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2017, vol. 71   Special Issue: Why 500 Years?

Mennonite World Conference is Still Too Small – We Need a Broad Renewal Agenda

by Walter Sawatsky

Walter Sawatsky is professor emeritus of Church History & Mission at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and a longtime East/West scholar and consultant with Mennonite Central Committee. He has attended all Mennonite World Conference Assemblies since 1990 and attended the International-Prague Consultations of 1986-2003.

Ben Goossen’s contribution is strongest when discussing recent German Mennonite history, and necessarily weakest when embedding blood theories of race as context for organizing the first Mennonite World Conference (MWC) in 1925. His choice of “denomination” as the English equivalent for “Konfession” is unfortunate. Similarly, his opening use of “Anabaptist faith” and concluding with “Anabaptist peoplehood,” are other Americanisms not even widely affirmed in North America. My remarks presuppose conscious use of broadly recognizable labels – less culturally trendy and showing theological care – as in koinonia (fellowship both deep and broad).

In what follows, I limit my comments to a fuller response on suffering and the Russian Mennonites, given Goossen’s minimal grasp of 20th-century Russian Mennonite testing, in order to help clarify why a once major Mennonite body, which first called for a world Mennonite congress in 1910, then made great efforts under state restrictions to keep in touch with fellow Mennonites until 1990, has now largely withdrawn from MWC association. My second topic is to point to more serious dimensions of ecumenism and missiology that need to be addressed, before Goossen’s closing vision of a “growing, evolving, and polyvalent entity ... constantly being reinvented” can seem attractive to more than the American millennial generation of today.

In 1910, the All Russian Mennonite Conference represented the largest organized body of Mennonites anywhere – heavily programmed and active in social services and internal and foreign mission. By 1925, at the first small MWC gathering in Basel (the same year the Russian Mennonites met for their last all-union conference, soon dubbed “Martyrs Conference”), they were drastically weakened by civil war ravages and famine. The alternative service decree issued by Lenin in 1919 was no longer an option, so they shared martyrdoms with many more fellow free church youth. They continued co-funding numerous evangelism and mission initiatives with depleted resources. Four years later, the Soviet war on all religion was extended to free churches, with rapid forced closure of churches and arrest of leaders. A few congregations in western Siberia survived longer, with the last one liquidated in 1938. At the 1925 conference, Jacob Rempel (with all but his dissertation to go) vainly sought entrance into Switzerland and had to settle for daily reports at the German side of the Basel station. As a key member of the Mennonite conference for negotiations with the Soviet leaders, Rempel felt called to return home, only to start his 20-year Gulag career soon after, which ended with him being shot. At least his letters from prison kept on encouraging his flock.1

The Russian Mennonite story in the 20th century is distinct, because the thousands of martyrdoms were caused by an ideological war against religion, more akin to early Christian martyrdoms, especially in Roman and Persian regions, compared to 16th-century Anabaptist martyrdoms fostered by fellow Christians. Yet the systematic elimination of religious people in the USSR, China, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia place the Mennonite portion of that story into a statistical minority category. In the broad history of martyrdom – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and even the fallen soldiers of states – what they have in common is an appeal to faithfulness to the ideals. What matters further is the variety of positive and pernicious ways that martyrologies were (and still are) used. Whose martyrs (not just the ones killed) we remember and allow ourselves to be taught by matters greatly.

Although much memoir and scholarly work on the Soviet time of testing has been published in German and Russian, less so in English, most American Mennonites neither know nor remember the Russian Mennonite martyrs, nor the millions of other Christian martyrs while still remembering and revering 16th-century Anabaptist martyrs. How long will that continue? The second and third MWC assemblies (Danzig 1930, Amsterdam 1936) sought to organize aid with steadily decreasing success. After at least 25 years of loss of contact, MWC President Harold S. Bender and Russian radio preacher D.B. Wiens joined a Baptist delegation to Moscow in 1956. Gulag survivor Peter Froese (once a Moscow staff member for Mennonite Relief) met them in a hotel, then returned to Siberia to host an informal gathering of leaders from resurrected churches to discuss a Mennonite union. For that, he went back to prison and no Mennonite union was permitted thereafter. At best, a few Mennonite leaders were part of a Soviet Evangelical delegation at the Wichita MWC assembly in 1978, and similarly at Strasbourg in 1984. So it was with great applause that a self-financed group of 14 Mennonites came to the Winnipeg assembly in 1990, where they presented their story at one of the largest “workshop” events, and spoke glowingly of their visions for mission, especially in Central Asia. In spite of the massive out-migration of 100,000 people of Mennonite origin to Germany (1987-1993), those Russian Mennonite emigrants sustained major support of funding, poor relief, personnel and literature production for ministries in their former centers (Siberia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) until the present, even though anti-religious pressures have steadily increased since 1997. The post-Soviet era was when Western Mennonite missionary and MCC support shifted away from Europe toward Africa, Asia and Latin America.

As to the health of MWC, since at least 1952, records show the many ways that missionaries and MCC workers, who had studied language and culture, were the ever-present translators at world events and background organizers of consultations for global cooperation. It was a crucial, unheralded role that made the formation of a world Mennonite identity increasingly possible. Added to that were theological schools that sponsored international students, helping to generate a leadership group that shared common ground across the Mennonite world. The steadily declining capacities of agencies and seminaries since at least 2003 are a reason for deep anxiety about how the necessary MWC infrastructure can continue.

During the period of MWC activism through program commissions, especially after Zimbabwe 2003, aside from the persistence of Mennonite Brethren mission board leadership for Europe, Russian Mennonites in Germany and Russia had very reduced contacts with Mennonites in the Americas. Of three groups of actively missional immigrant unions in Germany, two counseled their historians not to participate in history workshops at Asuncion 2009, worried about seeming to be yoked with a Mennonite world body that engaged in ecumenical dialogue, included women in prominent leadership positions, etc. In Canada, for example, the Sommerfelder Mennonites decided to withdraw from MWC, feeling MWC’s newly formulated faith commitments statement was alien to their understandings. In other words, the seven principles were easily affirmed by other world communion leaders at the expense of losing a major part of the Mennonite/Brethren faith community. Much surely had to do with rigidity on finding dynamic equivalence word choices across the linguistic spectrum of a world body. It may be possible to sustain MWC through its strongest supporters, but is that really how fellowship (koinonia) with other Christian confessions can proceed, if we do not even represent a majority of Mennonites?

Mennonite cross-cultural mission was still in its infancy in 1925, sustained mainly by Dutch and Russian Mennonites. The mission-initiated Mennonite communities that gradually formed so often mirrored the deep divisions of Mennonites, in North America in particular. At MWC 1947, the assembly had to be held in Goshen, Indiana, and Newton, Kansas, consecutively, and it was only decades later that communion services could be held at MWC events. Even in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) in 2015, communion was offered in local churches of choice on the Sunday after the assembly. So to commemorate the globalization of Mennonites in 2017 requires about a pound of penitential talk for every ounce of triumphalism.

The rapid growth of Anabaptist-Mennonite membership after 1950 was due to the maturation and indigenous evangelism of mission-initiated church conferences, even as Chinese Mennonites who survived went underground, emerging later fully integrated into a Chinese Christian church. Also in the 1950s, the recognition emerged, in both the World Council of Churches’ Protestant and Orthodox communities and within the Vatican – that mission must be on six continents in the spirit of the interdependence of “sending” and “receiving” churches. All affirmed Missio Dei (it is God’s mission). Once Missio Dei thinking permeates and shapes Mennonite missiology also, then not even the 500-year-old Reformation beginning has much to teach us, except perhaps how it triggered Jesuit global mission in culturally sensitive ways. For us to link 500 years for Mennonites with the other branches of the 500-year Reformation traditions demands the prayer “Renew your church, O Lord” as a motto, not mere “renewal” in terms of making the Mennonites ever greater and better respected.

We must remember that the European reformations of the 16th century were local and parochial, not global. The intent was, at first, the renewal of God’s Church as a whole (to the degree that Erasmus, Luther, Calvin and Menno knew about it). That intent soon got lost in the controversies. A consistent feature was the tendency of each reformation tradition to claim the Holy Spirit for its own renewed/reformed tradition, declaring all others driven by another spirit. Even in local areas of Anabaptist-Mennonite communities, there were splits within, where the one side consciously refused to view the other as part of the body of Christ, unable to share communion with them. Much was due to parochial ignorance – well-intentioned faithfulness to Scripture as their group understood it. To tell merely the Mennonite part of that story truly requires a more systematic listing of divisions that were later resolved, which is still much too short a list.

The MWC story concerning ecumenism and mission is two-fold and very difficult. To foster reconciliation among Mennonite communities – through serious information-sharing with each other and getting to the point of sharing common affirmations – was a persistent subtext, rarely faced head on. MWC themes tended to follow the patterns of the World Council of Churches after 1948 (major faith issues such as Christology andpneumatology), before shifting in the mid-1960s to issues of the Church’s churches’ witness in society, and then to holding assemblies outside the global North (for the WCC, Delhi 1961; for the Mennonites, Curitiba 1972). Goossen draws attention to this shift, but fails to note that it was Vincent Harding’s speech at Amsterdam 1967 that stung many Dutch Mennonite leaders, who then refused to agree to the limitations set by the military government of Brazil and so only a few came to Curitiba as “observers.” At Curitiba 1972, MWC President Erland Waltner avoided conflict in the main session, though C.J. Dyck as executive secretary organized workshops where liberation theology did get discussed.

The second part of the MWC story – its ecumenical role – also proceeded slowly (more happened at some regional levels with other churches in Europe, the Americas and Asia). “Ecumenism” extended to participating in the WCC, mostly as observers until the late 1990s, when Fernando Enns and some Brethren pushed for the Decade to Overcome Violence, with Hansulrich Gerber as staff person for some years. There were also bilateral dialogues with Reformed, Baptists and Pentecostals, plus a rare multi-lateral dialogue called the Prague Consultations (1985-2003) and, at the Vatican’s initiative, a Catholic-Mennonite dialogue (1998-2003).2 Mennonites were of two minds about such dialogues, to put it nicely. Suspicion of “less faithful” churches ran deep and “keeping faith with the martyrs” mattered greatly. Yet those participating, or reading the reports and discussing them in wider circles, began to recognize that neither the Mennonites nor the other churches, including Rome, were still stuck in 16th-century mindsets. So much had changed that understanding what the other reformers had tried to do, and how well the efforts had worked, often turned out to be mutually enriching. Since 2000, however, steady decline in the financial and personnel capacity of the WCC, as well as so many of the world communions, in favor of keeping national bodies solvent, provides serious cause for concern.

John D. Roth, secretary of MWC’s Faith and Life Commission, recently detailed what is at stake in launching the Renewal 2027 Decade for Mennonites (or for Anabaptists, as he puts it). His presentation of five ecumenical guiding principles for “rightly remembering” needs to be taken seriously. (The six specific goals settled on for the renewal 2027 process are similar but focus on the MWC community’s renewal.) Global faith and witness are to be encouraged through theological/historical teaching. Second is a renewal shaped by the Anabaptist movement (hardly a shaping by a full 500-year complexity in many places!). To practice right remembering with a local-church history focus in a larger context of Anabaptist and Christian history could be promising, but will require major project commitments. The latter three speak of fostering deeper connectedness through focus on shared theology and history; improving inter-church relationships by using events to focus on ecumenical conversations; and strengthening a sense of identity with “Anabaptist groups beyond MWC members” – all vague and cautious, as if specific moves toward reconciliation with other Christian bodies remains unthinkable.3 Missing also is remembering it is Missio Dei that matters most.

More than two decades ago, the notion of koinonia (fellowship) had begun to shape both MWC and other global bodies. The steps this renewal decade needs to address need not necessarily lead to structural union. What we need is more imaginative discourse and experimentation with a koinonia of structure, a koinonia of relationships, a koinonia of prayer and of habits of discourse, if we are to inch closer to what Jesus seemed to expect in his high-priestly prayer. Thankfully, Paul Schrag of Mennonite World Review drew attention to the koinonia of relationships that MWC is already demonstrating.


  1. Heidebrecht, Hermann. Auf Dem Gipfel Des Lebens: Das Leben Des Aeltesten Jakob Rempel. Vom Stallknecht Zum Professor, Vom Trauemer Zum Maertyrer. Bielefeld: Christlicher Missions-Verlag, 2004.
  2. Enns, Fernando, Jonathan R. Seiling, and Cιsar Garcνa. Mennonites in Dialogue : Official Reports from International and National Ecumenical Encounters, 1975-2012 (Wipf & Stock, 2015); provides brief introductions and final reports, including bibliography to learn more.
  3. John D. Roth, “How to Commemorate a Division? Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and its Relevance for the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Church Today,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 91 (January 2017), 5-35, especially 24-34. “Five Right Rememberings”: confession; include more than one story; attentive to ecumenical relationships; oriented to the global church; should lead to renewal.