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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 238–240 

Book Review

Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren

Lynn Jost and Connie Faber. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 2002. 131 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Kyle

In 2002, Kindred Press and the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (which had already voted itself out of existence) published two volumes intended to inform Mennonite Brethren regarding their past and current developments. Both are aimed at church audiences, not scholars. They are easily understood and contain few citations. The first volume takes somewhat of a socio/historical/theological approach and contains sections encouraging MBs to action. The second is more descriptive and historical, though not all contributors are historians.

As the title would indicate, Family Matters views the Mennonite Brethren as a global family, which the authors contend is the MB contribution to postmodern North American Christian identity. Reality may not coincide with this contention, but this volume is more than a description of what is. Rather, “It is a call to remember what has been {239} and to return to what should and will be” (ix). Given this intent, the authors can be excused for ignoring the dissonance between reality and the ideal in MB church life. For example, their statements often reflect the positions of the MB leadership, which frequently differ from those of the average parishioner.

Family Matters contains four sections and thirteen chapters. Part One, “The Family History,” looks at MB connections with the early church, the Anabaptist Reformation, the birth of the Brethren in Russia, their migrations to North America, and developments on this continent. Part Two, “Family distinctives,” notes several MB characteristics—especially its Pietist and Anabaptist influences, its New Testament hermeneutic, its focus on peacemaking and missions, and its various institutional activities (e.g., education and publishing). Part Three, “Stories of Growth,” describes MB expansion and activities in various parts of the world: Canada, the United States, and beyond North America to the developing world. Part Four, “Future Perspective,” contains only one chapter, challenging MBs to be true to their vision for building family ties.

Family Matters is intended for a popular audience. It contains many stories and illustrations and should be enjoyable but informative reading for members of MB congregations who often lack adequate knowledge regarding their history and faith. While the authors present the ideal—what things should be like in the MB church—they often use the word struggle, indicating that MB matters are in process or not as they should be. They also inform the reader of the theological and cultural diversity found in MB congregational life.

Though these two books are both aimed at similar audiences, they differ significantly. For Everything a Season uses less popular language and clearly adopts an historical approach. It contains fourteen essays, written by a range of Mennonite Brethren from both the U.S. and Canada. Most of these authors are well-known figures in MB circles. And while this book is organized topically, nearly all of the essays are developed historically, that is, they take us from the earliest developments to the present.

Despite being a collection of essays, For Everything a Season has a clear focus. It examines aspects of MB life and developments in North America from 1874 to 2002, approximately the time when many MB institutional activities were directed by the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. With the end of this binational conference in 2002, it is only natural to reflect upon developments in the Mennonite Brethren churches during the life span of this institution. {240} These essays do not speculate on the reasons for the demise of the General Conference, and not all of them address the formal activities of the conference.

This volume begins with a description of the birth of the Mennonite Brethren Church in southern Russia. The scene then changes to North America where it remains for the rest of the book. Chapter 2 examines the coming of the MB immigrants to North America in the 1870s and their subsequent movements on this Continent. We next encounter those who came from the Soviet Union to Canada during the 1920s and 1940s. Essay four introduces the reader to the diverse theological influences that have forged the Mennonite Brethren faith. While in North America, the MBs have experienced a number of organizational and structural changes—the subject of chapter 5. Mennonite Brethren have always been a mission-minded people.

The next essay describes the mission activities of the North American MBs, the major reason why they are the largest Mennonite body in the world today. The next two chapters focus on domestic institutional developments, namely MB publishing activities and their vision for higher education which almost rivals their commitment to missions. Chapters 9 and 10 describe how Mennonite Brethren have developed literary and musical traditions. The next two essays take us into social issues, the first describing congregational life and the second focusing on how Mennonite Brethren have adapted to social changes, especially urbanization. Chapter 13 outlines how the North American Mennonite Brethren have grown from a people of Dutch and Germanic background to a mosaic of many cultures and languages. The last chapter contains something of a eulogy for the past and hope for future MB institutional developments.

While the essays vary in quality—as is the case with most collective works—For Everything a Season is a quality book, addressing most aspects of MB life in North America. It is enhanced by many sidebars and especially by interesting photos, which will make it more appealing to nonacademics.

Both of these books have achieved their objectives and should be in every MB church library. Hopefully they will be read by many MB parishioners.

Richard Kyle
Prof. of History and Religion
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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