AT 37: Mennonite Mission Work in Europe: Setting the Stage

J. Robert Charles
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 37, October 2004

Mennonites in the United States and Canada, most of whom today still trace their historical and spiritual roots to the Europe from which their forbears fled or emigrated in significant numbers for several centuries beginning in the early 1700s, have been involved in a variety of mission activities across Europe over the past half-century.

This mission work in Europe followed on the heels of relief work done under the umbrella of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an inter-Mennonite body that came into being in response to the plight of Mennonites in the Ukraine in the civil war and famine of the early 1920s. Soon after the outbreak of war in 1939, MCC relief work began in Poland, France and England – where assistance was given to refugees from Europe and children evacuated from the cities. At the end of the war in 1945, work began in Belgium, Holland and Italy, and in the following year in Germany, Denmark, Austria and France.

Already during the war, North American Mennonites had become convinced that, as a 1942 study put it, ‘Our present peace testimony in the form of relief work should result in the opening of great door and effectual in the way of conducting mission work in Europe and Asia.’ As Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM) examined the possibility of post-war mission work in England, Belgium and Germany, it did so with the conviction that ‘we owe a positive, evangelistic testimony to the Europe, the continent which produced our forebears’. By the early 1950s, serious thought was being given to what a missionary approach to Europe’s ‘dechristianised’ society should look like, rooted in the central task of introducing men and women to Jesus Christ.

Today several North American mission agencies, as well as MCC, continue their activities in Europe, although in quite different conditions and also in different countries from those of the early postwar years. With the fall of communism in 1989, new possibilities opened up in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; in west European countries where mission presence has continued and broadened over a half-century, the nature and style of the work has experienced change as well as continuity.

Mennonite Mission Network

Within the limits of this short article, attention will be focused on the work of Mennonite Mission Network (Mission Network for short), the official mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, which came into being in February 2002 as one of the successor agencies to MBM, whose work in Europe went back to 1950 in Belgium.

Working in close consultation with European partner churches and organisations is an important part of Mission Network’s style of work in Europe, as elsewhere. In the UK, the London Mennonite Centre, Wood Green Mennonite Church and the Anabaptist Network are the principal partner organisations for Mission Network. Over the past several years, short-term workers have been placed as well with the Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), the Corrymeela Community and the Hertford Community Church.

At present, Mennonite Mission Network supports ministries – either through placing North American workers or providing grants to local partners – in 14 countries: Belgium, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Kosovo (still officially part of Serbia), Lithuania, The Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Ukraine. Approximately 40 North American workers are either partially or fully supported by Mission Network in a dozen of these countries, and programme grants to Mennonite centres in London, Paris and Brussels help make it possible to engage local personnel in these projects. Some of these workers are on long-term assignments – three couples have served more than 20 years in their current locations – while others are serving as associates or interns for one- or two-year terms.

Through these North American workers and European partner organisations, a broad variety of Christian ministries are carried out, reflecting Mission Network’s commitment to ‘holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world’. These ministries include: Anabaptist-oriented Bible teaching and theological education in congregations and schools; Christian mediation and reconciliation training and resources; evangelism and church planting; Anabaptist literature and training resources; the afore-mentioned Mennonite centres in a number of major cities; providing pastoral leadership in young congregations; relating to and working with Christians in the fine arts; counseling and caring for senior adults; and Christian higher education. This last ministry is most notably the case in Klaipeda, Lithuania, where six Mission Network workers are administrators or professors at Lithuania Christian College, a four-year Christian liberal arts college founded in the early 1990s on the model of Mennonite colleges in North America such as Goshen (Indiana) College.

Mission methods

Speaking to a Mission Network Europe consultation in Paris in May 2004, Alan Kreider – who was, along with his wife Eleanor, a long-term Mission Network worker in England, and who certainly needs no further introduction to regular readers of AT – identified seven methods used by Mennonite missionaries in Europe over the past half-century. His presentation is worth reporting at length, as he has captured well both the style and content of Mennonite mission efforts down to the present.

Kreider noted that the general approach has been to call committed persons to mission, to inspire them with a theological and missiological vision and ‘to trust them to find ways in various countries to incarnate the vision’. The result had been ‘varied programmes’ using a ‘variety of methods’, with ‘a commitment to a long-term approach’ undergirding them all: ‘Long-term missionaries, in Europe for decades if not for life, have been crucial to the Mennonite contribution,’ Kreider emphasised.

He identified a first method as engagement in practical ministries. ‘Mennonite workers have tried to see what needs to be done in a given culture, and to bring Mennonite resources and new thinking to the task.’ This service orientation is grounded in the conviction that ‘mission must be rooted in something that makes a visible difference to people’. This has led to involvement in such things as sheltered workshops for the mentally handicapped, providing housing for foreign students, work with addicts and prisoners, counseling people caught up in new religious movements, teaching English classes, providing mediation training and skills, and ministries in the arts and drama.

Second, Mennonite missionaries have worked in churches and founded churches, participating as ‘leaders and as supportive members in lives of existing congregations – both Mennonite and Free Church’. In addition, they have ‘planted’ new Anabaptist congregations ‘as an expression of Christian theology, especially in the Anabaptist tradition. When men and women are introduced to Jesus Christ, they must be incorporated in a body of believers in which worship, nurture, common life and evangelism can take place.’ The aim was to establish churches ‘that would be distinctive – different from other churches in Europe, where the decline of Christianity was often a repudiation of church culture; also different from Mennonite churches in North America’. Wanting to ‘do the church right’, Kreider noted, ‘was the heavy burden of the Anabaptist vision. So the way some of us to do church was both attractive and demanding – and at times may have involved the export of North American cultural values in ways that we didn’t sufficiently examine.’

A third method has been to establish study centres. This has happened most notably in London, Paris and Brussels, but also in several other locations. ‘The work of the centres has varied, and at times has been as catalysts for change,’ Kreider said, but they ‘have not attempted to turn everyone into Anabaptists or Mennonites; they have hospitably put their resources at the disposal of others who may appropriate much or little while remaining in their own denominations. This non-threatening approach has enabled significant Europeans to experience a profound reorientation of their thinking so that they in turn change the thinking of others.’

A fourth method has been to encourage the recovery of Anabaptism in contemporary Europe. Whereas 50 years ago, ‘Anabaptism was simply not on the radar screen of scholars or church people in Europe’, today it has re-emerged because of its relevance in addressing issues and needs of community, violence and the centrality of Jesus. ‘In all these areas of relevance, Anabaptist understandings are gradually making inroads into the minds of European Christians.’ These ideas have spread ‘as people discover the need of a theology of marginality for churches that have become marginal’, but also have ‘made sense in communities active in primary evangelism’. Kreider emphasised that ‘in post-Christendom the church will survive only if it is evangelistic. I believe that Anabaptism’s future lies not least in its practical consequences and its evangelistic efficacy.’

Fifth, Mennonite missionaries have reclaimed peace as a theme for European Christians. ‘Working with others, they have reclaimed peace in many ways: they have inspired and supported conscientious objectors; they have worshipped outside of nuclear bases; in wartime they have debated and demonstrated and in peacetime have been awkward in reminding people that the gospel of Jesus Christ is “the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15), which is to shape every aspect of Christian life.’ While at times they may have focused too much on peace, on the whole, ‘Mennonite missionaries have played an important role in putting peace back on the agenda of European Christians, especially evangelical Christians.’

Sixth, Mennonite mission work in Europe has been committed to networking. From the very beginning there has been an eagerness to work together with other local Christians and with Mennonites in countries with historic Mennonite communities going back to the 16th century (The Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland). As a still-lively example that dates back to the 1970s, Kreider pointed to the Colloquium, a biennial ‘church conference in which mutually supportive and powerfully affective primary relationships [have] developed among European and North American adults and youths, which [has] led to much visiting, befriending and encouraging’.

As a seventh method, Kreider noted that Mennonite missionaries in Europe have been resolutely ecumenical. ‘They have associated with, and learned from, Christians who are evangelical and liberal, Protestant and Catholic, contemplative and charismatic.’ As a result, ‘Relationships have broadened – even converted – the Mennonite workers, giving them a breadth of sympathy, and perhaps instilling in them a degree of humility.’

Kreider concluded by asking ‘whether we missionaries would have been more productive if we had had a simpler, more focused approach. But I believe not. I think it is precisely the holism of our approach, which grows out of our Anabaptist-coloured Christian faith and possibly our upbringing as Mennonites, that has been our best contribution to mission in Europe.’

Looking ahead

A series of recommendations for the future of Mennonite Mission Network ministry in Europe came out of the May 2004 Paris consultation attended by 30 persons – Europe mission personnel, representatives of European Mennonite partner organisations and staff from Mission Network offices in the USA. A major part of the consultation focused on the growing presence of immigrant churches from the southern continents and how Mennonite mission might interact with them.

Among the affirmations and recommendations were the following:

  • We affirm a clearly holistic approach with the careful management of the complexities it implies. We reaffirm the importance of the integrative approach to gospel work and the flexibility by which the work has responded to opportunities.
  • We affirm both working with established churches and working with new bodies of believers with a hope that the convergence with offer renewal for established churches. We perceive this as a high priority for the next ten years.
  • Peace witness continues to provide a clear opportunity for historic Anabaptist, biblical values to converge with perceived societal needs.
  • North Americans need to grow in awareness of European issues, and we recommend intentional invitation for Europeans to come and consult with and relate to the churches in North America.
  • In light of the urgency of the migration phenomenon, we recommend exploring with European colleagues and churches what forms of response are appropriate. We solicit and receive with gratitude the gifts of Mennonite churches in Africa and other southern continents to enable collaborative immigrant ministries, church planting and church renewal in Europe.
  • We reaffirm continued cooperation with and openness to other Christian bodies. We should collaborate to encourage Anabaptist networks, develop Mennonite centres and plant Mennonite churches.
  • We remain committed to long-term worker presence as a foundation for meaningful ministry.

To be sure, there are a number of factors that will have an impact on how these recommendations can be carried out in the coming years, not the least of which is the continuing availability of human and financial resources from Mennonite churches in North America for carrying on international work. But the vision and intent is clear: in 2004, no less than it was a half-century earlier, post-Christendom Europe will remain a significant area of mission activity for Mennonites from North America.

J. Robert Charles, Goshen, Indiana, is director for Europe for Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA. He previously served as director for Africa and Europe for Mennonite Board of Missions from 1996 to 2002 and as a Mennonite missionary in Belgium from 1980 to 1988.

Want to know more?

J. Robert Charles, ‘North American Mennonite Agencies in Europe since World WarII’, Mission Focus, 16(3) (September 1988), pp. 48-52.

Alan Kreider, Anabaptist Christianity: Revived and Relevant. MBM Celebrates 50

Years of Faithful Witness in Europe, Mission Insight 16 (Elkhart, Indiana: Mennonite Board of Missions, 2001).

David A. Shank, ‘A Missionary Approach to a Dechristianized Society’, Mennonite

Quarterly Review, 28 (1954), pp. 39-55. The official website of Mennonite Mission Network, providing up-to-date information and reports from programmes and personnel around the world, including Europe.