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Joining up: Mission workers examine church memberships


Bruce Yoder (left), worships at Ikot Eyo congregation in the Ubium diocese of the Mennonite Church Nigeria, one of the many congregations he relates to in West Africa.

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February 3, 2006
-by Ryan Miller

Elkhart, Ind. — From their home in the Himalayan region of South Asia, a pair of Mennonite workers* see people leaving due to ongoing violence in their region. In the midst of what they described as havoc, the couple sought to send a message to their friends and colleagues. After more than a decade of attendance, they officially joined their local fellowship in a summer ceremony.

“(It was a) clear statement to our sisters and brothers in the Lord,” said one of the workers. “It said, 'We wish to be with you as you walk this difficult pathway in your country’s history.'”

Mission workers serving away from their country of origin can struggle with issues of membership. Some choose to retain official connections with churches in home countries, either because of strong feelings for those supporting congregations or because of complications in their new homes. Others feel that their allegiance – and their membership – should be with the congregation they currently attend.

In Benin, Nancy Frey and Bruce Yoder have avoided joining a single congregation. They do not even attend a single church regularly.

“We work in an interdenominational setting,” Frey said. “We must not give the impression of favoring one denomination over the other.”

Some colleagues tried to regularly attend multiple congregations, but Frey and Yoder relate to more than 50 churches around Cotonou and much of Yoder’s work is in neighboring Ghana and Nigeria. Choosing a home congregation would leave others out, so when they are not preaching in a Beninese church, the couple and their two children gather with other expatriates in a coordinated Bible study that has become like a house church, complete with Sunday school for the children.

Mennonite workers in a Middle Eastern country regularly attend a believer’s church, but run into baptismal barriers that prevent them from full participation in the community of believers. The church, which has welcomed the workers, recently opened communion to any person of like faith, but like faith, in that model, includes baptism by immersion.

One of the mission workers originally was baptized by pouring, which is leading to discussion of how to overcome this barrier to full fellowship. Neither the worker, nor the Middle Eastern pastors, wants to negate the first baptism nor compromise the local church’s beliefs and practices. The worker and pastors are discerning with the congregation on a process that will allow him to fully join the community.

“It is a story that is not finished,” the worker said.

Membership can have an important symbolic and real-world meaning within a congregation and a ministry location. Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers are encouraged to participate in local congregations when contextually appropriate. One of the workers in the Himalayan region said she is heartened. She has watched some mission workers outside of the Mennonite tradition distance themselves from locals in worship, often because of a lack of language skills or an unwillingness to sit through services that, by Western standards, can be extremely long.

The couple waited to become members based, in part, on advice nearly a century-old from a mission worker to India. In 1916, Jacob Andrews Ressler advised mission workers to wait at least a decade before actively working on reform within a system. “In that time,” Ressler wrote, “you will have had time to gather a sense of the real difficulties and will be far more competent to offer the proper solution for the difficult problems.”

The workers said there is nothing magical about waiting a decade and, indeed, they have retained dual membership with their churches of origin. But by becoming members of a local church, they made sure that others now truly understand their commitment is long-term, something, she said, that is essential to their mission in the Himalayas.

*Some workers are not identified due to security issues in the region. Nancy Frey and Bruce Yoder are supported by Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness.