Multi-Axis Identities as a Unifying Concept:
Note: This is a reflection on the organizational difficulties in mapping out an organizational structure for a proposed cultural and spiritual history of the EMB church or Brüderthaler Mennonite culture.
While I understand previous thoughts regarding a structure based on the name changes, I am not sure that this as effective for delineating the generational shifts in perception of the conference, the self-identity of the membership, or the growth stages of the conference.
I would recommend an organization based on growth stages (Erikson’s developmental models provide some intriguing ideas), with a strong emphasis on biographical details of the men and women who created the conference, supported the missions and were called to service.
What we need is a system that recognizes that the EMB were often a very loose fellowship of many different groups who were more involved or more influential at different times but always present in shifting alliances -- the missionaries, the Mennonites, the non-Mennonites, the Evangelicals, the Urbanites, the Rural Farmers, those who wanted to Reform existing movements, those who wanted to plant new endeavors. Furthermore, I am more and more convinced that many of the church bodies joined and remained part of the conference for different reasons -- some wanting fellowship with reform-minded congregations, some wanting to join resources but otherwise be left more or less to their own devices, and those who wanted to join resources to generate a strong missions presence, and those who wanted to maintain a strong ethnic identity. Even amongst the ethnic Mennonites, you had Kleiners, General Conference, those who leaned towards the MB, the Bruderthaler, the cultural Mennonites, etc.
In a sense, the EMB are notable not for being overly similar to each other, but rather for building a fellowship on a sense of diversity, tolerance, extreme democracy, volunteerism (not depending on professionals) and lowest-common denominator conscensus building. In that sense, they still retain many of the same characteristics of a sub-ethnic group when contrasted to the Amish, the heavily organized General Conference, the more strict Mennonite Brethren, etc. Yet, the Mennonite identity also gave them a sense of identity, purpose, belonging, history and mission that are often lacking in non-denominational-style community churches. Perhaps the closest body to the FEBC is the Evangelical Free movement.
The history is then the history of these groups joinging together in a loose conscensus-style fellowship and how they attempt to convince each other to cooperate to share strengths, interests, and resources with each other in order to establish successful Christian personal lives, effective missions projects, etc. This process of conscensus building and how certain groups led the conference at different times serves as the narrative or voice of the history. In this sense, the Redekop “complex” actually misses the point somewhat in that while the conference had a strong Mennonite contingency, it was never designed to be solely Anabaptist per se. A close examination of personal archives would indicate that these Mennonites were always working closely with non-Mennonite groups such as the American Sunday School Union, the Temperence League, Guideons, etc.
An easy way to demonstrate these efforts and relationships would be to add additional axes to Redekop’s rather flat timeline. If we combine O.J. Wall’s perceptual shifts from a focus on Pietism towards a focus on Missions with Redekop’s slide from a Mennonite identity to an Evangelical identity, we come up with a graph similar to the following (a sort of Lustre Synthesis):
In this sense, you could graph my proposed understanding of the EMB in that it has historically fluctuated in identity, emphasis and effort between the horizontal pole with Anabaptism on the far left and Evangelical on the far right, with a vertical pole with Pietism at the top and Service or Missions at the bottom. The upper left quadrant would be filled with Mennonites seeking personal renewal and church reform (the original Brüderthaler and Ebenezers). The lower right would be non-Anabaptist-oriented persons focused on Evangelization and Service from an American Evangelical perspective or efforts involving the American Sunday School Union and the Gideons for instance. The lower left quadrant would be those who were moved by their Mennonite faith to establish and pursue missions and were active in the conscientious objection movement during the world wars or the MCC. The Upper Right quadrant would be those persons and efforts directed at church renewal along an American Evangelical model, pursuing congregational spiritual growth through Christian Endeavour programs, Evangelization crusades, the Harvest Festivals, etc. Many of these groups would find themselves cooperating with each at different times to accomplish shared goals.
One would probably discover that the conference as a whole has shifted between these poles and quadrants at different times during its history while struggling to unify congregations and persons scattered across the entire graph into a single, unified purpose or movement. The conference has also pursued, often concurrently, many different projects located at different points along these dual axes. So in many ways, the story of the FEBC conference is its struggle to unify these four quadrants or to identity along these four polarities.
Unlike other proposals, this history would not focus on the so-called identity crises -- they are old news and often perceived as divisive, but rather be able to focus on the Faith, Courage, and Renewal of the conference’s various components, and the struggle to establish effective roots in a new world while reaching it for Christ.
On the other hand, a short-coming of my proposed model is that it is heavily based on my experiences with and impressions of the Lustre, Steinbach, Chicago, and Mountain Lake churches and would have to be examined in light of the other congregational histories and experiences.