Defining identities: MCC and Mennonite World Conference

Individual articles from the Fall 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.

“The church will slow down the work of Mennonite Central Committee,” a person at the 2008 MCC New Wine, New Wineskins consultative process meeting in Winnipeg told me. “If we want to be a more effective NGO, we need to act independently from the church,” he continued. I remember that consultation as an opportunity for me to reaffirm my Anabaptist convictions about the church. Yes, the church may not be very effective in fulfilling NGO standards of professional management and administrative structure, but it nevertheless embodies God’s method of real and long-lasting social transformation.

Social transformation is a goal shared by MCC and Mennonite World Conference (MWC). But what roles do MWC and MCC play in pursuing this goal? Surveying the past decades, we see that MCC’s and MWC’s histories have been intertwined, with the two bodies shaping each other and shaping broader understandings of Anabaptist identity. In the words of former MCC executive director Ron Mathies, “the two organizations are made of the same cloth—the fabric of Anabaptist peoplehood—and have had an increasing impact on each other and the mission of the church over the past decades” (Mathies, 85).

The MWC-MCC relationship throughout the decades has been marked by counsel and cooperation. Both MCC and MWC started in response to the context of violence and persecution that Mennonites were facing in Europe and Russia in the second decade of the last century. MCC began in 1920 as a service arm of churches in the United States and Canada to support Mennonite refugees and families affected by war and famine in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine), with this relief ministry joined from MCC’s inception by development and peace work. In 1925, MWC emerged as a way of bringing Mennonites together, affirming the cross-cultural faith in Jesus as understood in the Anabaptist tradition, a faith that is capable of overcoming nationalisms and racism.

“The church may not be very effective in fulfilling NGO standards of professional management and administrative structure, but it nevertheless embodies God’s method of real and long-lasting social transformation.”

As Mathies explains, over the course of their histories both MCC and MWC have placed a strong emphasis on inter-Mennonite solidarity, have shared leaders (including presidents, executive secretaries and senior staff), supported each other (e.g., planning the logistics of MWC global assemblies and global consultations) and connected churches around common goals (such as through the YAMEN program). These converging purposes and leadership exchanges are understandable due to the ecclesiological understanding that Anabaptists have about mission. Mission, from the Anabaptist point of view, is something done by the church in the world as a witness to Christ. It cannot be completely delegated to specialists or independent institutions. Moreover, the church per se is mission, which makes it difficult to separate or compartmentalize mission and church.

Catholic theologian Gerhard Lohfink has rightly insisted that “the real being of Christ can be bright only if the church makes visible the messianic alternative and the new eschatological creation that happens from Christ” (191-192). This new eschatological creation is global and multicultural in scope. It overcomes nationalisms and other boundaries, facilitating interdependence, care and love for one other. Our world desperately needs to see this eschatological reality manifested today. That is a call to which MWC responds by becoming a global communion.

MWC has understood itself as part of God’s activity of bringing together diverse social fragments—as parts of the same body—to make God’s new creation visible. As a global church in the Anabaptist tradition, MWC is a place where all member churches sit together with the same level of mutual authority regardless of their ethnicity, financial capacity and Anabaptist distinctives. It is a place where theology, service, education, peacemaking, church planting, health care, pastoral care, worship, ministries of women and youth and other ecclesial activities happen globally and cross-culturally. In this manner, MWC serves as a global alternative community to the states of this world.

One of the essential questions of MCC’s New Wine, New Wineskins revisioning and restructuring process was, “To whom is MCC accountable (who is the ‘keeper of the MCC soul’)?” From the MWC perspective, it was clear that, even though MCC has multicultural staff and volunteers all over the world, it is accountable to Anabaptist churches in Canada and the United States, who are the owners of MCC. In a similar way, churches in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America have developed their own service structures as they have matured and developed. However, none of their agencies have the experience, capacity and global reach that MCC has. Therefore, in practice, MCC has been called to provide a leadership role within the network of Anabaptist agencies in MWC.

“In practice, MCC has been called to provide a leadership role within the network of Anabaptist agencies in Mennonite World Conference.”

Through MCC’s active participation in MWC’s Global Anabaptist Service Network (GASN), new possibilities of global, inter-Anabaptist collaboration have emerged over the past decade: coordinating multiagency responses to natural disasters or other crises, joint planning of cross-cultural ministries of service with other Anabaptist agencies, supporting national churches in creating their own service structures and helping Anabaptist service agencies around the globe build their own capacity.

With MCC’s active role in the GASN, which itself is part of MWC’s Mission Commission, there are endless possibilities of coordinated planning and interdependent work among agencies from different cultures and with different ministries such as church planting, peacemaking, healthcare and education. As we look to MCC’s second century—and soon MWC’s second century—can we dream together about multicultural Anabaptist teams serving together in the same geographical area providing relief, education, health, peacemaking, church planting and social development? I think so. I think that is God’s call for our church and mission.

César García is general secretary of Mennonite World Conference.

Lohfink, Gerhard. La Iglesia que Jesús Quería: Dimensión Comunitaria de la Fe Cristiana. 4th ed. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer, 1986.

Mathies, Ronald J. R. “Synergies in Mission: The MWC/MCC Relationship.” In A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity. Ed. Alain Epp Weaver, 84-103. Telford PA: Cascadia 2011.

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