Regional Mennonite Conferences
Regional organizations or conferences are relatively new in the Mennonite worldwide community. As with many cooperative and ecumenical movements, the origins can largely be traced to mission and the development of younger churches.
Out of the cooperative work of the Council of Mission Board Secretaries (COMBS) in North America came efforts to facilitate regional meetings or associations of churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Discussion between COMBS and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peace Section led to planning for an Africa peace mission in 1959-1960. The report of this assignment called for a conference of leaders of African Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. This meeting convened in Limuru, Kenya, 28 March-1 April 1962 with the theme, "The Christian in Modern Africa." A follow-up meeting took place in March 1965 in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). There the group founded the Africa Mennonite Fellowship, later renamed Africa Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Fellowship.
Asian leaders, with considerable initiative on the part of veteran churchman, P. J. Malagar, of Dhamtari, India, visualized the formation of an Asia Mennonite conference. This came into being in October 1971 with the assistance of representatives of the COMBS group. The first Asia Mennonite conference was held in Dhamtari, India, in 1971. A second meeting was held in Osaka, Japan (1980), and a third in Taipei, Taiwan (May 1986).
The literature ministry of the Mennonite Board of Missions (Mennonite Church) led to a call for a study of literature needs in Spanish-speaking Latin America. A consultation was organized in Bogota, Colombia, in February 1968. Several subsequent assemblies were held under the designation Congreso Latino American (Latin American Congress).
In Europe a Mennonitische Europäische Regional Konferenz (MERK) was formed. A meeting was scheduled for May 1988.
In 1970 an all-Mennonite North American Bible Congress was held, but this event did not develop any formal continuity of structure. It was followed by inter-Mennonite events centered on evangelism, e.g., "Probe 72" in 1972, in Minneapolis; and "Alive 85," in Denver, 1985.
Regional all-Mennonite conferences in North America trace their origins to the all-Mennonite convention, a triennial gathering in the period 1913-36 (Inter-Mennonite relations). While that movement did not continue, new initiatives arose in the 1960s. Although Mennonites had worked together for many decades, there were fewer occasions when they worshiped together.
A remarkable development was the emergence of an all-Mennonite ministers' meeting, held first in 1963 in Chicago, with subsequent sessions in 1965 and again in 1968. In the 1968 sessions, 70 ministers from 11 North American Mennonite groups attended.
These meetings led to a larger event, an all-Mennonite Bible Congress held in Winnipeg in July 1970 with an attendance of more than 250 people representing at least eight Mennonite groups.
The Council of Moderators and Secretaries (CMS) comes closest to a regional organization in North America and serves officially as the most representative, continuing, cooperative group. This group represents the four major North American bodies: Mennonite Church (MC), the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM), the Mennonite Brethren (MB), and the Brethren in Christ (BIC). The organization had its origin in consultations arising out of the planning for "Probe 72."
Subsequent consultations on inter-Mennonite relationships in 1974 and 1982, and especially meetings of the CMS group in 1985 and 1986, confirmed the intention of this group to function as an oversight body for North American inter-Mennonite organizations, who have no counterpart inter-Mennonite group to whom they are accountable.
Also of special significance was the emergence of the "Canadian Council of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Moderators" in 1987.
Regional activities and organizations have faltered for many reasons. Mennonite polity is based on congregational autonomy, except where modified by varying degrees of regional and denominational conference authority. In any event, there is no authority beyond the individual conferences (denominations) that validates any regional associations. Globally the Mennonite World Conference has functioned with considerable influence and worldwide interest, but it is clearly defined as a fellowship organization with no hierarchical status.
Mennonites are a small group, extremely diverse and widely scattered. They live in more than 50 nations, and many of the national bodies are quite small. Distance, culture, language, and tribal barriers inhibit regional associations, particularly in the two-thirds world. These limitations make regional groupings extremely difficult.
The history of the regional organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has been influenced by the urge toward cooperation initiated by mission agencies. But much of that influence was external, especially that deriving from organizational and financial assistance. The absence of that assistance as churches achieve autonomy removes one of the major facilitating factors.
Among the three continents of the two-thirds world, Mennonites in Asia have best succeeded in maintaining continuity of meeting. Latin American Mennonites, however, have developed an effective alternative to continent-wide gatherings, in the form of smaller, limited-area groupings. Initiative has been taken in the Southern Cone of South America and in Central America (Consulta Anabautista Menonita Centroamericana) for gatherings of this type.
Shenk, Wilbert. An Experiment in Interagency Coordination. Elkhart, IN: Council of International Ministries, 1986.
Toews, John A. A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Board of Christian Literature, 1975.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 757-758. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Kraybill, Paul N. "Regional Mennonite Conferences." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/R4513.html.
APA style: Kraybill, Paul N. (1989). Regional Mennonite Conferences. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/R4513.html.