Representatives of Brethren groups from around the world did more than shake hands July 26-29 at the Seventh Brethren World Assembly in Elizabethtown, Pa., and Philadelphia.
About 175 members of eight groups from the United States, Nigeria and Rwanda met around the theme “Brethren Faithfulness: Priorities in Perspective.” BWA brings together the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptist-Pietist movement that began in 1708 near the German village of Schwarzenau (see sidebar).
The first three days of the assembly were held at Elizabethtown College. Saturday’s events moved to Germantown, the Philadelphia neighborhood that is home to the oldest Brethren congregation in North America, organized in 1723.
This assembly had a historical focus, with reflection on 300 years of Brethren church life in America and a century of witness in Nigeria. Nigeria is home to Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria, or EYN, which counts at least 750,000 members in Nigeria and more in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, making it the largest Anabaptist church body in the world.
The purpose and structure of BWA are different from Mennonite World Conference assemblies.
Among BWA’s roots is one reaching back to Church of the Brethren leader M.R. Ziegler. Ziegler observed that churches often found it easier to talk with Christians on the other side of the world than with congregations across town with whom they or their forebears had split. He believed the health of both kinds of relationships was inextricably linked.
In the early 1970s, he invited representatives of various Brethren traditions in the U.S. to meet, with a modest agenda of simply shaking hands. Building on that “handshake meeting,” Brethren historian Donald Durnbaugh organized the first BWA in 1992.
Held every five years since, the assemblies have brought together diverse Brethren groups for worship, conversation and learning. There is no formal business or decision-making, and no continuing offices. The focus is on relationship-building. (Other gatherings focus on nurturing international connections, such as the Church of the Brethren Global Communion, whose national bodies met in 2022 in the Dominican Republic, and Charis Global Alliance of Churches, which gathered early this year in Kenya.)
Worship featured sermons by Dave Guiles of Charis Fellowship; Samuel Dali, former president of EYN; Michael Miller, an elder in the Old German Baptist Brethren–New Conference; and Richard Kyerematen, pastor of Germantown Church of the Brethren. A native of Ghana, Kyerematen has led that congregation’s transformation from being known mostly for its historic building to being a center of outreach in a neighborhood that is largely African-American and Afro-Caribbean.
A panel discussion on Brethren ordinances explored similarities and differences among the six represented groups. The practice of trine-immersion baptism and a lovefeast that includes footwashing, a shared meal and the bread and cup of communion all stem from the early Pietist concern for the renewal of worship.
Church of the Brethren pastor Bob Kettering said the lovefeast symbolizes the inseparable connection between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of faith. While participation in the lovefeast is universal among Old German Baptist Brethren members, pastors in more assimilated traditions often find half or fewer of their members participating.
Steve Cole, executive director of the Brethren Church, noted that due to “the intimacy and connection of footwashing, we struggle with that in this country, with our individualism and resistance to admitting we need help.”
Dialogue between tradition and innovation surfaces in Old Order groups, too. Robert Matthews, an Old German Baptist Brethren elder, explained his firm conviction that baptism take place outdoors in flowing water but also shared a recent situation in which he baptized a man with advanced multiple sclerosis, necessitating use of an indoor tank with heated water.
Friday Afternoon featured a celebration of EYN’s centennial. Given the group’s historic concentration in northeastern Nigeria, it was at the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency that targeted Christians and conventional Muslims beginning in 2011. At least 8,000 EYN members were killed in the ensuing violence, several thousand more kidnapped, tens of thousands displaced and hundreds of church buildings burned.
EYN’s nonviolent response and care for both Christian and Muslim victims has raised its profile in Nigeria, as other religious leaders see the EYN response as unusual. EYN President Joel S. Billi said the suffering in northeastern Nigeria continues, though it has dropped out of most Western headlines. “Pray for us as we are determined to embrace the Bible with two hands . . . to turn the other cheek and go the second mile,” he said.
Samuel Dali, EYN’s immediate past president, said Boko Haram actions intended to crush the church resulted instead in its growth. There were 50 regional EYN church councils in 2011; today there are 64.
Concluding with a reference to John 17 and Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, Dali urged those present to grasp a common purpose: “If we are divided, who will believe that God makes us one?”