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2012-11-01 issue:

Amish growth enriches all of us

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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The figures are by now familiar. In 1978, there were roughly 610,000 Anabaptists in the world; today, a little more than three decades later, that number has nearly tripled, with the most dramatic increases taking place in Africa (700 percent growth), Latin America (400 percent) and Asia (nearly 300 percent). The story that usually accompanies these figures is also familiar: Anabaptist churches in the Global South are growing; Anabaptist churches in Europe and North America are in decline.

But that conclusion is only partially true. Although membership in the groups who merged in 2002 to form Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada has indeed remained stagnant, it may come as a surprise to discover that, overall, the number of Anabaptists in North America has grown significantly during the past 30 years, increasing from some 313,000 baptized members in 1978 to more than 535,000 in 2010.

The biggest single factor behind that growth is the remarkable expansion of the Old Order Amish. Already in 1992, historian Steven Nolt called attention to the demographic fact that during the course of the 20th century, the population of the Amish had nearly doubled every two decades, making it one of the fastest-growing religious groups in the United States.

Now, in a report released this past summer, researchers have confirmed that this growth has continued into the 21st century. Today there are nearly 250,000 Old Order Amish in the United States and Canada; if the current trajectory continues, demographers have calculated that the Amish population will exceed 1 million by the year 2050.

Because of this growth, images of the Amish as a “people of place,” tied to the land of their ancestors, need to be revised. According to data compiled by Joseph F. Donnermeyer, a sociologist at Ohio State University, the Amish established 278 new settlements between 1990 and 2009, locating in 170 new counties, where no Amish had previously lived. Today, more than half of all Amish settlements are less than two decades old.

What are we to make of this, and why is it relevant to the global church? First of all, the demographic transformation underway within the Amish church is a welcome reminder that church growth in North America is indeed possible—the dynamic expansion in membership that we associate with churches in the Global South can also happen in our own backyard.

Second, we should resist the inevitable impulse to dismiss this growth as “merely” a function of large families—what some Mennonites have derisively called “bedroom evangelism.” The first and most crucial missionary calling of any Christian congregation is to communicate its convictions in a compelling way to those closest at hand.

Indeed, if our own children are not attracted to our faith and life, we have good reason to ask whether we have anything relevant to say to people in mission contexts far from home. The Amish young adults I know are not robots who have been programmed to mindlessly obey the church. They recognize that baptism implies a choice that will shape the rest of their lives. Having considered the options, they choose to stay.

Third, the Amish serve as a healthy reminder that Anabaptist convictions have always found expression in a wide variety of cultural forms. Their visible presence should caution us against insisting that North American Mennonites represent the “norm” for what it means to be part of this rich tradition. As we increasingly engage with other Anabaptist-Mennonite groups around the world whose practices may look different from our own, we should keep in mind the variety of expressions that also exist closer to home.

Finally, the strong communal identity embodied by the Amish does not necessarily imply a provincialism or lack of interest in other groups within the Anabaptist-Mennonite family of faith. Recently, I was warmly welcomed at a two-day gathering of Amish historians meeting at a new settlement in Maysville, Ky.

Participants expressed great interest in the regional variety evident within their own groups while also inquiring into contemporary Mennonite faith and practice. For more than a decade, U.S. Amish communities have been quietly supporting Old Colony Mennonites in Chihuahua, Mexico, with school teachers capable of instruction in High German, technical assistance in dairy farming and expertise in cheese production. And the “Haiti Auctions” held annually in several of the largest Amish communities have raised millions of dollars in response to human needs far from home.

The Old Order Amish are members of the global Anabaptist family. Their presence enriches all of us; and their remarkable growth should inspire appreciation.

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