Keen public interest in Anabaptism, the positive growth of initiatives from churches related to that tradition, decline in some areas, and challenges in relating Christian faith and public life were among the issues highlighted in reports from seven countries delivered by 20 Mennonite church leaders from across Europe who gathered recently for their annual meeting.
While the leaders acknowledged that overall membership numbers from the 2006 Mennonite World Conference directory showed a slight decline of 1.9 percent in Europe since 2003 as a result of demographic change and other factors, they heard of positive developments and expansion from Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany, Lithuania, Spain, France and the UK.
In Switzerland, where the first Anabaptists were persecuted by the state church and authorities, recent films, theatre productions and reconciliation services have raised intense public interest and questions of today's Mennonites.
Their resources are so stretched that they are looking for more people to take on the responsibility of responding. 2007 will mark the year of the Anabaptists, most prominently in the Emmental region beginning on 24 March 2007 in Langnau. They have invited people from other countries for the International Days, 26 ‚Äì 29 July 2007.
In 2006, Dutch Mennonites turned a new page of history by identifying Switzerland as the country of origin of the Anabaptist movement and a symposium in Amsterdam posed the question, ‚ÄúWhat is Anabaptist identity?‚Äù Some churches in the Netherlands are growing but the conference is looking for ways to support those that continue to decline. The Theological Seminary in Amsterdam is offering a new master's degree training program for work in the church and a course on weekends for volunteers.
Building up the church has also been on the agenda of the Association of Mennonite Churches (AMG - Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden) in Germany. Its 6,000 members in 54 churches in three regions undertakes larger tasks collectively: publication of the journal Die Bruecke (The Bridge), the Yearbook and two youth projects. The May 2007 Church Day on the theme "I will give you future and hope," will include speakers from The Netherlands and Switzerland.
Hermann Heidebrecht reported on the ministry to the Aussiedler. Since 1972, 110,000 people from the former Soviet Union with a Mennonite past, now called Umsiedler, have been registered in Germany. People with a Mennonite past constitute only a small percentage of the newly arriving Aussiedler. Members of Mennonite churches, which still exist in various areas of Russia, now are predominantly of Russian descent.
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mennonites emigrated from Kazakhstan via Lithuania to come to Germany. Today there are six churches in Lithuania with a total of 250 members because a Mennonite reading the Bible in a hospital captured the interest of his room-mate. The man became a Christian and an elder in a Russian-German church. Other Lithuanians who were approached got saved and formed Lithuanian churches. Sharing the Christian message is important to them, but many people work long hours and have little time for church work.
Until recently, the six churches in various regions in Spain, founded by American Mennonite missionaries, had limited contact with each other. In 2006, all of them met together for the first time in Malaga. Also, the Mennonite European Regional Conference (MERK), which took place in Spain for the first time in May 2006, was for Spaniards and other participants an enriching time. Spanish Mennonites have increasing contact with Protestant and Catholic churches and they will make a contribution at a Protestant Congress in 2007 entitled 'Reconciliation and Peace.'
Issues under discussion in the Mennonite Conference of France (AEEMF) are the joining of two churches, one African and the other Vietnamese, as well as a request for membership from the French Protestant Federation. Many churches are discussing questions of leadership. France is also heavily involved in the Francophone Network, which is facilitated by Mennonite World Conference.
The London (UK) Mennonite Centre is widely known for its peace work and for its connection with Roots and Branch,' a network of organizations with Anabaptist values, which includes organsiations with approximately 20,000 associates. One programme is Peace School, which prepares people for a Gospel-based life of creative nonviolence. New challenges in London are work with African migrants who are building rapidly growing churches, and relations with diverse Muslim communities.
Quoting the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, Mennonite coordinator Werner Funck declared at the meeting, in December 2006: "As many exert much effort to find water, so we must strive to find faith."
The gathering in Karlsruhe concluded with reports from Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee. The next meeting will take place in Switzerland before first Sunday of Advent in 2007.
Edited from a report by Barbara Hege Galle and Markus Rediger, translated from German by Henry J. Regehr, Waterloo, Ontario (Canada) With thanks to MWC communications.