Mennonite denominationalism and the Concern pamphlets

I’ve been a Mennonite for nearly 8 years. I’ve felt welcomed in local congregations and regional assemblies and national conventions. I have enjoyed everything about our denomination–even the quirkiness. But I also can’t help but notice that there are lots of faithful people who have been Mennonite for a lot longer than I have been who are asking tough questions about denominational structures (both physical structures like a new office building, and institutional structures like the merger of various board agencies).

After reading Wipf & Stock’s wonderful collection of republished Concern pamphlets, I can’t help but notice similarities between Mennonite discourse in the 1950s and today. Here’s a passage from the introduction of the 1954 Concern pamphlet:

Are American Mennonites, in spite of their great institutional and even spiritual progress, perhaps after all moving rather toward ‘respectable’ denominationalism rather than toward a dynamic and prophetic ‘grass roots’ movement? And if so, what responsibility devolves upon us in our generation? (Concern, vol. 1, p. 3)

What do you think? Is this the same sort of question that needs to be asked?

I also beginning to wonder if this is a perennial Mennonite concern. Paul Peachey and his friends asked it back then, and plenty of others are asking it again today.

While the Concern group of the 1950s offered important criticisms of their denomination, I am also struck by one of quotes at the beginning of their first pamphlet–an epigraph that offers a kind of framework for their essays:

…send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may rebuild it. (Neh 2:5)

Comments (12)

  1. AlanS

    In the past couple of years, but especially in recent discussions about the MCUSA building project, I have found myself surprisingly supportive of denominational structures. As a 29 year old this seems to have put me at odds with many of the younger, vocal, dissenting voices in the Mennonite Church. Even the fact that the Spark Renewal movement is claiming to be a voice of the young, and I find myself at odds with their perspective, is a current and poignant point of conflict for me. As with many areas of conflict in my life I have tried to ask myself if it’s just me or what the root cause is of our difference.

    After doing some soul searching on this I have come back to an older observation of mine, but one that I think might actually be at play here. It seems as though there is a significant difference in assumption about what a denomination is or should be doing. I would track this difference back to our roots in the Old Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. I would simply, and crudely, describe the key difference this way.

    GC – The denomination or conference is made up of independently minded churches who have come together to do mission work and other activities that they cannot do by themselves.

    MC – The denomination exists to be a theological gatekeeper and exert hierarchical authority over it’s churches, along with helping to do some of the mission work type activities.

    This leads to the view that for GC’s the denomination is an aid to furthering our missional work but for MC’s (especially the younger ones) the denomination is something that simply gets in the way of being missional.

    The reason that I bring up this observation is that I was intrigued by this posting, mainly because I have never heard of the “concern” pamphlets. As I read through the GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online) article on this topic, I quickly realized that the ‘concern’ being expressed was from within and primarily with the Old Mennonite church, not the General Conference Mennonite Church. While there were some GC contributors in the mix, it was primarily pushed by an MC group and it was the MC leadership and authority that was being challenged.

    What I’m really saying.
    1) I get the impression that those who are highly skeptical of denominational structures are not that far off from what I believe, but…
    2) …they are reacting to and pushing against a very different idea of what a denomination is or should be.

    3) And yes, if I’m really honest with myself, I still feel lament over the fact that it feels like I hear a lot of younger MC’s longing for a denominational structure that looks a lot like what the old GC structure was. Something that was destroyed in the merger. And no, I don’t really know what to do with that feeling, and I even hesitate to express it here for fear of coming across bitter. But I can’t deny that it’s part of what’s rolling around in my head, for better or worse.

    Not everyone under 30 has issues with the denomination, specifically MCUSA or even the concept of a denomination. But yes, I do want to make sure that we have a denomination that is worth hanging on to.

    Hopefully that’s helpful food for thought. Maybe it isn’t.

  2. Matthew Keiser

    Thanks AlanS for your comments – I would tend to agree with what you wrote and I too appreciate the denominational structures even though I am someone born and raised in the (Old) MC denomination. Perhaps it comes from being raised in the Lancaster Conference where we simply live and breath the structure and authority that comes with it. To be honest I was taken by your last thoughts regarding the old GC structure, it sounds as though you’re really grieving the loss of the old way of doing things and I was curious. I honestly don’t know how the GC used to operate. Could you enlighten me, perhaps point to more specific differences between the MC and GC and maybe how MCUSA differs from the GC as well? Thanks.

  3. Samuel

    Structurally, the General Conference was based on congregational representation-the General Assembly was a grouping of congregations. Colleges were not owned by the denomination, and denominational ministries were fairly independent. Congregations were in charge of their own theology and practice, and it was presumed that while the denomination would offer a general sense of ‘Mennonite Theology’ it would primarily be organized around key tasks like mutual aid, evangelism, and education, and anyone who shared those goals was welcome to come and participate. My Dad used to say ‘the General Conference would accept a Mosque, if they wanted to join us’ (which was an exaggeration, with a grain of truth).
    In the Old Mennonite Church, conferences had much more power- the general assembly was much more a gathering of conferences, with congregational representation being limited. The denomination was much more comfortable making specific theological statements. The agencies and colleges were controlled by the denomination.
    MCUSA has some of both traits, with congregations having a lot of power as individual units, but the denomination being charged with common theology.

    As a radical Anabaptist, I confess I’m at least as concerned about the massive wealth spent every 2 years on the Mennonite convention (next year in Pittsburgh) as I am about a permanent building that will at least be environmentally sustainable. Assuming the 8000 Mennonites at convention spend 1000$ apiece (my assumption when I was a Youth pastor) we could build one of these buildings for every convention we skip.

    Also, I think discernment/complaining/disagreement is just part of being a part of a church, and the push to be more connected to the simple institutional model of the early church is a very important part of the dialogue, but something that has been repeated again and again over the years-the Mennonite Church, like all churches, is always in need of revival.

  4. Matthew Keiser

    Thanks Samuel, that was really helpful and interesting.

  5. IsaacV (Post author)

    Thanks Alan, Matthew, and Samuel for providing the MC-GC framework. This is all very new to me. I have come to the Mennonite church since the merger, so I just know one denominational structure.

    I am wondering about the characterization of GC churches as loosely affiliated independent congregations. I have also echoed this description and been gently corrected. Apparently there were GC districts that had bishops who exercised power over individual congregations.

  6. AlanS

    Issac and Matthew,
    Two examples of impact of pre-merger authority dynamics that are still present.

    Story 1 –
    There are two major groups (pardon the oversimplification) that really made up the GC church when it formed in the mid 1800’s. On one hand you had a large Russian Mennonite Immigrant population coming to the U.S. These Mennos primarily settled in the plains states and eventually Canada. While the were mostly coming from Russia, they were still a pretty mixed group of ethnicities from Dutch, to Swiss, to German. They were also used to living in their own colonies and, as such, were used to building their own internal governance structures and even infrastructures. For some reason, they came from Russia with an institutional mindset. There’s a reason the first Mennonite College was Bethel in North Newton, Ks, or the first Mennonite Hospital in North America was in my home town of Goessel, Ks. John Sharp, Hesston College Historian, even pointed out that the Russian Mennonites were interested in doing mission work but the Old Mennos weren’t, which (acording to him) was the primary reason why they didn’t join together in the 1800’s.

    The group that the Russians did join with, however, were basically Mennonites out east who didn’t want to be under the authority structure of the bishops. Somehow (and I still don’t fully understand this) the Russians and the easterners agreed to do ‘mission work’ together but allowed each church to retain it’s own authority.

    Here’s where things get interesting. In the early 1900’s there were many powerful traveling fundamentalist evangelists who swept the country. The Bishops in the MC churches essentially banded together and said, no we’re not pre-millennial dispensationalists, and didn’t let the evangelists in. The GC’s, however, left it up to each church. As a result, the GC’s on the east coast hold some of the most fundamentalist conservative churches around. Meanwhile back in the midwest, the Russian Mennonites tended to lean more towards some of the more liberal views out there.

    Essentially, because of the MC control, there is less variance between MC churches than there is between GC churches, theologically at least. I’m sure there was some GC control over local churches in certain areas, but by in large, it has been kinda loose.

    Story 2 – Modern day implications
    Western District Conference (GC) and South Central Conference (MC) essentially overlap in geographical area. There have been all kinds of tensions over the years, especially since Hesston College (MC) and Bethel College (GC) are 7 miles apart. In the process of the merger, one of the key points of tension has had to do with the issue of homosexuality. At one point a dually affiliated church (Rainbow Mennonite) even got kicked out of SCC but not WDC over this issue. For the GC’s the homosexuality issue is a church polity issue. For the MC’s its a theological and moral one.

    For example. As MCUSA was coming together, SCC and WDC tried to merge too. There was a key joint conference in Dallas, TX where the talks ultimately fell apart. In the spring prior to that meeting Bethel College Mennonite Church (a Western District, GC church) went through a discernment process and added a non-discrimination statement to the bulletin that included homosexuals. There were, and still are, two very different interpretations of that move by the church.

    GC’s assumed that each church has the authority to make that kind of statement and that the decision was ultimately up to them to make that kind of decision. No conference involvement needed or required. It was simply the actions of 1 church, not the whole conference.

    MC’s, on the other hand, because of their assumptions about church structure, assumed that no individual church could take that kind of action without conference approval. Therefore, they interpreted BCMC’s actions not only as a statement by that church but by the whole conference. Combined with it’s timing just before the joint conference, the MC’s took it as though the GC’s were rubbing it in their face and making a huge public statement.

    Those are two very different interpretations of what happened. My guess is that event though MCUSA is something of a hybrid between the two previous structures, that the basic assumptions about the authority and role of denominational leadership still apply, and still are shaping our discussions today.

  7. mennomom

    Thank you, AlanS for that excellent analysis of MC/GC history. It certainly helps to explain some of the current discussions and conflicts within MCUSA. The current Central Plains Mennonite Conference is also a merger of two former conferences, one GC and the other MC. We have similar tensions because of the varying expectations among us about the role of “conference”. Both positions have their strengths, and at the extreme ends, grave weaknesses. I still hope and pray that we – MCUSA, regional conferences, and congregations – can overcome the weaknesses and use the strengths to be God’s people and do God’s work in the world. I’m sure it must be confusing to younger people and/or those now coming into the Mennonite Church. So knowing the history helps. But can we move on now! In my more cynical moments I sometimes think we are like the children of Israel, wandering around in a wilderness of our own making, and being quite content to stay there. May God have mercy on us all!

  8. TimN


    Thanks for bringing this quote from the Concern pamphlets. I’ve been very intrigued by the concern group, but haven’t had a chance to read many of their pamphlets myself. I have read more about the movement and its impact, starting with the Mennonite encyclopedia article on the Concern Pamphlets Movement. I also recently read an interesting assesment by Fred Kniss in his book, Disquiet in the land: cultural conflict in American Mennonite communities. I found this excerpt from Kniss’ book quite helpful:

    As show in Chapter 4, the forties and fifties had seen a gentler style of authority among Mennonites, but an expansion of its scope and centralization. Between the two of them, Harold Bender and Orie Miller were responsible for the founding and maintenance of virtually all the emergent church agencies and programs in that period. In fact, (and perhaps ironically, given the Mennonite values of humility and community) this strong leadership style had been typical of Mennonite organization since the emergence of Mennonite self-consciousness as a national entity in the late nineteenth century. John F. Funk was the dominant figure in the late nineteenth century and Daniel Kauffman dominated the early twentieth.

    This concentration of power and influence disintegrated in the late fifties as the careers of Bender and Miller waned. The centralization and bureaucratization of denominational authority came under attack by a new generation of scholars and activists who had established their careers under Bender and Miller’s tutelage and mentoring. The Concern group provided the main setting for the criticism of central authority… The core concern that underlay most of their specific positions was that the Mennonite denomination’s departure from what they saw as New Testament and Anabaptist egalitarian church polity and its adoption of standard American denominational form of bureaucratic centralized authority.

    Though the group operated from outside official church agencies, their ideas were influential. A series of conferences were held between them and the denominational leaders to discuss their concerns. Many of their ideas were eventually adopted, as both organizational ethos and organizational structure changed during the sixties, returning significant power to congregations. p. 87(You can read more of the page on Google Books)

    Although the movement began outside church agencies, many of the concern leaders went on to become influential administrators within Mennonite church institutions. A friend pointed out to me over the weekend that even John Howard Yoder was president of Goshen Biblical Seminary from 1970 to 1973 (referenced in his obituary).

    For me, this raises interesting questions about the hegemonizing power of institutions to assimilate dissenters. How much do they shape the institutions they join and how much do the institutions shape them? For the most part, the Mennonite church’s “adoption of standard American denominational form of bureaucratic centralized authority” seems to have continued over the last 50 years since the Concern Group’s members joined church institutions.

    Will the same thing happen to this generation of dissenters?

  9. ST

    very interesting discussion. paying attention to the factors that immigrant churches bring will also be something key in the future. it is key now, but most people in the center don’t quite understand that particular margin enough. but that aspect is really going to be big…especially in terms of what alans said about the underlying assumptions we have about the way denominations should work.

    and i wanted to clarify that spark renewal does not claim to speak for the younger generation, as alans mentioned. thanks for the shout out about the movement though. it’s one piece among many looking for renewal.

  10. Jonny

    Sorry for hi-jacking the thread, but I’m interested in Alan’s and ST’s different interpretations of who Spark Renewal is speaking for. While I appreciate that the group explicitly claims to include “people across generations,” I’m more hesitant when I read statements such as the following:

    For some, a building may symbolize stability, but for many in younger generations, it’s more likely to symbolize inflexibility and entrenchment in the status quo. If this building is “the future of Mennonite Church USA,” do young people in the church really see a big building in this location as an exciting future for the church, or a millstone?

    I agree with Alan (or at least I think I do) that comments such as this, while broad enough to remain arguably true, imply that Spark Renewal speaks on behalf of young people. Why focus on “younger generations” in this statement? Many of the young people I’ve spoken with are excited about and supportive of the building project, and I think it’s unhelpful to attempt to generalize based on age like this.

  11. AlanS

    ST- I wholeheartedly agree with you that voices in modern day immigrant churches (and I would add African American churches, the various Asian churches and all the other minority churches) do add and will continue to add many other perspectives on this. I’m just articulating the history of what I know and the core assumptions and difference between the two denominational structures that combined to make MCUSA. I admittedly over-generalized.

    As far as the spark renewal movement, I guess I didn’t think there was any question as to whether this group was claiming to be the voice of young adults. Perhaps that’s just my baggage from my experience with some of the organizers. I’ll go back and re-read the website but as the quote brought in by ‘Jonny’ exemplifies, it sure feels as though they are claiming to speak for, and from, a generational perspective.

    To be clear, I didn’t necessarily say they were wrong, I’m just saying I don’t necessarily agree with them and that they don’t speak for all young adults in MCUSA.

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