GOSHEN, Ind. — As U.S. Anabaptists prepare to host the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Pennsylvania next July, a new survey sheds light on the strengths and challenges of Mennonite Church USA’s existing global connections.
The survey, designed and administered by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen College, sought to collect concrete data on the scope and frequency of global connections within MC USA member congregations and the denomination’s relationship to MWC at the congregational level.
“I have visited many MC USA congregations in recent years,” said institute director John D. Roth, “and I am always impressed by the wide range of international connections evident in these local congregations. Yet I don’t think we have a very good sense yet of the larger patterns these relationships are taking.”
A preliminary analysis reveals a high level of global connectedness among the 307 MC USA congregations who responded to the survey. This includes everything from sister-church relationships to direct financial support.
The most common way that congregations are connecting globally is through Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Mission Network; nearly all responding congregations reported giving to one or both of these agencies, sharing news from these institutions with congregants, or sending and receiving MCC and MMN workers.
Yet, the survey also reveals a web of connections that expand far beyond the work of MCC and MMN.
Congregations with a high percentage of members born outside of the United States tend to be more closely connected with the global church and are more often directly involved in both international and domestic church life and ministry.
“We have a significant number of immigrant families and persons in the congregation,” one respondent wrote. “This has shaped our identity and connects us to the broader church, both Mennonite and non-Mennonite.”
Many churches fund learning tours and delegations to visit other congregations and conferences outside of the United States, and a number of pastors have used their sabbaticals to either study about the global church or to visit international churches.
Not all connections lead congregations to reach beyond the physical borders of the United States. Some congregations have helped to host and start immigrant congregations in their own community, while others support domestic programs that work with immigrants locally.
Individual contacts proved critical for many congregations, as they have hosted international students, counted immigrants among the church’s congregants and leadership, or sent and received church members in international service and mission.
Sister-church relationships have been particularly meaningful for some MC USA congregations, though some congregations acknowledged that these relationships also come with a high level of commitment that can be difficult to maintain in times of transition and crisis.
Despite the challenges present in establishing and maintaining these connections, 66 percent of respondents classified global relationships as “good and necessary, central to our reading of the gospel.”
Those who ranked global church connections as a low priority often referenced complications at the local congregational level that have temporarily prevented a more global orientation.
Rural churches noted that their isolation was a challenge, keeping them from connecting with other MC USA churches outside of their regional conference, not to mention global churches.
No clear partnership
For the majority of responding congregations, however, these global connections do not appear to translate into a clear partnership with MWC.
Although 87 percent of respondents reported that their congregation shares or “somewhat shares” similar convictions with other Anabaptist-Mennonite groups globally, there was little consensus on how MWC is part of the picture. In fact, a majority of churches report weak connections to MWC.
“Whereas we have a high level of international connections,” said Roth, “our congregations don’t necessarily have a very strong sense of connection to Mennonite World Conference, which is the strongest framework that we have for expressing our connectedness as a global body.”
Few churches contribute directly to MWC, although many assume that a portion of their contribution to MC USA is passed on to MWC. While MC USA does make contributions, it is far below the annual “fair share” amount that MWC has requested, based on a formula that takes both MWC’s needs and member churches’ relative resources into account.
Due to the gap between MWC’s expenses and incoming donations, the “fair share” formula is currently under review. One proposal would ask that all church members annually contribute the cost of one lunch to MWC, either fasting or sharing a communal lunch to make up the difference.
When congregations in the survey were asked about their willingness to make a contribution equivalent to the cost of a lunch for each member, 65 percent affirmed the idea.
Results to be shared
After a more thorough analysis, the institute will share the survey results with MC USA and MWC. Most immediately, the survey results could aid MC USA as it prepares to serve as one of the host denominations for the MWC assembly in Pennsylvania next summer.
“My hope is that the results of the survey can assist Mennonites in North America in coming to a deeper awareness and appreciation of the global nature of our fellowship,” Roth said.
“We need to be attentive to the remarkable growth in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church and to ask how we can share more directly in the energy and vitality that is evident in these churches.”