As a year ends, we look back on where we’ve been and anticipate what’s next. Let’s consider not just one year but decades in the history and the future of one part of the Anabaptist world.
In the Dec. 22 edition of AW, J Robert Charles imagines how he might explain today’s Mennonite Church USA to a “Mennonite Rip Van Winkle” who fell asleep in 1983 and knew nothing of events since then. The passage of 40 years makes 2023 a convenient bookend for an era that began with predictions of greater Mennonite unity.
1983 was the year people began to talk in earnest about uniting the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church. Their first joint convention, at Bethlehem, Pa., that summer, featured “a chorus of voices for unity,” the MC magazine Gospel Herald reported.
An MC-GC merger indeed happened around the turn of the century. For some, this was a dreamed fulfilled. Yet it has become a dream diminished, because so many have dropped out.
At the 2023 MC USA convention in Kansas City, Mo., delegates heard executive director Glen Guyton quantify the losses since the merger: from 21 conferences to 16, from 840 congregations to 509, from 113,000 members to about 50,000. Two weeks later, those numbers were already out of date, as another conference, South Central, with 30 congregations, withdrew.
How then shall we judge the MC-GC union 40 years after Bethlehem ’83?
To acknowledge that the merger has been a disappointment numerically is not to say it was a mistake. The splintering along theological and cultural lines — focused most specifically on disagreement about LGBTQ affirmation — is not due to the merger but to change in the church and society that has happened more quickly than people expected 40 or even 20 years ago. (In 1983, the GC magazine The Mennonite reported that MC moderator Ross Bender said “homosexuals at Bethlehem felt ‘hated.’ ” In 2022, MC USA delegates approved an LGBTQ-affirming resolution.)
In a scenario without a merger, one can imagine two denominations splintering. (Church leaders used to say the differences within each denomination were greater than the differences between them.) In this alternate history, there might have been a migration of conservative GC congregations to the Mennonite Church and liberal MC congregations to the General Conference Mennonite Church.
If that had occurred, separate MC and GC denominations might have more reason to exist today than they did in 1983. In the Sept. 6, 1983, Gospel Herald, a Mennonite college student wrote that she and her friends (who would be in their 60s today) didn’t recognize any difference between MCs and GCs.
But more important than what might have been is what’s next in the real world. What will North American Anabaptism, not just MC USA, look like 40 years hence?
In the Aug. 2, 1983, edition of The Mennonite, historian John S. Oyer (1925-1998) imagined three possible scenarios for the next 100 years of Mennonite history.
n Scenario A was a continuation of “absorption by the larger society,” in which increasing secularism “will so dilute Mennonitism that scarcely any of it can survive.”
n Scenario B was “the West turns totalitarian,” which Oyer believed presented “a better chance of survival” because historically Mennonites have withstood the pressure of nations that offered their own religions and ideologies as supreme.
n Scenario C was “Mennonites take seriously their special calling among Christians.” The key to this outcome, Oyer believed, was a church in which “the individual will again be subordinate to the group,” because “only such a group-church can be attractive enough to invite and hold those restless spirits that are weary of Western materialism.”
How does our reality compare with Oyer’s scenarios? Secularism has picked up speed; is our faith diluted? Denominational loyalty is waning; do we feel a special calling as Anabaptists? Churchgoing has declined; what’s attractive about us? Was Oyer right that suppressing individualism is the key to relevance? How do we embody the message of Jesus Christ?