The Mennonite Church USA is declining in membership while it struggles with how to relate together as congregations and conferences. To read Mennonite media is to realize that the concern is pervasive: The question is how not only to survive but to thrive.
On this past Sunday morning My Joy and I went to Forks Mennonite Church. This large and well maintained structure is the home of a small, rural, and historic church of the Indiana Michigan Conference of MCUSA.
During the morning educational hour My Joy and I went to different classes and sat beside each other during worship. It seems that this small church has the same question as its denomination: How can we not only survive, but also thrive.
During the sharing time I decided to try to encourage them. I reminded them that for more than two years they had functioned without a designated pastor, yet they had a sermon every Sunday. In addition they have a few children, a small youth group with dedicated leaders and a talented worship team. Since Sunday I have been asking myself how small churches can efficiently strive to survive and thrive.
This question is not new for me. Sixty four years ago this Old Fool was ordained a minister of the gospel and ten years later was ordained bishop to help small Mennonite churches in the Southeast to survive and thrive. I have learned it is usually difficult for our churches to survive and thrive .
An astute teacher and student of Mennonites who was not one of us, observed that he had never met a Mennonite who wasn’t conservative about something. This alone makes church growth difficult.
For not only are we Mennonites conservative about something, but almost everyone they contact is also conservative about something. Those of us who tried to build thriving churches in the South found it so. Whether located in Hispanic, African American, or migrant farm workers we were among conservatives about something. We offered them the gospel of Jesus, and also asked them to change and be like us if they are to be one of us.
This is a challenge for the Forks Mennonites because their meeting place is surrounded by Amish owned homes and farms. The Amish are notoriously conservative about many things. So how can these two conservative groups benefit each other?
Paul, apostle to the gentiles, was not a perfect man, but he was a skilled strategist. He recognized that if he were to be successful among the gentiles, he would need to lay aside traditional Judaism. A congregation that wishes to survive and thrive should stay aloof from denominational controversies. Internal strifes tend to be between tradition and salvation through the life and teaching of Jesus.