New congregations in Mennonite Church USA tend to emerge from an internal pattern. A congregation or conference will discern a need for a church plant and allocate resources to the task.
But every once in a while, a congregation forms on its own and appears on a conference’s doorstep virtually unannounced.
Conference minister Doug Luginbill of Central District Conference was surprised when a congregation in Michigan reached out to him about just such a possibility.
“I had never heard of them,” he said of Grand Rapids Mennonite Fellowship, a house church that came together in 2018. “They had familiarized themselves with Mennonite Church USA, done their homework and discerned what conference they wanted to affiliate with.”
GRMF came together when five initial families spent time getting to know each other and determined they would like to gather weekly as a small group with a shared meal.
“We didn’t all know each other, but there were relationships in the five families,” said Alaina Dobkowski, one of the group’s three lay leaders. “It was mainly spearheaded by two families, Susan and Chip Kragt and Beth and Seth Caldwell, who were members of West Philly Mennonite in Philadelphia.
“My husband and I knew that couple from living in Philadelphia years ago. The wives had roots back in Michigan and moved back to be with family. My introduction to Anabaptism was in Philly. That’s kind of where the idea of Anabaptism being the focus of this community came together.”
Before pandemic measures shifted gatherings online, a typical service would include singing, Scripture and reflection at two homes of families who live next to each other. A few adults would then lead a children’s lesson and activities at one house, followed by a shared potluck meal together.
“We have a lot of young kids, so the opportunity to split up and navigate some of those practical things is really helpful,” Dobkowski said. “Even if one family can’t host one, the other one can.
“Having a meal together every week is a sacred thing we all value and appreciate. We try to keep it simple.”
Early encouragement and support came from Will and Beth Fitzgerald, who at the time were pastoring Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship about an hour to the south. With that church being part of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, the Grand Rapids group faced a decision not only about joining MC USA but also which conference to join.
Dobkowski attended Mennonite Mission Network’s 2019 SENT church-planting conference in Denver, which provided other insights.
“That was really helpful, because that was before we had a church conference,” she said. “We were still in a ‘who we are’ phase. It was helpful for me to think about it as a church plant, because we don’t really use that language.”
GRMF also got to know MC USA through the Pathways Study Guide distributed in 2018 as part of the Journey Forward renewal process and Future Church Summit at the 2017 convention in Orlando, Fla. While the summit and study guide were intended to stimulate internal conversation for member congregations around shared values and dreams for the denomination’s future, it proved just as helpful for this “outsider” group.
“It was really focused on getting to the roots of what Mennonite Church USA was about, getting back to the basics,” Dobkowski said. “That helped us learn more about Mennonite Church USA as well as think through who we were and help us decide if this was a good fit.”
Luginbill appreciated the study GRMF put into not only MC USA but also which conference would be the best fit. As an “emerging congregation,” they bring something new to Central District, which is more accustomed to being made up of well-established congregations.
As part of the conference’s two-year process for churches to join, GRMF was introduced at Central District’s annual meeting in June, and delegates will vote on membership at next year’s annual meeting.
“I think they bring a real commitment as adults who have come to Anabaptism,” Luginbill said. “They bring commitment to Anabaptist values and perspectives.
“They bring energy. It’s always exciting when someone wants to join you. There’s excitement across the conference that a congregation wants to join us.”
It’s also raising new questions, such as how to be hospitable to new kinds of faith communities.
“In some ways COVID has forced us to think about that in new ways with technologies as people all over the country and the world are tuning into local congregations,” Luginbill said. “Perhaps the Spirit is inviting us and bursting our bubbles to think of how church can be in new ways. As conferences open up to that possibility, we will discover new things.”
One of the ways to think about church in new ways is to not think of every small, young congregation as a “church plant.” In this case, the label doesn’t fit because a plant’s life depends on growth.
Dobkowski isn’t opposed to growing joyfully if other people in Grand Rapids have an interest in the fellowship, but that isn’t the primary goal.
“We’re not particularly focused on growth; our mission purpose is to be Jesus-centered,” she said. “That’s at the core of who we are, and if that means we’re small or more people want to be a part of that, we’ll welcome it and go along for the ride.
“We really want to be a place people can find peace, find healing, find a connection to God and Christ and know they are loved and welcomed into a community.”