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About Bethel

Missionary Church

The Missionary Church, Inc. (est. 1969)

A. W. Banfield was an early pioneer missionary to Nigeria, West Africa. He sailed in 1901; worked with the Nupe people and developed a dictionary of the Nupe language. He also wrote "Life among the Nupe tribe in West Africa" in 1905.

The Missionary Church (MC), headquartered in Ft.Wayne, IN, grew from the 1968-1969 merger of the Missionary Church Association (MCA) and the United Missionary Church (UMC) (formerly the Mennonite Brethren in Christ). The MCA had roots in the "Egly Amish" and the "German Branch" of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, while the UMC drew from a spectrum of Mennonite groups and the "River Brethren" of Ohio ("Swankites") and embraced Canadian districts. Both sides shared an Anabaptist history influenced by Pietist, Wesleyan-Holiness and Keswickian-Holiness movements, including the fourfold gospel preached by A. B. Simpson: Jesus Christ as Savior, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King. By the time of the merger, both were active in the National Association of Evangelicals; earlier trademarks such as the peace witness and women in ministry had faded, while elements of fundamentalism emerged. Believer's baptism by immersion remains important; church polity is a modified congregationalism. The MCA had been more centralized nationally, the UMC more district oriented. Both found great meaning in camps and revival meetings. As the names suggest, overseas missions were a driving motivation and a means of self-definition: missions and evangelism prepared the way for the imminent return of Christ (Mt. 24:14 & Mk. 13:10). Kenneth E. Geiger, former UMC general superintendent and National Holiness Association president, became the first MC president (1969-1981), followed by Leonard DeWitt (1981-1987) and John Moran (1987- ). The theological tilt is still generally Wesleyan-Arminian.

Drs. Kenneth E. Geiger, president of the United Missionary Church, and Tillman Habegger, president of the Missionary Church Association, leading pastors and delegates into the uniting conference of the two groups. 1968 in Fort Wayne, IN.

The merger saw some 273 local congregations come together, with 17,700 members, some 25,500 in Sunday worship, and a constituency of 35,500, with a congregational average of 93 members. Most U.S. members were located in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and California. Growth came slowly and was offset by the loss of the Canadian churches when they formed the Missionary Church of Canada in 1987 (then merged with the Evangelical Church of Canada in 1993 to become the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada). But an aggressive pattern of church growth and church planting in the 1990s led by the end of 1998 to over 340 congregations with 31,600+ members, 47,500+ in Sunday worship, a constituency of 72,000 and a congregational average of 139 members. One-third of current congregations are less than nine years old, over a third of the new churches represent a non-European ethnic heritage and there is renewed vision for urban ministries. New districts include Puerto Rico and Texas, with systematic coverage of the U.S. planned. Vibrant worship services in younger congregations reflect a move toward contemporary styles of music and praise. The Church Multiplication Training Center has in a few short years gone from a Western District project to serving over 80 denominations.

Minutes of the organizational and merging conference of the Reformed Mennonite Church and the New Mennonite Society to form the United Mennonites, March 23, 1875. This is one of the early mergers of groups that eventually made up the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church.

At the merger missionary outreaches were maintained in Nigeria, India, Sierra Leone, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, Brazil, Mexico and Cyprus, each with its own unique history and pattern of church-mission-church relations. National churches are autonomous members of the International Fellowship of Missionary Churches. France (1979) and Spain (1985) saw new approaches, then were followed in the 1990s by missionary thrusts into Kurdish areas (various countries), Indonesia, Thailand, Portugal, Russia, Arab nations, Viet Nam, Guinea, China, Cuba, Chad, Venezuela, South Africa and Germany. Some national churches experienced spectacular growth (Nigeria exceeds the U.S.), and several maintain notable training centers (e.g., Jamaica Theological Seminary). Numerous missionaries have also served under other agencies, often in other countries where there is no official Missionary Church presence.

Not every aspect of the merger went smoothly. Bethel Publishing expanded rapidly and entered the retail market, then collapsed, ceasing both publishing and retail store operations during 1998. The two historic central districts were gerrymandered rather than merged, and remained fiercely loyal to their respective colleges, Fort Wayne Bible College and Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana. Each school struggled and nearly closed. FWBC, after a brief hiatus as Summit Christian College (1989-1992), finally severed formal ties to the MC and merged with Taylor University, Upland, IN, becoming its second campus. Bethel College, down to 89 resident students (spring 1986) and facing bankruptcy, has instead enjoyed a spectacular renaissance and since gained repeated national recognition for religious revival, rapid growth, aggressive administration, academic innovation, artistic performance and athletic prowess. In some ways Bethel College embodies the current MC denominational trends toward higher visibility and transformed identity, but the college has simultaneously become a center for the recovery of denominational history and heritage.

Bibliography

Erdel, Timothy Paul. "The Missionary Church: From Radical Outcast to the Wild Child of Anabaptism." Illinois Mennonite Heritage, September 1997, 60, 59.

Dennis Engbrecht. "Marriage, Memory, and Mission: On the 25th Anniversary of the MCA/UMC Merger." Emphasis on Faith and Living, July/August 1994, 4, 13.

Lageer, Eileen. Merging Streams: Story of the Missionary Church. Elkhart, IN: Bethel Publishing Co., 1979.

"The First Quarter Century" [Special double issue]. Reflections: A Publication of the Missionary Church Historical Society 2-3 (Fall 1994/Spring 1995).

Emphasis on Faith and Living. Elkhart and Ft. Wayne, IN: 1969- .

World Partners. Ft. Wayne, Ind.: 1992-1996.

Missionary Church Archives, Bethel College, IN