Convention marked by dreams for future

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Delegates Called to Love Lost People

When Mennonite Brethren from across the nation gathered for their biennial convention this summer in Hillsboro, Kan., the official theme was “Transition Point: From a proud past to a promising future.” But the unofficial theme had more to do with the promising future than the proud past.

And if the July 26-27 convention is any indicator, it will be a future marked by passion for the lost. That theme was unmistakable as convention speakers, business discussions, worship times and informal conversations echoed Jesus’ mission as stated in Luke 19:10: “to seek and to save what was lost.”

Both the central Kansas location—rich in Mennonite Brethren history and heritage—and the timing—coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Tabor College—celebrated the Mennonite Brethren “proud past.”

The convention was jointly hosted by Tabor College, the first institution of higher education established by MBs in the U.S., and by three historic MB congregations in Hillsboro: Hillsboro MB Church, Ebenfeld MB Church and Parkview MB Church. Ebenfeld holds the distinction of being the first organized MB church in North America. Parkview has its roots in the historic Gnadenau village just outside Hillsboro and is considered the “mother church” of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, a like-minded conference that officially merged with the Mennonite Brethren in 1960. And Hillsboro MB is one of the oldest, largest and arguably one of the most influential churches in the U.S. Conference.

Friday evening’s opening session in particular celebrated MB history, especially that of Tabor College. The evening’s events were held on the Tabor College campus, beginning with dinner in the cafeteria and followed by a packed-house opening session in the college chapel. Tabor’s student worship team, i268, led energetic worship. 

A panel consisting of a current Tabor College student, a faculty member and an alum discussed the impact Tabor has had in their lives, and a multimedia presentation highlighted Tabor’s history. College president Jules Glanzer told delegates and guests that Tabor’s mission for the past—to transform lives—remains relevant for the present and the future. A late-night cake reception further celebrated Tabor’s 100th.

Even as attendees celebrated the past, keynote speaker Dan Southerland began to turn attention to the future as he spoke on “Getting in on what God is doing.” Southerland, founder of Church Transitions, Inc., an organization that trains church leaders to effectively manage major transitions, presented sobering statistics on the decline of the American church and compared that to the astonishing growth of Christianity worldwide. 

“If there’s revival happening in the world, why can’t it happen here?” he asked. He then used surfing language to tell attendees how to “catch the wave” of revival and repeatedly pointed out that “church is so not about me” but about helping nonbelievers come to Christ.

“If the church doesn’t have the heartbeat of Jesus, what are we in business for?” he asked. “And Jesus’ heartbeat was that none should perish—that none should perish!” He went on to say that heaven will be for Christians, “but in this place, if we follow Jesus, then we need to be here to seek and to save that which is lost.” 

The focus on the future continued as delegates and guests reconvened Saturday morning at the Hillsboro MB Church facilities, newly rebuilt and relocated after a fire destroyed the former building in 2004. Southerland again challenged those in attendance to envision a new future as he spoke on “Beyond Contemporary” and challenged attendees to make whatever changes in their church might be necessary to reach the lost.

Southerland compared unbelievers to orphans whom God longs to adopt. “My experience,” he said, “has been this: When a church decides we love lost people most of all and we want God to send us his homeless, helpless, orphaned kids, he will flood that church with them.” 

That vision for the future was not obscured when attention turned to business. As USC executive director Ed Boschman presented the new denominational mission statement, he pointed out that U.S. Mennonite Brethren must have a clear sense of identity and unity in order to move toward that future.

“We’re bravely and with some faith calling you to be one,” Boschman said. 

Attendees put family unity into practice during the Mission USA report when Terry Hunt expressed a need on behalf of the North Carolina District Conference. The district is in the process of building a facility which they hope will expand their ministry significantly, but have run into numerous obstacles, particularly with one city official. Attendees united in prayer for the project. In a post-convention e-mail to the Leader, Hunt reports that those prayers were answered a week later when environmental plans for the building site were approved. Following the grading of the property in August, the building project is on schedule to begin this month.

Other MUSA reports from church plants and projects across the country demonstrated how the USC family is already at work to seek and save the lost. As church planter after church planter stood to tell stories of lives changed, the excitement was palpable. MUSA director Don Morris said, “I’m passionate about reaching lost people however we can do it.” 

The report from MBMS International likewise fueled passion for reaching the lost, whatever it takes. Ricky Sanchez, team leader for Team 2000 in Thailand, told how reaching lost people sometimes takes some unusual forms, including persecution and ideas that are “outside the box.” For example, he said, “You’ve got break-dancing MB orphans leading people to Christ in Thailand.”

Even budget discussions were less about dollars than about vision. 

Worship throughout Saturday’s sessions was led by Chris Regier, worship pastor at Enid (Okla.) MB Church, and a team of musicians from Oklahoma and Kansas. At one point Regier sang an original song that MUSA’s Morris said “encapsulates” the goal of MUSA—and perhaps the challenge for the future of the conference as a whole. The song spoke of people who need Jesus and asked, “Who will love them home?”

The convention concluded on a reflective note Saturday evening as delegates shared communion. Boschman reviewed the “Jesus story,” noting that if Jesus cared enough to bleed and die to seek and save the lost, that should be the church’s passion as well. Attendees were then invited to take communion at one of six stations around the sanctuary. Conference staff members were available to pray with and for those who so desired. Many took advantage of the reflective atmosphere to kneel at the front of the sanctuary in prayer.

Looking back in a post convention interview, Boschman expresses satisfaction with the convention and notes the clear “current” running through the weekend’s events: “a palpable sense that as a U.S. family it is imperative that we do anything and everything we can to be purposeful about the core mission of Jesus for the church, which is seeking and saving the lost.”

Boschman notes that strategic planning—figuring out just how to do that as a national family—will be the next work of the Leadership Board. The board will consider input from convention delegates and from the spring Leadership Summit when they meet Oct. 10-12 in Denver, Colo.

Delegates and guests came from all five districts to attend the 2008 National Convention. There were 285 registered delegates and guests and 25 children, for a total of 310. The 2006 convention drew a total of 278 adults and children; the 2004 convention was attended by 294 adults and children; the 2002 convention drew a total of  302 people and the 2000 convention had a total attendance of 339.

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