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The future of Mennonite mission in Europe considered

   

September 20, 2004
- by John D. Yoder with Dan Dyck

 


Participants in the European mission consultation were (from left) Alan Kreider, Wilbert Shenk, Herman Heijn and J. Robert Charles (Mennonite Mission Network). Kreider, Shenk and Heijn made presentations to the consultation.

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Paris – The changing face of religion and the church in Europe has caused Mennonite Church mission leaders to take a closer look at two very different possibilities for the future of mission work on that continent.

Peter Rempel, Mennonite Church Canada Witness Partnership facilitator for Europe attended a consultation on the topic hosted by partner agency Mennonite Mission Network.

The gathering brought together staff from North America and workers in nine European countries May 19-23. Participants agreed that the focus of missions could be either on secular Europeans who have lost interest in religion, or on new immigrants who need help adjusting to a foreign land.

What form that outreach will take, and to whom it will be directed, was the subject of a series of discussions as participants evaluated their programs and discussed how they might respond to the changing European religious and social landscape. The past 25 years have seen an increased secularism among former Protestants and Catholics, while at the same time witnessing a dramatic increase in Christian immigrants from the global south (Africa, Latin America and Asia) and other immigrants who are Muslim.

There are interesting parallels between how immigrants from the Soviet Union, many of Mennonite background, formed many dynamic congregations in Germany and how immigrants from Africa are now forming congregations in several west European countries, notes Rempel.

“Christians in both immigrant groups perceived the existing churches in their new communities generally to lack vitality, to foster different pieties, and to be less welcoming of the immigrants’ language and culture,” said Rempel. “So they formed new congregations and groupings.”

Europeans at the consultation welcomed the interest of North Americans in Europe. “We still need your help – both the population and the Mennonite Church,” said Claude Baecher, Mennonite professor at the free-church seminary in Paris. “The best people left from here,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “You owe us. You bring innovation where we are blind here. Outsiders see things differently.”

The consultation heard input from Wilbert Shenk, professor of mission history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.; Alan Kreider, former mission worker in England and currently serving as a mission educator; Herman Heijn, Mennonite pastor in the Netherlands and president of the Dutch Mennonite Mission Society; and F. Mas Miangu, associate pastor of an African immigrant church in Paris.

Whether one looks at rates of participation in religious activities like church attendance or beliefs, historic Christendom, if it ever existed, “has ended and religion no longer has a significant public role,” Shenk said.

Kreider agreed that secularism is the norm and being religious is unusual or even threatening. “In England, one way for young people to unsettle their parents is to go to the university and become a Christian,” he said.

However, such analysis is not new, Shenk said. Scholars have been writing the obituary for religion in Europe for over a century. In 1910 Walter Hobhouse noted the lack of religious participation in the Church of England and attributed it to “membership without obligation.”

British sociologist Grace Davie describes the present attitude of many Europeans as “believing without belonging.” Religious activity is thriving, Davie says, while traditional religious structures are in decline.

The new dimension coloring the religious landscape in Europe is Christian immigrant groups and the rise of Islam. Herman Heijn, a pastor in the Netherlands and president of the Dutch Mennonite Mission Society, said the religious situation in the Netherlands has changed dramatically in the last 25 years.

To make the point he held up a book with pictures of the current religious leaders of the Netherlands. Page after page showed Muslim leaders and African Christians, a few showed leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church, and other denominations. There were no Mennonites pictured.

Heijn called the shift in religious loyalties “the silent Reformation.” Heijn has been involved with African Christians for a number of years, testified that it had “changed his life, ” which he demonstrated with shouts of “hallelujah” during his talk – an uncommon sight among Dutch Mennonites.

As discussion at the consultation made clear, immigrants are on the move throughout Europe. There are Rwandan refugees in Belgium, Latin American immigrants in Spain and African immigrants in England, France, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands.

The group learned about one immigrant church firsthand through a presentation by F. Mas Miangu, pastor of an African church in Paris, and by worshiping with his congregation on Sunday.

“Be flexible, be open, and go toward these people [African immigrants] who are coming toward you,” said Miangu, a theology and Bible student of Mennonite professors Neal Blough and Linda Oyer at the free-church seminary in Paris. “Be ready to discern and understand God’s message for today.” Blough and Oyer are jointly supported in their work by Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network.

Rempel notes that Mennonites in North America followed the adaptation of Mennonites to Germany from the former Soviet Union (“Umsiedler” later re-designated as “Aussiedler”) in Germany with much interest and with some tangible support. Mennonite Church Canada Witness continues this interest in immigrants from the former Soviet Union by supporting a congregation in Niedergoersdorf (near Berlin) of and for such immigrants.

The consultation did not map out a blueprint for future Mennonite mission in Europe; rather it gave participants a framework for moving forward.

Kreider likened the future of Mennonite missions in Europe to participating in a choir. “Christianity [in Europe] is a seven-part motet,” he said. “The missing part has been Anabaptism. We need to sing our part strongly (with conviction) and sensitively (listening to the other parts).”

Europeans need and welcome that partnership. “One thing that really, really moved my heart is that I discovered that there is still this deep concern and desire for North American Mennonites to work in Europe,” said Margo Longley, a Mission Network mission associate serving in Finland. “As a European that is really very precious to me —that these links created over 30 years ago continue to give us life.”

Mennonite Church Canada Witness partners with Mennonite Mission Network in the USA to administer ministries in Spain, France, Ireland and England. Vic and Kathy Thiessen, from Edmonton, serve at the London Mennonite Centre. MC Canada contributes about half of their support costs. More recently, Jason and Donna Martin (Drayton, Ont.) have been recognized as Witness workers in Italy.