Among the Mennonites of British Columbia there is a movement under way that may completely change the makeup and self-identity of the province’s Mennonite churches.
The past decade has seen major efforts made in church planting among ethnic groups, and as a result there are at least one dozen Mennonite churches, fellowship groups or evangelism projects in B.C.’s Chinese, Greek and East Indian communities.
Both the provincial Mennonite Brethren (8,000 members) and Conference of Mennonites in B.C. (4,000 members) are deeply involved.
Many factors have contributed to this rise in cross-cultural missions, including the obvious ethnic mix in B.C. (there are 150,000 Chinese and an equal number of East Indians in the province), the strong commitment of all Mennonite churches in the province to evangelism, and the presence of leadership people who are working to make it happen.
A partial list of the new church planting efforts includes:
• an East Indian group of about 35 members meeting in the Fraserview Mennonite Brethren Church under pastor Santosh Raj;
• the Greek Evangelical Christian Church, pastored by George Anastasiades and meeting in the Culloden Mennonite Brethren Church. The membership numbers about 35 and supports a Greek radio program;
• Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church pastored by Stephen Lee. This church started in the Mountainview Mennonite Church, moved to Chinatown in Vancouver, and was recently instrumental in sponsoring about 100 Vietnamese refugees of Chinese background;
• Chinese Grace Mennonite Church in Vancouver, pastored by Nathaniel Chung and an outgrowth in May, 1981 of the Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church;
• a Laotian group of about 75 people that meets in the Eben-Ezer Mennonite Church, Clearbrook, pastored by Sylang Kanebutra;
• a Vietnamese group which fellowships with the Eden Mennonite Church, Chilliwack;
• Pacific Grace Chinese Church, Vancouver, pastored by Enoch Wong, the church joined the Mennonite Brethren Conference in 1981;
• Bethel Chinese Christian Mennonite Brethren Church, led by David Poon, which first organized in 1978. The church of 100 members dedicated a new meeting place at 235 East 15th Ave., Vancouver, at a special service on October 11. The purchase price was $280,000.
• the work of individuals in many existing Mennonite churches-people like David Manuel, associate pastor at the South Abbotsford Mennonite Brethren Church since 1980 and active evangelist among East Indians in the Fraser Valley; a full-time Vietnamese pastor working with the Westwood Mennonite Brethren Church in Prince George; Barj Dhahan, a deacon with special responsibility for outreach at the Peace Mennonite Church in Richmond; and Jake Giesbrecht, called by the Conference of Mennonites in B.C. to work among the East Indian community.
Each of these churches has its own unique story, but some trends are evident.
Among the Chinese there already are many Christians, including trained pastors; this has meant rapid growth and maturing as local bodies. In the Greek or Indo-Canadian communities on the other hand, evangelism requires a long-term, personal approach and the establishment of a church can be a slow process.
In addition, and to many Mennonites’ surprise, new immigrant groups of believers are not reluctant to identify themselves as Mennonites. At a time when some Mennonites are asking if their denomination’s name is a hindrance to church growth, the B.C. experience is that the Mennonite name probably does not matter and that the ethnic and immigrant past of many Mennonites is more of an opportunity than a handicap.
Nick Dyck, who directs the church planting work of the provincial Mennonite Brethren conference, explains that Mennonites know what it is like to start over in a new land. In church planting among ethnic groups, he says, “we don’t have to do all the work. Growth must come from within their own ranks. But we can offer leadership with understanding …. We understand ethnic barriers and community.”
Questions about the future
As the cross-cultural church contacts grow in British Columbia, some key questions are being asked about the future.
- If Mennonites help a struggling new group to gain its feet, should that group be expected to identify itself as Mennonite? Should Christians, in this case Mennonites, separate into ethnic enclaves or should they integrate as soon as possible?
Language barriers can settle the last question in a hurry. Jolly Lee, treasurer of the Vancouver Chinese Mennonite Church and an engineer, feels that integration would be ideal but not practical.
“I think that sooner or later they should be together. But now it’s impossible because many of our members cannot speak English. The main thing is language.”
Jake Giesbrecht feels that the question of integration should be left to the minority group to decide: “They have to choose, they have to feel comfortable about it.” He also feels that Mennonites should be interdenominational in their approach.
“We shouldn’t bring our denominationalism into this work,” he says. He has been active in starting the interchurch Northwest Centre for World Mission which will stress a united effort in evangelism. At the same time, he suggests ethnic churches often feel comfortable with the Mennonites “because we look at the whole person. Mennonites are concerned about all aspects of the immigrant’s life, not just his soul.”
This is a theme that pastor Stephen Lee also emphasizes. Lee, who came from an Alliance Church background, says he feels good about Mennonites’ “practical faith.” He found that “social concern is very important among Mennonites” and this fit his own approach to ministry.
Still, the ties to the Mennonite family are often quite tenuous. The Chinese churches are making the most effort to understand what it means to be a Mennonite. Jolly Lee pointed out that the booklet, “Who are the Mennonites?” is being translated and printed. Pastor David Poon has translated the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith into Chinese, as well as the conference’s Ministers’ Manual.
The future will doubtless hold further challenges. Getting ordinary church members off the pews and involved in outreach is one continuing challenge that pastors mention.
One pastor credited the presence of the new ethnic churches within the Mennonite family with widening the horizons of his church members. “It helps people see that missions happens right here – it’s not just sending people out.”
Working at full integration of all believers – a church “from every tribe and nation” – is another challenge. In the interim, a form of separate but mutual development will be the path that is followed.
Finally, many British Columbia leaders feel it is important to encourage Mennonites in other parts of Canada to become more active in cross-cultural ministries. Concludes Nick Dyck, “I’d challenge Mennonites across the country to make this a priority.”
–Allan Siebert, Mennonite Reporter