Fall 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 2 · pp. 82–89 

Mennonite Brethren Church Membership Profile, 1972-1982, Conclusions and Implications

Al Dueck, J. B. Toews, and Abram G. Konrad

In this chapter we present a series of conclusions that have emerged from “examining ourselves.” From these conclusions we draw some possible directions and specific implications. At best, the implications may serve as suggestions that will challenge us to greater faithfulness in our discipleship. Clearly, the process of church renewal depends upon the grace and guidance of our Lord and upon the obedience and commitment of God’s people.


It was the fundamental understanding of Israel that when God spoke there was an effect. By God’s Word the world was created. By the word of Yahweh a covenant was made with Israel. Word and deed were inseparable. Words without action were considered disobedience by the prophets and foolishness by the sages. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their lack of consistency in knowing and doing.

Mere assent to truth without a response in life style leads to a propositional faith which makes no personal demands. A confession of faith can become institutionalized when a considerable gap exists between the profession and the expression of faith. The Mennonite Brethren church was not born out of commitment to new truths, but out of a concern that one’s life should be a true expression of one’s faith.

The results of the survey point to the following conclusions regarding the consistency of faith and practice.

  1. There is a continuing, strong affirmation of the basic tenets of the Christian faith among Mennonite Brethren. This is the case regardless of social influences.
  2. There is clear evidence of a disparity between faith and practice. This is noticeable particularly in the area of personal piety and social ethics. {83}

We submit the following implications from these conclusions:

  1. The first and most appropriate responses to such evidence is a celebration of God’s faithfulness and a repentance for the gap between faith and practice.
  2. The Mennonite Brethren church must develop an extensive program of preaching, teaching, and writing regarding the integration of theology and ethics. Such a thrust must balance the emphasis on evangelism in the past decades.
  3. Mennonite Brethren must go beyond conducting business at their conventions and provide a greater focus on faith and discipleship. Jesus called us to radical discipleship (Luke 9:23-24).
  4. Christian education in both churches and postsecondary institutions must draw out the ethical implications of the gospel for life and vocation. Such themes as simplicity of life style need higher visibility in our curricula. If we fail to do so, our ethics will be shaped more by popular culture or by the culture of academia, marketplace and work than the ethic of Jesus.


The Scriptures place responsibility for the spiritual condition of God’s people upon the leadership. In Israel, the prophets exercised leadership even when the message was unpopular. In the New Testament, Jesus held the priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees accountable for the spiritual condition of Israel. The apostle Paul makes the qualifications for good leadership a central concern of the emerging church (Pastoral Epistles).

We suggest that our research warrants two conclusions regarding Mennonite Brethren leadership.

  1. Our leaders affirm the fundamental beliefs of Christian faith and demonstrate a vital personal Christian life. They lead in matters related to life in the congregation (worship, fellowship, Sunday School, etc.) and in practical Christian living (stewardship, Bible study, prayer, evangelism, and service). It is encouraging that our pastors support the idea of shared ministry and greater spiritual accountability.
  2. In the areas where the larger denomination struggles with consistency in faith and practice, Mennonite Brethren pastors do not provide leadership. Our pastors appear to be biased more toward a subjective, pietistic view of Christianity than to a practical, discipleship view of Christianity. Mennonite Brethren pastors are not leading us in being reconcilers in a broken world. {84}

The implications of these conclusions include the following:

  1. We must develop consensus among Mennonite Brethren pastors regarding Mennonite Brethren identity—an identity that distinguishes us as followers of Jesus in covenanted community relationships.
  2. Our congregations should emphasize the plurality of leadership, drawing upon all of the gifts bestowed upon God’s people.
  3. Mennonite Brethren should continue to invest heavily in college and seminary education to prepare leadership for church ministries.
  4. A coordinated program of leadership formation and enrichment for pastors, lay leaders, faculty and staff of Mennonite Brethren educational institutions (e.g., retreats, workshops, study-leave programs, etc.) will need to be developed.
  5. Congregations should encourage young persons to enter into church ministries and they should also provide opportunities for them to participate in congregational activities.
  6. Potential leaders studying in non-Mennonite Brethren institutions should be encouraged to maintain their identification with Mennonite Brethren and, if possible, attend one of our institutions before entering ministry within the Mennonite Brethren community.


A central theme in the Scriptures is that God is in the business of creating a people. Without question Israel lives by the memory of the Exodus—the paradigmatic people-creating event. It is not only individuals or small groups of believers that make up the Kingdom; God seeks the creation of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). Such a people are first the people of God before they are Canadians or Americans.

Mennonite Brethren have always regarded themselves less a denomination and more a “brotherhood.” To be sure the local congregation was primary in nurture and fellowship, but it was always regarded as a part of a larger network of churches that covenanted together in matters of faith and practice. It was also as a Conference of churches that major programs in education, missions and service were undertaken. {85}

The Church Membership Profile suggests the following conclusions regarding a sense of peoplehood.

  1. Mennonite Brethren are becoming ethnically, geographically, and economically more diverse. No longer are the Mennonite Brethren primarily an immigrant people. They have become firmly established in society and have moved into middle class status through higher education and occupational success.
  2. There is an increasing focus on the local congregation to the exclusion of larger denominational concerns. Our members are more willing to support the local budget than they are the programs of the Conference that address national or international needs.
  3. Mennonite Brethren have weakened in their affirmation of denominational identity. We appear not to accept our distinctives in a pluralistic world as readily as we did in earlier times.

Some implications that might follow from these conclusions include:

  1. The Mennonite Brethren church must celebrate the ethnic diversity already present in its midst in a way similar to the Apostle Paul’s affirmation of ethnic diversity (Greek and Jew) in the New Testament church.
  2. A sense of peoplehood comes by common memories, common vision, and common practices. If Mennonite Brethren seek such peoplehood, they will need to develop commonalities that include and go beyond memories of the Russian exodus, beyond a rural perspective and beyond ethnic foods and dialect.
  3. The local congregation must develop a sense of ownership for Conference decisions and activities. The Conference is not a federation of loosely tied independent churches; we are a community of congregations in a covenantal relationship with each other.
  4. Information about Conference activities and programs should be regularly included in congregational worship and business sessions.
  5. Conference structures and agencies must exist to serve the local churches through programs that can best be pursued jointly and independently.
  6. We must be willing to change Conference structures and programs when they have fulfilled their purposes; Conference agencies should not be rigidly institutionalized.
  7. The name of a local congregation reflects a larger identification. When the connection with the Mennonite Brethren {86} church is not made explicit, we contribute further to denominational fragmentation.


The Anabaptist movement followed the early Reformers in their acceptance of salvation by grace and of the Scriptures as the authority for matters of faith and life. It differed from them in their emphasis on radical discipleship and on the church as the context of discernment rather than relying upon purely individual interpretation. The will of God was to be found in the corporate searching of the Word of God in fellowship and prayer (Acts 2:42-47; 15; 17:11).

The 20th century Mennonite Brethren church is no longer an isolated community. Its members listen to a diversity of voices about the Christian faith, and they are strongly influenced by social forces that promote the gospel of popular evangelicalism. Hence, the church is part of a pluralistic world with many “stories,” including its own. How it listens to these voices and carves out a theological cohesiveness is of utmost importance. Can the Mennonite Brethren church develop a theology that is consistent with the Scriptures and true to its own unique history?

The data suggest two conclusions regarding theological diversity.

  1. There is clearly a tension between pietistic and sectarian views of Christianity. As Mennonite Brethren have become more affluent, they have adopted a more subjective view of Christianity.
  2. There is a lack of consensus on the historic peace position of the Mennonite Brethren church.

The following implications are offered:

  1. We again must commit ourselves to reading the Word of God together as we seek to do God’s will. Individualism destroys the interdependence within a covenantal community of God’s people.
  2. We must learn to listen to all members of our community as we seek unity in matters of faith and practice. It was women who demonstrated the highest commitment to reconciliation in our survey and it was single individuals who showed the strongest commitment to a social/ethical agenda.
  3. In our congregations and institutions we must avoid teaching propositional truth without at the same time teaching how to express it in personal communal life. {87}
  4. Pastors and conference teachers must demonstrate their full agreement with the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith.
  5. Leaders who have studied at non-denominational institutions should be expected to affirm the teachings and practices of the brotherhood. New pastors from non-Mennonite backgrounds should be expected to complete additional study in Mennonite Brethren settings.
  6. Ethnicity cannot be the primary glue which creates conference unity. Mennonite Brethren must expend considerable energy building a unity around a spiritual center that expresses itself in new traditions. If an older ethnicity is the bond, then the Mennonite Brethren posture will be one of defensiveness rather than mission.


In Israel the faith of the individual was part of the corporate faith of the people of God. The New Testament church was seen as a covenantal community for the individual, one to which he or she was personally accountable. The Kingdom of God comes to us less with a message of self-fulfillment than with a call to engagement and service.

In Mennonite Brethren history there is a strong emphasis upon individual faith as evidenced in a commitment to radical discipleship. However, it is understood that to be a Christian means to be incorporated into the community of believers. Believers’ baptism signifies a voluntary identification with the people of God. Interdependence is a normal part of spiritual growth; body life concerns itself with corporate well-being.

The following conclusions are submitted:

  1. There is a trend toward individualism in our churches and an increasing isolation of some from the corporate life of the congregation.
  2. There are segments within the congregation which are isolated and alone, especially single individuals. Congregational ministries focus more on couples and often assume that individuals have all of the resources they need for Christian living.
  3. Ethical decisions are viewed primarily as an individual’s responsibility, whether they involve stewardship or morality.

The threat of individualism in our churches suggests several implications.

  1. We must renew our commitment to covenantal community and be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the life of the church.
  2. We must develop ways of being the church that take more seriously organic models which focus less on contract and more on radical covenantal relationships.
  3. Local congregations should develop discernment groups which focus not only on fellowship and prayer but also on faithful discipleship.
  4. Pastoral and educational resources need to be developed to meet the needs of individuals and families torn apart by the impact of individualism.
  5. Since affluence tends to reinforce individualism, we must continue to uphold the ideal of a simple life style and address with greater clarity issues of economic inequality locally and in our larger world.
  6. We must develop meaningful service programs that challenge our young people to serve in inner cities, northern communities and underdeveloped countries.


This research activity was undertaken upon the encouragement of a number of individuals and several Conference boards. We have attempted to portray accurately the attitudes, beliefs and practices of Mennonite Brethren, and we have subjected our understanding of these findings to the scrutiny of faithful believers. It is our sincere prayer that the insights and concerns derived from this study will serve as an incentive to greater faithfulness to our high calling in Christ Jesus. {89}


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