Austria / Germany - South

Language: German

Religions: Roman Catholic 75%, Protestant 5%, Muslim 4%

Population: 8 million

Capital: Vienna

Mennonites in Austria

Number of Mennonite Congregations: 6

Number of baptized Mennonites Austria: 424 = 0,7% of European Mennonites

Mennonites – Traditionally modern with values that last?

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer

When children enter kindergarten, or at the latest when they start going to school and want to attend religious class, their families will have to start explaining things. Especially in Bavaria where most people are Roman-Catholics, Mennonites are considered quite exotic. When you explain who Mennonites are, or what is special about them, you start to rethink the standards and values of this denomination.

 

A family?

To be a Mennonite is basically passed down within and through families. Are we therefore a ‘family church‘? Does the Mennonite church structure change slowly? Traditions only last if you fill them with standards and values. Those are established only through statements from Jesus Christ. These standards and values were also influenced by early Reformatory ideas that apply to other Protestant churches as well. In short, they are:

 

Sola Scriptura – the Bible is the only foundation of our faith (Galatians 2:6-9)

Solus Christus – only Jesus Christ has authority over believers (Ephesians 5:23-24)

Sola Gratia –Only through mercy can humankind be saved (Romans 1:17)

Sola Fide –Only through faith is humankind justified (Galatians 2:16)

 

Guidelines

Many churches have guidelines about faith and life. Those get adapted, adjusted and extended. Churches are living organisms, with people who seek God's promises, which are fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. In summary, at our local congregation the guidelines are:

 

Live faith: At the core for us is the God as he is described in the Bible, this is the reality of God we experience. To live for that is the meaning and the mission of all Christians and churches;

 

Live faith: turn towards the other. Jesus Christ shows us God's love and His way of living in many different ways. To us He is unparalleled in importance. We want to follow him.

 

Live faith: experiencing God's work in our daily life and giving it the space it deserves.

Through the Bible God talks to us directly. The Bible, as we understand it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the guideline for our life and our teaching. This requires, time and again, our willingness to listen to God and to each other.

 

Live faith: together we create church life and take responsibility

Appropriate to our gifts and possibilities we involve ourselves in the life of the church and are part of the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Building and construction

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

Rooms for church service, prayer and fellowship

These days it is normal that churches have their own buildings. Rooms in which the congregational life happens. It is also normal to share these rooms. But the Mennonite history there were many different kinds of places where the congregation gathered. In times of prosecution they even met in secret in caves or under big old trees, in open fields or secretly church member's houses. Later the church gatherings were in ordinary buildings like farms, houses, inns, barns, and warehouses.

Mennonites in South Germany didn't develop a typical architecture, although you can find distinguishing marks in Mennonite assembly halls and prayer houses. They were developed because the places were defined by the theology, the worship practices and also by the economical and political limitations of each church. So all these places have one essential aim: The congregation gathers there to read God's word, to hear it, to teach it and to fill it with life.

So the church celebrates baptisms and the Holy Supper together, as well as eating meals together. Based on the size of the congregation opportunities to build or rent assembly halls tailored to individual wishes can occur. Some congregations in southern Germany have their own places (Ingolstadt/Regensburg). Others are rent out space in other churches (Augsburg/München).

 

Not holy places

So the rooms used are not ‘holy places’ in and off themselves, but they are still rooms where believers can serve God and each other. The relationships between church members influence the atmosphere of the premises and show the living relationship to God. Church services and meetings in the name of Christ contribute to the significance of our church rooms.

 

Hospitable places as a chance for open words

In 2013 we opened our rooms to pupils of the nearby school, because it was being renovated. For three weeks they were using our rooms and in this time many opportunities for dialogues occurred. Hospitality can be an opportunity to make Jesus' message of redemption be heard again.

Vocation and profession

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

Everyday life in Mennonite families is not much different from that in any other family. You live and work together as many families all over the world would. But praying together has a special place in Mennonite families. We read the Bible and pray together to start the day or end it and to remind ourselves that we are dependent on God’s mercy. Many Mennonites in South Germany today still work in agriculture.

 

Agriculture

This is because in the 19th century king Maximilian IV Joseph did everything he could to bring Mennonites to cultivate unused areas in Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg and in the Palatinate. Since then the farms have been passed down from generation to generation or to other church members. Life on the farm is controlled by the seasons. To serve both God and creation is the main aim in the Mennonite agricultural tradition. A big manufacturing company for agricultural machines and vehicles in southern Germany has its roots in this tradition.

 

Other professions and awareness of Mission

Today many Mennonites have a job in the social or medical sector. Nursing and other health care professions are also common among members of the congregation. They strongly believe in the practice of the biblical assignment to ‘help, care for and love one another’. Today no one can deny that the choice of a profession isn't solely based on the Mennonite tradition. But Mennonites from our community obey the mission to carry Jesus' love further in all professions.

Relying on the Holy Spirit

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

A church service in Mennonite churches seldom takes a fixed liturgical form. But that doesn't mean it has no pattern. Really, it means that the congregation relies on the work of the Holy Spirit. The life and practices of a church are as different as the people who shape it. There are both charismatic and pietistic types of communities.

 

Church services

There are different forms of church service, prayers and music styles. Differences in culture, tradition and personality of the church members influence the spirituality as well as the shape the church service eventually takes. But it can't be denied that  communal prayer and music making is the central part of all church gatherings. The easiest way to show the pattern of our church service is to divide it into three parts:

 

Fellowship with God

We come deliberately to God, to praise and to thank Him. This part is the beginning of the service: Welcoming the congregation to the service, praying and singing together, and other elements like reading a text, performing a theatre piece, or giving a testimony to bring  the congregation in the presence of God.

 

Proclamation

We listen to God and let Him speak. In this part appointed preachers (theologians and lay preachers) will expound on God's Word through a sermon.

 

Fellowship with one another

We take an active interest in each other and in what happens around us. We partake in the Lord's Supper together. Blessings and shared experiences about God's work in our lives belong in this part, as well as information about the church in general and about worldwide concerns. This part mostly ends the Sunday church service.

 

Live fellowship – grow in faith – live faith

‘Food keeps body and soul together’. This German saying is not only true for an individual but also for the living fellowship of the congregation. So in many congregations it is common to eat together. After the church service you are invited to have coffee and cake. At special events like a baptism the whole church has lunch together. It is also possible to practice fellowship in different small groups: a choir, an acting group, gatherings for the elderly and more. To grow in faith and to live that faith

is easier through sharing experiences.

Sunday Schools, Scouting Groups, Catechism and Seminaries

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

Children

It is common to tell children Bible stories at home, but also on Sundays in church. In many churches, while the adults are having church service, the children are with one or more volunteers in Sunday school. But it isn't a real school. There are no grades, nor are the children judged by their knowledge, but rather they get to know God and together they practice how to follow Jesus. The children exchange thoughts and emotions about what they heard, and ask questions. They pray and sing together, they do handicrafts and play games.

In the ‘Evangelische Freikirche Mennonitengemeinde Ingolstadt e.V.’, which is our church, the children start the church service together with the adults and at a certain point in the service they go off to follow their own program. They meet in four different groups age groups to hear Bible stories and talk about other topics related to religion.

Some churches also offer weeks especially for the children. The children really like this and it gives them the opportunity to deepen their own knowledge and invite friends from school, to talk with them about faith and Jesus. In some churches you can also find a group of Royal Ranger, a Christian Scouting Group.

 

Youth and young adults

Nowadays in many churches catechism is called church instruction or bible instruction. These instructions do not automatically lead to baptism, but they are an opportunity to concentrate on topics regarding the Christian faith and also to look at the Anabaptist movement, and at people's own practice of faith.

In youth groups but also in church services specially geared to adolescents, young people can practice fellowship and discuss theological topics.

In addition to education in the church, the ‘Jugendwerk süddeutscher Mennoniten e.V. (JUWE)’ organizes retreats, schools and training courses in Southern Germany specifically  for children and adolescents.

 

Adults

Seminars for all ages (for example family retreats, retreats for the eldery and basic courses for everyone) broaden and enrich the education in Mennonite churches. They are either organized in local churches or in trans-regional conference centers. A good and well known conference centre is the Theological Seminary Bienenberg in Switzerland.

Relying on donations

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

Mennonite churches are financed through donations. In the Ingolstadt Mennonite congregation every member gives a monthly amount of money which they think is appropriate. In this decision the biblical concept of tithing informs many of them.

In our church a small source of income is the renting out of our rooms. For a small contribution a private person or an institution can rent the rooms for seminars or celebrations.

The maintenance costs for our church house, all reparations, fuel bills, and other expenses for special services, concerts or our yearly children's week are covered by the members' contribution.

 

Offerings

Also, in the weekly offerings during the church service we collect money for the choirs, but also for special purposes and for larger Mennonite organisations,  for example in South Germany: the JUWE (for youth and children’s work) and the VdM (Union of German Mennonite Congregations).

But we also collect money for national organisations in Germany such as:

The AMG (Association of German Mennonite Congregations); DMFK (German Mennonite Peace Committee); DMMK (German Mennonite Mission Committee); CD (Christian Service) and worldwide for MWC (Mennonite World Conference).

 

Because of a responsible way of dealing with the donations and the yearly financial report about its use, we manage to be independent of the state, self-governing, autonomic and to freely service the kingdom of God.

The social concern of the Mennonites

Author: Martin Podobri

Why are there so many different churches, when they believe in the same God? One of the reasons is, that some churches have a different view on the practice of religion.

Social care after World War II

One reason why the Mennonites in Austria exist is that they have a clear focus on social care. After WW II there was a large food crisis in Austria. Every Austrian only got food with 600 – 800 calories per day (today's healthy average is about 2000 calories per day), and in 1946 only 40% of the food was produced in Austria. Many social organizations brought food to Austria. One of these organizations was the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). And so the Mennonites came to Austria. In the following years the Mennonites founded churches and this was the beginning of the Mennonite conference.

 

Social care today

Gerda Gewessler, the coordinator of ‘Operation Christmas child’, received boxes with goods from the allied soldiers when she was a child. Now she is thankful that she is in the position to give a gift to poor children and bring Christmas alive for them. Still today the Mennonites in Austria are very active in social care. The church in Linz for example is one of the largest collecting points of this Operation, by Samaritans Purse. In the year 2012 they collected nearly 4000 boxes!

 

Members of the church in Wels started the association ‘Essen und Leben’ (Food and Life). They saw that there is a need for this in their town. It has grown very quickly and now they give out food to hundreds of poor people every week. The church is also involved in the ‘Christlichen Familienarbeit’ (Christian family work), a mission organization, which helps families in crisis. Especially women with children who need ‘a roof over their head’ can find a home there.

 

Many of the church members in Vienna are teachers. So they give private lessons in the church and in this way they help children, especially those with a foreign background. 

 

These and many more things are going on. The Austrian Mennonite conference is very small. There are only 400 members in 5 churches. But a lot of social care is taking place in the conference. And this is why it is good, that the Mennonites exist in Austria.

 

When death is a guide to new life!

Author: Martin Podobri

It was on October 10th 2010, when the leadership team of the Mennonite Church in Salzburg came together to dissolve the church. It was the lowest point in the 50-year history of the Mennonite conference in Austria.

The big question within the board of the Mennonite conference was: Does it make sense to keep the conference alive?

 

In January 2011 the five oldest Mennonite Churches met in a conclave. There  they saw, that all churches are struggling with the same problems: there are conflicts in the church, it is difficult to find workers, it is difficult to appoint elders.

And so the question came up: how could a conference help to solve these problems? It was the beginning of a process, called ‘MFÖ new’ (=Mennonite Conference in Austria).

 

With the result of this conclave the board of the MFÖ started a process and they found 5 points where the conference should help the churches:  

 

To create identity

‘Who are the Mennonites, what do they believe and where do they come from?’

The conference should help the churches to find their own identity and also the identity of the conference.

 

To support the offspring of the leadership

The oldest are often not able to support a second generation of the leadership. The conference should help to keep the next generation of leadership in their focus as well

 

To realize biblical leadership

If there are troubles in the leadership team or they are involved in  the wrong things, who is there, to help them? In the New Testament the Apostles helped the churches to realize biblical leadership. Today the conference should help the leadership teams of the churches to realize biblical leadership.

 

To help the church to grow

The conference has many links to missionary organizations and to other conferences in other countries, so that they can bring in good ideas.

 

To plant new churches

For one church the mission to plant a new church is too big. But if all 5 Mennonite Churches help together, it is possible to realize it. So the conference should help here as well.

 

It is sad, that we have to close the church in Salzburg. But we have seen, that the death of the church in Salzburg has brought new life in the conference.

 

How it began in Bavaria

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

During the Reformation many Anabaptist churches already existed in Bavaria. But the authorities disliked them and the Bavarian dukes executed many Baptists between the 16th and the 17th century. These kinds of death sentences were reserved for the Anabaptists too, which compelled many of them to emigrate. They first migrated to Moravia, where the Anabaptists continued to spread their ideas. But their persistance in  obeying the Word of God caused the same kind of persecution in Moravia.

In the late 16th century there were no more Baptist and Anabaptist activities in Bavaria, and only a few scattered Baptists remained.

 

The King and the Mennonite farmers

When in 1800 the Elector Maximilian IV Joseph made a law in which allowed  Protestant people to move to Bavaria, Mennonites returned too. It was mainly the  secularization of Bavaria and the specific help of the Elector that made them come back.

There was lots of land that was fit for agricultural use, and farmers to work it were needed. So the Elector, after 1806 the King of Bavaria, did his utmost to give  it to the   Mennonites, because it was known that they were good farmers with efficient work methods.

 

They could rent the lands of former abbeys for a good price. The king even gave estates to some families. Amish Mennonites, but also Mennonites from the Palatinate were happy to settle on those estates. Individual villages and churches were formed and with that also houses of prayer and schools with different theological outlooks. In these years there was a large wave of Mennonite families immigrating to Bavaria.

The king of Bavaria played a large part in the (re-)settlement of the Bavarian Mennonites in the 19th century.

 

The admission of the Austrian Mennonites in August 2013

 Author: Martin Podobri

 During the reformation many Austrians became believers. In some parts of Austria in the 16th century 90 – 95% of the population were protestant or Anabaptist. But from their beginning, the Anabaptists were persecuted and many thousand died as martyrs. As a result there were no Anabaptists in Austria for more than 300 years. A Baptist Church started in Vienna in 1869. This was the beginning of the Anabaptists in Austria in the modern times.

 First Mennonite Conference

The Mennonites started their work in Austria in 1947. Missionaries from the Mennonite Central Committee and from the Mennonite Brethren Mission came to Austria to give aid the population regarding social issues. But after World War II the spiritual need was also huge. So the missionaries preached the gospel and people got saved. In 1953 the first Mennonite Church started in Linz. In the following years churches in Vienna, Wels, Salzburg and Steyr were founded and the Mennonite Conference was born.

 

Religious Status

Until the 1990s 98% of all Austrians were Roman Catholics and the Anabaptists were called a sect. Between 1960 and 1990 many different evangelical churches were founded. Some of them formed a conference, while others started the denomination of the evangelical churches. But all evangelical churches had the same problem: they didn’t get a status as church. Most churches officially existed as a religious association.

 

Five denominations, one Anabaptist Church

In 2011 the boards of the four denominations (Mennonites, Baptists, Pentecostal and Evangelicals) came together to discuss the situation and to think about a way to finally  the status of a church. One of the problems was that a denomination has to have 2 ‰ of the population (which is 16.500 people), and no denomination had that many members.

In this meeting a new idea was born: all four denominations together had more than 16.500 members. And so they worked on a constitution for the ‘Freikirchen in Österreich’ (Free-churches in Austria). In January 2013 they submitted the proposal for admission as a church to the government and in August they got the admission, so that the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Evangelicals, the Mennonites and the ‘Elaia Christengemeinde’ who joined in 2012, are now seen as an official church in Austria. 

 

This is quite unique, because it means that all Anabaptists are part of the same church!