Over the past 100 years, the world has changed immensely and at the same time, not so very much, says Henk Stenvers; both then and now, there is nationalism and polarization in church and society, and even war in Ukraine.
As we prepare to mark 100 years of MWC and 500 years of Anabaptism in 2025, it’s a time to look forward, says Henk Stenvers. “This is a time to look at what is the significance of our message and mission for the coming years. Are the topics important in the Reformation still essential for us at the moment? Are new topics added? Have topics disappeared?”
“Studying the history of our church tradition helps us to remember who we really are and reminds ourselves of the true foundation which is grounded on the Bible,” says Tigist Tesfaye.
“Renewal is not about recovery of the past, even if it includes remembering it,” says Tom Yoder Neufeld. “Renewal is opening ourselves to the life-giving breath of God, the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 37).”
“It is the promise that resides in the call to repentance, to ‘turning’ and heading in a new direction. It is the gift in forgiveness, opening the future to reconciliation. It is central to the drama of baptism, of dying with Christ and then walking in the newness of life, living the resurrection. It resides in the hope of a new heaven and a new earth,” says Tom Yoder Neufeld.
“Renewal implies looking with new lenses to the past as well as re-imagining the present and future,” says Andrés Pacheco Lozano. “In order to be renewed we must retell our stories. Retelling stories can be a transforming experience because it allows us to (re)shape the narratives that form our identity. This liberating creativity opens the possibility for new interpretations to live out the radicality of the gospel message of justice and peace in the present and into the future”.
“Renewal moves us from old to new,” says Andi Santoso.
“The God who is also spirit calls people in different eras throughout history, always to bring something new and connect us to God. The newness is something that is spiritual and natural (e.g., there are seasons – spring after the winter),” says Andi Santoso.
“It’s important to be in a constant state of renewal,” says Lisa Carr-Pries. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. We need to pay attention. Renewal requires our ears; it requires a change of view on a constant basis.”
“New wine can’t go into old wineskins; it will burst,” says Sunoko Lin, reflecting on Mark 2. When Jesus tells the paralyzed man to take his mat and go home, he gave the man more than he expected: the ability to walk and carry. “Renewal brings something new or better. Jesus promised new wine, new wineskins; not only to walk but pick up mat.”
“The need for renewal remains constant, whether our focus is on identity (What does it mean to be Anabaptist?), or on task (What is our mission in the world? Evangelism? Peacemaking?),” says Tom Yoder Neufeld.
“I don’t think renewal is so much about how Anabaptism has been adapted to different contexts and realities as it is about seeing the nuances and the ways in which new forms, or visions of Anabaptism have been emerging in different places,” says Andrés Pacheco Lozano. “The ways in which the Anabaptist tradition came to a given place and the ways in which people and communities have embodied it in those places have made unique hybrid compositions in many parts of the world.”
He says we should speak not only of polygenesis but polyAnabaptism to see that there are differences and variations. “A space like MWC has the potential to place them in dialogue: that is one of the most important gifts of our global communion: to put all these visions and embodiments of Anabaptism into conversation.”
One young pastor in the Netherlands told Henk Stenvers: ‘We will really be Mennonites again when the police are knocking at our doors.’ “The peace message of Christ was radical,” says Henk Stenvers. “Are we in Global North becoming part of society too much in the sense of conforming to authority, economic systems.?”
“Is there renewal in our relationship with others in our life?” asks Andi Santoso. We need to challenge the status quo and consider the social aspect of salvation as well. “Jesus brought reconciliation through himself: are we making a difference in working at peace and justice? Is there a change in how we conduct ourselves?”
“Today, renewal should make us uncomfortable…especially if we hold a fair bit of power,” says Anicka Fast. “When the Anabaptist movement began, it was disruptive and bothersome. People on the margins of the church challenged what powerful church leaders were saying. Renewal will often unsettle.”
As a historian, she studies the story of the church in Africa which is driven by waves of revival, led by Africans, led by women.”
The East Africa Revival started in the 1930s and swept across Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. “It started with friendships and fellowship between African Christians and European and North American missionaries. They would repent together of attitudes toward each other. They developed strong friendships, and become close-knit groups called revival fellowships.”
“The first Mennonite bishop of Tanzania, Zedekiah Kisare, recalled that when revival arrived it was as if a fuse had ignited dynamite: it was an explosion,” says Anicka Fast.1 “Everyone started weeping and crying. They changed their lives. The American missionary bishop changed his attitude of superiority toward African Christians. It was a complete change of heart that led to a new way of living together.”
“Revival exploded boundaries between denominations. People wanted to take communion together,” says Anicka Fast. Unfortunately, “sometimes renewal is happening and we hold on to things and block it.”
Sometimes we need to leave everything behind to experience new things and really depend on God, says Andi Santoso. He did so personally, leaving behind culture and his ministry, to study in the USA. “Seeing new realities, I question my own faith, my beliefs. If God exists, where is God’s love in this broken reality? There’s a communal aspect to churches as we become the broken healer, the broken peacebuilder.”
The need for renewal shouldn’t make us defensive. “We still have challenges: intercultural challenges, enormous difference in economic situation. How the Global North became so rich: how economic streams go with exploitation of countries in Africa for well-being of the Global North; those are reasons for repentance,” says Henk Stenvers. “Part of renewal is recognizing that things have to change.”
Leaning on the work of theologian Dorothee Sollee on spirituality, Andrés Pacheco Lozano identifies renewal as a (spiritual) process that includes three dimensions. Via positiva: celebrating God’s gifts and how they have been expressed in different times and contexts. Via negativa: letting go of the ego, confronting the ways in which we have benefited from or reinforced oppressive systems (including discrimination based on race, gender, ability or class, and other forms of injustice and violence, including the human-induced climate emergency) and seeking to recognize and heal the wounds that these have caused and repair the broken relations. And via transformativa: being transformed in order to transform the injustices and violence in the world.
“Based on the gifts we build on, the systems and practices we confront and let go of and the wounds we visit, the invitation must be to be transformed and to incorporate new practices, new understanding, new ways of seeing Anabaptism” says Andrés Pacheco Lozano.
“Renewal is individual, but it’s also a posture you can take as a communion, …like how we take decision in consensus, talking to each other even if it takes a long time,” says Henk Stenvers. “Together in dialogue with each other and in dialogue with the Spirit, we want to find out what God is saying to us. That means openness to each other (listen to what people are saying), openness to time (no hurry to make decisions) and listening to what the Spirit brings.
“Listening is what moves people,” says Henk Stenvers. “What does the Bible say to you, what does the Bible say to me, and how can we find each other in that.”
“If we come from a place there hasn’t been renewal, it can be hard to put our brains in a place to hear from those who have,” says Anicka Fast. The stories may sound strange, but the work of the Holy Spirit is often scary. It crosses barriers.
“Renewal happens when people take a step, together as a group, and start to repent together, pray together, and study the Bible together in small groups,” Anicka Fast says.
“There’s something very political about renewal and revival. It’s never limited to something inside individuals. Historically revivals almost always begin with repentance movements; making things right that have been broken, often in relationship,” says Anicka Fast.2
“Renewal is connected to mission: enlarging the family of God,” says Anicka Fast. “Recognizing in our own hearts where we are not faithfully following – and then changing.” What arises is both a new way of being church and new perspectives on social relationships.”
During the Mau Mau anticolonial war in Kenya in the 1950s, the “abalokole” – the revived ones – would not participate in war. “These revived ones would say ‘I cannot kill someone for whom Christ died.’ They drew on this strong idea that Jesus makes us into a new kind of family – one that crosses the boundaries of ethnic group, race and nationality – as a reason not to participate in either side of the war,” says Anicka Fast.3
“The only way to transform is to practice,” says Lisa Carr-Pries. We’re tempted to hide our bad parts because we fear being condemned or dismissed by others; we don’t like accountability because it feels like shame about not meeting standards. “That’s not what the church can be about if we want to renew. Admit we made a mistake and want to do better.”
“We need to try on radical things that feel uncomfortable,” says Lisa Carr-Pries. “We need to be a community that is like a trampoline: it has some give; it catches people before they get hurt; it’s fun.”
There’s nuance in communities of practice. We aren’t going to get it right even when try. There’s room for mistakes and there is room for repair, says Lisa Carr-Pries. And we work under the assumption not everyone is on board.
“Repair and forgiveness are not necessarily the same thing. Flourishing, reconciliation, homecoming, belonging – these are words that invite transformation in communities of practice.”
“If we avoid discussing topics, if we restrict conversations, that’s one of the most counter-productive ways of dealing with these things. If anything, global spaces should precisely help us in our process of renewal: understanding that siblings of faith in different contexts will have different ways to contribute to our own struggles and our own questions of what it means to be a church,” says Andrés Pacheco Lozano.
“We’re going to have to get better at holding multiple truths at the same time,” says Lisa Carr-Pries. “That is different than being wishy washy or fence sitting.
Today, there are multiple ways the church is facing critical times from divisions within to climate emergency without. Crisis reveals the need for renewal – and to avoid dealing with challenges is in itself violence.
Ideally, MWC should create spaces, opportunities and conditions for relationships to happen and to also experience difficult conversations – and be transformed in the process.
“The church is as a living system,” says Andrés Pacheco Lozano. “A system that does not have exchange with the environment around it is stuck. It dies in the long term. We should learn from our legacy in conflict resolution/transformation: denying conflict is not the solution. If addressed properly, conflict can lead to transforming not only of opinions but also relationships, for growth.”
“It’s not easy to sit in the same room with people who have different experiences or who interpret similar experiences in a different biblical or theological way,” says Andrés Pacheco Lozano. But, like a family, “when you come to the dining table, you also talk about the difficult parts.” Putting aside some of the power dynamics that come into play with a family metaphor, the dining table is a space for sharing both joys and difficult topics, and a space that is returned to again and again, hopefully able to engage the topics in a different way.
“We can be inspired, challenged, transformed and renewed by the witness from siblings in other parts of the world. That’s the beauty and the challenging part as well. Maybe, if anything, diversity is what empowers us,” says Andrés Pacheco Lozano. “MWC is an opportunity for growth.”
“There’s a lot of reason for hope. We as MWC we are an example of how you can cross barriers culturally, nationally and also in theology and still be one communion,” says Henk Stenvers. “Our challenge is to be open. To change even if we don’t know what that change will bring. When Christ asks to us to be one, this is the only way we can be one: in hope and trust in God.”
Anne Marie Stoner-Eby, “Building a Church Locally and Globally: The Ministry of Zedekiah Marwa Kisare, First African Bishop of the Tanzanian Mennonite Church,” Journal Biographique Des Chrétiens d’Afrique 7, no. 2 (July 2022): 26.
Festo Kivengere y Dorothy Smoker, Revolutionary Love (Moscow, Idaho: Community Christian Ministries, 2018).
David W. Shenk, Justice, Reconciliation and Peace in Africa, Revised edition (Nairobi: ‘Uzima Press’, 1997) see also; Festo Kivengere, “Force and Power”, in Justice, Reconciliation and Peace in Africa, by David W. Shenk, Revised edition (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1997), 169–72.
We asked MWC leaders about Renewal.
- How might we as Anabaptist-Mennonites seek renewal at this point in history?
- What changes might we need to make?
- What risks must we be open to take?
- Can we be as radical as the early Anabaptists were in their time? Would we want to be?
- Renewal is generally disruptive, but can it be nonviolent?
- What strategies or postures do we need to face the challenge of being a united a global Anabaptist family today?
What do you think?
Join the conversation! Add your own thoughts below or send us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Anicka Fast, Faith & Life Commission, secretary (Canada/Netherlands/Burkina Faso)
- Andi Santoso, Deacons Commission, chair (Indonesia/USA)
- Andrés Pacheco Lozano, Peace Commission, chair (Colombia/Netherlands)
- Henk Stenvers, Executive Committee, president (Netherlands)
- Lisa Carr-Pries, Executive Committee, vice president (Canada)
- Sunoko Lin, Executive Committee, treasurer (Indonesia/USA)
- Thomas R Yoder Neufeld, Faith and Life Commission, chair (Canada)
- Tigist Tesfaye, Deacons Commission, secretary (Ethiopia)