Two parallel Mennonite universes passed in close proximity July 29. Thirty miles apart in south-central Kansas, two groups of Mennonites gathered. They were similar enough to focus on a common goal but different enough to do it separately.
One gathering heard a speaker who talked about living like Jesus right in our own neighborhood. The other heard a sermon on following Jesus wherever he leads, especially next door.
One was encouraged to be as inclusive as Jesus was. The other was challenged to serve all who are in need close by, for our welfare is bound up with the welfare our community, and our salvation with others’ salvation.
One was reminded that the kingdom of God has come near, and we are witnesses of that fact. The other was told — well, pretty much exactly the same thing.
One talked a little more about “the lost,” the other more often about social justice issues. One group sang with hands raised to heaven, the other in a more formal or traditional style.
The two groups were Anabaptist Renewal Circles and Mennonite Church USA’s Western District Conference. Their meetings in South Hutchinson and North Newton overlapped for two days.
Were these parallel universes an example of Mennonite unity or division? Or both?
The groups’ separateness arises from differences of history, culture and theology. The ARC meeting had connections to the (Old) Mennonite Church tradition. The host church, Journey Mennonite, belongs to South Central Conference, which comes from the MC side of MC USA’s dual historical identity. A couple of women in attendance wore head coverings. The worship band’s music reflected the style of contemporary evangelicalism. ARC’s existence stems from traditional beliefs on sexuality. Its founders were first drawn together by dismay over the actions of LGBT-affirming activists at an MC USA convention five years ago.
The Western District Conference meeting was rooted in the General Conference Mennonite Church tradition. WDC remains firmly GC in its culture — predominantly progressive in theology and practice, congregational in polity. By allowing pastors to officiate same-sex weddings if their congregations approve, WDC has taken one of the most liberal positions on sexuality in the denomination. The assembly’s hymns and worship songs came from the 1992 MC USA hymnal and its companion volumes.
And yet, putting everything else aside, there was a unifying center: “Held Together in Mission,” as the WDC theme put it. ARC’s Hugh Halter, an evangelical mission leader; and WDC’s Marty Troyer, pastor of Houston Mennonite Church; preached the same basic message: God loves your neighborhood, your town or city, and God wants you to pour your whole life into sharing that love with others.
For me, a personal experience proved this unity of purpose is real. At the ARC meeting, I talked with a pastor who once attended the same church I do. I told him about a tragic death in the family of a friend. This pastor knew my friend years ago. The next day, as the conference ended, the pastor asked if he could pray with me. In the Journey Mennonite Church sanctuary, he stood with me and prayed for my friend and for me. The prayer touched my heart more deeply than any since the death of my father in January. This pastor and I do not agree on everything. But Christ and his mission hold us together.