Among several large Anabaptist conventions and assemblies in North America this year, the biggest was put on by a relatively small denomination.
The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, held its general conference — its first since 2003 — Nov. 17-20 in Tupelo, Miss.
About 10,000 members attended, representing nearly half of the 24,800 worldwide membership of the CGCM, commonly referred to as the Holdeman church.
Such a large number of visitors makes a significant impact. All hotels within a 90-mile radius of Tupelo were occupied.
“I don’t think they realized that when Mennonites put down a commitment and money, they show up,” said Shawn Giesel of the denomination’s Moundridge, Kan., office, who served as a conference planning liaison. “So they had a few problems with some overbooked hotels.”
The plain-dressing conservative group finds its roots with 19th-century Mennonite reformer John Holdeman of Ohio and encourages converts through robust publishing and tract ministries.
While nearly 16,000 baptized members are located in the U.S., the church counts a presence in almost 30 countries. For the Tupelo conference, members came from as far away as Nigeria, Haiti, Burkina Faso, China, Mexico, Myanmar, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines.
March of technology
They came to worship and discuss matters of doctrine and practice in sessions open to both ministry and laity.
“We discussed in particular how to deal with the challenges of entertainment — via the Internet, the smartphone — how to deal with those as Christians and keep our focus where it should be,” Giesel said.
Technology has moved at a rapid clip since the church’s last general conference in 2003 in Wichita, Kan. Internet users are required to use filtered services, but accountability to God and each other is still necessary.
“That’s where our concern lay, that we don’t rob time from our family and the Lord, that time use is productive and constructive and is a blessing to us and others,” Giesel said.
Photography and its implicit vanity have traditionally been avoided, but technology has changed even humble occupations like manufacturing and construction. Dale Koehn, a minister at Gospel Mennonite Church in Moundridge, said inspectors and municipalities have been increasingly requiring images of construction sites, leading some Holdeman to comply, despite the concern that they were at odds with church teaching.
“We don’t regard it as a law in legal terms, but by adjusting the wording of our decisions, it just gives us the freedom to operate in a more realistic way,” Koehn said.
Giesel agreed that photography is a widely used tool in today’s business world.
“There has been tacit approval for some years that there are legitimate uses of photography for business purposes, and that was approved at this conference,” he said.
Another significant discus-sion, Giesel said, involved materialism and affluence and finding our place as disciples of Jesus Christ in the New Testament teachings about the pursuit of wealth and accumulation of riches.
Unity of the Spirit
Every member of the church, male and female, has a vote in every decision, and couples sit together during the conference. Official delegates — men who are ordained ministers and elders — take an initial vote that is then followed by a general vote.
Koehn said “the warmth of the fellowship and unity” was shared by everyone present, and consensus is pursued with discussion before any vote. The general votes typically do not differ from the delegate votes, and Koehn couldn’t recall an issue in the last several conferences that was tabled due to disagreement.
“As we feel the unity of the Holy Spirit, we will understand it the same,” he said. “If a clear consensus isn’t emerging, maybe it needs more consideration, more time or thought and prayer.”
This year, the conference found consensus on insurance coverage.
“There was an acknowledgement that in today’s economic world there are moderate levels of insurance Christians can employ and still have their trust in God,” Giesel said.
Farming increasingly requires crop insurance, and farmers felt pulled in two directions — either follow their church or follow their livelihood. Koehn said the focus is to keep reliance on God but allow space for agricultural producers to operate in today’s economy.
“Government involvement mandates insurance coverage of things that formerly we tried pretty hard to stay away from,” he said.
Both men were deeply impressed with the contributions and involvement of youth (age 16 to mid-20s). About 2,500 youth attended the conference, taking an active role in discussions and voting. There was no youth programming.
“They behaved themselves beautifully; it was inspiring,” Giesel said. “One evening they got all 2,500 of them, and they all sang for us for 30 minutes. It was a cappella and amazing.
“I wish the whole city of Tupelo could have listened to that. That represented at least half or more of the total youth population in North America.”
Their participation was a spiritually moving experience for many attendees.
“The decisions of photography and entertainment probably affected them more than anyone else in the audience,” Giesel said. “And as we scanned the audience when the resolutions were being passed, they were voting just as strongly as anyone else.”
Among the resolutions passed, the CGCM decided to hold general conferences more regularly and more often. Conferences will begin taking place every seven years.