This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Lancaster Conference begins new era

EAST EARL, Pa. — Lancaster Mennonite Conference, newly independent from Mennonite Church USA, is rebranding to highlight its growing geographical reach.

Moderator Keith Weaver, in his State of the Conference Address on March 24 during LMC’s annual assembly, said the executive council had approved a “name adaptation” to “LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches.”

Attendees receive communion at Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s Celebration of Church Life on March 23-24 at Weaverland Anabaptist Faith Community in East Earl, Pa. — Jonathan Charles for MWR
Attendees receive communion at Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s Celebration of Church Life on March 23-24 at Weaverland Anabaptist Faith Community in East Earl, Pa. — Jonathan Charles for MWR

“LMC is transitioning into something other than a neatly defined geographical conference,” he said, noting that for several years, conference leaders had received requests from members outside Pennsylvania to drop the “Lancaster” name.

“It’s a way of the Spirit saying, ‘You need to rethink who you are,’ ” he said.

More than 500 people attended LMC’s annual Celebration of Church Life on March 23-24 at Weaverland Anabaptist Faith Community.

The conference welcomed 54 congregations, bringing the total to 218. Among the additions are a cluster of 14 congregations from the Dominican Republic; 13 from the former Franklin Conference, now the Franklin District of LMC; and several Spanish-speaking congregations from Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua and the United States.

Besides Pennsylvania, U.S. states with LMC congregations include Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Hawaii.

According to Weaver, 44 percent of LMC congregations are majority non-white.

“Praise the Lord for that. I think that’s the way we need to go,” he said.

Weaver said LMC continues to receive inquiries from congregations and clusters of congregations seeking affiliation.

Legally, LMC’s name will remain Lancaster Mennonite Conference.

In an interview, Weaver said the rebranding was not a move away from Mennonite understandings of faith.

“We’re very clear about our theological identity,” he said.

In his address, Weaver said LMC was applying for membership in Mennonite World Conference.

“I anticipate LMC will be received as a member of Mennonite World Conference,” he said, adding he would be present at MWC’s General Council meetings in Kenya on April 23-26. “We don’t want to be an isolated community. We have these wonderful global connections.”

Other relationships

Earlier in the day, Weaver invited Steve Swartz, conference pastor of Conservative Mennonite Conference, and John Troyer, executive director of the evangelical Anabaptist Evana Network, to introduce themselves.

“We look forward to walking with you further as likeminded brothers and sisters in the Lord,” Swartz said.

Troyer said this was his third time at LMC’s Celebration of Church Life.

“You’ve been an important part of who we are, and we hope to continue to be part of who you are in so many ways,” he said.

In his address, Weaver mentioned LMC’s relationship with MC USA, since the conference officially separated from the denomination at the end of 2017. He said MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman had arranged a meeting between leaders of the two organizations.

“In that meeting, we expressed our desire to pray for each other and to share with each other what the Spirit is doing in our churches,” Weaver said. “. . . In the days ahead, if you think about MC USA, pray for MC USA as part of the body of Christ.”

Teaching new believers

The event’s theme, taken from Isaiah 61, was “Rebuild. Repair. Revive.” An emphasis was catechesis — faith formation for new believers preparing for baptism.

Bishop Stephen Weaver facilitated a workshop on the catechesis practiced by the early church and by many churches in the Global South today. Taking information from The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider, Stephen Weaver outlined a three-year process that new believers underwent to form a “visible righteousness,” which included meeting frequently, corporate prayer, memorizing Scripture, visiting those in need, careful discernment of how much to participate in the world, maintaining sexual purity and facing death without fear.

“When I read [Kreider’s] book, I was cut to the heart,” Stephen Weaver said.

During the three-year catechesis process, the candidates for baptism were expected to learn first to imitate Christ, then to acquire knowledge about doctrine and afterward to pursue inner healing and freedom from the influences of demons. Each year had an exam at the end, which the candidate could fail and be required to repeat the entire year before moving on.

“This is not abstract; this is tearing very much at the fabric of our heart,” Stephen Weaver said. “. . . [But] this is all bathed and immersed in love for God, intimacy with God. If we try to do this in the flesh, we will create a legalistic monster.”

Stephen Weaver is working on a document that will become a basis for a three-year process churches can use today.

Surrendering to Jesus

In another workshop, Pastor Jeff Linthicum of First Mennonite Church in Berne, Ind., a recent addition to LMC, shared the story of how he found Christ later in life and eventually became a pastor. He realized there were many people in his congregation who said they were pressured into baptism by their parents as a cultural rite of passage rather than a statement of their own commitment to Christ.

“We were getting people wet who had not surrendered their lives to Jesus,” he said. “. . . I said, ‘We need to change what we’re doing.’ ”

He formulated a nine-month catechism class held every two years for the eighth- and ninth-graders, culminating in a summertime trip to Lancaster so the youth could learn about their Anabaptist identity.

For adults, a shorter trip to the Menno-Hof Amish-Mennonite Information Center in Shipshewana, Ind., was substituted.

“We can no longer assume that discipleship is happening in the home,” Linthicum said. “The biblical literacy that used to be very high, at least in our community, is now very low.”

In an interview, Keith Weaver said LMC wants to be a resource for congregations in their mission.

“Our hope is that we can help every congregation answer the question: ‘To whom is the Holy Spirit sending you today?’ ” he said, adding that this will involve engaging the local community.

The first priority, he said, is healthy spirituality.

“All of this other stuff is secondary to our spiritual vitality,” he said.

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