More than before

Could smaller denominations think bigger?

Aug 17, 2015 by

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We live in a postdenominational time. Historic Christian brand names don’t inspire the loyalty they used to. People don’t care so much whether a church is Mennonite or Methodist or Baptist.

In the spirit of the postdenominational revolution, here’s a radical thought: What if Mennonite Church USA stopped being a denomination? Or stopped being, period. Disbanded in favor of something new. Not to give up Mennonite identity, but to strengthen it.

Rather than scraping together the pieces of a shrinking denomination, American Mennonites could lift up a bigger vision. Form a U.S. Mennonite Alliance. Invite everyone: Mennonite Breth­ren, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Evana Network, independent congregations. Set up the biggest U.S. Anabaptist tent this side of Mennonite Central Committee. Not everyone would come in, but the door would be open.

And be clear about one thing: This would not be a denomination. It would not be a place to judge whether others are too lax or too strict and what to do about them if they’re wrong. Instead, it would be something like Mennonite World Conference, bonded by the basic tenets of the Christian faith and Anabaptism.

At this point in history, it seems clear that a group as diverse as MC USA can’t be a denomination without getting bogged down in conflict over sexuality. The problem lies in what people expect a denomination to do. Some want it to enforce the rules a majority agrees on. Others want it to tolerate diversity because a majority is comfortable with that kind of freedom. MC USA lacks enough agreement to move decisively in either direction. The intensity of emotion and depth of conviction that surround the issue of same-sex relationships have sealed this reality.

Unfortunately, 21st-century American Mennonites are staying true to their sectarian history. Only small, like-minded denominations or conferences seem to work. By creating a big-tent denomination, MC USA defied history and broke new ground. For a few years it looked like the experiment might succeed. But now the coalition is unraveling. This summer’s resolutions — which, in theory, offered something for both progressives and traditionalists — seem to have solved nothing.

Dissolving MC USA would clear the way to bring back the small, comfortable denominations Mennonites prefer. There are many possible configurations. Area conferences could even get together and bring back new versions of the old General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church, if that’s what it takes to make people feel right at home. Each would be smaller but happier. Each would hope to be more effective in ministry, having cast off the distraction of conflict (at least for the moment) and freed themselves to pursue their distinctive visions.

If this scenario came true, with new coalitions retreating into safe huddles, much would be lost. It would be an admission of failure. But it would also open the door to new possibilities. American Mennonites could still accomplish a different version of the dream of unity that MC USA has aspired to.

Diverse Anabaptist alliances are possible, and MWC proves it. At the world assembly this summer in Harrisburg, Pa., more than 7,500 people experienced this global Anabaptist fellowship. They felt the blessing of a movement that embraces many denominations with a solidarity that rises above differences. What MWC does globally, a U.S. Mennonite Alliance could do nationally. But only if it’s postdenominational.


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