A changing growing church

Many Tongues, Scattered Lands: A gathered scattered diverse common body of Christ

Here, O Lord, your servants gather, hand we link with hand.
Looking toward our savior’s cross, joined in love we stand.
As we seek the realm of God, we unite to pray;
Jesus Savior guide our steps, for you are the way.

We sang these truthful words a moment ago as our prayer and promise of what it means to be the body of Christ living on earth. We went on to sing:

Many are the tongues we speak, scattered are the lands,
yet our hearts are one in God, one in love’s demands.
E’en in darkness hope appears, calling age and youth,
Jesus, Teacher, dwell with us, for you are the truth.

The Emerging Movement of Christ followers and the Evolving Church

We have just come through the season a season of celebrating Jesus birthed in human history. Following Jesus’ sojourn on earth a movement of Christ followers began to emerge who became Christians who became the church. The early church was a diverse growing living body with many members in many lands and many differences and controversies.

About every 500 years the church fractured and become different churches formed in conflict. The 16th century Reformation was one of those massive fractures that spawned a cluster of protesting peoples that forged new church streams and became known as Protestant churches.

In the midst of that reforming fracturing turmoil of the 16th century was birthed the Anabaptist movement that is our Mennonite heritage. For more than four centuries the Anabaptist churches were almost entirely white European and eventually North American churches.

In 1925, on the 400th anniversary of the birth of Anabaptism, a few dozen white Mennonite men and a very few women from Europe met in Basel, Switzerland in the first gathering that became Mennonite World Conference. One man from North America attended that first MWC.

For over a century Mennonite missions spread the name Mennonite around the world. The result in recent decades has been a great shift in Mennonite World Conference from white Euro-American members to the members who live in the global south. The fastest growing parts of the global Mennonite body and the majority of the 1.6 million Mennonites in the world today live in the global south in places such as The Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, India, across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The first two Mennonite World Conference assemblies that I attended were in Wichita, Kansas (1978) and Winnipeg, Manitoba (1990). They were still predominantly white Mennonites from North America and Europe. Nevertheless, the global Mennonite church was beginning change. For me the most memorable speaker of the 1978 MWC was Albert Widjaja, an Indonesian Mennonite with global experience in business, communications, and the Asian Council of Churches. He spoke about Mennonites and globalization. In the 1980s Albert and his family became our friends when he was in graduate school in Cincinnati where I was pastor. The first marker of change for Mennonite World Conference was in 1997 when we met in Calcutta, India. In 2003 we met in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In 2009 we met in Asuncion, Paraguay.

We sang this new reality: Many are the tongues we speak, scattered are the lands. God is doing a beautiful thing creating unity in diversity of the global church.

Yet the last two Mennonite World Conference assemblies brought another shift in MWC. To our many tongues and lands came a shift in age. We sang: E’en in darkness hope appears, calling age and youth. Youth and young adults are investing in the global church. We sent Dylan Jenkins, Amy Epp, Karina Derksen-Schrock, Annelise Giseburt as well as Marilyn, Dirk, and me to Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay in July 2009. In 1997 we sent the whole Warren family to MWC in Calcutta when Danny, Benny, and Rachel were much younger.

The texts from the First and Second Letters to Timothy were recommended to show the early church’s honoring age and mentoring youth. [Read 2 Tim 1:1-2; 1 Tim 1:18-19a; 2 Tim 3:14-15]

We thank God again today for what God is doing in the church and in the global Anabaptist Mennonite body of Christ – a changing growing body of many tongues, many lands, many ages. We remember what we sang: yet our hearts are one in God, one in love’s demands.

We close with this prayer from early Anabaptist leader Pilgrim Marpeck:

Gardener God, you have planted and protected us by your faithful hand. Send us the sap of your grace from Christ, the true vine, and make us blossom and bear the fruit of love as a sign of your life in us. Let the sweet fragrance of the shoots you have planted give you praise forever and ever. Amen (Haas, p. 129. Cited in Marlene Kropf and Eddy Hall, Praying with the Anabaptists, p. 39).