During the early 1980s, as Christians in Ethiopia faced severe persecution, the Meserete Kristos Church survived by shifting the primary focus of congregational life to small house groups. The groups that emerged — often women who would meet for coffee, Bible study, discussion and prayer — were organized but fluid, quickly incorporating new people and then multiplying as the Ethiopian Anabaptist church grew.
In modern times we have grown accustomed to thinking of church growth in terms of charismatic personalities and sophisticated marketing strategies. But throughout most of church history, movements of revival — be it the Waldensians, the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe, the Hussites, the Anabaptists or early Pietists, Quakers and Methodists — were started by small groups who gathered to share their stories, read Scripture and ask about its meaning for their lives.
Something similar may be happening today. By all appearances, the inherited structures of Christianity in the West — and with it, the Mennonite church — are either in decline or being called into question. Yet even as traditional institutions are weakening, remarkable signs of new life and vitality are appearing at the edges.
Consider the flourishing of informal theological conversation that has emerged among Anabaptist-Mennonites around the world on the Internet. Just as the printing press opened up a new mode of discourse that enabled the rapid spread of Reformation ideas in the 16th century, the Internet has created possibilities for fresh, creative and sometimes unruly forms of theological engagement.
In the fall of 2018, for example, Nindyo Sasongko, a member of the Indonesian GKMI church and a Ph.D. student in theology, collaborated with other colleagues to start @Theovlogy — a podcast in Bahasa Indonesian that is “collegial, non-apologetic and conversational.” The site quickly attracted the interest of other Indonesian young people who found @Theovlogy to be “a space for students of theology from different backgrounds . . . to dismantle powers in the disciplines of theology and religious studies.” The group has now posted 185 podcasts.
Numerous other forums have emerged among Spanish-speaking Anabaptist-Mennonites. Carlos Martínez García, a journalist, pastor and church historian in Mexico City, has helped to initiate Café con aroma anabautista, an exchange of theology, music, poetry and art. The Women Doing Theology in Latin America group meets regularly for online conversations, most recently to read together biblical texts on the theme of reconciliation. Women in central Mexico have launched Café entre Chicas Meno-Mex, which often includes participants from the United States, Central and South America. Elsewhere, one can follow conversations among Latin American Mennonites at Un Momento de Anabautismo, Merienda Menonita, Diálogos Anabautistas or Revista Anabautista Digital.
At the same time, Mennonites in South Korea have hosted numerous webinars on topics related to reconciliation. And in North America, groups such as Anabaptist Historians, Marginal Mennonite Society and Young Anabaptist Radicals offer readers provocative insights that often unsettle established assumptions.
Among Plain Anabaptists, Lynette Yoder, originally from Holmes County, Ohio, has posted some 300 videos on YouTube that give her nearly 100,000 followers an intimate glimpse into the daily life of a more conservative group, often interspersed with reflections on faith and practice.
“i think we are in a very interesting time,” reflected Rebeca González, a Mennonite pastor in Mexico. “In these times of crisis, technology has offered a way of breaking through the limits of resources, time and distance and enabled us to reflect together on the biblical text in order to respond to the great questions we are asking.”
Clearly, the Internet and social media are no substitute for face-to-face community. But if the 16th-century Anabaptists were alive today, they would likely be challenging traditional forms of communication by live-streaming podcasts, creating webinars and posting blogs.
We should be attentive to the signs of renewal wherever they find expression.