The Mennonite Brethren Church Around the World: Celebrating 150 Years takes its readers on a global pilgrimage visiting 18 countries on five continents. Historically, pilgrims embarked on their sometimes arduous journeys in quest of insight and inspiration, and the sponsors of this commemorative volume hope it will accomplish precisely that.
In the foreword, writing on behalf of the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB), outgoing Canadian MB executive director David Wiebe hopes this book will teach Mennonite Brethren believers how to continue reaching out “with the gospel across cultural lines.” Wiebe encourages in prospective readers “genuine curiosity” about “what God is doing in and through the people called Mennonite Brethren.” He exhorts readers to attitudes of praise and prayer, asking God to continue to use the MB church to “share God’s love everywhere.” This book proceeds, therefore, with a deliberately pious and inspirational purpose: to present MB history as a narrative of missional outreach – a narrative that will impel the church further in this calling.
Editor Abe Dueck is quite right in his caution that this book “is not a formal, academic history,” but rather that it aims to “provide some new insights into the past, a better understanding of the present, and some guidance and hope for the future, all in the realization of our ultimate dependence on God.” Dueck was called upon to shape this volume with a particular expectation: the regional narratives had to be carried by voices in the first person, unmediated by outsiders, purely from the indigenous perspectives of the individual countries represented. Dueck’s praiseworthy faithfulness to this requirement has resulted in a book that is uneven in its ability to fulfill its purpose.
Some narrative profiles are presented from within an explicit thematic and interpretive framework that helps readers make the crucial connection between the “facts” and the intent of the book. For example, readers will clearly understand that American Mennonite Brethren struggled “to maintain the uniqueness of their theological identity in the face of increasing cultural and religious assimilation” and that the bottom line for Canadian MB identity is that “at its best, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren understanding of mission is imbued with a passion for spiritual wholeness and individual piety combined with a deep concern for the physical and social welfare of the nation and of the entire world.”
Unfortunately, such thematic guideposts for pilgrims reading this book are all too rare. One wishes that Dueck had been given freedom to exercise his interpretive skills as a leading senior MB historian in a way that would allow readers to glimpse similar vital insights lurking implicitly in the one-dimensional narratives that comprise so many of the regional presentations. An editorial paragraph or two, setting up and then wrapping up each profile in collaboration with the original author, could have animated the work of contributors writing without the benefit of experience in historical analysis.
Still, this is a worthwhile project. It serves as a monument to the Mennonite Brethren women and men whom God has gathered over time and around the globe to live out both the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) and the Great Commandment (Mark 12:29–31). For regions whose stories have never been previously outlined, it serves as a baseline of data and initial impressions upon which observers and scholars can build in discerning more clearly the path the church is treading – past, present, and future.
Perhaps most important is the way the book begins and ends. It begins with a good historical and theological introduction to the Anabaptist, Mennonite, and evangelical underpinnings of the contemporary Mennonite Brethren church. The book ends with an emphasis on the larger global reality of a gift-sharing missional people that now transcends local language, culture, and limitations. As a multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial peoplehood, the Mennonite Brethren church is on a global pilgrimage in quest of fulfilling its calling in the larger creation of God’s kingdom.