AT 31: Anabaptists and Evangelism

Darren Blaney
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 31, October 2002

In my previous article I reflected on the role the Great Commission played as both a motivating force for evangelism and theological centre within Anabaptism. Lest I gave the impression that all Anabaptist evangelism was an attraction through their community life I will dwell this time on other factors that made the Anabaptists so effective.

The Great Commission for every believer

In addition to everything said in the previous article, it is clear the Anabaptists, unlike the Reformers, believed the Great Commission had not been intended for the apostles only. It was for their time and was binding on every Anabaptist congregation. They probably went further, being the first church group to believe the Great Commission was the responsibility of every believer.

Johann Kessler, an eyewitness, records the story of Anabaptism in St Gallen.

Thereafter our Anabaptists assumed the apostolic office as the first in the newly established church, believing that it was their obligation to follow Christ’s command when he said, ‘Go ye into all the world, etc’ (Mark 16:15). They ran beyond the city gate into the outlying villages, regions, and market towns to preach there … (Harder, 1985:423)

Historian Hans Kasdorf notes of the Anabaptists:

When asked what compelled them to go, they answered without hesitation: the Great Commission (Kasdorf, 1984:62).

So, who is responsible for the Great Commission today? If I am a true Anabaptist I have to take seriously that my little congregation in Gillingham is! I have to make it clear in my preaching and in my discipling of younger

Christians that they, each one of them, has a clear Great Commission obligation. Do they realise it is not primarily the pastor’s job, or to be left to mission agencies? And do I take seriously the fact that if they don’t do it, I still must?

The use of relational networks

To say that Anabaptists used relationships to spread the gospel seems a statement of the obvious. However, in our age of methods and cold-calls it is a point worth making. We may consider their use of relationships under three different headings.

First, they were quick to use their own personal oikos (family/kinship group). Such an approach provided a natural network of existing, strong relationships for the would-be evangelist to build on. The fact that a friend or family member had converted to the notorious Anabaptists no doubt helped guarantee an inquisitive audience.

Then there were neighbours and acquaintances.

Bible study groups met in homes and invited unbelievers from the neighbourhood with the objective of winning them to the Lord. Social events such as weddings and similar community affairs … provided excellent opportunities to make new acquaintances and to invite people to a Bible Reading (Kasdorf, 1984:60).

An advantage for Anabaptists was that, with their movement increasingly subject to arrest and persecution, and their preaching banned, working among those with whom they already had day-to-day contact provided cover for their activities.

The third network is worthy of special consideration – that created by their trade or work. Katherin Lorenzen (later the wife of Jacob Hutter) testified in court about her conversion, claiming that her employer, a Christian baker, and other employees had witnessed to her and persuaded her to join the Anabaptist sect. Indeed, the workplace often seems to have functioned for Anabaptists as an informal ‘Bible school’.

A fascinating court record exists of the trial of an Anabaptist called Hans Nadler, a needle seller to cobblers and tailors, and an active evangelist. In his trial he gave simple testimony of his methods (Snyder, 1995:107). These may be outlined as follows:

Introductory witness. Nadler would begin witnessing in the course of normal conversation by mentioning the high cost of true religious commitment in the current moral and political climate.

  • Simple enquiry. He would then enquire where his listener stood on such matters, and whether they were seeking after spiritual truth.

  • Explanation of faith. If the other person seemed interested, Nadler would then explain his own faith in Christ, as clearly as he could.

  • Outline the cost. Nadler would follow his explanation of the message with clear warnings of the great cost involved in truly following Christ. This cost was twofold: the inner cost of a life of selfless service and the outer one of persecution.

  • Basic nurture. Although not in a position to baptise, if any conversation led to the person expressing a sincere desire to embrace the Anabaptist way, Nadler would conclude by giving basic instruction in the new faith, principally through two well-known ‘tools’: the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

Historian Arnold Snyder comments:

Nadler’s personal, direct and simple approach seems to have been the norm in Anabaptist evangelization of the people who were not part of one’s own circle of friends and family (Snyder 1995:107).

As I reflect on this, two things spring to mind. First, the Anabaptists put most of us to shame when it comes to personal witnessing. How often do we say to people that the most difficult place to witness is at home? How often do we tell people that ‘others’ who are more detached have a better chance of reaching our loved ones? Yet the Anabaptists seem to have made family and friends their first priority. Perhaps they were experiencing such a transformation of life, and not just religion, that family witnessing was unavoidable!

The Anabaptists also show there is much benefit from deliberately and intentionally training every new believer in an appropriate ‘Nadler method’. Such training would cover how to: identify one’s relational network; introduce spiritual subjects into a conversation; tell one’s own conversion story; explain the Christian message (including culturally relevant illustrations); and offer basic encouragement to a new convert.

As a small start in this direction, our church plans to give every new member a shoebox containing: a jar of coffee (to encourage friendship evangelism); a number of tracts and booklets (for them to give away or use in conversation); a booklet and/or set of tapes outlining our church’s vision and values; and a short tape on a method of personal evangelism.

It’s not earth-shattering, I know, but it is something.

Helpful tools

Nadler’s use of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed show that Anabaptists employed a range of devices to help them communicate their faith, especially among the illiterate and poorly educated. Two approaches in particular stand out:

1. Songs Anabaptists were great song writers. It was not uncommon for their hymns to have 20 or more verses. Such songs often told stories, usually those of Anabaptist martyrs, and in so doing reiterated core beliefs of the movement. Here is one example, translated by Hans Kasdorf (1984:63):

As God his Son was sending
Into this world of sin.
His Son is now commanding
That we this world should win
He sends us and commissions
To preach the gospel clear,
To call upon all nations
To listen and to hear.

And if thou, Lord, desire
And should it be thy will
That we taste sword and fire
By those who thus would kill
Then comfort, pray, our loved ones
And tell them, we’ve endured
And we shall see them yonder –
Eternally secured.

When one sees how the Anabaptists used hymns and Scripture, one is led to consider the whole area of worship/liturgy. In many churches this represents the backbone of church life. Indeed, in our predominately ‘Sunday event’ approach, the liturgy is church for many people. If we are to be missionary congregations we will need to develop new forms of liturgy that reflect God’s mission agenda. Indeed, is not mission an expression of the very being and character of God? In other words, how about a missionary liturgy?A mission-shaped liturgy, and hence a mission-shaped worship, could help form a mission-shaped congregation.

When I think of my own church’s ‘thirty minutes of singing’ format I ask, what place does God’s heart for the lost find in our worship? Does the shape of our service reflect the missionary agenda of God, or our own self-centred desire for a bless-up? (And I’ve got no one to blame but myself.)

2. Topical concordances Anabaptists gathered together their most important Scripture references and recorded them in concordances, usually under themed headings. Some seemed to have been intended for learning by rote, while others were hand-copied from person to person. The themes included baptism, the ban (church discipline), the Lord’s Supper, discipleship, suffering and martyrdom, and apostasy. Such concordances were evidently very effective in helping the faithful to understand both their Anabaptist faith and their Bibles.

Biblical illiteracy

Why is it – in an age where we have more versions, more freely available, than ever before – that so few Christians seem to know much about what the Bible says? It is sobering to think that in many cases an illiterate 16th-century Anabaptist would have known more Scripture than a degree-educated 21st-century evangelical! Again I must ask, Why? I offer three suggestions:

1. A loss of faith in the Bible Many believers have lost their nerve in grappling with scientific issues like evolution and cosmology, and moral issues like homosexuality and genetic engineering. As Bishop Lesslie Newbigin would have put it, we have become content to allow the Bible to be private devotional opinion, not public proclaimable truth. If Anabaptists

had believed that, there would never have been a Radical Reformation. However, rhetoric will solve nothing. There is a responsibility on my part to educate believers on how to deal with these issues. Silence from the pulpit all too easily sounds like a confession of defeat.

2. A loss of the lectionary The tendency in most evangelical churches is to preach through a book or thematic series. However helpful this is, one must acknowledge a downside. The various lectionaries followed by many denominations not only require readings from the Old Testament, New Testament and the Gospels each Sunday, but also ensure that, over a period of time, the main themes, events, characters and truths of the faith are remembered. The comment of one house church leader – ‘What’s Lent? We have enough trouble remembering Christmas and Easter’ – is hopefully not typical. There is also the tendency to focus on smaller and smaller parts of the Bible. To preach through Galatians one verse at a time, or to take six months to study Mark’s Gospel may be commendable, but does the congregation end up learning more and more about less and less?

3. We are making church membership too easy If someone wishes to be baptised and (depending on our practice) join the church, should we not insist on proper preparation? Attending a course is not enough. A good baptismal/membership class should teach the broad story of the Bible (salvation-history) and how to read it. After all, if baptism means anything, it surely means baptism into Christ and the story he has written and is writing.

Apostolic teams

Initially Anabaptist preachers were often driven from town to town by persecution. However, the movement quickly began to bring more organisation to the missionary task. The Augsburg Synod divided up Europe for missionary activity and led to the formation of several ‘teams’ for church planting. Within two weeks of that meeting the Augsburg church alone had sent more than 24 missionaries to appointed places n Germany and Austria.

Typically Anabaptist teams consisted of three people – the preacher, a deacon (with special responsibility for practical ministry), and a ‘common lay brother’ (who acted as the messenger between church and team).

In the event that one of the team members was apprehended, the church was immediately notified so that reinforcement could be sent and those in prison visited and their needs supplied. (Kasdorf, 1984:65)

It was probably under the Hutterites that Anabaptist missionary endeavour was most organised.They sent mission teams each spring and autumn, and covered most of Germany and Austria, as well as making visits to Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Bohemia, Denmark and Slovakia. They developed a formal missionary training program, which may have been compulsory for every believer.

The Anabaptist practice of sending out small mission teams is one that we might fruitfully reproduce. Teams can be sent to other churches for evangelistic purposes, such as ‘faith sharing’, or for various social action projects. Such mission trips, especially if conducted in an ongoing partnership with the other church, can be a transformational experience for those who participate, as well as being helpful to the receiving church.

Is there any reason why small teams should not be sent out to plant churches? As many move away from Christendom and ‘Sunday event’ models, the need to send a big team armed with Sunday-school teachers and musicians is decreasing. How many people do you need to plant a cell church?

An end-time perspective

The Anabaptists believed that ‘time was short’. There was widespread apocalyptic fervour at the time, with the Reformers too believing that the last day was at hand. This undoubtedly helped the spread of Anabaptism:

The Anabaptists were in full harmony with large sectors of society in expecting an imminent end to the world … Millennial expectations predispose those who hold them to make dramatic choices about priorities and behaviour. (Kraybill, 1995:6).

This factor should not be overlooked. The doctrine of the second coming is all too easy to ignore in our context, where humanity’s destiny seems in our own hands and fear of the sudden destruction of the world has receded. Yet the New Testament has ten references to Christ’s return for every one to his birth. A focus on Christ’s return in preaching and teaching would help, but it also needs to be reflected in our liturgy, hymnody and discipleship programmes. This is not a call to return to a simple-minded revivalism. Rather, it reflects the conviction that for Christians of the New Testament era, and for 16th-century Anabaptists, Christianity was lived in the knowledge that history would not go on for ever, and that its ending was closer now than at any time before. Such a conviction might bring an earnestness and urgency to the task of evangelism that the church desperately needs to reclaim. It might also act as a counterbalance to the increasing consumerism seeping into the church.

All of which has to be applied to me before it is applied to anyone else. How would I be living if I were really conscious of the immanent return of Jesus? I probably would not spend half the time worrying about the things I do at the moment. Would I allocate my time differently? Would I have greatly different priorities? Would I evaluate myself and my ‘success’ differently? I don’t know. But I must acknowledge that life is often lived without any genuine expectation that Christ could return soon. I wish it were otherwise.


The secret of the Anabaptists cannot be distilled into a formula or method. They had done nothing less than discovered a new form of Christianity, and it changed their lives. For them it was true, and it worked. No new idea, model or scheme holds the answers for us either. However, like them, we must dare to read the New Testament again with open eyes and open minds, seeking not to confirm our existing beliefs, but rather with a heart that says, ‘Lord, show me a better way.’ For them what emerged was a Christianity where community was to the fore, where faith led to a changed life, where discipleship really meant something, and where all of life was lived under the shadow of the return of Christ. I long for something similar for myself.

Darren Blaney is pastor of The Bridge Baptist Church, Gillingham, Kent

Books referred to:

Leland Harder (ed.), The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1985).

Hans Kasdorf, ‘The Anabaptist Approach to Mission’ in W.R. Shenk (ed.)

Anabaptism and Mission (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1984).

Nelson Kraybill, ‘Discipleship in the Balance: Enthusiasm in the Anabaptist Tradition of Dissent’ (unpublished paper, London Mennonite Centre, 1995).

C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1995).