The road was thick with fog in the Nicaraguan mountains high above Managua on Sunday morning as we made our way to church in the tiny village of El Crucero. In fact, we heard the enthusiastic singing of the Ebenezer Mennonite congregation before we actually saw the church.
The building itself, home to a congregation of about 30 members, was under construction. A new roof spanned walls still awaiting windows and doors. But as my wife and I stepped inside, the thing we noticed first was not the sod floor or the plastic chairs. Rather, it was the children—nearly 50 smiling faces encircling the adults like a choir of angels.
Several years ago, the Ebenezer congregation began serving a meal each Saturday to the children of the neighborhood, followed by singing and Bible school activities. Gradually, some of the children attended church.
Today, the small congregation can expect to host anywhere from 40 to 60 children on a Sunday morning. During the sermon, sounds of their Sunday school program filtered in through the open windows. Afterward, they enjoyed a snack, stacked their chairs and played outside.
Though the story behind the Ebenezer congregation’s outreach to children may be unique, its experience points to a larger reality in the global church: in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the church is young. The Multi-Nation Anabaptist Profile—a 2010 survey of 12 church conferences affiliated with Eastern Mennonite Missions—provides some startling statistics.
Whereas the average age of members in Lancaster Mennonite Conference churches is 53, in eight of the other churches the average age is 38 or younger. And in the Meserte Kristos Church in Ethiopia, the largest Mennonite national church, the average age is only 32. In 11 of the 12 churches surveyed, two-thirds or more of the members are still within childbearing age (18-45), suggesting that children are going to be a central part of their ministry in the coming decades.
The consequences for Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and the global church are clear. First, the need for Christian education has never been more urgent. Traditionally, our mission agencies focused their attention primarily on Bible schools and seminaries.
In the meantime, however, many Mennonite churches around the world have begun to establish primary and secondary schools for their youth. As they seek help with curriculum and pedagogy, several fundamentalist Christian organizations have been quick to offer accreditation, with the expectation that the schools will formally adopt their curriculum and their confession of faith.
While it may be tempting for those of us who care about Anabaptist-Mennonite pedagogy to be critical from afar, the pressing question remains: What alternative do we have to offer? Could we imagine a global curriculum for Mennonite primary and secondary schools, shaped around the MWC Shared Convictions?
Alongside the challenge of Christian education, the youthful demographic of the global church also suggests new opportunities. Throughout the history of the Christian church, renewal movements have almost always been led by young people—emerging leaders who have caught a vision of the inherited tradition but are moved to recast the forms to better fit the context of their day.
To be sure, the spirits of renewal need to be continually tested and discerned. But a church that desires a future must entrust its young people with positions of responsibility and leadership, knowing that living traditions are always renewed at the cusp of generational transitions.
Following the service at Ebenezer, I spent some time in conversation with several children and young people. Why, I asked Benito, did he attend the congregation? His response was simple.
“I like to sing,” he said. “I like the stories at Sunday school and I feel safe here. Here the people are good to me.” Eventually, no doubt, Benito will discover even more reasons to be part of the people of God. But for now his answer seems like a good foundation to build on.
If he and the children in our congregations around the world continue to see their church as a place that enjoys singing, shares good stories from Scripture and provides a haven of safety and love, then the future of the church will be in good hands for the next generation.