Sessions during the 2018 National Convention blended worship, sharing, prayer and business. The convention theme, “Celebrating our diversity and unity,” was reflected in the variety of individuals who gave the opening and closing prayers at each session, shared testimonies and led in singing, as well as those who gave the five keynote addresses and guided the closing communion service. These individuals represented differences in gender, age, language, culture and area of service and ministry.
In a denomination that often lacks diversity among pastors and church leaders, the aspirations for unity and the intentional efforts to involve people of color and women in the program were for some a hopeful sign.
Hernandez: Embrace interdependence
The convention opened Thursday evening with an energetic and passionate challenge from Aaron Hernandez to be unified in diversity. Hernandez fluidly switched between English and Spanish, as he does every Sunday when preaching at the two USMB south Texas congregations he serves: Grace Point @ Grulla and Grace Point @ McAllen.
“I feel like I’m part of the family, not just someone who is here to speak,” Hernandez said, about his 12-year history with USMB.
He went on to highlight the importance of Christian unity and of remembering that we are part of something bigger—Christ’s body. Citing numerous New Testament passages, he listed three ways to bring about unity within the context of this diverse body: pray for unity, stay humble in diversity and embrace interdependence.
“We like to be autonomous,” said Hernandez. “But Paul says in the body, independence doesn’t exist. We have to be interdependent…. Every part in the body is necessary.”
To close his portion of the session, Hernandez asked the audience to find someone they did not know, to embrace and then to pray for one another. And as participants prayed, Hernandez simultaneously prayed for the entire group. The prayer time concluded with a song of praise that circled back to the idea of family: “I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.”
Bartel: Celebrate our heritage
The Friday morning message was given by Winnie Bartel, a conference and retreat speaker from Shafter, Calif., who served for many years as the USMB representative to National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), including as a member of the NAE Board of Directors.
Bartel’s message focused on celebration, particularly celebrating the global Mennonite Brethren church. “I have celebrated often that I am part of this incredible denomination and my prayer is that you will come to understand more fully what a heritage we have,” she said.
She shared three experiences as the USMB NAE representative that opened her eyes to the value Mennonite Brethren offer the world. From these stories, Bartel encouraged listeners to carry on the MB heritage, continue with the Bible as the central theme to our message and maintain the testimony of godliness by loving God and then loving everyone else.
“Our identity is in our faith in the midst of our diversity. We need to live out our faith like never before,” said Bartel. “My prayer for our conference is that we make knowing, seeing and experiencing God our number one priority in life.”
Nelson: From lost to found
Delegates traveled to South Mountain Community Church in Draper, Utah, for the Friday evening session that focused on church planting. After enjoying ice cream in the church lobby, delegates moved to the sanctuary for the evening session. The session began with SMCC pastor Paul Robie recounting the growth of a church plant begun in his home 20 years ago that now numbers 3,000 people worshiping on six campuses at five locations across Utah.
The nine-member SMCC Draper Campus worship team spread across the front of the stage as the musicians led in a time of singing that included four video testimonies from SMCC members. Eric Nelson, pastor of SMCC Lehi Campus, brought the message.
In his message, Nelson talked about the different ways individuals connect to a local church. “What moves someone from ‘no church’ to ‘my church’, from lost to found?” he asked. Citing the trio of stories in Luke 15, Nelson noted that “lost things are valuable things.”
“The one thing that unites and excites us is celebrating stories like the ones we heard tonight,” Nelson said, referring to the video testimonies shared earlier in the evening. U.S. Mennonite Brethren use diverse methods to reach the lost people in their communities, said Nelson, but are united by the search, by the lost being found—by seeing people go from “no church to my church, from cynical to disciple, from lost to found.”
The second half of the evening focused on C2C church planting reports.
Morris: God is up to something
Speaking Saturday morning from Revelation 5 and 7, USMB national director Don Morris challenged the audience to be “catalysts for a dynamic movement of God” and to “stop fussing over things that don’t matter.”
“We are a small denomination, but God is up to something in us,” said Morris, encouraging his listeners to pray and fast, to go deeper in their relationships with God and to remember that they will have a greater impact by working together. Morris closed by highlighting the picture in Revelation of a great and diverse multitude praising Jesus.
The last speaker was an individual who gives leadership to MB Mission’s Arabic Ministries team. For security reasons his name and a summary of his message will not be reported. After sharing many stories of God at work around the world, he concluded with an encouragement: “Anything God has done anywhere, he can do here (in the U.S.)”
Stories of God at work
Most sessions included a personal testimony and was another way in which event organizers helped to foster unity and connections among attendees. MB Mission Team 2000 member Andy Owen shared how God answered Owen’s prayer that he would be humble and hungry while his teammate Ricky Sanchez told of the miracles they have seen God work in the lives of the children in their orphanage, including curing them of being HIV positive. For those in the audience who remembered commissioning Team 2000 for ministry in Thailand, Owen’s and Sanchez’s testimonies were especially meaningful.
Sara Jo Waldron, youth pastor at Hillsboro (Kan.) MB Church, told of her prayer for “more of Jesus” and God’s answer to that prayer through Waldron’s friendship with a young woman who “didn’t need information—she needed intimacy and a relationship” and is now a disciple of Jesus.
Henock Tsegaye, pastor of Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church, Olathe, Kan., shared about the challenges he encountered immigrating to the United States just after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He told of God’s hand in leading him from California to Florida and then to Kansas in 2015. The Olathe congregation has outgrown its current meeting place, and Tsegaye requested prayer for their search for a new church facility.
Carlos Arcia, a pastor from southern Venezuela who was visiting Alberto Lopez, the campus pastor at SMCC-Internacional, one of the newest SMCC congregations, shared about the difficulties his country is facing. Arcia described the desperate conditions—food shortages, gasoline rations, inflation—and the challenges of being a pastor when attendees must walk many miles to attend church. The convention offering was designated for the church in Venezuela and delegates responded generously, giving more than $5,700 Saturday morning and in donations in the weeks following the convention.
While five different worship teams provided by the SMCC campuses led worship for each of the convention sessions, these times of worship provided a sense of unity, as did opportunities for prayer around tables and in small groups
The convention closed with a communion service led by Terry Hunt, North Carolina district minister; Larry Smith, pastor of West End MB Church in Lenoir, NC; Aaron Hernandez, USMB pastor and Latin America district minister; and Xavier Pina, pastor of Iglesia La Gran Comision, Hanford, Calif., and chair of the Pacific District Conference Hispanic Council. Participants were invited to visit one of several stations in the ballroom to pick up the bread and juice, to return to their seats to partake of the communion elements together.