Identity redefinition

Anabaptists rethink what denominations can be

Nov 6, 2017 by

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Anabaptist denominations are having an identity crisis. Or at least an identity redefinition. This is happening in several ways: making or considering name changes; ending old affiliations, beginning new ones or declaring independence; and reshaping what a denomination is.

The pace of change indicates the fragmented state of Anabaptism in North America. The character of our denominations and area conferences is changing. In general, they are smaller. They are more regional and less national. (Some are evolving beyond geographical clusters into far-flung theological coalitions.) They are playing a smaller role in shaping members’ identity. And they are trying to redefine themselves.

Changing a name is one way to redefine. Brethren in Christ Canada found its name had become outdated and burdensome. “Be in Christ” will take some getting used to, but it conveys a positive message and keeps the BIC brand.

For Conservative Mennonite Conference, a proposed change to Rosedale Network implied significant change, submerging Mennonite identity and trying to sound less institutional. CMC might be on the right track with “network,” a good word to describe how congregations relate to each other. But “Rosedale” doesn’t carry much recognition outside the CMC inner circle. The proposal didn’t pass, and we hope the next one keeps “Mennonite” in the name.

Mennonite Church Canada’s restructuring is a different kind of redefinition. Amid declining support for national structures, it recalibrates what a denomination should be. It also offers a possible solution to strained relationships: Eliminating national membership for congregations, it might ease the concerns of those who resist being part of a theologically diverse national body. Shifting responsibilities to its regions while cutting national staff, MC Canada may be a test case for the future of denominations with less centralized power.

In another kind of redefinition, Lancaster Mennonite Conference is returning to independence after a four-decade era of denominational membership. Lancas­ter became a part of the Mennonite Church denominational structure in 1971 and then of Mennonite Church USA in 2004 after the merger with the General Conference Mennonite Church. But MC USA proved to be a place where congregations and conferences did what their own majorities believed was right and not what anyone else wished they would do. Lancaster desired more unity of belief and practice.

A common thread in many of these redefinitions is a movement toward the small, the separate and the uniform. Lancaster will stand apart, as it has for most of three centuries. MC Canada will ask its regions to take control. MC USA will reset its goals and adjust to the loss of many conservative members. Big tents are coming down; new coalitions are emerging. As Mennonites reorganize into like-minded groups, it will be all the more important to reach across the fences.


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  • Arli Klassen

    This is a thoughtful and helpful reflection on the changes and trends in North American Anabaptist denominations; thank you. However, as a paper called “Mennonite World Review”, and a headline of “Anabaptists rethink denominations”, one might think this is a global perspective instead of just a North American perspective. Let’s be careful not to assume that what is happening in the USA and Canada is happening elsewhere around the world. The role of the larger (often national) body is one being discussed in many countries, and many places only dream of replicating the resources and structures of the downsized North American denominations. Maybe we have something to learn from them on how to be a faith community using fewer resources.

  • Dick Thomas

    This independence of Lancaster Conference seems to me to be different than in the past when it related as a conference of the Mennonite Church but did not send delegates to Mennonite General Conference until the church reorganized in 1971.

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