Reviewing the July U.S. Conference National Convention held in Hillsboro, Kan., I have to say that I was encouraged. The focus on evangelism that emerged Saturday was inspiring. Convention speaker Dan Southerland urged congregations to point all of their ministries toward attracting the lost, and he didn’t play it safe when he suggested ways to do so. “Kill the ineffective part of your church calendar,” said Southerland. “If (activities) are not helping win people to Jesus Christ, kill them.”
Don Morris and his team of church planters told stories of seekers being drawn to Christ through new Mennonite Brethren church plant projects. Fresno Pacific University President Merrill Ewert told of students coming to faith. Randy Friesen, MBMS International general director, said that 35,000 people of the Khmu ethnic group in Laos “would call themselves Mennonite Brethren” and that “we are on the cusp of a significant move of God among Muslims in North Africa.”
I can’t imagine anyone who heard these stories could walk away from the National Convention without feeling excited—and just a little proud—of all that U.S. Mennonite Brethren are doing to bring people into God’s kingdom. And Southerland’s words should have inspired us all to rethink what we are or are not doing to be part of this movement to be new MBs—“Missionary Believers,” to borrow a suggestion from Ed Boschman, U.S. Conference executive director.
While convention planners will certainly consider this event a success, even the most successful event often prompts me to evaluate what I just experienced. Sometimes such reflection results in a critique, other times the event just gives me some things to mull over, and sometimes I do both. So here are three comments on the 2008 U.S. Conference National Convention.
1. This convention could very easily have had record-breaking attendance. It was held in Hillsboro, Kan., a central location in the Southern District Conference, which is the second largest regional conference. There are 10 Mennonite Brethren churches with a total of 3,093 members within 60 miles of Hillsboro. While all five districts were represented, the 315 delegates and guests came from only 59 of the 200 congregations that comprise the U.S. Conference.
While the directive to “build it and they will come” works great in the baseball movie Field of Dreams, it doesn’t work out very well for U.S. Mennonite Brethren conventions. No longer does just holding a convention automatically bring people to our field of denominational dreams. Should we keep doing conventions? My vote is that we continue holding these spiritual family gatherings. We say we are “one family” and organizing events that allow us to become acquainted is one way to make this claim a reality.
2. Mennonite Brethren are changing. We no longer engage in the governance process as early generations did, an interaction that was a hallmark of the denomination. We come to conventions to be encouraged, inspired and challenged. We entrust the men and women that we elect to the various Mennonite Brethren ministry boards to have done their homework and to bring good recommendations. We limit our discussion of business matters not because we are apathetic but because we want to keep things moving along.
Sometimes this approach works just fine. This summer delegates voted in favor of the recommended changes to the Memoranda of Understanding guiding the ownership and operation of MB Biblical Seminary, Kindred Productions and the Historical Commission and approved incorporation documents for MBMS International in Canada. These recommendations were affirmed without explanation and discussion.
While the changes for MBBS and the Historical Commission are minor, the Kindred Production memorandum said that the publishing ministry is closing its U.S. shipping office. This change will impact U.S. congregations and individuals that support Kindred Productions and I was surprised that delegates did not ask about this change.
You can attribute the delegates’ lack of interaction to a high degree of trust in our leaders to do the right thing. But I think we are better served when delegates show more curiosity about the recommendations they approve.
3. So if conventions should be characterized by meaningful discussions, what should the denomination talk about? What themes should emerge? The U.S. Conference Leadership Board has said that, “We partner as one family to serve one Lord on one mission, for the transformation of individuals, families and communities.”
While evangelism was clearly the focus of the 2008 convention, this new mission statement suggests additional areas that can be explored and celebrated at future conventions. The return of the national Board of Faith and Life is important to our future discussions. I hope that this board will engage convention delegates and also our congregations and leaders in discussions of the theological issues that surface when personal and corporate transformation happens.
Let’s agree to do a couple of things in 2010. We can start by taking seriously the invitation to attend the family gathering—plan now to be in British Columbia to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Come prepared to interact with each other on whatever theological issues and business matters are raised. And it will be OK if we don’t agree on every thing. Most of the time families don't.