Two trends to watch

As globalization rises, institutions struggle

Dec 17, 2018 by

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It’s tempting to exaggerate the uniqueness of what is happening to us right now. We say the world is changing faster than ever but forget change is constant. Earlier generations saw massive upheaval, too. We’re not that special.

Except maybe we are.

Today there’s wide agreement that we’re living in a time of historic change in the church and the culture. Happenings in global Anabaptism this year can be viewed within the context of two broad trends that are changing the world, and the church, in fundamental ways: globalization and a loss of trust in institutions.

Mennonite World Conference’s triennial membership census confirmed rising globalization. As Anabaptist world membership inched upward, all of the growth happened in the Global South. North America and Europe declined while Africa, Asia and Latin America grew.

Anabaptism’s center of gravity has been shifting south for decades. Two-thirds of our people now are African, Asian or Latin American. They are leading a modern reformation that is every bit as important as the Protestant Reformation that birthed Anabaptism nearly 500 years ago, said John D. Roth, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen (Ind.) College, at a conference hosted by Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University.

What does the globalization of Anabaptism mean for us? Roth suggested we ought to ask: “What does the global church have to say to the heirs of the 16th-century Reformation who are struggling to know whether the institution of their churches has a future?”

He was right to talk about the two trends — rising globalization, declining institutions —  in the same breath.

MWC offers a chance to hear voices from the Global South in Renewal 2027, a 10-year series of gatherings marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and seeking renewal for today. At this year’s event, in Kenya last spring, Elisabeth Kunjam of India called for “the Holy Spirit’s empowerment” within the global Anabaptist family “to raise up a standard that bears a witness to the world.”

That’s something to pray for.

As Roth noted, our need for wisdom from the Global South grows as we wonder if it will be possible for our North American institutions to thrive in a secular culture. Are decentralized structures the answer? New names? Both are being tried. In this space we have contended that dropping the Mennonite name in favor of initials like LMC or CMC risks a loss of identity and abandons a valuable religious brand.

Still, “LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches” does sound less institutional than “Lancaster Mennonite Conference.” If there’s anything North American denominations want, it’s to be less institutional, to shake the perception of being irrelevant, distant and out of touch. Perhaps they’ll all rebrand as “networks.” This would fit a post­denominational era when people are more likely to see institutions as the source of problems than the solution to them. It would match an era of realignment, as old affiliations end and new relationships emerge.

“Are there going to be new models, new ways for those of us who identify as Anabaptist to network with each other . . . and be accountable?” asked Michael Zehr, moderator of Southeast Mennonite Conference, before it left Mennonite Church USA this year. Surely there are. Change may just be picking up speed.

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