In with the old
Editorialby Everett J. Thomas
Like cicadas, every 17 years a chorus of reaction follows profiles of Mennonite church members: The first one emerged after the 1972 research and the second one after the 1989 profile. The latest chorus is responding to data in Church Member Profile 2006. So far, much of the reaction has focused on the lack of growth in an aging Mennonite Church USA membership.
But the 2006 data reveals that some of the “old” in us is good and should be saved.
1. Membership is declining, and our average age increases as we have fewer children.
Over the past year, new attention has been given to the aging church. Jack Suderman, general secretary for Mennonite Church Canada, first focused on the issues of an aging church for us (Leadership, March 20, 2007). Suderman described the effect of the Baby Boomer generation on congregational membership and noted that the reason for fewer young people in our church is because the Boomers have passed through the child-bearing and child-rearing age. Suderman calls on us, consequently, to consider now what it means to have a church that is older.
“We need to embrace our aging as a gift if our church is to remain active and vibrant,” Suderman wrote. “If the presence of seniors is our strength for the future, then we need to affirm and build on that strength.”
In with the old.
2. There is real numerical growth in racial/ethnic congregations, but we do not value it.
One part of Mennonite Church USA is growing: congregations comprised mainly of underrepresented racial/ethnic members.
“Racial/ethnic members are much younger on average than Anglo members and have higher fertility rates, providing a much-needed population boost to the denomination,” says Conrad L. Kanagy in Road Signs for the Journey, the book he wrote following completion of Church Member Profile 2006.
We have been focusing on dismantling racism in the church for at least a decade now, and many area conferences have worked at nurturing congregations comprised primarily of racial/ethnic members. We have had some success; it is part of the “old” that we can embrace. Doing so, however, will mean painful changes if we are to move beyond simply assimilating people of color into our predominantly white culture.
“Unfortunately, many Anglos—that is, white—Mennonites have little awareness of the number and growth of these members,” Kanagy says. “At the same time, racial/ethnic leaders and members feel alienated and outside the structures of power and relationships of the church.”
The beginning steps we have taken with racial/ethnic congregations are part of the “old” we embrace, but we must acknowledge this alienation and bring new leaders and members inside the structures of power. We can save one part of the “old” while jettisoning patterns of white privilege. In with only the best of this old.
3. By fixating on Mennonite Church USA demographics, we ignore the rest of the Anabaptist family within the United States. Whom do we ignore? The theologically conservative and more traditional parts of the Mennonite and Amish tribal systems within the United States.
“The proportion of Mennonite Church USA members among other Anabaptists … is declining,” Kanagy says, “a factor affected by the denomination’s actual decline in membership and increases among other Anabaptist groups.”
The spiritual family to which I belong includes all the constituencies whose convictions find expression through the efforts of Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service and MMA. We need to work as hard at building relationships with these groups as we have with Pentecostals and Roman Catholics. Their more conservative theology may feel “old” for us, but it is not. These, too, are our sisters and brothers through whom God speaks. We need them.
In with that old as well.
Data from Church Member Profile 2006 gives us an honest picture of ourselves. But it reveals strengths in our denominational body that can be encouraging. Some of the “old” in us is solid and will be the foundation upon which God builds our church during the next 17 years.
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