New Stirrings in God’s Family

By Laurie Oswald Robinson

During its annual assembly Aug. 3, Western District Conference (WDC) – which seeks to open new church plant doors as one of its main priorities – felt deep joy over how a God-delivered gift to its doorstep last year has become family.

The 250 attendees received Chin Emmanuel Church, Houston, Tex., as a full member congregation during their afternoon session in Memorial Hall at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan.  They celebrated this unbidden gift from God with a standing ovation, as more than a dozen members of Chin Emmanuel absorbed the welcome with wide smiles.

Pastor Simon Lian Hmung Tlumang held their membership plaque to the ceiling amidst loud applause followed by handshakes, hugs and prayers from Clarence Rempel, WDC Conference Minister, and Gilberto Flores, Associate Conference Minister, who first met Pastor Simon in winter 2012.

That was when Pastor Simon first contacted Flores about his church wanting to connect with Mennonites.  The Chin people represent a persecuted ethnic group from Burma that is seeking religious freedom in the United States.  Pastor Simon’s call led to many visits from Flores, followed by the church becoming an emerging congregation last summer, and a full member this August.

“New things are stirring, and we’re being challenged in being open, nimble and flexible in responding to new possibilities,” said Clarence Rempel.  “Jesus talks about reaping where we haven’t sown, and that has been the case with several recent church plantings. … The Chin leaders said they were praying and fasting about who to connect with, and God directed them to us!”

Pastor Simon said, “We now have a ‘father’ and a ‘mother’.  Because we now belong to you, the Mennonites, we are fatherless no more.”

To further explore these new stirrings of God, WDC’s Church Planting Task Force sponsored a Church Planting Dreamers luncheon Aug. 3.  About twenty participants interacted with task force members, Flores and three pastors: Jaime Cazares, who planted Iglesia Menonita Casa Betania, Newton, Kan., which became a full WDC member in 2011; Karen Mascho, Grace Mennonite Fellowship, Gladewater, Tex., and Moises Romero, Iglesia Camino de Santidad, Liberal, Kan.

“The local congregation is God’s mission agency in its own context,” said Nita Nikkel, task force member of Wichita.  “The congregation is the cultivator of God’s hope in their communities as it re-imagines how its strengths can empower that cultivation.

“To get dream teams going, a congregation needs to have individuals who can see the big picture as well as the people who focus more on doing the practical and smaller details.  We need people with vision and the people who can also ask the hard questions about process.”

Mascho’s church-planting journey, taken with her husband, Steve, is one example of creative dreaming and doing.  The couple began a worship service in the community room of a local housing complex in Gladewater.  Luncheon participant Wendy Funk Schrag, WDC Board secretary and member of First Mennonite Church, Newton, Kan., said Mascho’s story enlarged her own understanding of what constitutes a church plant.

“There are the more traditional reasons for planting churches, such as no Mennonite churches in specific areas or churches that outgrow their buildings,” Funk Schrag said.  “There are also reasons to plant churches in communities if there are needs that aren’t being met in a traditional church building.

“Gladewater’s choice of a meeting space allows the church to provide direct ministries to the people who live at the housing complex as well as to meet together as a fellowship.  There may be more opportunities for this type of church planting in all kinds of communities.”

Assembly participants also enjoyed worship, keynote messages and seminars focused on the theme, “Shaped by God’s Story, Word and Spirit in the Book of Acts.”  The two evening messages by Loren Johns, professor of New Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., were “The Bible and Anabaptist Interpretation,” and “The Work of the Discerning Community.”

Preceding his message on Aug. 2 was the memorized presentation of Acts 2:1-47 by four children of Delmar and Suzanne Miller, members of First Mennonite Church, Hutchinson, Kan.  The children were Katie 12, Betsy 10, Charlie 8, and Lucy Rose, 5.  Their homeschooling mother places a strong emphasis on literature and biblical literacy.

“My charge as a parent is to put scripture in their heart and their head, so that in a clutch and in the challenges of life, the words of God will be there for them to draw upon,” Suzanne Miller said.  “As Mennonites, we are people of ‘the book’.  I want to pass on to my children the love of God’s word.”

Following the children’s presentation, Johns explored how Anabaptists interpret the Bible – through the rule of Paul, the rule of Christ and Christocentrism, or through Christ as the word of God.

“The rule of Paul … says that you don’t have to be a priest or a doctor of the law to discern God’s will. … The Bible is best read in the congregation, and the job of the seminary is to develop people who can lead the people of God to discern for themselves.

“The rule of Christ is basically … not about church discipline. … but how we are to be there for each other in giving and receiving counsel, seeking each other’s well-being and giving and receiving trust.”