Several Anabaptist denominations have done a big survey about every 17 years since 1972. This month, Mennonite Church USA released data from the latest one. It prompts reflection on how we’ve changed and what the future holds.
The 1972 and 1989 surveys included the five most progressive Anabaptist groups in North America: the Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Church and Brethren in Christ.
After the 2002 merger of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church, the 2006 and 2021 surveys covered only the new denomination, MC USA.
Trends that stand out are the shrinking of MC USA, the speed of cultural change and the widening gulf between Anabaptist groups.
Today, MC USA is about the same size (56,000 members) as the smaller of the partners that created it. In 1989 the Mennonite Church had 102,200 members and the General Conference Mennonite Church 62,800 (although 47% of the GCs were Canadian and not part of the U.S. merger). In 2006, four years after the merger, MC USA had 109,000 members. Today’s total is a little more than half of that.
Denominational contraction followed an era of cultural change. In 1989, the researchers observed that Mennonites had grown more urban and modern. In 1972, only 35% of Mennonites (in the groups surveyed) lived in towns of 2,500 or more. Seventeen years later, almost half (48%) did. In 1989, J. Howard Kauffman, the study’s co-director, said this confirmed the researchers’ “main hypothesis” that “Mennonites are assimilating into the larger society.”
Assimilation included use of electronic media. Kauffman noted the speed of change. “We were surprised by the number of homes [46%] that have VCRs,” he said in 1989. Mennonites’ reputation as media tech laggards would not last much longer: By the mid-1990s, many of those same homes would have an internet connection. Today no one would be surprised if the percentage of MC USA members with smartphones matched that of the population as a whole. The process of assimilation and modernization, a major focus of study as recently as 1989, is complete.
The narrowing scope of the four surveys parallels the fragmenting of North American Anabaptists. In 1972 and 1989, five denominations saw value in a joint survey — one that would not only compile results for each but also throw all the data together to draw a unified picture of the progressive strain of Anabaptism. By 2006, the scene had shifted. The Mennonite Brethren declined to participate in a new survey. The Church of the Brethren and the Brethren in Christ did take part, but MC USA published a book that reported only the findings about its own members. In 2021, MC USA conducted a survey alone. The denominations had drifted apart.
Assimilation may be complete, but fragmentation continues. MC USA faces the prospect of more contraction, fueled by conservative opposition to an LGBTQ-affirming resolution. Like the polarized culture around them, Anabaptist traditionalists and progressives inhabit different religious and political worlds.
So what is new? Fragmentation has marred Anabaptism for 500 years. Yet a 20th-century strain of ecumenism emerged, with the creation of Mennonite Central Committee and other joint ventures. Anabaptists grew more comfortable with crossing denominational lines.
Today, Mennonite ecumenism weakens. On Oct. 25, U.S. Mennonite Brethren leaders announced their denomination would not participate in the Anabaptist Bible project. They cited MC USA’s LGBTQ-affirming resolution. When a culture-war dispute scuttles a Bible study invitation, it’s a sign that the vision of unity is fading.
The early Anabaptists were always ready to open the Scriptures with any conversation partner. They believed, perhaps naively, that Christians who differed could find common ground by gathering around the biblical text. This holds the key for us, too, if we hope to reverse concerning trends.
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