Last summer I spent two weeks teaching at the Meserete Kristos Church’s seminary in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. While in Ethiopia I learned of the denomination’s growth plans, which involve attracting thousands of new members and initiating many new congregations. I also visited what I was told was a “small” church with a few hundred attendees (among them dozens of children) and a larger church that had around two thousand congregants present. In conversations about differences between the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) and North American Mennonites, I often heard a variation on the line, “We understand that you Mennonites focus on discipleship rather than growth.”
I took that statement in part as a sign of respect and in part as a transparent acknowledgment of difference. My students were strongly committed to discipleship and eager to engage Mennonites in a process of mutual learning about following Jesus. At the same time, they expressed a contrast between their own priorities and those I represented as a North American Mennonite. This contrast was typically articulated in response to discussion of the obvious numerical facts about the global Mennonite church: growth in Ethiopia, decline in North America.
Over the past few months as I’ve contemplated my conversations with my MKC students, I’ve wondered what it would look like for North American Mennonites to embrace something of the MKC vision of discipleship and growth. Many of us have become skittish around the language of “church planting” and even the idea of intentionally seeking to start new Anabaptist communities—and often for good reasons. Concerns about colonialism have rightly motivated Anabaptists and other Christians to seek new patterns of missional engagement since the mid-twentieth century. Mennonite mission agencies embraced a paradigm of partnership with existing indigenous Christian churches rather than a strategy of initiating new communities. Around the same time, Mennonite academics argued for the congregation as the basic unit of mission, with ordinary congregational worship and mutual aid as the primary method of witness. Meanwhile, many ordinary Anabaptists gave up on mission, viewing it as inherently imperialistic, and instead emphasized peacemaking and social activism.
This issue of Anabaptist Witness contains articles from Britain, Canada, India, and the United States on the theme of “New Anabaptist Communities.” Many of the articles reflect on denominational, conference, and parachurch efforts to start new communities, while some of them narrate grassroots efforts to found congregations outside of any institutional prompting. Many of the articles reflect theologically on connections between Anabaptist identity, mission, peace, and justice. Taken together, the essays suggest various paths forward in making connections between growth and discipleship, between the intentional creation of new communities and faithful witness to Jesus.
The issue opens with the story of Grace & Peace Mennonite Church, as narrated by one of its founding members Rhonda L. Mitchell. Mitchell tells of how she and other New York City Mennonites with physical disabilities began to ask themselves, and to discuss with conference leadership, “What is the perfect church for me?” Although the congregation initially gathered in Mitchell’s apartment, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic it has largely met online.
Grace & Peace Mennonite Church is a wonderful example of how new communities can emerge to meet the needs and desires of Anabaptist Christians for fellowship and worship. The next article, a sermon by Rachael Weasley, similarly narrates the establishment of Community of Hope, an online congregation that “centers queer experience and queer theology.” Weasley shares how her search for a new church home after moving across the United States led her eventually to start one—also during the pandemic. Starting online enabled a “diasporic” community to emerge over time, with regular meetings over Zoom for far-flung members and occasional in-person gatherings for those in the same area. The stories of Grace & Peace and Community of Hope give us a glimpse of how digital technologies are shaping new Anabaptist communities.
Stuart Murray’s article on Anabaptist church planting in Britain also begins with the pandemic. In 2020 leaders of the Anabaptist Mennonite Network gathered to consider whether to begin intentionally looking to found new communities—a break from its historic commitment to a model that emphasizes partnership and dialogue with other Christians. Although Murray suggests the Network will continue that emphasis, he also tells of efforts underway to begin new congregations that reflect the 500-year tradition of Anabaptist church planting.
Doug Luginbill, conference minister of Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA), tells of his own journey from skepticism to embrace of church planting. Luginbill shares reservations related to church planters’ perceived motivations and tendency to downplay distinctive aspects of Anabaptist-Mennonite faith, particularly with regard to peace witness. In the past few years, however, Luginbill has had the opportunity to walk alongside a variety of new communities, and this experience has given him a new hope for healthy Anabaptist church plants.
In the next article, David Boshart, former conference minister of Central Plains Mennonite Conference (CPMC) of MC USA, reflects on changes in the conference’s church-planting strategy. Boshart examines CPMC’s shift in 2005 from a “transactional” model of church planting—one in which existing congregations focus on providing resources for new congregations—to a “community of practice” model that stresses mutual ministry and support among all of the conference’s member congregations, new and old. In Boshart’s telling, this shift reversed a long history of unsuccessful church-planting effort. Together, Luginbill’s and Boshart’s articles offer a window into the history of Mennonite church planting in the United States in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century.
Mauricio Chenlo, the minister for church planting at MC USA and Mennonite Mission Network, then shares how his sense of the importance of church planting evolved after moving to the American South, where there are few churches explicitly committed to peace witness. Chenlo describes denominational efforts to support the initiation of churches patterned on Jesus’s model of peace, justice, and compassion.
Amita Sidh, a member of a Mennonite Church in India congregation, offers a warning to churches that focus on service ministries rather than evangelism and church planting. Although Sidh is strongly supportive of service as a form of Christian mission, she is convinced on biblical and theological grounds of the importance of calling people to faith in Christ—and of forming new communities of new believers.
Finally, Matthew Todd presents research on the formation and history of Chinese Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada. These churches, mostly located in British Columbia and started in the 1990s, have provided a home to Chinese migrants and eventually, through the hard work of their members, have served as cultural and theological hubs for a distinctive identity. Yet as the migrants’ children increasingly assimilate to Canadian culture, additional challenges have emerged. Todd’s article is a reminder that as new communities age, their struggles and opportunities change. Reviews of books on world religions and martyrdom close the issue.
In the next issue of Anabaptist Witness, guest editors Henok Mekonin (Global Leadership Collaborative Specialist, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) and Abenezer Shimeles (MDiv student, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) will present articles on “Mission and Peace in Ethiopia.” That issue promises to advance our collective understanding of how commitments to peace, justice, and new communities might coalesce. I hope that these two issues together will help us Mennonites learn how to focus on discipleship and growth.
—Jamie Pitts, Editor