Mennonite Conventions: What Happened to Stewardship?

Let me start with a disclaimer, no I’m not in San Jose at the convention, and yes I would love to be there. I was in Charlotte for a couple days a few years ago and I attended the Nashville convention but I’m no expert on the whole convention model. I think that it is a good and healthy thing for the church to gather in a large body to discuss important issues, worship, and fellowship together. I think these things should all continue to happen at Mennonite conventions (or assemblies, is that the more correct term?). However, I have two main concerns with the current convention model. One, is it really necessary to spend thousands of dollars on renting out convention centers in large cities (where there usually aren’t that many Mennonites) and then having all the participants stay in hotels. Now this could be a question simply of numbers, are there just not large enough buildings to host joint worships of thousands (other than in large cities)? However, would it be totally unthinkable to have a Mennonite convention in an area with significant Mennonite infrastructure? Maybe Goshen, Harrisonburg, Lancaster… Being from Goshen, I’m most familiar with that area and although I can’t think of a great space for a worship of 4 to 5 thousand (approximately?) there would be plenty of spaces for meetings and a couple spaces for close to 1,000 participants. Not only could we use facilities for much cheaper (free?) but there would be many churches in the area. Maybe one youth group could be hosted by a local youth group, or there could be some kind of host family system, creating increased community and saving money at the same time. Even if it wasn’t feasible to have a convention in Goshen or Harrisonburg then why not have conventions closer to the home of the majority of Mennonites, maybe Chicago, or Pittsburgh. According to Mpress, the San Jose convention news service here are the five states with the largest number of adult participants. (http://www.sanjose2007.org/mpress/tuesday/numbers.html)
1) Pennsylvania – 431 (ex. $300 plane ticket, which would be a really good deal = $129,300 on airfare just from PA)- this could feed 215 African families of 5 for a year (http://mcc.org/givingprojects/food_for_today.html)
2) Indiana – 323
3) Kansas – 185
4) Ohio – 160
5) Virginia – 137
Now, I doubt very many of these people drove out to California (maybe the Kansans) but it doesn’t take long to figure out they’re spending a lot of money on airfare that could be saved if conventions were closer to central Mennonite areas. With that said, I understand that the idea is to support Mennonites in all areas of the country. This is important, but wouldn’t it make more sense for the churches in the midwest or east to set aside some money to help the churches from the west coast or far south to fly to convention sites than to have all the Mennonites from other places fly out to the west coast? In summary, I would love to see a convention planned creatively in a densely Mennonite area, if not in a Mennonite-college town, then a city close by. This would enable the hosting area churches to be more involved in the hosting and maybe even some of the food preparation. Furthermore, it would be great to use some of the beautiful buildings and spaces that Mennonite churches and institutions already own. It just doesn’t seem like good stewardship to spend all of that money on airfare, hotels, and convention center food.

Comments (7)

  1. paco

    I also feel uncomfortable whenever I hear of Christians (of any kind) renting out huge convention centers and staying in hotels, (often, pretty expensive ones.) That said, I know absolutely nothing about Mennonite Conventions or the one happening right now in San Jose.

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  2. Skylark

    It’s worth noting that in two years, the convention will be in Columbus, Ohio. I know at least one Mennonite congregation in downtown Columbus, and it’s only an hour and a half drive from where I live in Mennoville. OK, it’s not called Mennoville, but you get the idea.

    When I heard it was going to be so close, I went, “Yipee!” and started mentally cataloguing all the friends I have in Columbus who might let me stay with them at no charge during the conference. They’ve put me up during ethnic festivals and holiday weekends, so a whole week isn’t a whole lot more.

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  3. JUnrau

    The thing about doing these things all the time in Mennopoli is that they can turn into local conferences, with guests. Probably not that good an idea for one area to dominate constantly, especially if the church is trying to deal with people who don’t like playing the Mennonite game and all that.

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  4. eric

    I’ve often felt similarly, and I think there probably are changes that could be made to the convention model – though I’m not of the mind that frugality is always equal to stewardship. When you look at the numbers, though, it becomes much harder to imagine Goshen hosting such a large event. The youth alone have an attendance around 4,000 here in San Jose, with an additional 2,000 or so adults. That’s with the attendance at roughly two-thirds this year as compared to most years. We’re talking 6,000 to 9,000 people – maybe more if it were closer to a Menno center – for an entire week.

    I don’t know any space in Goshen that can support a youth worship service that size, let alone any joint events – then add in exhibits. And how exactly would you do food? Even the large number of local Mennonites would be hard pressed to supply anywhere near the amount of food needed, and the local catering is certainly not up to the task. You could spread it out, but there’s no public transportation, and you’re adding a lot of local driving. You haven’t cut out all the flights (maybe some), but you’ve added a lot of driving (to and around) which might be even less efficient. Then where do you park those cars?

    If you see the size effect we have had here, dominating the streets of a major city, it’s pretty hard to imagine Goshen hosting anything like this.

    As for staying closer to Menno centers than California: that has been the trend consistently until this year. My understanding is that the west coast Mennos decided it was about time someone else do the traveling, which I can understand.

    I have mixed feelings about convention on various levels, but I wouldn’t want to be the one planning an event that size. There’s a lot to think about and plan for.

    Anyway, who doesn’t like an excuse now and then to stay in a hotel? Or travel out west? Make a trip of it – there’s some culture worth seeing and beautiful places to hike (and good Sushi).

    (In terms of the recreation, this year has been much more reasonable – while still entertaining – than the huge inflatable games and climbing walls of my memory. Is that a step in the right direction?)

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  5. Lora

    This question seems to come up every convention year. The main problem is that, like Eric said, it’s an enormous amount of people. Charlotte had more than 8,500 attendees. As I understand it, not even most university campuses have the capacity to deal with so many people; and I think that there’s somehow a link between occupying that many hotel rooms and getting space for meetings (either for free or at a reduced cost).

    My concern about planning a convention in an area densely populated by Mennonites is that some of the most interesting and energizing work is being done by churches who don’t fit into the typical Mennonite mold, and those churches are often found in areas where most of us don’t spend much time — large cities, economically depressed neighborhoods, high conflict zones, etc. Having conventions in large cities is one way (albeit a very small one) of helping the church to step out of its comfort zones and see the work of God (and its own mission) in a new way.

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  6. j alan meyer

    While I agree with what you’re saying, Peter, my problem is more along the lines of the amount of money spent on Convention, not simply the locations chosen. I think there’s a lot of value in forcing the Goshen/Lancaster/Harrisonburg Mennos to go be hosted by the groups of Mennos “on the fringes” geographically. And I understand that simply the amount of people attending necessitates a large meeting place, but does that necessitate a large convention center? I may be mistaken, but wasn’t Wichita 95 a much lower-cost convention, partially because it wasn’t held in a convention center? I could be wrong about that, but I think MC-USA could be much more creative about locations to meet that could lower the costs of registration for everyone, and the general materialism of the church — and Eric eating his sushi. But then again, I like sushi too. I was just really turned off after the huge spend-a-thons of Orlando 97 and Opryland 01.

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