Binational sessions celebrate growth
By Connie Faber with reports from J Janzen, Barrie McMaster and Myra Holmes
A video of the Celebration 2010 Reader's Theater is posted online by the Canadian Conference Media Center.
An audio recording of the vignettes shared during Celebration 2010 evening services is posted online by the Canadian Conference Media Center.
While Vancouver is known as the world-class city that hosted the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, North American Mennonite Brethren will remember this city as the backdrop for another once-in-a-lifetime event: Celebration 2010, a weeklong occasion July 12-18 celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren Church.
Organizers anticipated that the historic nature of Celebration 2010 would draw large numbers, similar to the joint gathering held eight years ago on the occasion of the dissolution of the binational General Conference. While the 2002 three-day event, held in neighboring Abbotsford, BC, drew over 1,500 attendees, including 195 U.S. and 440 Canadian Conference delegates, the 2010 event attracted an estimated 900 people, including 173 U.S. and 369 Canadian Conference delegates.
High cost (registration for one and the hotel bill alone totaled just over $1,000), poor publicity and the length of the event are among the reasons cited for low attendance. Some wonder if declining denominational loyalty is to blame, while others counter that younger Mennonite Brethren express their commitment to the church in ways that don’t involve attending large gatherings.
Winning the lost
Poll the 500-plus delegates who did attend Celebration 2010 about their historic experience and they will likely say it was invigorating and go on to talk about winning. They aren’t referring to Olympic wins—or losses—on the slopes and at the ice rinks.
Celebration 2010 confirms that the salvation of lost people ignites the passion of North American Mennonite Brethren. Stories of people finding Jesus, whether shared in the form of personal life transformation stories, reports of new local and global outreach efforts or mission field narratives, is what energized delegates.
Other themes emerged throughout the week. Mennonite Brethren are global. We are unique yet embrace working with other denominations as part of Christ’s larger church. We see amazing fruit from the missionary efforts of early Mennonite Brethren. We “stand on the shoulders of giants” and do so with many feet.
The two Celebration 2010 evening programs were organized around the themes of identity (Wednesday) and mission (Friday). Sandwiched between was the one-day Binational Reporting Session that included a brown-bag picnic lunch on the lawn outside Chandos Pattison Auditorium on the Pacific Academy campus in Surrey. U.S. and Canadian delegates met in separate locations Thursday evening and Friday morning and afternoon to act on binational agency reports and to conduct national conference business.
Americans and Canadians kicked off Wednesday evening’s celebration awash in the chorus, “God of Wonders,” and surrounded by waving flags from countries where the Mennonite Brethren church exists today.
In their welcome to this “once in a lifetime event,” David Wiebe, Canadian Conference executive director, and Ed Boschman U.S. Conference executive director, noted that there is much for which to be thankful. Out of a gathering of 18 households, God has created a global family of 400,000 Mennonite Brethren who worship in more than 20 languages.
“Once our existence as a movement took off,” Wiebe said, “it seems God was using the movement to bring honor and glory to him.”
Becoming a beautiful mosaic
That spirit of praise and gratitude characterized the vignettes that followed. Against the backdrop of video projected images, a reader’s theater traced the history of MB identity from its origins among Dutch-German-Russian people who desired a vibrant relationship with Jesus and were passionate about biblical teaching, evangelism, mission, education and peace.
Stories from leaders of church plants and established congregations in Lenoir, North Carolina; Montreal, Quebec; Draper, Utah; and Altona, Manitoba, offered a vivid picture of Mennonite Brethren today. This beautiful mosaic grows, as Mennonite Brethren continue to introduce people to Jesus and continue to see lives and communities transformed.
“We don’t know exactly what we should be expecting God to do next, but we do know that God is faithful,” said one speaker. “So we choose to celebrate the friendships that have been made over the last seven years. We celebrate the 16 kids who gave their lives to Christ last week. We celebrate that at the end of time people from all nations will be dressed in white, waving palm branches, and shouting praises to God.”
Free but costly
The evening’s featured speakers affirmed that the future hope is already a present reality. Jon Shankar Rao, director of evangelism and church planting for the India MB Conference, was the first MB convert from a Hindu background. He thanked Russian, Canadian and U.S. Mennonite Brethren for their work in India, where the MB church numbers more than 100, 000.
Nzuzi Mukawa, a professor at the School of Missiology in Kinshasa, DR Congo, spoke on behalf of the 100,000 Mennonite Brethren in his country when he said, “Thank you for giving us Jesus. He is our hope! He is our future!”
Called to suffer
Both Shakar Rao and Mukawa spoke to the fact that suffering is part of the MB identity. They noted that Jesus suffered on the cross, 16th century Anabaptists were martyred for their faithfulness, the first Mennonite Brethren were arrested and beaten for their convictions and that today Mennonite Brethren in India and Africa die because of persecution and poverty.
The message was clear. As history indicates, Mennonite Brethren followers of Jesus will need to be a people who suffer. Fortunately, as history also indicates, suffering has never hindered God’s work.
“Let’s fight the good fight and keep the faith even in pain and suffering,” Mukawa said, “That’s our calling. That’s our identity.”
Reports build on themes
Thursday, delegates heard reports from various ministries that built on key themes of the week.
While Mennonite Brethren history was highlighted primarily at the Renewing Identity and Mission consultation earlier in the week, Historical Commission chair Peter Klassen and executive secretary Abe Dueck spoke of the role history plays in building unity. “As we share our stories, we become one,” said Dueck, noting similarities between the history of communities in Europe and elsewhere.
As the Historical Commission works to maintain the denomination’s historical consciousness, “We must ask ourselves what is worth remembering, meaningful, relevant and useful for us today,” said Dueck.
Victor Wall, executive secretary for the International Community of Mennonite Brethren, spoke of the MB Church as a “global international church.” To be global is to be humble, he said. To be global is also to be generous. “We are there to bless and empower each other, to empower the nations,” said Wall, who brought greetings from 19 different MB Conferences around the world, some with more members than the U.S. and Canada combined.
Danisa Ndovu, Mennonite World Conference president and a Zimbabwean, also brought greetings. Noting that God is breaking down denominational walls, he said, “We need to see God working and to be involved.” We together need to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who was “not apologetic about the issues he addressed,” said Ndovu, “to confront the issues we face in this life, the forces that hinder us from seeing God as he is.”
“A story of mission”
MBMS International general director Randy Friesen told delegates, “The story of the MB family is a story of mission. Some have said Wycliffe lit a match, Luther lit a torch and Anabaptists lit a bonfire.”
Friesen spoke of the new MB movement’s first mission effort in India, initiated in 1889, and the start of a major work in DR Congo in 1912. These two countries now have the largest membership of all national MB Conference, and Congolese Mennonite Brethren have helped to establish a thriving church in next-door Angola.
Using an interactive world map, Friesen, Ray Harms-Wiebe, global program team leader, and other MBMSI workers took delegates “around the world in 80 minutes.” Their report highlighted the history, current workers and projects and the future vision in seven locations outside North America: Africa, specifically, Congo; Asia, specifically India and Thailand, Europe and Latin America.
Delegates heard how God is moving in southeast Asia, that West African Mennonite Brethren labor under great material needs, that Internet and media are proving to be productive ways to do missions, that personal evangelical outreach is effective and that church planting teams are active in many places. They heard about new initiatives to establish mission resource centers and training programs and to mobilize believers to be part of the church planting movement among Mennonite Brethren.
Friesen said today an average of 1,000 believers serve in short-term missions, and they all bring back stories about what God is doing. “You cannot come back the same person,” he said. Last year, MBMSI trained 33 new long-term missionaries for cross-cultural service; 20 are currently in training. Some of these trainees are currently working alongside domestic church planters “to find what it means to live and share the gospel,” said Friesen. “We are excited about that.”
Overall giving to MBMSI is up by about 40 percent over the past five years, said Friesen. “We are being stretched as a family to engage in global mission.”
“A perfect storm”
What Jack Falk, chair of the MB Biblical Seminary board, called, “a perfect storm of circumstances that made changes necessary,” is also challenging the MB family. The 55-year-old MB Biblical Seminary is the denomination’s school for theological graduate education with campuses in Fresno, Calif., in Langley, BC, with ACTS Seminary and in Winnipeg, Man., on the Canadian Mennonite University campus.
MBBS is no different from other seminaries and some colleges that have been forced to grapple with declining student populations and increased online learning, said Falk. In Canada, a MBBS task force has been working to strengthen the partnership with the ACTS consortium and to provide additional resources to the program at CMU.
In the United States, the MBBS Fresno campus has been transferred to Fresno Pacific University. “Fresno Pacific did not seek this out,” FPU president Merrill Ewert told the delegates. “We have partnered because we’re family. FPU has accepted the mission of the seminary. This isn’t just an expansion of the university.”
MBBS president Lynn Jost carries on as head of the seminary while other educational structures are being worked through in both countries. He will also serve as functional head of the Fresno program in the long term.
The MBBS presentation concluded with a ceremony awarding an honorary doctorate to David Manuel, a pastor currently serving South Abbotsford MB Church, in recognition of his decades of work in groundbreaking indo-Canadian ministry.
“We just speak about Jesus”
While the opening program featured speakers from two of the largest historic “harvest” areas, the Friday evening plenary speaker, a media evangelist known as the “Billy Graham of North Africa,” talked about a powerful response to the peaceful gospel in one of the ripest harvest fields in the world. His name is not being printed in order to protect his ministry.
“As Mennonite Brethren, we have a unique message,” he said, “a peaceful message. We don’t speak about Islam; we don’t speak about Mohammed; we just speak about Jesus. I talk about the light. I don’t have time to talk about the darkness.”
He told a story about a man who contacted him repeatedly wanting to know how he could change his religion. The speaker told him he couldn’t help. “I don’t have any religion,” he told the man. “If you want me to help you to have a relationship with God, then I can help you.”
“Say yes to God”
The response to this peaceful message in this part of the world is inspiring. Thousands come to Jesus every day, despite persecution. The underground church is growing so quickly that one house church leader complained about running out of room because of too many new believers every week.
“This time is the harvest time in North Africa and the Middle East,” the speaker said. “We need to use the time because one day we will lose it. The door is open for you and me to share the gospel with Muslims everywhere in the world.”
Then this media missionary challenged attendees to be available to God’s calling to mission. “Say yes to God,” he implored. “Anything God has done anytime, he can do it now. Anything God has done anywhere, he can do it here. Anything he has done with anybody, he can do with you.”
“Still work to be done”
Underscoring the mission-minded message, a variety of stories told of Mennonite Brethren who are saying yes to God and to the mission field in Kansas City, Mo., Sacramento, Calif., Moose Jaw, Sask., and Vancouver, BC.
“My mission in Kansas City and our mission in our every day lives is not over,” said Paul Bartel. “There’s still work to be done.”
Communion was a fitting close for the evening. After a week of remembering and celebrating, the Lord’s Supper served as reminder of the foundation of MB identity, the unity of the global MB body and the mission yet before the MB church. Conference executive directors Wiebe and Boschman, together with Wall of ICOMB led the communion service. They invited participants to pray in small groups for the unsaved.
Worship leader Johnny Markin and team sent attendees back to their mission fields in the U.S., Canada and across the world with a high-energy reminder of the source of salvation. Strains of “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus,” and “He is mighty to save, our God is mighty to save,” reverberated through the sanctuary.
Then a simple prayer served as both summary and sending for a people still on mission: “So, Lord, take us as you find us. We surrender. Amen.”
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