The following is an excerpt from Nelson Kraybill‘s Schrag Lecture at Messiah College on March 26, 2015. The Lecture was titled “Alternating Currents and Multi-Directional Ministry: Global Anabaptism and its Challenge to the North American Church.” The full transcript will be published in Brethren in Christ History and Life journal in the fall.
Growth of the global church
A century ago, Anabaptists were almost entirely European and North American, with a few scattered congregations in other parts of the world. Today two-thirds of the Anabaptist family resides in the Global South, with Africa and Asia having the most rapid growth.1 This extraordinary shift in demographics, from industrialized West and North to Global South, follows the trend of Protestant Christianity in general. Some seventy percent of confessing/practicing Christians now live in the “Majority World” (recently known as the “Two-Thirds World”).² Today white Anabaptists of European or North American origin are a minority.
In order for North American Anabaptists to learn from these sisters and brothers, we have work to do in at least two areas in order to hear well. We must 1) move beyond negative associations we carry with the mission enterprise, 2) engage marginal people in our own societies in order to learn cross-cultural skills.
Negative associations with mission
A significant number of North American Anabaptists harbor shame or guilt about current or recent cross-cultural mission efforts of our own people. In an increasingly secular West that champions diversity and tolerance, crossing cultural or national boundaries to share religious convictions has become suspect. Some North American Anabaptists still engage in mission, but often in the face of indifference or even hostility from our own faith communities. Mennonites have absorbed the myth that missionaries are colonialists and imperialists who harm other cultures.³
The record shows, however, that many missionaries in fact have acted with cultural and spiritual sensitivity—investing their lives, for example, in translating the Bible into hundreds of indigenous languages. Lamin Sanneh emphasizes that such translation of the missionary’s most sacred texts is powerful validation of indigenous culture, with transforming and enduring effect.4
Sociological legacy of mission work
Sociologist Robert Woodberry recently spent a decade analyzing the long-term social, political, and economic impact of Protestant missionaries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His findings, published with exhaustive documentation in the American Political Science Review,5 point to the conclusion that Protestant missionaries in many parts of the world were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely.6
Long term benefits of Protestant missionary presence included increased opportunity for women and the poor, lower infant mortality, and better health in general. It is important to note that these positive effects pertain only to what Woodberry calls “conversionary Protestants” not funded by the state. Conversionary Protestants “actively attempt to persuade others of their beliefs,” emphasize “lay vernacular Bible reading,” and believe that “grace/faith/choice saves people, not group membership or sacraments.”
Anabaptists and conversionary theology
Many traits that Woodbury associates with positive missionary impact match closely the beliefs and practices of Anabaptist mission work of the last century: a message that persuades hearers toward conversion; lay reading of the Bible; emphasis on faith rather than sacraments; independence from state control; education that includes women and the poor. It is likely that Anabaptist mission, past and present, has had the same net positive impact on many societies that Woodberry associates with “conversionary Protestants.” New insight on the positive effect of nineteenth- and twentieth-century missions should generate gratitude along with critical analysis. It also should allow Anabaptists in North America to listen more carefully to the global church. It is hard for North Americans to hear or value the global church if we believe that the whole mission enterprise was a mistake.
J. Nelson Kraybill, Ph.D, is pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, and president of Mennonite World Conference. He served as president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (1997–2009), and as program director at London Mennonite Centre in England (1991–96). Author of Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos, 2010), he leads tours to Israel/Palestine and blogs at www.peace-pilgrim.com
1) Mennonite World Conference in 2012 gave the following breakdown of global Anabaptist population: Africa 38.3%, North America 29.8%, Asia and Pacific 17.8%, Latin America and the Caribbean 10.5%, and Europe 3.6%. https://www.mwc-cmm.org/article/world-directory (accessed 14 March, 2015).
2) Paul Borthwick, Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the North American Church? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2012), 17.
3) North American Anabaptist hesitation about or hostility toward evangelistic mission is difficult to quantify. I reflect on critical comments my wife and I received when we went to England on a mission assignment in 1991, and on the fact that younger North American Anabaptists today are more likely to financially support relief and service than anything that looks to them like traditional mission. Already in 1999, the President of Mennonite Board of Missions said this about North American Mennonites: “The failure of nerve in regard to evangelistic mission that plagued other church groups [in the 1960s and following] was reflected among Mennonites as an enthusiasm for relief and service. This emphasis resulted in a trajectory that involved a slow but steady decline of traditional church-planting mission, with a countervailing dramatic growth of relief and service as represented in the programs of the Mennonite Central Committee.” Stanley W. Green, “How Mennonites Repositioned a Traditional Mission” (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 1999, 161–63), 161. Green said in a 25 April 2015 email to Nelson Kraybill that he sees “no significant shift” from this trend he identified in 1999.
5) Robert Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” (American Political Science Review, May 2012), 244–274. This article won the American Political Science Association’s 2013 Luebbert award for the best article in comparative politics published in the previous two years.