Adoptions source of U.S. Conference growth

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Ethnic congregations help USC double in 25 years

by Paul Schrag with Connie Faber, reprinted by permission from Mennonite Weekly Review, an inter-Mennonite newspaper.

While Mennonite Church USA, the largest Mennonite group in the United States, tries to reverse a membership decline, the Mennonite Brethren conference has a much different story to tell.

The U.S. Conference, the second-largest U.S. Mennonite group, has more than doubled its membership in 25 years, growing from 16,942 members in 1983 to 35,496 in 2008. The Canadian MB Conference also is expanding, though not as fast. Since 2000, membership there has increased 10 percent, to 36,946. By contrast, Mennonite Church USA lost 9 percent of its membership between 2001 and 2007, falling to 109,315.

How did Mennonite Brethren in the United States manage to grow so much? Not primarily through church planting, though they’ve had some success at that. The biggest factor, conference leaders say, was the “adoption” of ethnic congregations—especially Slavic churches of Ukrainian immigrants.

“They found in us a theology they could say yes to,” says Don Morris, director of Mission USA, the conference’s church-planting and renewal arm. “They are very much peacemaking people. They are very evangelical.”

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, 35 Slavic congregations—many of them in the Pacific Northwest, most with Pentecostal and Baptist backgrounds in Ukraine—became Mennonite Brethren.

“These churches were aware of the Mennonite Brethren family, and some early linkages had a snowball effect,” says Ed Boschman, executive director of the U.S. Conference.

In all, 62 ethnic congregations have joined since 1995, accounting for more than 80 percent of the conference’s growth. The other leading groups are Hispanics with 35 churches, Ethiopians with nine and Koreans with seven. Today, 94 of the 200 U.S. MB congregations are identified as ethnic.

Morris and Boschman credit Loyal Funk, former U.S. conference minister, with bringing Slavic churches into the Mennonite Brethren fold. Also, the MB Foundation gave loans to enable some of the congregations to build churches.

“There was a huge immigration after perestroika,” Morris says, referring to the restructuring that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. “As we look back, we are very grateful that we were able to help these churches get established in the U.S.”

Questions remain, however, about the strength of the Slavic churches’ Mennonite Brethren ties and whether all will want to stay with the conference. Many of their people wouldn’t even know their churches are affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren, Morris says. “We’re doing some investigative work to see what level of relationship they wish to maintain,” he says.

“In retrospect, we would have been well-served to clarify our understanding of family in the longer-term,” says Boschman. “Among the Slavic congregations, some churches lean in more than others. Our relationships with many Slavic churches are complicated by additional denominational affiliations and history in their motherland.

“This is a complex and challenging reality that we are seeking to address,” says Boschman. “While the Slavic congregations are connecting with MBMS International in new initiatives, we know that our partnerships and arrangements are not as healthy as they could be and ideally should be,” he says.

In Canada, churches outside the traditional Russian-German MB ethnic group have contributed to growth, though not as much as in the U.S. The Canadian MB Conference has 22 Chinese churches, almost all in British Columbia, says Ken Reddig of Pinawa, Man., executive secretary of the MB Historical Commission. Most were established in the 1970s and ’80s.

He says Chinese immigrants could identify with the Mennonite Brethren experience of living under communism. Many Canadian MBs are descendants of those who fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s and after World War II.

“They really identify with the Russian Mennonite story and say, ‘You are a group of people who understand what we have been through,’ ” Reddig says. “There is a sense of a suffering church, because many of them were Christians under communism.”

Reddig believes a willingness to change is a Mennonite Brethren trait that contributes to growth.

“There’s been a little more ease in being influenced by other confessions,” he says. “That’s been both a criticism of MBs as well as a strength.”

These influences, he says, included fundamentalism, early acceptance of gospel music and contemporary worship styles, the church-growth movement and an openness to ethnic diversity.

Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada have advantages for growth compared to the United States, Morris and Reddig say. With Canada’s smaller population—33 million compared to 305 million in the U.S. —mainstream Mennonites have a higher profile. They are much better understood and not confused with the Amish and other plain groups.

“It’s a different ballgame on this side of the border,” Reddig says. “It’s not that our churches are different, but society is different.”

In Winnipeg, whose 700,000 people make up the bulk of Manitoba’s population of 1.2 million, there are more than 50 Mennonite congregations, and almost everyone knows of Mennonite Central Committee, Reddig says.

Also, in Canada “it’s fairly cool to identify with an ethnicity,” Reddig says, “and Mennonites are primarily seen as an ethnic group.” This fact cuts both ways, he says. Mennonites are esteemed but also seen as exclusive.

Morris sees U.S. Mennonite Brethren facing tougher challenges.

“In Canada the name (Mennonite Brethren) is seen as an asset, and in the United States it is seen as a barrier,” he says. “In Canada the peace position is seen as a high virtue, but for us here that is not going to be understood by the majority.”

Reddig generally agrees but says “Brethren” is sometimes seen as a barrier because it sounds sexist.

Morris says the U.S. Conference will not plant churches and then try to hide the fact that they are MB. “I believe fully in who we are as Mennonite Brethren—our discipleship, being true followers of Jesus, changed lives, our view of Scripture,” he says. “The Bible will be taught well and strongly and not watered down in our church plants.”

Boschman says the key to growth is to understand that North America is a mission field. “We have moved in the direction of calling ourselves Anabaptist evangelicals,” he says.

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