In collaboration with Mennonite World Conference, the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen (Indiana, USA) College is launching a two-part research initiative.
Combining data and personal stories, organizers hope to develop a more accurate understanding of the MWC constituency specifically and global Anabaptism generally.
"We're trying to provide a sort of X-ray of our body in a way that could help local church leaders have a better perspective of their own groups as they set priorities," said John D. Roth, the research leader and professor of history at Goshen College.
Both parts — the Global Anabaptist Profile and the Bearing Witness Stories Project — will require years of research. Both are independently funded. Conrad Kanagy is serving as associate director.
At the MWC General Council gathering May 20-26 in Basel, Switzerland, the MWC Faith and Life Commission agreed to serve as a reference group for the Global Anabaptist Profile.
Roth plans to invite 25 MWC-related groups to participate in the survey of topics such as demographics, beliefs and practices.
The profile could also help MWC discern how best to serve its members.
North Americans often conduct their own surveys, he said, "but we haven't really pursued them in the global context."
The Global Anabaptist Profile will be based partly on a survey led by Conrad Kanagy and Richard Showalter among churches that relate to Eastern Mennonite Missions.
At an MWC Executive Committee meeting in May 2011, a proposal for the profile was approved — provided that it not be dominated by theological and cultural questions that come only from the Global North. Roth is sensitive to this concern.
The original project proposal suggested randomly selecting 25 church groups to participate. After consultation with MWC, Roth is now opening up participation to any interested group and will likely coordinate the project with Mennonite mission agencies.
MWC member groups can contact Roth and express interest.
Rather than just extracting information, Roth said he hopes the profile can invite diverse groups into shared conversation.
"At its best, the profile can deepen a sense of shared identity and fuller recognition of our diversity," he said.
Coinciding with this mostly quantitative research is the Bearing Witness Stories Project, a gathering of personal accounts of costly discipleship and suffering.
Anabaptists have a long tradition of remembering events by telling stories, evidenced in part by the book Martyrs Mirror.
This new project will collect "accounts of Christian faithfulness in the face of adversity among Anabaptist-Mennonite groups since 1685 and among groups around the world today," Roth said.
To give further clarity on how the stories will be used and to address challenges of the project, Roth and Gerald Mast, professor of communication at Bluffton (Ohio) University, are convening a consultation. "Bearing Witness: A New Martyrs Mirror for the 21st Century?" will be held Aug. 5-8 at Goshen College.
By Sheldon C. Good, assistant editor, Mennonite World Review
Distributed by permission of Mennonite World Review