The price of togetherness

As convention attendance declines, MC USA considers new ideas for its gatherings

Since 2019, adults and youth have worshiped together at Mennonite Church USA conventions. — Ken Krehbiel/MC USA Since 2019, adults and youth have worshiped together at Mennonite Church USA conventions. — Ken Krehbiel/MC USA

Bringing greetings from his church, Doug Klassen, executive minister of Mennonite Church Canada, told Mennonite Church USA delegates on July 7 that their denomination knows how to do a convention right.

It’s true: MC USA’s national gathering is impressive, with excellent speakers, talented musicians and informative seminars in a first-rate venue. It delivers much that a denomination needs to build unity, strengthen identity and energize its members.

What MC USA might not know is how often to have a convention and how to draw a big enough crowd to justify the cost.

Answering these questions is a priority now.

Leaders who brought a proposal to hold delegate assemblies less often — at three-year intervals rather than two — saw their idea voted down.

But there’s no mandate for biennial conventions. Biennial delegate assemblies will continue, but conventions could be separate sometimes. 

A proposal for triennial delegate assemblies got 65% of the vote, just short of the two-thirds it needed to pass. If a majority of highly engaged delegates would prefer to meet less often, what do the people who stayed home think?

MC USA could poll its congregations: Would your youth group be more likely to go to a convention two years from now, or three? Youth have been the leading driver of attendance.

Executive director Glen Guyton suggested triennial conventions would be the “sweet spot” because congregations that have gone to a four-year cycle might send their youth to every triennial event rather than skipping half of the biennial ones.

Since convention attendance probably won’t be 8,000 again, meeting on a college campus or in a midsize city could cost less than the big-city convention centers and downtown hotels MC USA has always used.

Moderator-elect Jon Carlson said leaders got the message that “we want to be together more, not less,” and that “there is work to do to make our togetherness sustainable.”

Declining attendance at the three Kansas City conventions — 4,600 in 2015, 2,800 in 2019, 1,500 in 2023 — is sobering. If triennial conventions would draw more people, leaders should consider it.

The other trend since 2015 is that the conven­tion attracts a more like-minded crowd.

But this unity is marred by loss, because it is the result of homogeneity, which is the result of division — specifically, the withdrawal of conservative congregations. The LGBTQ-­affirming Repentance and Transformation resolution of 2022 solidified MC USA’s identity as a socially and theologically progressive denomination — and therefore a much smaller one.

At the 2015 Kansas City convention, LGBTQ inclusion was a matter of debate and source of conflict. In 2023, there was no discernible opposition to it. Not all of MC USA is welcoming of LGBTQ people, but the national convention was. A seminar on “Living into Repentance and Transformation” brimmed with optimism for what one participant called “queer flourishing.”

Transformation — the Kansas City convention theme — is happening.

“Transformation requires acknowledgment of wounds,” Bible study leader Sarah Bixler of Eastern Mennonite Seminary told the delegates. MC USA has acknowledged the wounds of LGBTQ people. It is seeking to heal. Like Jesus’ resurrected body, which bore the marks of his suffering, MC USA is scarred but vibrant. It is confident in its identity and ready to become better.

“Transformation is not something God does to us without our consent,” Bixler said. “We make a free choice to engage in self-examination and invite God’s Spirit to transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ and his love.”

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. He lives in Newton, Kan., attends First Mennonite Church of Newton and is Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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