Facing head-on the quest for unity
It takes little to convince a pastor in Missouri to go to a conference in British Columbia in the middle of July. (Currently, I’m trying to avoid the 112-degree heat index.) Being highly committed to our denominational as a family and as a theological tradition, I was excited to celebrate our 150th anniversary. So it only heightened my excitement to go to a world-class city like Vancouver to celebrate.
“Life Transformation” was the theme of the U.S. portion of the conference, but the theme pervaded all portions of the conference. It was exciting to hear stories of life transformation among our North American churches and around the world. To hear that God is working through our brothers and sisters in churches across the world is incredibly exciting. It also serves as a reminder that God is constantly in the business of transforming people’s lives and will continue to change people’s lives—but has invited us to join faithfully in the mission.
Yet a theme that resonated with me had to do with unity as a denomination. If our mission is to be one family on one mission with one Lord, then what is it that actually unifies us? Is it the fact that we are one organization? Or that we meet together every two years to remind ourselves we are one? Is there something more that brings us together?
It seems that the question of oneness (or unity) is the overwhelming question presently facing our denomination. As a denomination with an Anabaptist tradition valuing the autonomy of the local church, American MB churches have theological views, worship practices and church structures of all varieties. Moreover, in attempts to become more palatable and understandable to the culture, many MB churches have taken the “MB” out of their names. Some have even purged themselves of any “Mennonite Brethren” language or associations, choosing other evangelical institutions, missions organizations and associations over our own denomination’s.
As a denominational family, we find ourselves at a crossroads organizationally and theologically. It was encouraging to see at this conference several examples of our leadership’s attempt to face this reality head-on. The Renewing Identity and Mission consultation at the start of the week focused on looking at key theological, cultural and practical issues that face the MB church in North America and how we Mennonite Brethren respond to them.
During the U.S. Conference convention, we spent part of an afternoon reviewing our Confession of Faith, voting on our faithfulness to living it out and on whether or not we should review certain articles—all with ultra-fun, real-time voting machines. The decision to bring all the district ministers onto the Board of Faith and Life also shows our commitment to find some theological unity among our churches.
Personally, I was excited to see during Experience Vancouver that the powerful church planting efforts within the British Columbia Conference have been wildly successful while continuing to maintain a strong MB denominational identity. At one stop, we heard church planters talk about their strong connections to MBMS International and Mennonite Disaster Service, as well as their excitement to be the first MB chaplains at a local university.
There is something vitally important about having unity as a denomination and about having a strong denominational identity that goes beyond our last names. Our leadership has clearly identified this, accentuated in our mission statement. But with a lack of unity in theology, worship practices and church structures and with fractured commitments to our organizations and institutions among our local churches, we certainly have a long way to go.
It seems the next step as a denomination is to clearly identify what it is that does unify us. To do this we need to address the many elephants in the denominational room, among others whether peacemaking is a fundamental theological value and whether we really trust and support our seminary.
Just as God, throughout history, remains at work among a frail and fragile people, our family continues to grow even while we experience these growing pains. This is the beauty of the gospel and of God’s grace. As we continue to seek to be one family with one Lord on one mission, may we seek to do so with clear communication and healthy conflict as we work out our identity and mission together.