A vision for a global Church of the Brethren was a point of discussion and focus for Mission Alive 2018, a conference for mission-minded church members from across the United States and around the world. The conference was organized by the Global Mission and Service office working with the Mission Advisory Committee, and hosted by Frederick (Md.) Church of the Brethren on April 6-8.
Keynote speakers spoke from their own experience of mission and their own expertise in a variety of international contexts, as well as their experience of “translating” the essence of the church in differing languages and cultures. The keynote speakers were
-- Alexandre Gonçalves, a theologian in Igreja da Irmandade (the Church of the Brethren in Brazil) who also works for a ministry to prevent child abuse and domestic violence;
-- Michaela Alphonse, pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Miami, Fla., who spoke from her experience with Global Mission and Service as a program volunteer with Eglises des Frères D’Haiti (Church of the Brethren in Haiti);
-- David Niyonzima, founder and director of Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS) in Burundi, which provides psychosocial intervention and rehabilitation for people traumatized by war and violence, and vice chancellor of the International Leadership University-Burundi; and
-- Hunter Farrell, director of the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh (Pa.) Theological Seminary who has had mission experience in Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of Africa as well as in Peru in work related to the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Using their presentations as a stepping off point, mission executive Jay Wittmeyer led sessions outlining a vision for a global Church of the Brethren, and opened that concept for conversation. The vision document was adopted by the Church of the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board and will come to Annual Conference as an item of business this summer (find it at www.brethren.org/ac/2018/business/NB/NB-3-Vision-for-a-Global-Church-of-the-Brethren.pdf ).
Currently, Church of the Brethren denominations are established, or are in the process of forming, in the United States, India, Nigeria, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Spain, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Venezuela.
It will be a hard task but an inspiring task to build a global Church of the Brethren said Gonçalves. “Identity matters,” he told the conference, emphasizing the necessity of remembering the essential elements that define the Brethren tradition. “Without memory, our self-perception would be impossible. When an individual or group loses its memory, it also loses...a sense of belonging, sense of values and beliefs.”
He urged Brethren to continue to gather around scripture and study it in community, citing communal discernment of scripture as a key practice to maintaining a Church of the Brethren identity rooted in the Anabaptist and radical Pietist theological traditions. These traditions call believers to be involved in peacemaking and to address the political issues of the time, he said, and they lead to servanthood. “There should not be Christian mission without service to others,” he said, “because Jesus’ commission touches all aspects of life.”
He posed a hard question, however, noting that the Church of the Brethren is experiencing a diversity of theology and practice in the United States and internationally. Do Brethren really share the same theological tradition and language? he asked. “What is the point of celebrating a global Church of the Brethren if many of the bodies do not manifest or do not want to know, manifest, embrace the Anabaptist and radical Pietist views? ...We must show that our essence is the same,” he said, urging a return to Brethren roots that all the bodies have in common. “It is time to sow the seeds again.”
In addition to keynote sessions, the event included an evening peace vigil, a full love feast with feetwashing, meal, and communion service, and numerous workshops that shared detailed information about mission work of Brethren around the world.
Wittmeyer led a closing session that gave international participants opportunity to share their initial responses to the idea of a global Church of the Brethren. Those who spoke were supportive of the concept, while acknowledging past mistakes that have been made in mission and acknowledging the difficulties surrounding such a venture. The difficulties mentioned included questions about the nature of the global body’s structure, how to finance it, and how leadership will be determined
In response to questions, Wittmeyer explained that the vision document was reviewed by some key international church leaders in Nigeria, Brazil, and elsewhere, prior to its adoption by the Mission and Ministry Board. They affirmed its direction, he told the conference.
If adopted by Annual Conference this summer, the vision document will open up the possibility for invitations to the various international denominations to come to the table to together consider creating a global church structure. The document at this point represents an opportunity for the church in the United States to revise its mission philosophy and reconsider its relationship to the other Brethren denominations, he emphasized.
Adoption of the document at Annual Conference will not create a global Church of the Brethren. That step is still far in the future, after the various Church of the Brethren denominations and their leaders make their own decisions about whether to join in such a shared venture.
Find webcasts from Mission Alive and an online photo album linked at www.brethren.org/missionalive2018 .