religion

‘… Freedom in Christian faith…’

Author: Alfred R. van Wijk
Translator: Betty Lavooij-Janzen 

Mennonites practice baptism based on a self-written confession of Faith. To accomplish this, their religious education takes a longer period of time and is offered to young children as well as young people preparing themselves for baptism.

 

No established doctrines

Currently  many congregations offer the preschool children their own Sunday morning service. This is a Sunday School lesson with a theme and little rituals based on picture books containing different themes. Corien van Ark developed a method called ‘Join the circle’ (Kom in de kring) for these lessons. For adults preparing themselves for baptism, catechism meetings are held, often using a method edited by Gerke van Hiele called ‘Touched by the Eternal One’ (Aangeraakt door de Eeuwige). The purpose of this method is not to pass down a written doctrine. Instead, at each meeting a series of Bible passages, songs, discussion items, creative activities and a summary of questions are presented for the members to work with as a group.  Apart from this, there is a short course for those eighteen and older to prepare themselves to be lay preachers in church services.

 

A personally experienced faith

Both methods of Corien van Ark and Gerke van Hiele are aimed at forming a personally experienced faith. In the postwar years material was collected by those concerned with education in faith, especially women. For the Sunday School they contributed children’s books with stories with a key point, and stories for reflection , along with a manual for parents.

 

From passing on knowledge to forming faith

Only since the end of the seventeenth century did parents request the congregation to take care of education in faith. Before this, it was seen as the job of the parents. The teaching material contained  a doctrine to be learned by heart and it also put and emphasis on virtues and on knowledge of the Bible. In the eighteenth century a moderate Enlightenment slowly gained more influence on the education in faith. Mennonites had a prominent position in this development because in their study material they had already included the connection between the natural sciences and knowing God. In the next century, modernism, which developed under the influence of academic Bible criticism, pointed the catechism in a more liberal direction. This liberalism which promotes a personally experienced faith and an individual interpretation of faith, sets the tone of education in faith to this day.

Academic Theology and Peace building

Author: Fernando Enns
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

In 2006 the Institute for Peace Church Theology at the University of Hamburg was established as the first academic institute for Mennonite Theology. Until then Mennonite students who wished to train for a pastorate or teaching position needed to go to the Mennonite Seminary in the Netherlands or to the USA, if they wanted to add history and theology from a Mennonite perspective to their studies.

 

Peace theology

The chief contribution that Mennonites have brought to the international ecumenical discourse is their peace theology, which is founded on the idea of nonviolence. The central theme of this theology, first taught by the Anabaptists of the 16th century, is that Christian faith should be a way of life that is marked by an active commitment to justice, peace (without violence) and the integrity of creation. This view has significant implications for all other aspects of theology: first as to the manner in which theology itself is practiced, second as to the content of theology itself. By its nature, peace theology is ecumenical and is linked to other churches, traditions and cultures, and creates a dialogue with other religions. Therefore, the Institute works closely with the Missions Academy and the Academy of World Religions at Hamburg University.

 

Peace building in the fullest sense

This understanding of peace theology should not be restricted to academic debates. If we understand violence in all its aspects  – whether it be direct (by an individual), indirect (by political or economic systems) or cultural violence (discrimination of any kind) – then striving to be freed of it must also be present in all aspects of life. The Institute began by helping to establish an ‘Interdisciplinary Working Group for Peacebuilding’, where academics from various fields work together. We created a peace education  program for students of all disciplines, in which theology and religion take on an important role. Additionally, since 2011 the Institute offers a special course in mediation. A public forum, the mennoFORUM, has been established together with the Hamburg Mennonite congregation to discuss contemporary subjects with important people in politics, economics, culture and religion. The Institute has also written a number of publications that show how peace theology and peace education have an important voice that needs to be heard both inside the academic world and in the public sphere.

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.

Russian Mennonites and their education system

Author: Svietlana Bobileva
Translator: Katerina Revunenko 

School and education had an important place in the Mennonite colony's life. Schooling provided knowledge, but was also a way to preserve the faith. The Mennonite elders were responsible for the education. Getting an education was a duty for school age children and congregations kept the schools under their control.

 

Reading, writing and counting

The Mennonite education system went through stages of development. The first stage (late1800-1820’s) was determined by financial difficulties. At that time the only objectives of education were to teach children reading, writing and counting skills. The next phase started at the second quarter of the 19th century. It was defined by Johann Cornies’ activity. Cornies founded four-grades Central Teacher Training school in Orlovo and then in the Halbstadt  and Chortitze colonies. In 1843 he was entrusted with managing the Mennonite schools. He intended to lessen the dominance of preachers in schools, started school reform and provided schools with some financial support. Cornies introduced teachers' conferences and opened Gnadenfeld Reading Club and a library. 

 

Teaching Russian: Russification

In 1866, the Guardian Committee introduced Russian as a teaching language in the Mennonite schools. Later, according to 1890-1892  laws, the ethnic schools were placed under guidance of the Ministry of National Education. Every school got a Russian language teacher. The state used language policy as a way of Russification. In order to get more qualified Russian teachers, 2-year teaching courses were started in Chortitza in 1889.

 

Outside influences on education

In April 1905, freedom of conscience was proclaimed in the Empire. Some Mennonite schools were reorganized and some new central schools were founded. After the Civil War (1920) the process of ethnic revival was continuing but it had a controversial character. The Odessa Pedagogical Institute was set up to train teachers for ethnic schools, including Mennonite schools. However, antireligious propaganda was intensified by the Soviet power. The atheistic state spread their ideology among students and adults. The Communist Pioneer and Komzomol organizations were established. They were supposed to influence the young generation. However, those organizations were unable to fulfill their mission. 

 

When the Fascists came to power in Germany the Mennonite German speaking schools experienced oppression conducted by NKVD (Commissariat of Internal Affairs). Odessa Institute’s professors and teachers were accused of cooperation with the Nazis. Some of them were short or exiled.  German language was completely banned in schools in 1938. Ethnic Mennonite schools ceased to exist.

 

The foot washing

Author: Geja Laan
Translator: Machteld Laan 

The ritual of foot washing has never been performed in the Mennonite Congregations that I have served, although I know that in the world wide Mennonite Fellowship it certainly has. Also, I know that for centuries it has been part of the faith- and congregational life of several Mennonites. From discussions I had with various brothers and sisters I understood that foot washing makes people feel uncomfortable.

 

Moving

Still, I very much like to read out John 13: 1-20 on Maundy Thursday, when we celebrate the last supper. This is the story that tells us how Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, while he has the last supper with them. To me, the text has always been inspiring and moving, because, in my opinion, it explains what is important to God and to Jesus: a loving attitude in life, not of ruling, but of serving.

 

Fresh start

When the gospel writer John tells us how Jesus removed his clothes during the meal, Jesus also removed, in my opinion, every possible appearance of status he could have had. Jesus attaches no importance to his own status but only to the things  which really help others. In the story he dresses himself in a linen cloth only and without further ado simply sits down to wash the feet of his disciples, to wash all the dirt literally, and in my opinion also figuratively, off their feet. He gives himself fully to this work: refreshing them so they could make a fresh start. He really wants the best for them.

 

Subservience: a choice

When you are forced to wash someone else's feet, it is a kind of slavery. Too many times especially women have been forced to be a servant and to do things against their will, which is a really hard situation to cope with. But if you choose to be a servant to someone else, it's a form of love, which radiates love, peace and divine beauty. A radiance and beauty no ruler in this world could ever reach.

Ecumenism – For Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation

Author: Fernando Enns
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

From the very beginning of the ecumenical movement in the 20th century it was important to Mennonites to develop good relationships with other churches. They were involved in founding the World Council of Churches (WCC), which is now a fellowship of 350 churches with about 550 million members worldwide.

 

War is contrary to God’s will

The establishment of the WCC was a response to the horrors of two world wars. The churches acknowledged their failures, and especially the German churches confessed their guilt. Accordingly, the WCC declared that ‘war is contrary to God’s will’. Since then, the ecumenical movement has campaigned for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. The other churches in the WCC have shown great interest in learning more about the theology of the ‘historical peace churches' and Mennonites have had the opportunity to communicate their position in many ecumenical discussions.

 

The Decade to Overcome Violence

During the 8th General Assembly of the WCC in Zimbabwe (1998) a Mennonite delegate initiated the idea of a ‘Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches for Peace and Reconciliation’, which the assembly embraced enthusiastically. Searching for methods to overcome violence became a central activity of the ecumenical movement, in theological and ethical thinking as well as in practical activities. The Mennonites were now faced with the challenge of clarifying their own position on peace and violence and communicating their theology to other Christian churches.  A Mennonite Peace Centre was established in Berlin, and the comprehensive paper ‘A Declaration on Just Peace’ was written.

 

A Pilgrimage of Just Peace

The Decade to Overcome Violence lead to the next General Assembly of the WCC (South Korea 2013), deciding to establish its new and comprehensive programme for the coming years: ‘A Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’. Again Mennonites were integrally involved in its realisation. The goal is to examine more deeply the spiritual roots and sources of Christian faith for the formation of a just and peaceful world, to provide Christians with new insights and dimensions for their involvement in the political and social life of their communities. This will hopefully lead to the conviction that the gospel has a transformative power – even in the midst of violence and injustice.

 

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.

Mennonite Brethren Church

Author: Nataly  Venger

The Mennonite communities in the Russian Empire formed a dynamic social system.  The Russian modernization which caused social transformation in congregations led to a shift in their religious views and convinced them to update the rules of congregational life. Along with economic and social modernization, Russian Mennonite colonies underwent a 'reformation' that led to a more thoughtful understanding of justice.    

 

 Schisms

By the middle of the 19th century, about half of the Mennonite families didn't own any  land. They were deprived of participating in self-government, but had compulsory duties similar to other landowners. Among the people who did not possess land there were some who were engaged in sectors other than agriculture, and who wanted to have equal rights. Their protests led to new schism in the colonies and to the establishment of the Mennonite Brethren Church in the 1850’s. It united followers of pietism, members of young congregations and entrepreneurs (who represented the biggest part of the new church). The Mennonite Brethren Church first proclaimed its existence in January  1860 in the Molotschna settlement. The new congregation offered a new way of salvation based on criticism towards the former beliefs. Thus, the movement of Brethren Mennonites had a rebellious character.

 

Influence and Missionary work

The Mennonite Brethren movement soon became popular among so called new-Mennonites who were open to innovations. The first Mennonite Brethren Church conference occurred in 1872. Confession of faith was written in 1873. Their settlements were established in Kuban, Zagradovka and in Mariupol. The church conducted active missionary work and had their periodical:  ‘Friedensstimme’.

 

Friezen’s ‘The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia’ (1789-1910)

In 1885 Mennonite Brethren celebrated the 25th anniversary of their church, which by then consisted of 7 settlements and 1800 members. In the anniversary year, one of the leaders of the settlement, P.M. Friezen, was assigned to write a history of the Brethren congregations. His book was published in 1911 and presented the history of Mennonite colonies as a whole. By 1917 the Mennonite Brethren movement counted 40 congregations with 7000 members.

 

United to save identity

History shows us that the Mennonite Brethren Church did not become a separate religious denomination. Growing Russian nationalism forced the Mennonites to unite again. Thus, we can say that Russian nationalism, which revived the ‘idea of persecution’,  brought congregations together. The formation of the Mennonite Brethren Church led to the growth of self-awareness and to the beginning of the concept of the Mennonites' mission in this world.

Children’s and youth work

Author: Johannes Dyck

In Germany, much children’s work nowadays is done by young church members providing an effective way of taking part in church life. In the Soviet Union, children’s and youth work was a hot issue.

 

Since 1929, the law forbade every kind of special meeting, including those for women, children, and youth. When after 1955 newly established churches tried to obtain a legal status, the authorities demanded strict adherence to this law. Moreover, they often even forbade the presence of children in regular worship services. From time to time, Sunday services were interrupted by authorities and school teachers who made lists of school children in attendance. Usually the next day at school the listed children were called before school directors and bullied in front of their class. For the young churches and young parents, the persecution time between 1958 and 1966 was a struggle for the children. Finally, the parents won the battle, and the children were permitted to attend the regular services.

 

Victories in spite of risks

Shortly after this first small victory, churches in various cities started small Sunday-schools for children in private homes. In cities, this work could be kept hidden better than in villages. For this work, several persons, including young women, were imprisoned. Nevertheless, this risky work, often done by young women, was performed until the emigration to Germany.

 

Young people taking the lead

Youthwork also belonged to a grey legal area, often tolerated by officials. Usually, it was organized in small groups which met in private homes for fellowship and Bible study, often twice a week. This part of church work showed big potential and provided churches with young people that were ready to take on responsibility and accept ministry in the churches. Youth choirs also came into being, serving as an important attraction point for young boys and girls. The infrequent performances were a real festive occasion for churches.

 

Good hope

Things that were prohibited by the Communist government, became much more popular in the new  freedom in Germany. Knowing the importance of children’s and youth work for the churches’ future, Mennonite congregations built a flourishing children’s and youth work in Germany that keeps children in churches up till today. Considering the often large Mennonite families in Germany, this work serves as an important factor of confessional family growth.

 

 

 

Congregational Life

Author: Johannes Dyck

The congregational life of Russian-born Mennonites in Germany in many aspects still follows the traditional ways that existed in Russia before the times of persecution. Every Sunday the congregation gathers for one or two services. The order of a usual service is simple – three short sermons are combined with singing of the choir and the congregation. The sermons are delivered by preachers of different ages and spiritual experience. The number of preachers in one church can reach several dozens.

Continuation of preaching

This tradition comes from the Pietistic revival meetings in Russia which started in the 1840s, when several participants shared their testimonies. In the early Mennonite Brethren church, the existence of many preachers in congregation soon became a tradition. Involvement of many brethren made all of them active in proclaiming the Word of God and gave additional strength to spreading the gospel. In the post-war revival that occurred in times of severe suppression, having a  big number of preachers was the best way to survive – when the leaders were deported or even imprisoned, there was always a new man to replace them.

 

Themes and singing

Following the old Pietistic tradition, the main content of a sermon is encouragement in faith. Often, preachers make calls for repentance, conversion and getting born again. Popular themes are discipleship, holy life and separation from the world. These themes are also the focus of regular prayer and Bible study meetings. An important part of the Russian-born Mennonite piety is singing. In times of persecution, when no Bibles were available, Christian songs could easily be memorized and shared amongst the persecuted. Often they were the only way for single isolated persons as well as for small groups of getting comfort and strength in faith. For many young people, German spiritual songs were the way to start to learn German. An important place in the church service is also given to choral singing.

 

Relationships and meetings

The congregational life is not limited to worship services by far. It expresses itself by close personal relations between church members. This model for closeness and intimacy of church relations was established long ago, through colony life in a rural setting when fellow church members were also neighbors living in the same village. An important part of congregational life are closed members' meetings. Here baptismal candidates tell about their faith, and church discipline is practiced; here issues of common moral standards and witness before the world are debated; and here important decisions are made.