Photo: Research associate and church members from Brethren in Christ Ibandla Labazalwane kuKristu eZimbabwe travel together for GAP.
The results of the recent Global Anabaptist Profile (GAP), a three-year survey of 24 member conferences of Mennonite World Conference (MWC), are cause for celebration: the church is growing and the gospel is spreading – and the churches of the Global South are the primary witnesses. The survey confirms that MWC’s growth is predominantly to be found in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, the GAP provides church leaders with the most comprehensive portrait of MWC member churches to date. Twenty-four MWC member conferences from five continents were selected for participation in the profile. Conference leaders appointed a Research Associate to conduct the survey in their respective churches.
In 2013, these Research Associates met together with GAP directors John D. Roth (Goshen (Indiana) College) and Conrad Kanagy (Elizabethtown (Pennsylvania) College to determine their research approach. Together, the group formulated a significant portion of the questionnaire, organized around the seven Shared Convictions of MWC, with additional questions on demographics and specific beliefs and practices. The resulting questionnaire was then translated from English into 26 languages, followed by back-translation into English for purposes of comparison and accuracy.
Research Associates began their work in 2013, generally travelling in person to the selected congregations to explain the GAP, implement the survey and conduct interviews. Research Associates reconvened in 2015 to share their experiences and initial findings. In the intervening year, Kanagy (who has extensive experience in carrying out other church member profiles) spearheaded an analysis of the composite data from all participating conferences. The resulting profile is based on 18,299 individuals representing 403 congregations.
“[The GAP] was a massive effort,” said Kanagy. “To have accomplished this in three years is a credit to God’s grace and amazing efforts by many.”
Who are the member churches of MWC?
The conclusions of the GAP, to be published in full later this year, identify certain areas of significant commonality within the global church, as well as highlighting major differences. Overall, the survey found that the differences between the churches of the “Global North” (North America and Europe) and those in the “Global South” (Latin America, Africa, and Asia) are more important than differences related to denominational affiliation.
- The average age of a respondent in the GAP survey is 46 years. Among continents, however, there is substantial variation; North American and European church members are nearly a decade older on average than members in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Furthermore, 54 percent of members in the Global South are between the ages of 18 and 45. A concentration of members in this range predicts future church growth, since this is the range in which people bear and raise children. In the Global North, just 34 percent of members are of childbearing age.
- On a global scale, GAP respondents were evenly divided between men and women. Respondents were more likely to be female in Latin America and Europe, and more likely to be male in Africa and Asia. In Africa, however, these rates were almost certainly affected by higher illiteracy rates among women. Despite efforts by Research Associates to accommodate church members who were unable to read, illiterate women were often unable to complete the survey.
- Sixty-two percent of all GAP respondents live in a rural area. However, continental differences are again important. Nearly 90 percent of Asian respondents and close to two-thirds of Africans live in rural communities, while European and Latin American church members are more likely to live in urban areas.
- There are striking educational disparities among MWC groups surveyed, a factor underscoring much of the social and economic disparity present within the global church. In the Global South, educational levels remained fairly consistent, with between 46 and 58 percent of church members graduating from high school. In the Global North, that range jumps to between 78 and 93 percent.
- The average age of conversion among GAP respondents is 19 years. North American respondents had the lowest age of conversion at 14 years of age, while Latin Americans had the highest at 23 years. Differences regarding age of conversion can reflect evangelistic activity: newer churches tend to be more active in attracting adult members from outside the church, resulting in a higher average age. Older churches more often rely on conversions of children and youth within the church, pushing the average age lower.
- Many of the respondents are relatively recent Christians, with Latin America at the epicentre of this growth. Sixty-five percent of Latin American respondents have converted since 1991. In Africa, 54 percent of members have become Christians within the past 25 years. Meanwhile in North America, only 22 percent of respondents had converted since 1991. This finding helps to explain the remarkable growth within conferences in the Global South during the past 25 years, particularly in Latin America and Africa.
What are their beliefs and practices?
Some beliefs and practices – many of them core Anabaptist Christian convictions – are almost universal among GAP respondents. For example, 94 percent of respondents claim that it is very important to be born again, and 91 percent identify Jesus as the only way to God. Similarly, the vast majority of respondents identify the Bible as the Word of God.
There is also a noticeable wariness regarding military service. Seventy-six percent of respondents, if faced with obligatory military service, would either refuse to serve or would select non-combatant military service. In the Global North and the Global South, a nearly identical percentage – 61.9 percent and 62 percent respectively – would choose conscientious objection.
But the survey also reveals points of major difference. Overall, there are greater differences between the Global North and the Global South, but denominational and continental differences are also present. For example, awareness of Mennonite World Conference – the body that draws each of these conferences into active relationship with the others – diverged along both regional and denominational lines. Fifty-five percent of those in the Global South express awareness of MWC, compared to 75 percent of Global North respondents. By denominational affiliation, 66 percent of Brethren in Christ are aware of MWC, 76 percent of Mennonite Brethren, and 46 percent of Mennonites.
When examined in greater depth, even some of the commonly shared beliefs and practices reveal shades of difference. For example, although the majority of respondents claim the Bible as the Word of God, 55 percent of respondents from Africa, Asia and Latin America add that the Bible should be taken literally. Only 20 percent of North American or European respondents shared this view (74 percent of respondents in the Global North favored “interpreting the Bible in context”).
Furthermore, different regions identify more strongly with certain portions of Scripture. While Europeans and North Americans find the New Testament to be the most relevant for them, only 28 percent of those in Asia, Africa and Latin America said the same. Instead, respondents in the Global South were more likely to identify both Old and New Testaments as relevant.
Charismatic gifts are also more common among those respondents in the Global South. Eighty-four percent of those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have prophesied, spoken in tongues, been miraculously healed or involved in liberation from demonic oppression, compared to 31 percent of those in Europe or North America.
The Global North and Global South should not be seen as homogenous groupings, however, as there are also important regional differences. Africans and Asians, for example, were most likely to have experienced liberation from demonic oppression, while 56 percent of Latin Americans have been miraculously healed from an injury or illness.
Personal evangelism, a strong characteristic of the early Anabaptists, similarly varies. Whereas 51 percent of African respondents speak of their faith to people outside of their family and church circles at least once a week, only 13 percent of Europeans do the same. Thirty-three percent of Asians and 26 percent of Latin Americans invite non-Christian friends to church on a weekly basis, compared to only 9 percent of North Americans.
The GAP suggests that personal evangelism is a regular practice among many in the Global South, but a relatively rare exercise for those in the Global North.
What does the data tell us?
What accounts for these differences? MWC members all read the same Bible, but we interpret it differently and find differing degrees of relevance in its various parts. We all claim the presence of the Holy Spirit among us, but experience very different manifestations of that same Spirit. We have all joined the same peace church tradition, but military service or policing roles are alternatively tolerated or resisted. We have all received the good news, but some are much more likely to evangelize than others.
Some Research Associates responded to the differences they saw in the GAP results with anecdotal explanations. When faced with a divisive civil war, for example, the Convención de Iglesias Evangélicas Menonitas de Nicaragua developed a strong stance against military service that has survived to this day. “We recognized that we would be killing other brothers in the church,” said Marcos Orozco. “We were clear that we couldn’t do this.” African and Asian associates testified to the reality of ancestor worship in their contexts as an influence in their reliance on Old Testament passages addressing similar practices.
Yet, the particular dynamics of each conference’s context do not fully explain why so many of the significant differences emerging in the GAP data fall along divide between the Global North and the Global South.
The destructive socioeconomic and political implications of this divide are writ large in our world, and, at times, they are reflected within the church. In this sense, the data from the GAP survey is a call to repentance. But it is equally an invitation to wonder and praise for the different ways the gospel is inculturated in each context. And at its core, it is a unique opportunity for greater unity within Mennonite World Conference.
Research Associates repeatedly affirmed their appreciation for the sense of unity they gained through their participation in the GAP. Regina Mondez of the Integrated Mennonite Churches of the Philippines reflected, “I appreciate that despite different languages and cultures, the numbers communicate [a unity] across culture in ways that words could not.”
Marcos Orozco agreed, summarizing the GAP’s six-point purpose statement in one succinct sentence. “We need to learn from the experiences of other brothers and sisters in the global church family, recognizing that we each have strengths and weaknesses that we need to reinforce and improve.”