New name? Mennonite World Conference considers its identity

Jun 5, 2017 by

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When someone mispronounces or misspells your name, does it seem they aren’t quite addressing you? We choose names carefully, perhaps to honor someone or to express a hoped-for characteristic. Names form part of our identity.

Changing a name is not done lightly: There are legal steps, and friends and acquaintances must learn to use the new name. More important, the change says something about identity: Something significant has changed, or the new name better describes who you have always been.

The Democratic Republic of Congo Pennsylvania Choir sings at the MWC assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., on July 23, 2015. — Dale D. Gehman/Meetinghouse

The Democratic Republic of Congo Pennsylvania Choir sings at the MWC assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., on July 23, 2015. — Dale D. Gehman/Meetinghouse

Over the past 30 years, the leaders of Mennonite World Conference have been in conversation around the possibility of a name change. In 2016 the Executive Committee tasked the Faith and Life Commission to lead a process to bring a recommendation to the General Council in 2018 and for decision in 2021. Regional representatives will pursue conversations and gather feedback.

A request from leaders of the Brethren in Christ in the United States who experience a sense of exclusion motivated the conversation. They observed that when the MWC assembly was held in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2015, the media reported on the event almost exclusively in terms of “Mennonite,” despite the many BIC congregations involved.

A changing identity

The identity of an organization can change over time. At its beginnings, MWC was a conference that European leaders convened in 1925, 1930 and 1936 to address specific issues, particularly the refugee crisis among Mennonites in Russia. By 1948, a structure had emerged using the name MWC. In 2003, the official name became: “Mennonite World Conference: A Community of Anabaptist-Related Churches.”

Building widespread recognition of an organization’s identity or brand requires time and energy. MWC (“CMM” in Spanish and French) is widely known by its acronym; a name change would need to consider the linguistic consequences in its three official languages (English, Spanish and French).

Possible alterations to MWC’s name trend in two directions: 1) replace “Mennonite” with “Anabaptist” and 2) replace “Conference” with “Communion,” “Community” or “Alliance.”

‘Mennonite’

Historically and in the context of the global church, “Anabaptist” includes a broad spectrum of groups with a commitment to believers baptism, a view of the church as a visible community and an earnest desire to follow the teachings of Jesus in daily life. Theologically, “Anabaptist” is often used to denote an ideal or standard, a belief tradition separated from the cultural ties sometimes attached to “Mennonite.”

Of the 105 national member churches in MWC, 76 use “Mennonite,” 13 are Brethren in Christ and 11 employ “Anabaptist” in their title, often in conjunction with “Mennonite.” Rather than using a form of “Mennonite” for their name, some national churches take a concept, like Mese­rete Kristos (Christ the foundation) in Ethiopia; or an association, like Gereja Kristen Muria (Christian Muria churches) in Indonesia; for their name.

The Global Anabaptist Profile research project found that churches in North America had the highest preference for “Anabaptist” as a self-descriptor (58 percent) compared to 41 percent in Europe, 38 percent in Africa, 23 percent in Asia and 21 percent in Latin America.

For “Mennonite,” the numbers were as follows: 62 percent Europe, 60 percent Asia, 55 percent Africa, 33 percent Latin America and 31 percent North America. (Groups could choose more than one designation.)

A drawback of the word “Anabaptist” is that it is both too broad and too limiting: The descriptor is claimed by a much larger group than associates with MWC, but it also focuses on believers baptism as the marker of Mennonite identity to the exclusion of other important theological emphases like discipleship and the mission of reconciliation.

‘Conference’

Almost 100 years after its first convening, MWC is best known for its once-every-six-years assembly. Today, however, the organization functions year-round to foster relationship and support among diverse members of the Anabaptist family.

In 2012, the General Council affirmed a document from the Faith and Life Commission that provided theological reflection on the Greek concept of koinonia as a descriptor of MWC. It highlights “shared identity and life as the body of Christ,” writes Thomas Yoder Neufeld. Koinonia is “both the reality undergirding our life together and . . . a goal toward which we are moving . . . both fact and vision.”

The word that most closely expresses this concept is “communion.” It suggests a body committed to relationships of sacrificial love, accountability and mutual aid.

Alternatively, “community” or “fellowship” suggests a gathering of shared interests, goals and activities. “Alliance” or “federation” suggests a legislative body made up of independent groups that gather to pursue common goals.

A final option is to retain the name. “Mennonite World Conference” remains a strong brand, and though it does not fully convey all aspects of the family’s identity, other names are also a partial description.

Whatever the outcome of the conversation, MWC will continue to serve the family of Anabaptist-related worshiping communities around the world with prayer, support and mutual submission as we follow Christ’s example of sharing and living good news to the world.


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