Elwood Yoder teaches history in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at Eastern Mennonite High School. Elwood has written seven books, including congregational histories and historical novels and is editor of Shenandoah Mennonite Historian.
Twenty years ago, I served as a delegate to the Orlando Mennonite Church General Assembly, held at the same place I represented my home congregation recently at the 2017 Mennonite Church USA Convention.
I experienced the two conventions as very different events. It felt like the wind was at my back in the 1997 Convention, but it seemed the wind was in my face in 2017.
About the only thing I disagreed with 20 years ago was giving up Gospel Herald and using The Mennonite as the name of the new joint denominational publication. In 1997, my wife and I took our three children along and they had a great time with a host of other kids. I recorded in my journal seeing over 700 youth respond to an altar call from evangelist Tony Campolo.
By contrast, it felt like I was pedaling into the wind during the 2017 Orlando Convention. When the Future Summit began, I sensed that Pink Menno supporters were lining up to speak during the open mic times. Along with articulate voices for the LGBTQ agenda during the Future Church Summit, I noticed a convention-wide emphasis on “dismantling patriarchy,” though I could never figure out exactly what that meant. By Friday evening of the Future Church Summit, I was frustrated, upset and I voiced my critical opinions to five adult family members who ate dinner with me.
It was coffee cup counsel from a wise senior member of Table #68, however, that helped get me through the Future Church Summit with a positive attitude. He patiently listened to my concerned comments about changes in the denomination and he encouraged me to speak and participate. Others around my table also listened well and spoke in supportive ways about the need for traditional churches like the one I represented to stay as part of the denomination.
At the outset of the second session of the Future Church Summit, the senior member of our group brought me a cup of Starbucks coffee, high octane and caffeinated, and something I very much needed. His kind gesture is what I will long remember from the Future Church Summit. It was a small deed, but so very powerful in expressing, without many words, that I was valued and that my more traditional views on matters of human sexuality were still welcome and needed in MC USA. He had listened to me, but he had also read my body language, I suspect, and judged my angst that came from listening to comments coming from speakers in the meeting hall.
When the opportunity came in our table discussion, I lamented my loss of friends and delegates from Lancaster and Franklin Conferences. I know many of those folks, both family and friends, and they were missing from the convention, leaving me in the position of holding some of the more conservative views at the Summit. While there was often applause for progressive opinions expressed in open mic times, the two or three conservatives who had the boldness to speak up received almost no response.
It’s the coffee cup gesture of affirmation that I won’t soon forget from Orlando 2017. I voted on a few delegate items that will quickly be forgotten, but it is the people at Table #68 and others in the World Café round-robin table discussions who listened to me and encouraged me, that I will long value and remember. I still feel like denominational winds are blowing in my face, especially as I try to communicate all this to my home congregation, but it’s the Starbucks gesture that encouraged me to keep pedaling.
Did you attend the Future Church Summit? Do you have a reflection to share? E-mail us your thoughts about this gathering: Editor@TheMennonite.org.