by Walt Wiltschek
“Thanks for coming to do something new, something different,” said Grover Duling, chair of the West Marva District board, to nearly 400 people at the “Brethren Prayer and Worship Summit” April 20-21 in Harrisonburg, Va. People came to the event from 14 of the 24 Church of the Brethren districts.
The event followed an Aug. 2017 meeting in Moorefield, W.Va., that expressed concern about the denomination’s direction. Leaders from the “Moorefield gathering,” most of them connected to the Brethren Revival Fellowship (BRF), felt it was important to spend time immersed in prayer and Bible study before taking any further steps.
“I believe we have been too prayer-less,” BRF leader Jim Myer of Manheim, Pa., said at the summit. “I have to wonder if instead of having 200-plus Annual Conferences in our record books we had 200-plus prayer summits, how would things be different? I think this is long overdue.... I really believe God has some things for us to work on.”
That work did not include any votes or official agenda. Organizers wanted prayer and worship to be the sole focus. The event featured three main sessions, pulling together praise music led by Danville Church of the Brethren worship team “Grains of Sand” and soloist Abe Evans along with devotions, keynote messages, and guided discussion and prayer times.
Delivering the keynote messages were Julian Rittenhouse, a free ministry pastor in West Virginia; recently retired pastor Stafford Frederick of Roanoke, Va.; and Joel Billi, president of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). Each drew on 2 Chronicles 7:14 (KJV): “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Rittenhouse, focusing on repentance and confession, said the church is in decline “because we've separated ourselves from the living vine.” The denomination has a “wonderful heritage,” he said, but, “we’ve lost our song. We’ve lost our connection to Christ.” Rittenhouse held out hope. “I believe the best days of the Church of the Brethren can still be ahead for people who humble themselves,” he said, calling the church to seek forgiveness and “be with Jesus” more fully.
BRF chair Craig Alan Myers later echoed that feeling of hope in a devotional time. “There is hope for the Church of the Brethren,” he said. “Is this the start of a split? I say no. There’s lots to complain about, but I look around the church and say it’s a great church. Who would have imagined 20 years ago that we would be planting churches in Europe once again? Or in Venezuela or the Great Lakes of Africa?”
Frederick picked up on the theme of forgiveness, saying, “In God’s forgiveness and freedom there need not be fear.” He said the church needs to learn to ask for forgiveness and then “move on” instead of dwelling on the same issues. “Jesus has a way of solving all the problems that we get hung up on as the church,” he said.
Billi said EYN is praying for the Church of the Brethren and appreciates its close connection with the US church. Addressing the prayer summit was “the peak of my calling,” he said. He talked about some of the challenges that EYN has faced with terrorism and attacks on its churches, but said that faith had given them hope. “So long as we call upon the name of the living God, God will surely answer our prayers,” Billi said. “God is on top of our problems.”
The event had the feel of an old-style revival, but with a different set-up. Participants--including Church of the Brethren general secretary David Steele; Annual Conference moderator-elect Donita Keister; and Mission and Ministry Board chair Connie Davis and chair-elect Patrick Starkey--sat at round tables of up to seven people to facilitate the discussion and prayer times that followed each keynote. Those tables filled up half of the exhibit hall at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, while dining and fellowship areas and exhibits occupied the other half.
Offerings plus gifts given in advance totaled more than $16,500 to cover expenses. Organizers said any surplus will be evenly divided between the Nigeria Crisis Fund, the Haiti Clean Water Project, the new Venezuela mission project, and the Brethren Mission Fund.
Several speakers referred to the current work to develop a “compelling vision” for the church as key to future direction. Organizers will consider whether further gatherings are needed depending on the feedback from this event and outcomes of Annual Conference in July.
-- Walt Wiltschek is pastor of Easton (Md.) Church of the Brethren and serves on the editorial team for “Messenger,” the Church of the Brethren magazine.