Mennonite Church USA’s MennoCon19 at Kansas City, Mo., was a reminder of who is still in the room after about a third of the denomination has exited.
MC USA has weathered a difficult transition with the withdrawals of North Central, Franklin, Lancaster and Southeast conferences. Both Indiana-Michigan and Ohio conferences are about half their previous sizes. Gulf States and Allegheny are much smaller than before.
Eastern District and Franconia are likely on track to become a reconciled conference by 2020. We will go from a denomination of nearly 100,000 members and 21 conferences to 16 and about 60,000.
But the tone of the gathering was anything but forlorn. While there were only about 2,800 people in attendance, this is still one of the largest Anabaptist gatherings in the world.
Worship was vibrant and evidence of our diversity, which in fracturing times is evidence of health and possibility. Rather than outside speakers, we heard from our own pastors and leaders. Their preaching was powerful. Maybe we moved toward some healing as we worshiped.
Merged adult and youth worship was life-giving. Unassigned table groups allowed us to find comfortable community together for delegate sessions. It was the smoothest conversation I’ve ever had at an MC USA convention. I didn’t leave the table frustrated but actually would have been glad to spend more time with my tablemates.
We included seminars on responses to sexual violence. There were hymn sings. A cluster of booths on issues of justice and peacemaking bore witness to the intersectionality of oppression and violence. The decision to invite youthful delegates permanently into our delegate body represents a shift to developing young leaders.
We easily passed a protest resolution on the abuse of child migrants by the U.S. government. Thanks be to God and to those who initiated the resolution.
We felt for the first time what it means to be led by a Generation X African-American executive director, Glen Guyton. He’s comfortable with selfies and singing Nirvana.
We are still struggling to find our way with membership guidelines and lingering discord around the space for LGBTQ people. Our conferences and congregations have discerned different paths. We may not yet be done fracturing.
One of the first words of welcome was to consider the time at Kansas City a family reunion. I found this a helpful frame. Family is fraught with all sorts of emotion. But when offered to the Spirit’s shaping, family — beyond biology — can be where we are formed together with all of our possibilities and quirks. It can become a place where we belong, come home, laugh, weep and breathe.
When we breathe together, we discover the Spirit who dwells in that shared air. We have been running hard, running scared, running after each other with weapons of our own theological correctness. I know MennoCon is still not yet a safe space for all of us.
MennoCon19 was a space to catch our collective breath. Now we can head back to the hard work of bearing witness in diverse contexts, knowing we’ll gather again soon to catch a glimpse of the eternal place with many rooms where we all belong. We’ll glimpse it again along the Ohio River at Cincinnati in two years — despite, and in some ways because of, our differences.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.