More united than ever before

Alfred Neufeld, chair of MWC’s Faith and Life Commission, reflects on the state of the global Mennonite faith community

Alfred Neufeld, theologian, historian and generally insightful philosopher, reads on two tracks these days: “Proceedings” from past Mennonite World Conference Assemblies and social media.

Neufeld, of Asuncion, Paraguay, is on a year’s sabbatical from his administrative duties as president of the Universidad Evangélica del Paraguay, spending his time in Regensburg, Germany.

He’s reading the “big books of Proceedings,” produced after the first 10 Mennonite World Conference (MWC) Assemblies (held between 1925 and 1978) to discover the big issues surrounding each of those events.

And he reads social media attentively, especially the theological expositions by “neo-Calvinist preachers,” as he calls them, who, he observes, lots of Mennonite young people are currently following.

Neufeld, who chairs MWC’s Faith and Life Commission, recently addressed the General Council of Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, as part of the 16th MWC Assembly, PA 2015. He spoke about “How Have We Dealt with Conflict in the Past?” He finds the subject of high interest to Mennonites in many places who wonder whether splitting and fragmenting will continue to be part of their futures.

“As I study the history of our Anabaptist fraternity and admire the lives of the founding fathers and mothers of Mennonite World Conference, I discover much wisdom in their way of dealing with conflict and holding the family together,” says Neufeld.

While none of the major historic conflicts or tensions has completely gone away, Neufeld says, “I am encouraged. The global family today is probably more united than ever before, even though the challenge to do this with 100 Mennonite cultures is far bigger than it was with a quite homogeneous group 90 years ago.”

Current struggles in the global family

And yet, Neufeld notes reasons to stay watchful and in meaningful support of each other throughout our global fellowship. “Here are the things I hear stirring that need attention:

“The new cruel actions of Islamic terrorism are a critical test for the quality of Mennonite peace convictions based on the gospel.

“Who should our leaders be and who will shape our theology?

“In Paraguay, Germany, and parts of Canada (the places in the world that I know best) 60 percent of our young people are getting their theological inspiration from several North American neo-Calvinists who have powerful social media presences.

“These motivated young people aren’t looking for cheap, right-wing stuff. They want straight, hard, biblical wisdom. But they’re listening to voices who are strongly opposed to women in leadership and who say that the spiritual ethic of nonresistance is a compromised way to live.

“Not only do I see this as seriously confusing to our young people, it may also undercut our women pastors in countries where they don’t have a lot of institutional support. “These threats to our Anabaptist identity markers call for very wise and strategic care.”

“What priorities determine where our money goes?

“Some want all our donations to go to missions and church plants.

“Should churches accept government money to do their work? If so, how much, or what percent of the whole for particular projects?

“Those with mission interests sometimes ask if it’s appropriate for service agencies and networks or our schools to accept this ‘easy’ money when missions don’t get that kind of funding.

“As a church, we renounced state sponsorship 500 years ago. That was at the heart of Anabaptism. How do we manage this today?

“In my reading of the MWC Proceedings from the early gatherings, I‘m reminded that this is a similar agenda as during the period of the Nazis, who offered to help bring Mennonites out of Russia.”

Clearly, these early “global” gatherings of Mennonites included a measure of honesty about the issues besetting them.

Reasons for hope from the past

So why does Neufeld think the global Mennonite family has grown in numbers, strength, and support of each other?

“Definitely [through] the grace of God, the lordship of Jesus and the miraculous glue of the Holy Spirit present in all of our churches.”

And, he adds, there might be at least three additional secrets:

  • “All along the way, God gave us very integrating and gifted leaders.
  • “Missions, and the growth of the young churches in the Global South.
  • “Christ-centred fellowship has helped us to focus on our common ground, to strengthen our shared convictions and to be gracious and patient with each other.”

Some advice for churches in the Global South

This theologian/historian/philosopher from the Global South has a few suggestions for his sisters and brothers from the Southern Hemisphere about their role and place in the global faith family:

  1. “The churches of the North need our support and understanding. But not our arrogance.
  2. “This is not the moment for the churches of the South to make points against the churches of the North.
  3. “Missions is a two-way road, with our older churches now being on the receiving end – which our churches in the South have been for a hundred years. Let’s be attentive and humble.”

Neufeld’s observations about Mennonite structure and behaviour

  1. “It might be one of the present-day miracles of the grace of God that our global, but very pluralistic, community has been able to find ways of staying united for such a long time. Our theology and our structure do not help. We have no global centre of church authority, since each national church is autonomous. We have no historic or present-day unified Confession of Faith.
  2. “There were times in the past when older people and ‘elders’ held strong authority and were considered bearers of identity. Today, we all are aware that if we are not able to articulate our theology
  3. and identity in a relevant way for the emerging and digitalized generation, there will be no future for Mennonite World Conference.” Nor for its member churches.
  4. “Whenever persecution and marginalization have ended, Mennonites have identified quite strongly with their surrounding national culture. Separation from the world immediately becomes a complicated topic.”

Neufeld’s distillation of conflicts from the past

Neufeld sees four substantial issues, each of which could have wrecked the Anabaptist peoplehood multiple times during the last 90 years since the first MWC was held in 1925:

  1. The struggle to be either an ethnic or a missional church.
  2. War and peace.
  3. The emerging generation versus the leaving generation.
  4. Revival Pietism versus Enlightenment Liberalism.

Phyllis Pellman Good is a writer and editor for Mennonite World Conference.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2015