Next year’s assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., will mark an important 40th anniversary for Mennonite World Conference. It was four decades ago in July 1975 that the Presidium of MWC met in Puerto Rico to discuss the need for missional globalization.
MWC leaders dubbed the meeting an “expanded presidium.” The 26 members of the presidium invited 23 representatives of regional, church, mission and service organizations to join. They believed the traditional patterns of unilateral decision-making by North America and Europe for strategy and programming in mission were outdated.
The meeting had two goals: re-examine global mission in light of Anabaptist heritage and “seek more adequate means of truly internationalizing our missionary efforts.” It paved the way for Mennonite mission in the 21st century.
Two North American missionary scholars, Bob Ramseyer from Asia and Don Jacobs from Africa, presented papers for response and discussion.
Ramseyer sharply distinguished “Mennonite” from “Anabaptist.” “The Anabaptists were a first-generation people,” he said. “[They] saw themselves as aliens and pilgrims vis-à-vis the world.” They chose a path of radical discipleship and commitment to Jesus Christ. It was only this that distinguished them from their neighbors.
In contrast, he said, Mennonites in succeeding generations have chosen a path of either “responsible citizenship” or “geographic or cultural separation from the world.” As a result, “Mennonites . . . are held together by . . . an ethnic heritage which is only partially related to Jesus Christ.”
Ramseyer noted that this was often true for non-Western Mennonites as well. “The only way to be genuine disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said, “is to share in the experience of first-generation Christians, to be part of a group which is sociologically, ideologically and attitudinally first-generation.”
He proposed we “become so vitally engaged in mission that a large proportion of our group will always in fact be first-generation Christians.”
Jacobs said the Anabaptists themselves remained “Teutonic.” They never became multicultural, and everywhere they went “they carried their culture shell with them.” But, he said, this had begun to change since 1875 as a result of cross-cultural evangelism. In 1975 “26 percent [of global Anabaptists] are non-Teutonic.” In the past 40 years, that percentage has more than doubled.
But, Jacobs asked, who defines faith’s core in this multicultural community? He proposed every part of the international Anabaptist body must get involved in shaping our theology and going in mission.
“While it may be true that the [Western] church has an extraordinary amount of wealth, of educated people and similar resources, the new churches have resources which are no less spectacular in the eyes of God,” he said.
Finally, Jacobs shared what is perhaps the most sweeping proposal for global interdependence MWC has ever heard: “We must enter a new phase of [MWC] relationships . . . in which each [regional part] should submit [its] resources and vision to the total church pool.” This meant finances and personnel as well as spiritual vision.
Two radical proposals. Neither has been realized. New questions and new answers will be sought in Harrisburg. Yet these 40-year-old proposals, if appropriately addressed, could lead to the most transformative, faithful and energizing steps MWC takes in 2015.
Richard Showalter, of Landisville, Pa., is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission.