On flattening the Mennonite world: a view from Singapore

by Steve Kriss

New York Times writer Thomas Friedman Singaporesuggested in the World is Flat that flourishing businesses would need to be both global and local in the emerging interconnected age.  It’s a comment that I’ve taken pretty seriously as a pastoral leader trying to imagine how local congregations might flourish and thrive in this time as well.  In my work over the past five years in Franconia Conference, it’s been easy to see lively connections that link our largely Pennsylvania-based congregations to far flung places like Jakarta, Mexico City, London and the Mekong Delta.   Sometimes, the conversations I’ve had in those places are as pertinent and relevant to congregational life in the States as what happens at the Conference Center in Harleysville.

As part of my Franconia Conference position focusing on leadership cultivation, Biblical Seminary contracts with a portion of my time to build on the foundations of our global relationships to help in the formation of their students toward missional leadership.   Several times over the last three years, I’ve had the privilege to travel for 10 days with a group of about a dozen students, most of whom aren’t Mennonite, and to offer an Anabaptist way of engaging the world.   We traveled this year to Vietnam and Cambodia.

SingaporeOn the way back, I stopped in Singapore—a glistening, overly perfected city/nation/island on the straits between Malaysia and Indonesia.  It’s safe, clean and tightly controlled but with a fascinating cultural mix that represents both the west and the east.   I was energized by the city despite its Truman Show-like (un)reality.  While there, I met with two young Mennonite leaders who give a hopeful and thoughtful glimpse of future church leadership.   Both embody the face and soul of global Anabaptist movement with savvy, integrity and intelligence.   It was a gift to spend time with Elina and Wilson—these cosmopolitan business leaders who travel between their Singapore residences, their respective native lands (Indonesia and China), and the United States.

One conversation that lingers for me was a request to understand where the upcoming Mennonite World Conference gathering would be, an attempt to understand the significance and importance of meeting in Harrisburg (which I said is close to Philadelphia and in the one of the world’s largest concentrations of Anabaptists and had to clarify again that it’s “close to New York”).    What I heard in this question was a desire to understand the US American church as a partner, not a parent. For global Mennonite leaders, Harrisburg and Philadelphia are just another Bulawayo or Ascunsion.  In these questions, though, I sensed a hope that the American church would understand how costly and potentially difficult this decision to meet in Pennsylvania will be for the global church community.

One thing that I’ve learned is that incarnation and making things real is costly and complicated.   After my Singapore conversations (where we also talked about partnerships to initiate new Indonesian-speaking Anabaptist congregations on the Arabian peninsula), I’ve realized that the global church is set to come to Pennsylvania not because it holds us in esteem—but because it wants to help the church here to understand a global reality.  This upcoming gathering can help the us begin to grasp how deep, how wide, how long, how far the message of the Good News has spread and rooted.   It’s an opportunity to invite US American Anabaptists to situate ourselves in this new space—not as the center of activity or authority–rather as part of a global and local movement called to be wise as serpents, innocent as doves and a glimpse of the Real Eternal One in the midst of a flattening world.