Two years after deciding to end its membership in Mennonite Church USA, Lancaster Mennonite Conference is returning to the independence that has been the norm in its 300-year history.
Leaders of the Pennsylvania-based conference — with 179 congregations mostly in the Northeast but including some as distant as Oregon and Hawaii — are looking to the future with the hope of revitalizing its identity and mission, building on its strengths in church planting and ethnic diversity, and cultivating new relationships.
“I anticipate an emerging network of evangelical Anabaptist groups as we find ways to collaborate in the mission of God,” said moderator Keith Weaver, who responded to questions by email.
Lancaster officially leaves MC USA on Dec. 31. Most of its congregations have not participated in the denomination since 2015, when they were given two years to decide whether to go with Lancaster or MC USA.
Of the 17 congregations that undertook an extended discernment process, eight decided to remain with MC USA and transferred to Atlantic Coast Conference. Seven chose to remain with Lancaster, and two will make their decision by Dec. 31.
Lancaster’s departure from MC USA ends a 46-year period of affiliation. In 1971 it became a part of the Mennonite Church denominational structure. After the Mennonite Church merged with the General Conference Mennonite Church in 2001, Lancaster became a full member of the new denomination in 2004.
Connections old and new
Though controversies over sexuality and polity in the denomination made membership difficult at times for the conservative-leaning conference, Weaver cites benefits from Lancaster’s MC USA years.
“MC USA’s emphasis on missional church was an important influence on LMC and its leaders,” he said. “Over the same time LMC was pursuing that vision, we joined the new denomination as it was also emphasizing a missional vision. That proved to be a helpful reinforcement.”
Denominational controversies led to realignments that impacted Lancaster. In the past two years, the conference has received 29 new congregations, most from other MC USA conferences, and an immigrant congregation with no previous Mennonite connections. Nearby Franklin Conference, with 14 congregations, which had been part of MC USA, joined Lancaster as a district in September.
Now Lancaster is looking toward new relationships, particularly among groups that identify as evangelical Anabaptist. Denominations that fit this profile include the Mennonite Brethren and Conservative Mennonite Conference.
Lancaster has a close relationship with the 2-year-old Evana Network, an evangelical Anabaptist group that assists congregations with church development and starting new churches. Two of Evana’s board members are Lancaster leaders. Six Lancaster congregations have a formal association with Evana, and about a quarter of attendees at Evana’s recent pastors retreat were from Lancaster, according to Evana’s executive director, John Troyer.
Like other evangelicals?
The time of transition is an opportunity for renewal, conference leaders say.
“I think the biggest challenge LMC faces is our need for spiritual renewal,” Weaver said.
Steve Weaver, bishop of the LanChester, New Danville and Willow Street-Strasburg districts, sees a need for emphasis on Christian spiritual formation.
“We’re re-evaluating, primarily because we’re highly dissatisfied with the way the church is turning out in North America in comparison to other ages and times of the church,” he said.
He cited Jesus’ instruction from Matt. 5:48: “ ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ We write that off as first-century hyperbole, but what if he really meant it?”
He sees a need to teach “Christian ways of being” that set the church apart.
“One of the things the conference was noted for in the past was a form of discipleship that was expressed in plain dress,” he said. “In 1978, we set aspects of that aside as a defining characteristic, but we didn’t replace it with anything. . . . We said, ‘We’re just going to be like other evangelicals.’ . . . We sort of threw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Steve Weaver is looking back to the early pre-Christendom church and the framework of the historic creeds to reimagine a spiritual heritage.
“Our wealth and our materialism have gutted our spirituality,” he said. “. . . We’re weak and spiritually powerless because of our adoration of mammon.”
Leaders are praying for God’s direction and renewal.
“It’s a turbulent time, not unlike 500 years ago,” he said, referring to the Protestant Reformation. “This requires a great deal of humility.”
Keith Weaver also linked this time with humility.
“Anything positive I say about LMC may come across as arrogance,” he said. “The truth is that we are weak and in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace as we find our way in this unsettling hinge of history.”
A growing network
Church planting is a strength of Lancaster’s racial-ethnic congregations.
“Our Garifuna leaders are planting churches here in the U.S. and in Honduras. Vietnamese Mennonite Church is planting churches here and in Vietnam,” Keith Weaver said. “That doesn’t mean these are all LMC congregations, but an apostolic bond is always an important part of those relationships.”
Keith Weaver said the Spanish Mennonite Council of Churches, a Lancaster district, has reorganized into the Shalom Council of Churches, a network of Spanish-speaking congregations in the U.S., Mexico and other Latin American countries that will be included in the conference database and directory.
Shalom Council supervisor Samuel Lopez said the council was planning to send a missionary to Uruguay.
“That’s something beyond what we ever thought,” he said. “God is giving us a greater vision.”
Among the Hispanic churches, mission-mindedness is strong.
“We will continue to focus on proclaiming the centrality of Jesus Christ, [being] faithful disciples and followers of Jesus Christ [and having] a peace witness in political and racial tensions,” Lopez said. “From the Hispanic perspective, we are anticipating a better future, so we praise the Lord for that.”
Fourteen congregations in the Dominican Republic, planted by Eastern Mennonite Missions, have been requesting membership in the conference for five years. Keith Weaver isn’t sure how the conference will oversee congregations in another country, but they are finding a way.
“One expression of the new life we are seeing is the wonderful diversity emerging in LMC in that nearly one-third of our membership consists of majority nonwhite congregations,” he said.