanagy, Road Signs for the Journey: A Profile of Mennonite Church USA (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2007), 99.