From the editorby Everett J. Thomas
A difficult experience at our national convention in Columbus, Ohio, in 2009 is now providing impetus to evaluate the way Mennonite Church USA gathers every two years. Executive director Ervin Stutzman addressed the issue in his April report to the Executive Board.
“The experience of Pink Mennos at Columbus in 2009,” Stutzman said, “introduced a new level of engagement in controversial matters. ... The techniques of social advocacy and confrontation that we have taught young adults in our schools has come to haunt our church’s most visible gathering, to the end that convention-goers feel immense pressure to take up sides against one another on [homosexuality].”
Rachel Swartzendruber Miller is the director of convention planning. In her report to the Executive Board, she said that some large congregations will send their youth groups to Pittsburgh 2011 but have said they will not participate in the future if activists “employ strategies similar to what took place in Columbus.”
Swartzendruber Miller also listed four other factors causing a decrease in youth attendance:
• Some groups now employ a four-year cycle that affords youth one convention and one significant mission trip during high school;
• Some churches send their youth on mission trips instead of to convention;
• The financial cost for attending convention;
• A shrinking youth population among Mennonite Church USA families.
Mennonite Church USA’s biennial gathering is more than a youth convention. It is actually multiple conventions: adult, young adult, youth, junior youth and children.
But the youth convention is its economic engine; it brings thousands of youth and hundreds of adult sponsors. Those numbers create a significant economy of scale.
Registration numbers from Columbus 2009 illustrate the importance of youth convention participation:
Adult convention: 2,536
Youth and sponsors: 4,200
Junior youth: 271
Were the youth convention to be disconnected from the adult convention, the adult convention could meet in a smaller venue. That is what some people want. Others like big-city venues and argue that it would be a great loss to bifurcate the youth experience from the adult experience.
Mennonite Church USA has had a decade with large biennial gatherings. Now may be a good time to take a hard look at the question. Here is one proposal:
Contracts are signed for Phoenix 2013 and Kansas City, Kan., in 2015. But if the 2015 contract can be renegotiated for a smaller attendance, have the youth convention gather in Kansas while the adult convention meets in conjunction with Mennonite World Conference’s assembly in Harrisburg, Pa.
Or, for those who think we ought to try regional youth gatherings, plan for those in 2015. Such a plan would allow for youth groups on a four-year cycle to pick which kind of convention they want.
The law of unintended consequences would certainly pertain to such a shift. One consequence might be a significant financial loss for the Executive Board. We may also lose the emerging sense of national identity growing among us.
But there may be positive consequences. Regional youth gatherings may strengthen relationships for area conferences participating in them. Unknown is whether more or fewer people would register for smaller regional gatherings.
As Mennonite Church USA turns 10 years old in July, it will be time to assess some of our conventional wisdom. Experimenting with “unconventional conventions” in 2015 could test whether our current practices are the ones that make us strongest as a church.
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