This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Mysterious initials

There’s nothing sacred about the word “Mennonite.” Nor is it anything to be ashamed of. Somewhere between those extremes is a venerable religious identity with a rich history, many positive connotations and few negative ones.

Not everyone loves the name. This year, two denominations have distanced themselves from it. Lancaster Mennonite Conference and Conservative Mennonite Conference have decided they prefer to be known by their initials rather than their full names.

There was more to these decisions than downplaying “Mennonite.” For LMC, geography was an issue. Some thought the name of a county in Pennsylvania wasn’t a good fit anymore for a conference with congregations in nine states and four countries beyond the U.S. For CMC, politics and culture played a role. Some felt political conservatism or plain dress (which is no longer a cultural marker for CMC) tarnished the word “conservative.”

LMC added a tagline, “A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches,” to its initials. CMC is still looking for the right tagline. Both have kept their full names for legal purposes, so technically they haven’t abandoned their old names. But practically, they have. LMC’s publication, Shalom News, doesn’t say what “LMC” means.

In the business world, there’s nothing wrong with being known exclusively by a set of initials. It doesn’t matter that IBM stands for International Business Machines or AT&T for American Telephone and Telegraph. But for a religious group, it ought to matter. And the part that matters most is “Mennonite.”

If we stop calling ourselves by the name that traditionally has defined us, eventually we will forget who we are. Abandoning the Mennonite name often corresponds with a loss of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and identity. This has happened in the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (formerly Evangelical Mennonite Church) and the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches (formerly Evangelical Mennonite Brethren). It is a trend in the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, where three-quarters of the congregations don’t identify as Mennonite in their name.

No, there’s nothing sacred about the nickname (which first appeared as “Mennist” in 1545) derived from a 16th-century Dutch Catholic priest turned Anabaptist preacher. Ironically, the Anabaptists of Menno Simons’ homeland never adopted his name. They simply call their congregations Doopsge­zinde, or baptism-minded. In Ethiopia, the world’s largest Anabaptist conference, the Meserete Kristos Church, chose not to adopt the Mennonite name because it was foreign to their culture. Mennonite World Conference is considering changing its name to Anabaptist World Community to be more inclusive of its non-Mennonite members, particularly the Brethren in Christ.

It is good that LMC is lifting up its Anabaptist identity in its tagline. (CMC is still working on what to call itself, so a full assessment of its name change is premature.) “Anabaptist” has the advantage of being a purely religious term, while “Mennonite” can refer to both a faith and a culture. Some would make the ethnic element of traditional Mennonitism the scapegoat for a lack of success in evangelism. But there’s reason to believe that openly Mennonite churches, if their people are genuinely welcoming, can draw new people just as well as churches that keep their historic identity hidden in a back room somewhere.

It seems evasive to say, in essence, “Our conference goes by three initials, but we prefer not to advertise what it means.” Mennonites have a rich 500-year history as peaceful, believer-baptizing, service-minded Christians. That’s something to be proud of, not to hide behind a mysterious abbreviation.

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