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2012-01-02 issue:

Chilean Mennonites enrich the fold

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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Last May, the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Chile (Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Chile, or IEMCH) officially joined Mennonite World Conference, thereby becoming MWC’s 100th member. Likely, the news did not register with many. After all, IEMCH is a small conference—14 congregations and 1,200 members—and our attention is rarely captivated by distant events that seem to have little bearing on our daily lives. Yet buried in the story of MWC’s newest member are hints of a profound revolution unfolding before our eyes.

In 1980, there were approximately 600,000 Anabaptist-Mennonites in the world, most of them living in Europe or North America. Today, only a few decades later, the Anabaptist-Mennonite family numbers more than 1.7 million members scattered in 85 countries. The overwhelming majority of our members now live outside Europe and North America, with the largest groups concentrated in Ethiopia and the Congo. From the perspective of a 500-year-old tradition, we are witnessing—in our own lifetime—a transformation of historical proportions. A theological tradition born in Europe and nurtured in the steppes of South Russia and the fertile soil of North America is now experiencing astounding growth and vitality in dozens of cultures around the globe.

For most of us, this is not a new realization. After all, our congregations have always supported overseas missionaries; our members have served with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC); our young people have done short-term mission or service trips; and our living rooms reflect the international decor of the local Ten Thousand Villages store. We know that our church, like the economy, has gone global.

But at the same time, we are not quite sure what this means or how it matters. After all, what difference does it make to my congregation if a group in Chile decides to cast their lot with the global Anabaptist-Mennonite family? What do we have in common with them? And what does it actually mean to be part of a “global church”?

If pressed on the question, one reflex is to think in historical or tribal terms. In joining “our” story, we might assume, the new Mennonite congregations in Chile will now need to trace their history to the Radical Reformation of the 16th century, with the churches of North America and Europe serving as the crucial bridges to that source of their new identity.

Or we may focus on theology, assuming that as the global Anabaptist family grows, the churches of North America will maintain “quality control.” The congregations in Chile are welcome if they meet our criteria of Mennonite theological orthodoxy, defined perhaps as the Anabaptist Vision, The Politics of Jesus or The Naked Anabaptist.

At a gathering last fall celebrating the completion of the Global Mennonite History series—   including a new history of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in Latin America by Jaime Prieto—Titus Guenther hinted at an alternative approach to thinking about the global church. Guenther, who teaches theology and missions at Canadian Mennonite University, told the story of how the IEMCH decided to join MWC. In the early 1980s, several independent congregations emerged in poor neighborhoods in and around the city of Santiago committed to a ministry that joined social work with evangelism. Their primary outreach was among the poor, offering vocational training for young people and pastoral support to alcoholics and drug addicts. In 1989, with encouragement from Jorge Vallejos Sr.—a Chilean church planter who had emigrated to Canada—the congregations explored their Mennonite identity and formed the IEMCH.

In subsequent years, church leaders took note of the ministry of MCC in Bolivia, especially the way its outreach moved across boundaries of race, culture and class. Daniel Delgado, the group’s president, read Anabaptist history and was moved by the story of Dirk Willems. In 2009, representatives of IEMCH returned from the MWC assembly in Paraguay hungry for more teaching on Anabaptist subjects, even as their own ministries among the poor continued to flourish.

Questions of history and theology matter to IEMCH. But at a deeper level the group is seeking new friendships in a desire for deeper Christian discipleship. And they bring with them a host of gifts, without which our church and our understanding of Christian faithfulness is not complete.

The parable of the shepherd who went out looking for the missing sheep ends with an account of “great rejoicing” (Luke 15:6). What was our church missing before IEMCH joined MWC? What does it mean to be “in the fold”? Can we join in the celebration that there are now 100 members of MWC, rather than 99? 

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