Unified outlier

In a cynical time, optimism counts as a blessing

May 8, 2017 by

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Every trend has exceptions. Even the decline of Christian denominations in North America. These venerable entities thrived during an era of trust in big institutions. Now, according to the most pessimistic assessments, they have faded into irrelevance.

Yes, that’s a worst-case description. But the trajectory is clear, and it is downward.

Not always, though. One Mennonite denomination might be the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

Judging from a survey of more than 1,200 members, Conservative Mennonite Conference is an outlier, rising above typical denominational woes. To be sure, the 12,000-member conference has its share of challenges. But its apparent avoidance of common problems is noteworthy.

CMC is blessed with “optimism and enthusiasm in a day when most historic denominations are facing cynicism and erosion,” say Conrad L. Kanagy and Jacob L. Kanagy, writers of a 38-page report on the CMC survey. Moreover, the conference is “in an enviable position” of theological agreement: “The major social issues tearing at the unity of other churches are not revealing themselves within CMC.” Especially significant is “near total unanimity” on sexuality and marriage.

As a result, while other denominations — notably Mennonite Church Canada — are decentralizing and downsizing, CMC members actually want a stronger center. They expect their conference to “resource pastors and leaders [and] to lead in local and global mission.” In a time when donors’ dollars tend to stay close to home, CMC members retain a broad vision of what they can do together.

There are challenges, too. “The mission and purpose of CMC are unclear to many people,” the report says. And, in a candid revelation, CMC members experience “feelings of inferiority relative to Mennonite Church USA and other non-CMC Anabaptist institutions.”

To boost any flagging esteem, the report’s writers advise that “presently, only conservative congregations are growing in the United States.” The “only” is doubtful, but the underlying idea is right: For many people, “conservative” is a positive, attractive identity.

But not for everyone. North American Mennonites today are as narrowly defined, and as polarized, as ever. Perhaps more so. In the past couple of years, MC USA’s attempt to build a diverse coalition has faltered. Realignment is the order of the day. Dozens of congregations have withdrawn. Lancaster Mennonite Conference is returning to its historic independence. The evangelical Anabaptist network Evana is building connections among conservative-leaning congregations.

All of which proves once again that most of us are more comfortable in like-minded company. Maybe this will never change. Big-tent visions will remain unfulfilled. Accepting that imperfect reality, every church should be proud of its own identity. Conservative is not inferior. Nor is moderate or liberal. The most elusive identity will continue to be that of bridge-builder, holding diverse believers together under one banner. One who does that really bucks a trend.

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