NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (Mennonite Mission Network/Mennonite Church USA) - Inspiration for courage and faithful obedience to God's call flowed continuously at Sent 2016, Mennonite Church USA's first national church-planting summit, held Mar. 31-Apr. 2. Sent 2016 was organized by Mauricio Chenlo, denominational minister for holistic witness and church planting for Mennonite Church USA, and funded and supported by Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Mission Network with support from The Schowalter Foundation.
More than 100 participants traveled to New Orleans to join the hosting congregation, Iglesia Amor Viviente (Living Love Church), whose members provided worship in both English and Spanish, and generously volunteered their time to cater the onsite meals.
Those assembled represented diverse socio-economic contexts and urban and rural communities across the United States.
Among the ethnicities present were African American, Anglo, Argentinian, Haitian, Honduran, Garifuna, Mexican, Mexican-American, Nepali, and Puerto Rican. Three shared theological understandings permeated the worship and workshops:
- God is a sending God.
- Visible kingdom communities are God's primary strategy for bringing healing and hope.
- The church equips God's people for planting kingdom communities.
Many expressed feeling encouraged, and excited about the work that is taking place across the Mennonite Church.
Duane Maust, chair of the leadership commission for Gulf States Mennonite Conference, was refreshed by the energy of the summit. "[This is] what the church is really about," he said.
"There are exciting things happening in the Mennonite Church," said Maust. "I think the church should feel tremendously encouraged."
God is a sending God.
At the opening evening worship, Pastor Karl Bernhard of Iglesia Amor Viviente declared to those present that "now is the time to awaken." And that, evidenced by his own life, "once we have seen Jesus, we can't stay quiet or remain the same." Over the past years, this church plant in Metairie, Louisiana, has become a thriving congregation and is now planting another church in nearby Slidell.
Bernhard passionately reminded those gathered that kingdom work is urgent and important.
Bishop L. W. Francisco, III from Calvary Community Church (C3) in Hampton, Virginia, continued to build on the understanding that "God is a sending God" the following Friday morning. He reassured listeners that "no one can do what you do, like you."
Through his sharing he built upon Bernhard's foundation of urgency to inspiration. He acknowledged that church planting and kingdom work can be lonely and difficult, but that each individual is called to their unique context to use their unique gifts. Under Bishop Francisco's leadership, a small church plant has become a congregation of more than 1,000, which is now planting four new churches in the region and beyond.
Gisselle Guity of Grupo Familia de Apoyo Anabautista (Anabaptist Family Support Group) in West Palm Beach, Florida, shared of her experience as a social worker with at-risk women and children. Through these relationships, she and fellow believers have helped create a faith community of support, safety and healing.
Robert Russo of Roots Fellowship in Weaverville, North Carolina, described his work near Asheville, a place that experienced significant violence at the hands of Christians against Native Americans and in family-against-family conflicts during the Civil War. This impacts how people see the church today. Russo and his wife are working to create a fellowship that lives out the gospel holistically to counter the historic hypocrisy.
In response, Pastor Hilaire Louis Jean of Church of God Prince of Peace in Miami, Florida, said, "We have to continue the mission of Jesus Christ, by planting churches. I want people to know that the harvest is great, but we have few workers willing to come and contribute their talents and to continue the mission."
Visible kingdom communities are God's primary
strategy to bring healing and hope.
After a historic overview of Mennonite church planting by James R. Krabill, director for Global Ministries at Mennonite Mission Network, workshops were offered by various participants.
Workshop leaders presented on a variety of topics, such as Experiments in Multi-Cultural Church Planting, Intentional Relational Discipleship, and Encountering "Nones" with the Peace Church Witness of Jesus. "Nones" are those who self-identify as not following any religion.
The day's events concluded with an exercise in celebration led by Sarah Jackson of Aurora, Colorado. By the end of the night, all the participants were wearing birthday party hats and sharing with one another about their "wins" in their lives and ministries.
The church equips God's people for planting kingdom communities.
Saturday morning, Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, addressed the question, "Does theological identity matter for church planting?" She offered the metaphor of building a home for the construction of theology in new communities of believers, insisting that if the foundation is Jesus, there can be enough room for everyone.
She affirmed the work of those present by stating that they are literally living out the church, and said, "We are about imagining God's presence and going to the vulnerable edge."
Elizabeth and Matt Pritchard built on Shenk's affirmation for the importance of intentional theological formation at the beginning of any church or faith community. The Pritchards, who have worked with many "nones," urged the assembled to recognize that the time is ripe for Anabaptist theology and the creativity of the third way.
"Third way looks really different now than in the past," said Elizabeth Pritchard.
"It has never been a better time to be Mennonite," said Matt Pritchard. "How do we look at our current culture and practice anew, hearing God well for our culture now and reading the Scriptures well for the culture now, for living out faith well for our culture now?"
A final session explored next steps in developing a national church-planting network. Numerous ideas were shared and tested for nurturing and strengthening relationships between church planters and coaches across the church. Church planting within Mennonite Church USA is a partnership between church planters and area conferences, with support from Mennonite Mission Network and denominational staff. The group expressed strong support for future gatherings of church planters from across the country for encouragement, resourcing and collaboration.