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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 45–48 

Response to Henry J. Schmidt

Response to “Diverse Models/Strategies of Church Planting/Growth Among Mennonite Brethren” by Henry J. Schmidt 20/2 (1991): 21–44.

Juan Martínez

Henry Schmidt has given us a positive, clear and focused challenge. He has offered concrete suggestions to help Mennonite Brethren develop a strong overall church planting strategy. Three important issues raised by Schmidt will greatly affect the success of our efforts to plant new churches and grow as we enter Century 21: our theology, our inter-ethnic relations and our structures.

Schmidt challenges us to have a clearly defined Kingdom perspective and to focus on the specifics which call us to be a “kingdom people.” However, some of our most successful church planters of the last few years have consciously downplayed our theology because of their concern that it might be a drawback to growth. Schmidt asserts that a church can be large and still be Anabaptist. But that takes a conscious effort on the part of the leadership. If we are unsure about our distinctives, as we often have been, we should not be surprised if the people in these new churches conclude that Anabaptist distinctives are secondary.

The Mennonite Brethren Church is an ethnic denomination that has committed itself to reach other ethnics. Ethnicity has defined church planting models in the larger North American context in many ways. One common manifestation {46} is the proud statement of many people in the pews that their church is not “ethnic” or is only “__% ethnic.”

Ministry among Hispanics has been affected, at times adversely, by the German-Russian ethnicity of the church planters and denominational leaders. Taking Schmidt’s challenge to ethnic ministries seriously will mean that Mennonite Brethren will need to: 1) affirm their ethnicity; 2) become ethnically diverse while working at theological unity; 3) develop models for greater participation of “ethnic” leaders in the larger denominational structure; and 4) take intentional steps in existing local churches to become more ethnically diverse in membership, style and leadership.

The most important, yet most difficult part of Schmidt’s suggestions is that of structural change. He claims that the smaller the church, or denomination, the more it will be affected by growth. We must structure for growth if we are serious about growing. Some of the areas where that must happen are:

1) Denominational Structures. Schmidt challenges each provincial/district conference to commit itself to fund full-time resource people. We must also develop strong, though lean, denominational offices in key urban centers. For the United States Conference and for some district/provincial conferences it may mean office moves; the location of our denominational offices will be a crucial way in which we model who we are and who we want to be.

2) Conference Boards. During the General Conference at Hillsboro (1990) many delegates stated the importance of having a broader representation on various boards. Yet of 60 positions available on General Conference boards fewer than five are held by people of non-Russian-German background and one of these is an appointee. We may require some form of “affirmative action.” Key leaders in our conference may need to pull back from some public leadership positions and publicly support emerging leaders. Boards may also need to broaden their “short lists” as they search for new conference employees. If all key decisions are made in a circle of “ethnic MBs” then others will not be interested in being a part. Consensus models of decision making will seem unwieldy, but will be crucial if “non-ethnics” are to become a part of the decision-making process.

3) Inclusion of New Churches. As in any denomination {47} there are several large churches that seem to control the direction of the Mennonite Brethren. I do not criticize this fact. There must be a clearly defined way, however, for new congregations and delegates to be integrated into the larger whole. Conscious effort is required. If we want strong churches in new urban areas, we must give them a strong voice in the various conferences and boards.

4) Incorporation of Renewal. Over the last five years there have been two key areas of renewal that have provided opportunity, but also a difficult challenge to Mennonite Brethren. We have lost several leaders, and have the potential of losing more, because, even though our denomination began as a charismatic revival, we find it difficult to incorporate those who have experienced some type of charismatic renewal. We have also lost what I call the “converted Anabaptists.” A graduate of our Seminary stated that it is easier, as a non-German-Russian, to be an Anabaptist outside of the Mennonite Brethren denomination than inside. We could name several like him who have chosen to serve in other Anabaptist settings.

In Los Angeles there are more ex-Mennonite Brethren leaders trained in Fresno than seminary-trained Mennonite Brethren leaders. Obviously no denomination will be able to accommodate everyone. But if a significant number of seminary-trained, former Mennonite Brethren are now serving in other denominations because they felt there was not enough room for them in our denomination, we need to ask ourselves whether our models of growth and expansion are broad enough for renewal and growth.

As we apply Schmidt’s assessment and recommendations we need to ask ourselves several important questions:

  1. Why have previous church planting efforts not created a more diverse denominational leadership? What must be done differently in the future?
  2. Mennonite Brethren are already financially overextended. What changes in spending priorities are we willing to make to fund skilled resource personnel and the necessary denomination office changes? What are we willing to cut?
  3. Are our rural churches ready to support and fund a church planting strategy that will not benefit them directly {48} and which will have the long-term result of taking power away from them?
  4. How important is it that new “ethnic” congregations be Anabaptist? What steps can we take, or are we taking, to make sure that there is theological unity in the midst of ethnic diversity?
  5. What steps can we take to insure that new urban church planting projects will be intentionally Anabaptist? Are we ready to learn from the (sadly few) successful efforts of other Anabaptist groups in this area?
  6. Are we ready to analyze, and change, the formal, and informal, power structures of our denomination so that others can become an integral part? I purposely ask this question in a circle of people who hold that power.
  7. Most of us are comfortable with change when it occurs at a pace that we can handle. If we take Schmidt’s paper and General Conference growth goals seriously we are on the way to major changes. What specific steps can the leaders at this consultation do to model their willingness to see that these changes happen?
Juan Martinez
Director of Hispanic Ministries
Pacific District Conference (Mennonite Brethren)
Los Angeles, California

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