600,000 divided by 67

Anabaptist math adds up our reasons to exist

May 27, 2019 by

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Does your church have a reason to be? There’s a reason it began, but does it have a purpose today? If your great-grandparents needed a shorter drive for the horse and buggy, that doesn’t count any more.

The reason to exist might not be obvious, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. In Newton, Kan., there are two Mennonite churches a block apart and another about six blocks down the street. All belong to the same conference of the same denomination, yet they’re not redundant. Their differences complement each other. They offer choices for newcomers and distinct cultures for longtime members.

You could fit all three in one sanctuary, and that would be efficient. But in the local marketplace of faith, it would be bad for business, like an automaker offering one kind of car or a restaurant one dish.

Are the myriad Anabaptist denominations similar to the three Mennonite churches in one Newton neighborhood? Is the proliferation of affiliations a sign of healthy diversity  or embarrassing division?

That’s the question one might ask about a list of 67 U.S. Anabaptist groups. The Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society presented this census of U.S. Ana­baptists in its Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage magazine and agreed to let MWR share it, too.

Healthy diversity or embarrassing division? Some would say the answer is obvious: Dividing 600,000 Anabaptists into 67 subgroups isn’t something to be proud of. Mergers being rare, the number isn’t likely to decrease, so perhaps the better question about the splintered state of Anabaptism is: What is your denomination’s reason to be?

Don Morris, national director of the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, considers why the USMB exists in the May/June Christian Leader.

“[T]here are ways of following Jesus that others have minimized but we see as primary,” he says. “Those include being true disciples who are people of the Word, believers baptism, the importance of community and being people who promote peace.”

Morris has identified several of the reasons Anabaptism exists as a distinct Christian movement. But what about the many versions of Anabaptism? Are they all necessary? Like the Newton churches, what might look redundant to an outsider makes sense to those inside. Many groups were founded to maintain conservative rules on dress, technology and media use. These reasons for being are as strong as ever, preserving traditions others abandoned.

For several groups, including Mennonite Brethren and LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference), an evangelical Anabaptist identity is important, along with more conservative positions on women in ministry and LGBTQ inclusion than are found in Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.

Groups like MB, LMC and MC USA like to think of themselves as the Anabaptist majority. But, as the article accompanying the LMHS census points out, this is not accurate. The 144,000 Amish alone outnumber these three relatively liberal groups. The Amish and members of the dozens of conservative and Plain groups could stake a more credible claim as the “average Anabaptists.”

If the astonishingly long list of Anabaptist subgroups causes a tinge of embarrassment, that might not be a bad thing. It directs us toward humility, repentance and appreciation of diversity. Humility to realize none of us gets to lift ourselves up as the standard of Anabaptism. Repentance for the times we have contributed to unhealthy factionalism. And appreciation for traditionalists who remind us it is wise to balance prog­ress with preservation.

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