Sociological surveys may be uncommon evangelistic tools, but Damien Pelende of the Democratic Republic of Congo found the Global Anabaptist Profile survey drew new people to his church.
The two-year project — a joint initiative of Mennonite World Conference and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen (Ind.) College — profiled the demographics, beliefs and practices of 24 church conferences in MWC.
A consultation hosted July 26-30 by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College celebrated the survey’s conclusion.
Pelende, who implemented the survey in the Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo, shared how the survey generated interest in a congregation he visited.
As news of the survey spread, curious bystanders showed up for the worship service. In one setting,more than 20 onlookers committed themselves to Christ. Another time a Catholic visitor, after reviewing the survey, decided to become a Mennonite.
At the consultation, research associates like Pelende and church leaders from 21 MWC member churches in 18 countries analyzed the data and shared stories that gave context to the numbers.
The consultation was the culmination of two years of data collection led by institute director John D. Roth and Elizabethtown professor of sociology Conrad Kanagy. In 2013, the same group had met at Goshen to determine the final content of the survey, structured around MWC’s “Shared Convictions,” and to receive training in methods of survey implementation. The survey was then translated into 26 languages.
“I’m not aware of any other church fellowship that has done this work,” Kanagy said.
Funded and directed by the institute, the profile is the first systematic attempt to gather quantitative data about Anabaptist groups affiliated with MWC, whose membership has more than tripled in the past three decades. Despite this rapid growth, there have been few scholarly attempts to understand these groups.
“Demographic data has been based largely on estimates,” wrote Roth in a report to research associates. “And we know even less about the theological convictions, worship practices, ethical commitments and forms of witness of many specific Anabaptist-Mennonite groups.”
Although the process of interpreting the survey results has only begun, the data portray a complex picture of what MWC member churches hold in common and the ways they differ from one another.
“The research associates are the real experts in recognizing the authentic meaning of the results in their churches,” Kanagy said.
The results from some conferences suggested strong opposition to political involvement, which many research associates explained as a reaction to corruption in their political systems. But others, like Bishop Ephraim Bainet Disi of the Brethren in Christ Church of Malawi, seemed surprised by these results.
“I see that many are opposed to this,” said Disi, “but I think it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
In general, support for political participation was highest among North American and European groups.
Consultation participants also noted differences in practices and assumptions regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit, attitudes toward tithing, understandings of church agencies like Mennonite Central Committee, views on evangelism and the role of women in church leadership.
While some conferences do not recognize female pastors, 76 percent of churches surveyed affirmed women as preachers. Some research associates shared that this statistic reflects the reality that the majority of members in their conferences are women.
In individual presentations, research associates provided critical contextual background. Marcos Orozco of the Evangelical Mennonite Church Conference of Nicaragua referenced his church’s experience during the Sandinista War to explain why its results reflected such a strong opposition to military service.
“In the 1980s we had to make a strong statement on military service. We recognized that we would be killing other brothers in the church,” he said. “We were clear that we couldn’t do this.”
The consultation also provided a forum for research associates to share some of their challenges in implementing the survey. Delbert Erb from the Argentine Mennonite Church collected data from churches scattered across 1,243 miles.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Philippines, access to some of the most rural and remote congregations necessitated mountain travel and fording rivers. At times the travel was harrowing, but “God protected us,” Pelende said.
The survey’s written format proved challenging in contexts with higher rates of illiteracy. Some research associates attempted to verbally collect responses with illiterate church members, but the survey’s structure was difficult to adapt.
“By the time they hear all the options, they say they don’t know,” reported Jethro Dube of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe.
A number of research associates found that illiteracy led to a low response rate among women, since they were more likely than men to be illiterate. They cautioned that even though their churches are majority female, the survey results were sometimes skewed toward a male perspective.
“We know that there are more women [in our churches] than men,” said Pelende, “but they are underrepresented in the survey.”
In feedback sessions, research associates brainstormed methods that could be used more effectively with both literate and illiterate church members.
‘We need more teaching’
Many church leaders see teaching and discipleship possibilities emerging as a result of the profile.
“We see much in the information that is very valuable to us,” said Reynaldo Vallecillo from Amor Viviente in Honduras. “This helps us see our needs, especially in areas of teaching.”
“We need more teaching on Anabaptism,” echoed Lawrence Coetzee of Grace Community Church in South Africa. Coetzee’s and Vallecillo’s comments were part of a recurring conversation regarding identity. Many at the consultation questioned how such diverse churches could share an identity across varying contexts. Others wondered how to cultivate a strong sense of theological identity within their national conferences.
Yet the data also seemed to suggest that the churches represented by the survey do share beliefs and practices in common.
“I appreciate that despite different languages and cultures, the numbers communicate [a unity] across culture in ways that words could not,” said Regina Mondez of the Integrated Mennonite Churches of the Philippines.
In general, greater commonalities were found among churches of the Global South (Latin America, Asia, and Africa) and among the Global North (North America and Europe) than between those two groupings. This was a source of concern for some, but for others it highlighted the importance of context in analyzing the results and opened up new possibilities for mission engagements.
“I’m happy that we do indeed have shared convictions,” Orozco said. “We note some differences in our cultures, but there are more things that unite us than divide us.”
Roth and Kanagy are still awaiting data from two additional church conferences. When the data is complete, they will release a summary as well as regional comparisons. The full data will also be made available to the MWC Executive Committee.
“The data is not an end in itself,” Roth said. “This project is only one step toward a richer understanding of who we are as a global fellowship and how our churches are putting the gospel into practice.
“My prayer is that the Global Anabaptist Profile will enable us to speak more freely about our weaknesses, to share our gifts more boldly and to inspire renewal in our Christian faith and life in whatever setting we are in.”