The courage to admit failure

Photo: Brett Jordan, Unsplash. Photo: Brett Jordan, Unsplash.

In 1986 an amishman by the name of David Luthy published a most unusual book. The title, The Amish in America, suggested a standard overview of the group, written by an insider. But the subtitle, “Settlements That Failed, 1840-1960,” more accurately clarified the focus of the 555-page volume. In great detail, Luthy described the stories of 100 attempts to start new Amish settlements — what we might call church planting — that ultimately proved unsuccessful.
In the decades since the book’s publication, the Old Order Amish have more than tripled in size. Each year they establish numerous new settlements, many of which are thriving.

Yet it intrigues me that this book, highly popular among its Amish readers, did not flinch from an honest and detailed narrative of its communal failures.

I thought of Luthy’s book when reading a recent account by William Yoder, a journalist who reports regularly on religion in the former Soviet Union. Yoder noted the death of Andrey (Heinrich) Vassilovich Peters, the last “Church Mennonite” (non-Men­nonite Brethren) pastor in Siberia (page 25).

In 1988, the Novosibirsk congregation, where Peters pastored, had some 400 members. But when the Cold War barriers dividing Eastern and Western Europe dissolved, nearly all of the congregation’s members emigrated to West Germany.

The near collapse of the Novosibirsk congregation has been repeated in dozens of Mennonite contexts in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Ukraine.

According to Yoder, the few congregational members who remained in Novosibirsk have found a new home among the Baptists or have been rebaptized by immersion into Mennonite Brethren congregations.

Stories of decline are not isolated. In the past 10 years, the Dutch Mennonite Church has gone from 7,900 members to about 5,500, with a similar trajectory likely to continue.

Although the number of Dutch Mennonite churches has not declined as sharply, congregations are steadily decreasing in size and many will likely not survive the next decade.

Mennonite Church USA is facing a similar reality. But whereas the reduced size of the Siberian Mennonite church was due to emigration, and the losses in the Dutch church are driven mostly by the death of elderly members, the precipitous decline in MC USA membership since its formation in 2002 has resulted largely from internal conflict.

The recent announcement by South Central Mennonite Conference of a vote that may result in dissolving the conference (AW, May 28) is only the latest in a long series of decisions by individuals, congregations and conferences to reassess their relationship with the denomination. Those departures over the past two decades have reduced membership in MC USA by nearly half.

In his book, Luthy resisted analysis, preferring to simply recount the individual stories. Some Amish settlements failed for economic reasons, some for lack of leadership and some because they failed to achieve a critical mass of families.

But the overwhelming reason behind the majority of failures had to do with internal conflict, personal and theological, the details of which Luthy frequently noted.

There is nothing new about this. Stories of conflict are deeply embedded within the biblical narrative and the long history of the Christian church. But, unlike the Amish, Mennonites avoid the language of failure. In the face of conflict and division, we often try to turn smallness into a virtue.

As a minority group within the Christian tradition, we sometimes flatter ourselves with the conceit that smallness is the price we pay for taking our faith so seriously: Narrow is the path that leads to salvation. By this logic, divisions are narrated as renewal — virtue recovered or purity preserved.

In the meantime, however, we seem to be losing the capacity to communicate the gospel in a compelling way. Indeed, 92% of the growth in Mennonite-related churches during the past two decades has occurred in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

I realize that a book recounting the failures in recent Mennonite history is not likely to find many readers. Such language sounds defeatist for groups in decline. It strikes the wrong note for those who feel vindicated that division was the acceptable cost of defending the truth.

But it may be that true renewal can only begin from a posture of humility and confession.

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