Who are true Anabaptists today?
“This is an exceptionally important book.” So says Philip Jenkins, author and authority on global trends in Christianity. As a student of the Mennonite Brethren church movement, I tend to agree. Winds of the Spirit is the result of a very large survey (over 18,000 responses) of 12 national conferences of churches within the Mennonite Church family. “There really is nothing like this book” (Jenkins – in the foreword).
The authors wanted to know what makes the Mennonite church of the global south tick. Are there factors in common with one another and with other groups in the global South? They combine interest in sociology and mission. Each chapter provides helpful historical, theological and theoretical information as background for interpreting the data.
Winds of the Spirit is not driven by the question “what can we learn from the South so we can grow again in the North?” It’s focused rather on the character issue – who are “true” Anabaptists and what are they like? And, what does that say to us today?
The major point is that the suffering church of the Global South today resembles most closely that of the 16th century Anabaptists and Early Church; and that this is the character of Pentecostalism: “Pentecostalism is the carrier of Anabaptist convictions in Asia and Africa” assert the authors.
A sample of the assertions that may challenge readers in the Global North:
- The Anabaptist Vision outlined by Harold S Bender, which has driven Mennonite thinking and expectations for 60 years comes under direct critique. North American respondents questioned whether church members of the Global South uphold traditional Anabaptist beliefs and practices. But the authors assert there are now hints at a new Anabaptist Vision emerging from the Global South. Anabaptism of the Global South seems to have more in common with its Anabaptist roots than that of the Global North.
- Churches in the North are caught in a bind sociologically: A more highly educated membership base typically results in birth control and a declining population/membership. This requires a greater intentionality for evangelism and outreach. But typically, higher education tends to undermine a sense of need for, or even validity of conversion and evangelism. “Barring the transition to a conversion model, declines for the North American church will surely continue.”
- The mission character of Anabaptism is often overlooked, but was central to its nature. People who sought to bring the Confession to the regions where they lived despite persecution, did so with sacrificial abandon. Today mission engagement from the North is limited by the controls of rational and efficient hierarchies. Values of predictability quash spontaneity, control reigns in freedom, and quantity devalues quality. Unless missionary engagement is untethered from the constraints of the Western church, it will remain unfruitful.
- The Global South is orthodox in belief, conservative in moral commitments, and charismatic in orientation. Discipleship is emphasized, focusing on right behavior, and rejecting the sins of one’s past life. This will challenge members of the North where diversity of opinion on behavior is expected now on issues which were viewed unanimously only a few decades ago. It is arguable that members in the South are more concerned about right (Christian) behavior than those of the North, who tend to focus on right belief and belonging – elements of Christendom.
- The decline of Christendom in the North will soon create points of convergence with members in the South, such as minority status, daily interaction with other followers of major religions, and censure. This is potentially a good thing, based on evidence of faithfulness and effective witness in the South, whose members now show “there are some things worth suffering for.”
- Pentecostalism originated on the ecclesial and sociological margins of North America, was holistic, interracial, egalitarian, and embraced pacifism. The Bible was central, the Holy Spirit was manifested variously and leadership selection methods were less institutional and more lay oriented. It thus shared many commonalities with the Radical Reformation, and also much of the Mennonite movement of the Global South.
- The work of the Holy Spirit has received “scant attention” from Mennonites since the Radical Reformation. Perhaps in our zeal to be Christocentric we have minimized the Holy Spirit, though he was sent by Christ himself. Embracing the work of the Spirit will not make Anabaptists less Christocentric, but moreso.
Winds of the Spirit points to some deep issues that separate the North from the South, though these are not uniformly or exclusively North-South. There are problems and challenges in the South and positive signs in the North. While there may be some controversy inherent in these assertions and observations, this book needs to be taken seriously by leaders in the church.
—David Wiebe is executive director of ICOMB (International Community of Mennonite Brethren).