This fall the Philadelphia Phillies became world champions. Young pitchers, MVP caliber infielders and a colorful manager offer hope for a repeat championship next year. But it wasn’t always like this. To understand why thousands of fans attended the victory parade in the city, one must understand the tragic story of Phillies fans, marked by over 10,000 losses and only two World Series titles in 115 years.
So I was a bit confused when my jubilant friend, Beny Krisbianto, called to tell me he was on his way to the parade. Beny isn’t a true Phillies fan. He’s never been to a game, can’t name two players and certainly does not bear the scars of those fans who have lived this tragic narrative.
Beny doesn’t know the Philadelphia sports fan’s pain because he is relatively new to the city. Since 2005 he has lived in South Philadelphia, pastoring one of Franconia Conference’s newest congregations, Nations Worship Center (NWC), a primarily Indonesian congregation comprised of immigrants who fled their country during and following the Jakarta Riots of 1997. In a short period of time, NWC and another Indonesian congregation, Philadelphia Praise Center, have born witness to something more exciting happening in South Philly than a Phillies World Series run.
Conrad Kanagy’s Road Signs for the Journey makes clear the rapid growth of urban and racial/ethnic churches in Mennonite Church USA. Almost 20% of congregations are racial/ethnic, and this percentage will only increase presenting the denomination with new challenges. Kanagy writes that “finding new and creative ways to cross ethnic boundaries in the church is perhaps the most important challenge and opportunity facing the denomination.”
Peter Sensenig, interim pastor at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, believes growing urban churches offer fresh models. “The growth I see in Philadelphia is indicative of the way the church is becoming less of an ethnic identity and more of an inter-cultural communion of believers centered around the tasks of preaching, healing, being witnesses and building peace.” Flourishing diverse, urban congregations can offer new ways of being Mennonite that move beyond ethnicity toward an identity grounded in loving, proclaiming and serving.
Though significant examples of these new ways of being Mennonite are not yet easily seen in many traditional MC USA congregations, there is growing awareness that learning from urban ethnic/racial churches is essential for our future. “In surveying the North American church,” says Mark Reiff, youth pastor at Doylestown Mennonite Church, “non-white congregations are keeping many denominations from their continued decline through new congregations which are forming among these people groups,…to see these new churches continue to be cultivated gives me the hope that this might be one curve we are not behind.”
For years the Phillies were behind the curve. Their strategy for success simple: acquire one or two key free agents and hope the other players perform well enough to make the team competitive. Each year the plan was tried, and each year the team waded in mediocrity. In the late 90’s the Phillies decided to follow a new model for success–the Atlanta Braves–a team Phillies management had closely observed since the beginning of the decade. The Braves committed to building a winning team by investing in their farm system, not free agents, a model that won 15 straight Eastern Division championships. Philadelphia’s 2008 championship was largely a result of implementing Atlanta’s model.
Baseball sage Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Many Mennonites are taking the challenges and opportunities found in Road Signs seriously by closely watching the growth of these urban and racial/ethnic churches that don’t always follow traditional models. But not only is there sincere interest in observing urban and racial/ethnic congregations; some traditional churches are building authentic relationships with urban churches. When asked about signs of hope in the denomination, Krisbianto responded that “there is much more support and involvement from the denomination, which really energizes us to do more things, reach our goals and enlarge God’s kingdom. We are happy for the relationships.”
What does baseball teach us about the future of our denomination? Kanagy writes, “The growing presence of racial/ethnic members of MC USA is one of the greatest movements of God’s Spirit among Mennonites today.” Among the greatest gift these congregations offer is new ways to be Mennonite. Just like the Phillies decided to change their strategy for winning by adapting the model of the Braves, there are hopeful signs that traditional congregations are beginning to receive the gifts of urban and racial/ethnic congregations—exploring ways to be Mennonite in context.
If we continue to pay attention to the road signs, there’s hope that Beny and I will one day attend another parade on Broad Street when diverse and prophetic Mennonite churches march together, bearing witness to the Spirit’s work among us.