Two weeks ago my family and I were gearing up to head to Kansas City, where I was scheduled to lead a series of youth sessions on “Big Questions” at the Mennonite Church USA 2019 convention (MennoCon19) on behalf of AMBS. Although I had been a member of an MCUSA church for five years while a grad student in Texas and have followed denomination closely, I’d never been to a Mennonite Church convention and didn’t know quite what to expect.
What I discovered when I got there was a group of people who truly, genuinely loved each other and were excited to gather together, despite their many differences, disagreements, and even past disappointments. In this way, although it had all the markings of a church convention (seminars, delegate assemblies, worship, sermons, service projects, and so on), the feel of MennoCon most closely resembled a large family reunion, as director Glen Guyton noted in the opening worship session.
Indeed, this feeling pervades the post-convention reflections by bloggers over at The Mennonite. There Joanne Gallardo writes that the “week functioned very much like a family reunion. There was a lot of catching up, eating together, learning together and growing closer even though many of us live miles apart.” Ben Tapper echoes these sentiments, writing that his experiences at convention “demonstrated two fundamental truths: I’m part of the body of Christ, and I have a place and voice within this particular family.”
As an insider-outsider (I work at AMBS but pastor in another denomination), I came away from the convention with four observations about the family known as the Mennonite Church USA:
1. Your family is intentionally intergenerational.
This might sound obvious. Aren’t all families intergenerational?
Yes and no.
While families naturally include multiple generations, they aren’t always intentional about it. For some families, the adults are the ones who do the real family business, while the youth are relegated to the kids’ table.
Not so at MennoCon19.
My first night there, I attended a combined service of around 3000 adults, youth, and even some small children (up past their bedtime) all worshiping in unison (or harmony, as it were). Later in the week, I heard word of the delegate assembly passing a resolution to include an option for youth delegates in future years. And throughout the week, I had numerous adults accompanying youth at my youth sessions, and when I got the chance to attend an adult session, I noticed the presence of a number of youths!
2. Your family is raising up passionate disciples and leaders.
Speaking of those youth, I had no idea what to expect when I showed up to lead a series of youth sessions on big questions of the faith.
Would anyone show up? Would anyone engage?
I got to my first session about 15 minutes early to set up. With 10 minutes till start time, no one had showed up. I started to wonder whether I’d made a mistake pitching a session on the question Who is God? Surely there were more attractive and inviting sessions for high schoolers than a Theology 101 course.
With 5 minutes till start time, a couple people had trickled in. And then just before 9 o’clock, the room began to fill. About 50 high school Mennonites got out of bed to come learn about God.
And many of them came back each day to learn about God’s Word, the gospel, and the church. These students were taking notes, asking sharp questions, and actively engaging Scripture and church tradition. I was told later that one of the students was so engaged with the questions that she’s now considering a religion and Bible major in college.
Not only that, but throughout the week I ran into students coming from and going to service projects throughout the city—and they seemed to be truly enjoying themselves! These youth are passionate about their faith and are putting their faith into action. They’re going to be (and probably already are) world changers.
(For more on the youth activities, including the big questions sessions, see Tim Huber’s write-up over at Mennonite World Review.)
3. Your family is pursuing the Spirit’s lead.
The theme of the conference was on the Spirit as God’s breath. As Meghan Larissa Good said in the Friday morning service, “We cannot survive as people of action if we only breathe other peoples’ exhalations. We need the fresh breath of God.”
But those at convention didn’t just breathe in the breath of God; they also pursued the Spirit’s lead. This was most evident in the delegates’ resolution condemning “the treatment of immigrants families and children at the border, as well as around the nation, [as] a horrific violation of the Image of God and God-given human rights.” This “Churchwide Statement on the Abuse of Child Migrants” not only passed with only two dissenting votes; it was also conceived, drafted, edited, introduced, and adopted all during the week of convention. This wasn’t a premeditated resolution (not that there would be anything wrong with that) but was an example of the collective body of believers following the Spirit’s prompting to speak with a unified voice on a pressing moral issue.
This was an immediate answer to the song Spirit of God introduced by the praise band:
Spirit of God, grow in us
that we may learn to love like Jesus.
Spirit of God, go with us
that we may share the Love that frees us.
4. Your family is (learning to become) welcoming to outsiders.
After the opening worship session, I ran into a pastor who I mostly know through social media, and she said, “Hey, a group of pastors in meeting up down the street if you want to join us.” When I arrived at the gathering, I didn’t know anyone (except perhaps through social media), and I wasn’t even a Mennonite pastor, but I was quickly welcomed in anyway. Some of these pastors had themselves struggled for a place at the family table, but here they were welcoming an outsider to join them.
This welcome was extended explicitly by director Glen Guyton in the closing session, where he began with a rendition of Nirvana’s song “Come as You Are.” Guyton charged the convention,
This is supposed to be the sending service. . . . This is our charge, our opportunity to live into the Great Commission and to go create witnesses and to create a testimony where people will understand that the church means something, that there should be something special about the body of Christ when it comes to bringing transformation in the lives of people. . . . Now I will say that I’m very proud of what I have seen this week from my fellow Mennonites. I think you’ve done a great job. I feel like there’s hope for our denomination. . . . The thing that we need to understand as a church, this church, is that we have to send a clear message of welcome as we are going out into the world, that we welcome everyone to come to the foot of the cross.
Do yourself a favor and watch Guyton’s address “Come as You Are” here:
And while you’re at it, check out the rest of the post-convention resources from MCUSA—an intergenerational family that’s raising up passionate disciples and leaders to pursue the Spirit’s lead into the world to extend God’s welcome to the table.