Future Church Summit takes off while looking back

ORLANDO, Florida (Mennonite Church USA) — The long-anticipated Future Church Summit kicked off Thursday evening at the Mennonite Church USA convention, inviting delegates and additional stakeholders to “imagine an Anabaptist future” for the church.

Moderator Patty Shelly began the evening session by encouraging participants to “surrender outcomes of this process to God.” Referencing the Purposeful Plan of the church and its “Vision, Healing and Hope” statement, she said it would be a time to “think about and dream about how to live out” those documents while gaining “further discernment and counsel to … re-examine our call as Mennonite Church USA.”

Facilitator Catherine Barnes, affiliate associate professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Harrisonburg, Virginia, then led the rest of the process, guiding about 90 table groups of six to eight people through a series of relationship-building, conversation and discussion exercises.

“What is most precious to you about your faith as Anabaptist Mennonites?” Barnes asked before one of the segments. “This is an opportunity to speak into what deeply animates you in your faith and convictions.”

Topics on the opening night were mostly focused internally and looking to the past. Participants shared about their grounding in faith with “a story of a time when you felt the most connected within the Mennonite church” and “what is most life-giving and essential for you in being an Anabaptist,” then examined the history of Anabaptist formation and the past century of the church.

That last topic began with plenary reflections from a group of historians and church leaders on a timeline being compiled in the exhibit hall this week, noting significant events in the Mennonite sphere alongside developments in the broader world. John Roth of Goshen (Indiana) College, for example, observed the “global explosion of Anabaptist faith” that occurred as North American mission efforts yielded to indigenous leadership.

Participants in the table groups were then asked to look for and identify patterns that emerged over time. Barnes characterized it as “walking forward into our future while looking over our shoulders.” She also acknowledged that some pieces of that history — such as Latino/a and Asian perspectives — were not represented due to the limited number of voices that were leading the discussion.

The summit is using a blend of tools, from classic face-to-face sharing around the tables or with partners to using iPads and polling technology to gather input. A 10-person “Theme Team” is compiling and synthesizing information from the various table groups to produce reports capturing the tenor and major threads of the conversation.

In their report Thursday evening, the Theme Team identified some of the common threads they heard. The section on faith grounding produced three “overwhelmingly present” concepts: a strong sense of community and connection, the centrality of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and being a peace church while living out faith through service and justice. Key themes from the history section included the church reflecting the culture of its members, the continual loss of groups and members over an unwillingness to accept change and maintaining some distinctives through the years.

Theme Team member Katherine Jameson Pitts, observing that the Anabaptist movement had “splintered from the very beginning,” said, “It has always been messy.”

Shannon Dycus drew laughter as she stepped before the tired assembly and proclaimed, “Twelve hours later, we are still God’s beloved church!” before introducing a closing poem and song.

The Future Church Summit continues with a full day of events Friday and a final session Saturday morning, at which point the delegate assembly will reconvene to act on the outcomes of the summit. The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board has drafted a potential resolution that will commend those outcomes as a guide for all levels of the church to live out its calling.

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