Gathering around tables, sharing Christ’s body

ca-photo.jpgLora Steiner, for Franconia Mennonite Conference

For more than 50 years, the churches of Franconia Mennonite Conference have sent missionaries and money to Mexico to plant new churches. This year, a church in Mexico City sent missionaries back.

Husband and wife Linker Sanchez and Luz Maria Vargas, of the Tierra Prometida congregation, were commissioned on Friday night, November at this year’s conference assembly to work with the Spanish-speaking community in Gaithersburg, Md, near Washington, DC.

“The United States has sent missionaries for many years all over the world,” Sanchez told those gathered. “But as you know, God is now sending all the nations of the world to the United States—and we have come here to reach our countrymen in their language and culture.”

“We are from many different nations but we are all children of the same God,” said Vargas.

More than 200 people, including 130 delegates from conference congregations and related-ministries gathered around tables at the Penn View Christian School cafeteria in Souderton, Pa. to worship together, discuss a variety of issues in the conference and celebrate newly credentialed leaders. The theme for the assembly was “Come to the Table: Embracing God in Us.”

Blaine Detwiler, conference moderator and pastor of Lakeview Mennonite Church, wrapped himself in a quilt to welcome participants on Friday night. Detwiler told of the quilt he and his wife had received as a wedding present, and how it had been used over the years.

“The beauty of a quilt is in its use,” he said, and suggested that this is also true of Christians.

Unlike previous years, there was no traditional worship time or sermon on Friday evening. Instead, Detwiler invited everyone to sit at tables and “see and hear the movement of Jesus in the faces around us.”

“There is no sermon, not in the traditional sense, because the sermon is going to be in the Anabaptist sense of community—how we are together with each other,” said executive conference minister Noel Santiago. “And doing that in front of a watching world is how the Anabaptists understood the message. In a way, the message is us… It comes out of all of us, together.”

While those gathered did less business than in the past and spent more time learning from each other, some things did remain the same: several rooms were designated as prayer space, and “prayer ushers” were available to pray at any time during the assembly. Ongoing worship was held in the teacher’s lounge, and an indoor prayer labyrinth with a guided liturgy was set up for anyone wanting to meditate. And while worship was held in English, some songs included verses in Spanish or Bahasa Indonesia, the two most common languages other than English spoken by conference churches.

Early on Saturday morning, participants again gathered at their tables—this time to tell stories of how they had seen God acting and how they were embracing the mission in their own churches.

A number of congregations in the conference have connections to Mexican churches and regularly send financial support and work teams or visit each other.

Urban Byler, who attends Whitehall Mennonite Church near Allentown, Pa., noted that his congregation is sponsoring a Karen Burmese refugee family. It has also supported Ripple Effects, a gathering led by Tom and Carolyn Albright for those who don’t have a church and often don’t want to be involved in a traditional church.

Churches have also been learning that to go out into the neighborhood and make disciples—and that crossing of language barriers, cultural assumptions and socioeconomic lines—can sometimes be uncomfortable or require flexibility.

John Ehst, pastor of Franconia Mennonite Church in Telford, Pa., shared that some of the recent converts in their Spanish-speaking gathering wanted a baptism by immersion, so the church held the service in the afternoon at a neighboring Grace Brethren church.

Several pastors said that while they often preach about following Jesus, sharing that love and joining the work of the Holy Spirit, it can be difficult to be missional and reach out as a congregation—especially for “cradle” or “legacy” Mennonites.

“The challenge we face is just talking about our faith,” said one pastor. “We’re good at doing things but not as much at verbalizing our faith.”

“One of the biggest challenges is that in this community,” said another pastor, “Mennonites hang out with Mennonites. They work for Mennonite businesses and go to Mennonite schools… it’s hard to get outside of that.”

In keeping with the theme of mission, part of Saturday was spent talking about an important inward focus of churches: the faith formation of children.

Mary Benner, pastor of youth and children at Souderton (Pa) Mennonite Church, said the goal is to help churches and church schools think about “how we help children and youth become radical followers of Jesus Christ—the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the Jesus of perfect love.”

Benner, along with Marlene Frankenfield, conference youth minister, and Sharon Fransen, shared a framework for how families, churches and schools can work together to pass along the faith. The framework was developed in conjunction with regional Mennonite schools, but is intended to help any child whether or not he or she attends a Mennonite school.

“Passing on the faith to the next generation is one of the most important roles of the entire body of Christ,” said Benner. “We want [our children] to develop a costly compassion, and have empathy for a hurting world… We want them to know Jesus so they will keep their hearts soft.”

But Benner also said that Jesus can make us uncomfortable.

“There’s a risk to teaching our children to be followers of Christ, because they will then go and do what we’ve taught them to do,” says Benner, who has two children doing voluntary service. “The reality is, if our kids live the spirit of Jesus, it’s costly. They’re going to be more vulnerable to pain and loneliness, and probably be drawn to the margins of society.”

Benner said that the most important thing churches can do for their children is to pray, be present and pay attention, because even churches appear similar on the surface, they’re all so different that what works in one congregation often can’t be translated into another.

“We feel like when we see another congregation doing something, we think, ‘That’s the answer for us.’ But the most effective thing is just that love relationship—knowing your context, your culture.”

The Saturday morning session covered approval of the 2007 assembly minutes, an update on the Vision and Financial Plan, and nominations for the gifts discernment process. Delegates voted unanimously to approve Randy Heacock, pastor of Doylestown (Pa) Mennonite Church, as assistant conference moderator and conference board vice chair.

It also included time to welcome everyone who had been credentialed in Franconia Conference in the past year. Those licensed for ministry included Arnold Derstine, of the Franconia congregation; Eva Kratz, for prison ministry; Gay Brunt Miller, conference director of collaborative ministries; Jenifer Erickson Morales, conference minister of transitional ministries; Timothy Moyer, Vincent Mennonite Church; Yunus Perkasa, Nations Worship Center; and Aldo Siahaan, Philadelphia Praise Center. John Brodnicki of Mennonite Bible Fellowship was the only newly ordained person, while transfers of credentials were recognized for Dennis Edwards, Peace Fellowship (Washington, D.C.); Chris Nickels, Spring Mount; Mary Nitzsche, Blooming Glen; Wayne Nitzsche, Perkasie; Jim Ostlund, Blooming Glen; and Wayne Speigle, Bally Mennonite Church.

Throughout the gathering, there was a recognition that churches are working to minister in shifting contexts, and that the conference itself is becoming more diverse each year. Among conference churches, services are held not only in Spanish and Bahasa Indonesia, but also in Vietnamese and with some congregations having growing numbers of persons form varied Asian and African contexts. And while Mennonite conferences have historically been organized by geography, the web of relationships is taking the conference outside of those boundaries, and conference staff are working with churches in Delaware, New Jersey, Arkansas, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

Amidst shifts and changes in the church, said Noel Santiago, “We want to be proactive, not reactive.”

At the end of the final delegate session, participants who had come from all over the world paused to partake in the re-membering of the body of Christ, and shared communion.