From humble beginnings to global presence

Mennonite Brethren at 150

What would you do to experience a faithful and vibrant connection with the God of the universe?

To appreciate the journey of the Mennonite Brethren church through the 150 years of its existence is to review it through that lens, and then to marvel at God’s faithfulness more than our own.

The historical record pegs the birth of the Mennonite Brethren church as January 6, 1860, but to begin there would be to miss broader themes that have formed our spiritual identity. A better place to start would be with Martin Luther, the German monk who in the early 1500s ignited the Reformation that changed the course of Christendom.

Through his study of Scripture, Luther concluded he could not remain within a state church that had become powerful and fat, an institution that made faith a burden and salvation an accomplishment of good works for the average person. In Ephesians 2, he discovered the fundamental truth that transformed him and the course of church history: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one boast.”

About the same time, a group of Swiss believers – led by men with names like Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz – concluded that Luther had not taken his reform movement far enough. If salvation came by personal choice, so must baptism and church membership. They could no longer accept infant baptism. In the face of certain persecution, they baptized each other as believers, and pledged themselves to live separated from the world. These “anabaptists” (“re-baptizers”), as they were called in derision, went from house to house to witness to their newfound faith conviction.

The Anabaptist movement spread across Europe. It engulfed the heart of a Netherlandic priest named Menno Simons, who also had grown disillusioned with the discrepancies between the teachings of the Bible and the practice of the church. In 1536, Menno aligned himself with the Anabaptists. He embraced the teachings on peacemaking and nonviolence he found in the words of Jesus and rejected the more fanatical elements of the movement that shed blood in the name of Christ.

In addition to a nonresistant response to persecution, Menno taught the Bible as the sole authority in matters of life, salvation by God’s grace, the responsibility of all believers to spread the gospel, believer’s baptism, a life of discipleship through obedience to God’s Word, and a community of faith characterized by Christ-like love. For Menno Simons, it came to this: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Those who agreed with his convictions came to be called “Mennonites” – by those who admired them and as well as those who sought to destroy them.

In response to persecution, Mennonites fled to countries such as Prussia and later Ukraine to live out their convictions without interference. They endured physical hardships in the early years, but formed churches, schools, and self-governing villages. They prospered and grew in number.

By 1860, the number of Mennonites in Russia had grown to 30,000. But with prosperity had come a season of spiritual malaise. In 1845, a Lutheran pastor named Eduard Wuest came to Russia. A fiery preacher, Wuest emphasized that salvation came through the free grace of God, and that each person needed a consciousness of sin, Christ-like love for each other and especially a more vital religious experience. Wuest brought the spark that ignited revival among Mennonite villages. The renewed believers called each other “sister” and “brother” to reflect their close spiritual connection. But Wuest died before the movement coalesced.

In the Russian village of Gnadenfeld, “brothers” and “sisters” met separately from the established church for Bible study and prayer in defiance of village practice. Tension between the traditional church and the emerging group grew to the point where, on January 6, 1860, 18 families signed a document of secession. The Mennonite Brethren church was born with about 50 members and a burning heart for God.

To understand what this relatively small denomination has accomplished over 150 years is to recognize an ongoing desire for a faithful and vibrant connection with God. The common thread through the generations is that Mennonite Brethren have looked for the call of God through the Word of God. In the earliest years, members carried a Bible with them regularly and became known as “people of the Book.” They studied God’s Word and sought to live by its instruction.

“Go and make disciples of all nations…”

When Mennonite Brethren began migrating to North America in the 1870s, lured by the promise of religious freedom and economic opportunity, they brought with them their passion to see conversion from sin to faithfulness in Christ. No single cause has consistently lit Mennonite Brethren fires more than evangelism. Early on, local congregations manifested that passion in the form of evangelistic and renewal meetings where the need to be saved was made clear.

Even while in Russia, Mennonite Brethren felt the burden to reach their neighbours. That fervour soon turned global. As early as 1884, Mennonite Brethren immigrants in the U.S. helped finance the first volunteers for “foreign missions,” with India as the destination. Today, God has grown the Mennonite Brethren church in India to nearly 94,000 members – far exceeding the number who worship in the traditional sending churches in Canada (36,830) and the United States (26,000) combined.

In this 150th year, the largest national church, with more than 100,000 members, is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Around the world, some 1,700 Mennonite Brethren congregations worship and serve in more than 15 countries with a total membership close to 300,000.

In recent decades, various national Mennonite Brethren conferences have moved beyond the historical sender-recipient relationship to become partners in outreach through Mennonite Brethren Mission and Service International (MBMSI), and vision-setting through the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB). In fact, some overseas conferences have sent missionaries to North America to reach ethnic groups living here. God’s salvation movement has come full circle, for his glory.

Within North America, evangelism and church planting have been consistent themes through the decades, with mixed results. The ethnic identity MB immigrants brought with them from Russia, plus an early suspicion of the “worldly” urban scene, have been barriers to numerical growth through the years. Even so, Mennonite Brethren congregations in North America today worship in nearly 20 languages.

The emphasis of Wuest and others on a personal conversion event, a pietistic faith and the priority of the Great Commission helped launch the Mennonite Brethren journey in 1860 and has influenced its direction ever since. Flushed into being from two currents of faith expression, Mennonite Brethren in North America have at times felt more at home wading in the evangelical mainstream than within the Anabaptist flow from which they emerged. In its best expression, Mennonite Brethren – in their stated identity as “evangelical Anabaptist” – have brought a biblical blending to both streams: a social dimension to evangelicalism and an evangelistic emphasis to the broader Anabaptist-Mennonite family. It could also be said that they have sometimes felt like fish out of water in settings where they are immersed fully in one stream or the other.

Perhaps by default, Mennonite Brethren in North America have been influenced most by mainstream evangelicalism in regard to developing models for evangelism and church planting – which is to say, “do whatever it takes to bring people in,” including de-emphasizing the “Mennonite” identity in a culture that is often confused about it. At its best, that model reflects the commitment of the Apostle Paul himself to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). At its worst, it strips from Jesus’ gospel many of the culturally unpopular teachings that Mennonite Brethren and other Anabaptists have embraced as part of the biblical call to obedience.

As the denomination marks its 150th anniversary, Mennonite Brethren in North America continue to seek God’s guidance for finding a faithful way to work together to carry out the Great Commission in a context where the “togetherness” of a denominational bond is itself called into question – certainly by the unbelieving culture, but even by a younger generation of believers who were nurtured within its churches. Partly in response to that trend, Mennonite Brethren over the past 20 years have pared down their organizational structures, both denominationally and locally, and followed the lead of successful evangelical models to centralize decision-making authority. In doing so, leaders have redefined, for better or worse, the traditional understanding of “the priesthood of all believers” within the faith community.

Even as the early Mennonite Brethren in North America struggled with the culture-driven transition from the German language to English [a transition newly relevant for other language groups, such as the Chinese MB churches in Canada], Mennonite Brethren today who want to make a difference for God in their context continue to wrestle with culture-driven transitions in worship styles, rapidly emerging technology, and changing expectations within congregations. What is faithfulness? What is accommodation? The variables are different today, but that central question is still the hot button for Mennonite Brethren mission and methods.

“Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you…”

Mennonite Brethren have not seen conversion as an end unto itself, but as the doorway to a life of discipleship. The revival in 1860 that ignited the Mennonite Brethren movement began with the study of Scripture, as did the Reformation and the emergence of the Anabaptists.

Solid biblical teaching in the home, church, and school has always been important to Mennonite Brethren. Through the decades, that conviction has expressed itself in the formation of family nights, Sunday school, midweek programs, vacation Bible school, camping programs, youth retreats, church-sponsored high schools, study conferences, Bible schools, Bible conferences, several colleges, and a seminary.

In the earlier years, Mennonite Brethren esta-blished schools to equip the younger generation to stand against “worldliness,” to preserve a Christian worldview, and to prepare them to serve the church and its mission. Today, the post-secondary institutions supported by North American Mennonite Brethren continue to be a primary training resource for the denomination’s young people. But in the quest for both economic survival and greater spiritual impact, they have positioned themselves to offer an MB perspective to young people from a broad range of Christian traditions, as well as to challenge those who have not yet crossed the line of faith.

In an effort to enhance and resource discipleship and a greater sense of community within the denomination, Mennonite Brethren became a publishing people. Through the development and distribution of magazines, newsletters, curriculum, and books, Mennonite Brethren educators, editors, and writers shared insights and challenged their readers within the network of congregations and well beyond it. In this electronic age, the tradition of resourcing continues, but the mode has expanded as technological advances have created new opportunities to connect with people through video and the internet.

“Do not conform any any longer to the pattern of this world…”

Mennonite Brethren have believed from the start that conversion, rooted in God’s grace and forgiveness, should be expressed in a changed life that moves the believer away from sin and worldliness and toward a life of holiness and service. But how does a community of believers live that out in daily practice? In their best form, they have done it by studying God’s Word together, then agreeing which behaviours best express the life of holiness and which do not. By exercising loving, mutual accountability, believers find support to walk the narrow path of faithfulness side by side.

Through the years, they have not always lived up to the best form. In many instances, loving accountability slipped into judgmental legalism, and attempts to exercise accountability shattered already-fragile spiritual connections within the church family as well as beyond it. In more recent years, Mennonite Brethren have tried to emulate Jesus’s model of love within an ongoing relationship of prayer, patience, and communicating personal value.

What it means to “be in this world but not of it” will always be a challenge for Christ followers. In a North American culture that deifies individualism, materialism, and nationalistic pride, Mennonite Brethren congregations face a difficult challenge to develop and express a meaningful sense of Christian community and interdependence – within the local congregation as well as the broader denominational family.

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

Through the decades Mennonite Brethren have sometimes been ambivalent about how to express their Anabaptist heritage in areas such as meeting physical needs in the world and embodying the teachings of Jesus on the role of the state, loving enemies, and turning the other cheek. On the matter of addressing physical needs, they have helped create and support many projects of compassion – for each other, for neighbours in the community, and for complete strangers in their region and around the world. They have joined other Mennonite denominations as avid supporters of, and participants in, organizations such as Mennonite Disaster Service at home, and Mennonite Central Committee around the world to offer aid and hope “in the name of Christ.”

Along the way, Mennonite Brethren also have created their own programs and agencies as outlets for voluntary service, often with the aim of aiding evangelism and church planting. In part because of greater affluence in this past quarter century, MB interest in mission endeavours has expanded as never before to include personal participation of local members. Short-term mission projects, both regional and international in scope, are commonplace these days for most youth groups. In the past 15 years, teams of adults, often of retirement age, have followed that model as well.

Mennonite Brethren have never questioned Jesus’ directive to be peacemakers, but how to express that aim, particularly in the context of war and service to the state, has enjoyed less unanimity. The traditional Mennonite position toward state and government was separationist and apolitical: no military service, no participation in the police force, no running for government office, and even no voting in elections.

Today’s expression, for better or worse, is more diversified. It’s not uncommon to find Mennonite Brethren participating in almost all avenues of state and government service. The new reality partly reflects the denomination’s priority commitment to evangelism – not wanting to create what could be unnecessary barriers for people considering the call to faith. In part, it reflects a desire to participate in the state because it is seen as part of God’s arrangement for society to maintain order.

For some, it may be difficult to discern a significant difference, within the North American context at least, between the call of God’s kingdom and the expectation of patriotic citizenship. After 150 years, and in the midst of diversified practice, the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith continues to offer guidance on the Christian’s relationship to the state, his or her commitment to Christ’s call to radical love, and even encouragement to pursue alternative service in times of war.

But Jesus’s call to be peacemakers has been intentionally broadened to include all relationships and contexts: “We seek to be agents of reconciliation, to practice love of enemies, and to express Christ’s love by alleviating suffering, reducing strife and promoting justice.”

So, what would you do to experience a faithful and vibrant connection with the God of the universe? The question is more than a lens for understanding our past; it is the question that will determine our future as a people of God.

Through these 150 years, God has called out individuals from among us to be strong and visionary leaders, people who embodied the courage of biblical characters like Noah, Abraham, and David, and the fortitude of conviction modelled by Luther, Grebel, Simon, and Wuest. Their leadership has helped forge the Mennonite Brethren vision and legacy.

But the names of these leaders are noticeably missing in this account. That is by design and by conviction.

For one thing, it would be impossible to list them all in this space. But more than that, to name only leaders would be to overlook the contribution of all who have responded to the pervasive and inclusive call of God. To seek a faithful and vibrant connection with God should be the inherent desire of every one of us. To give ourselves wholeheartedly to God’s service, in whatever form it takes, is both our privilege and our reward.

So in this 150th anniversary year, we celebrate our leaders, past and present. But we marvel at the many sisters and brothers who quietly accepted God’s nudge to love, pray,  serve, teach, befriend, write, sing, give sacrificially, encourage, persevere in suffering. Together, they have modelled the incomprehensible possibility that the God of the universe might use each of us, and any of us, despite our weaknesses and shortcomings, to accomplish God’s purposes for the sake of God’s glory.

Don Ratzlaff is a journalist living in Hillsboro, Kan., where he is a member of Hillsboro MB Church. He was editor of the Christian Leader for 13 years. This article was commissioned by the MB Herald and Christian Leader for use by these two publications and the Chinese MB Herald as part of the North American celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren church.

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