We still exist! And learn from the past.

Photo: John Cameron, Unsplash. Photo: John Cameron, Unsplash.

TV crews visit THE Mennonite Research Center at Weierhof, Germany, from time to time. They note with interest that there are still Anabaptist congregations in Ger­many.

The general public doesn’t know this. Media depictions typically only show Old Order groups from North America, so it is noteworthy to them that Mennonites in Germany have cars and electricity. It is new to them that the violent Anabaptists of the 1534 Münster rebellion were only a fringe minority.

The public image of Anabaptists and Mennonites is shaped by a lack of knowledge and many stereotypes. But the discussion becomes more stimulating when attention is drawn to the fact that the early Anabaptists were nonconformist, upheld the priesthood of all believers, fought nonviolently for freedom of conscience and brought alternative forms of life and faith into society — especially through nonresistance.

We still exist! But some in our European congregations wonder how much longer.

“Daring to Live Together” is the motto of this year’s Anabaptist activities in Germany leading up to the 500th anniversary of the first adult baptisms in 2025. The phrase directs our attention especially to our communities. If we examine our own history, we can continue to be inspired by traditions of communal life.

First: The separated, holy community. Anabaptist Christian community, it was said, is only possible in separation from a world characterized by evil. The Schleitheim Confession of 1527 makes this clear: “We have agreed on separation. It is to be done from the Evil and from the Bad which the devil has planted in the world, so that we may not have fellowship with them and walk with them in fellowship with their atrocity.”

A second form of communal living can be described as “torn community.” This is visible in a list of refugees who came from Switzerland in 1672 to the Palatinate region of what is now Germany. The list noted that women were among the refugees “who had to leave their husbands and children behind, and who do not know whether they will follow because they belong to the Reformed religion.”

Families torn apart by migration were not uncommon. What’s even more interesting is that there were quite a few mixed-denomination marriages at that time.

The torn community in Anabaptist history also appears in disputes about the “right” faith. Diversity that could not be lived in unity led to divisions and exclusion.

A third form of community is particularly exciting today: the family church. For centuries this was a trademark of Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites — churches composed of multiple extended families. The model has its weaknesses: Culture can easily overshadow faith; the right name can count for so much, to the detriment of spiritual commitment.

But the family church also has strengths, with great potential for Christian community, when “family” isn’t based on bloodlines. The sense of community it promotes creates a worldwide bond — a quick “being at home everywhere” that comes together around familiarity. Much good can come out of this connectedness — expanding a trait that traditionally has distinguished Mennonites from other churches.

Expressions of community are continuously in transformation. Community is never the same, because it is constantly influenced by the conditions that surround it.

Would the family church’s close connections have developed if the early Anabaptists had not been forced into separation from the world?

Can our historical communities be a contemporary model? Some may say the times are too different today. There is a mood in many European congregations somewhere between fear of doom and pressure for renewal. Some communities are clearly in their final throes; new people are not coming. The next generation doesn’t really want to worship anymore. Some congregations are trying new things, changing worship styles. There is a renewed interest in service to society, ecumenism and integration of all generations.

The motto “Daring to Live Together” asks fundamental questions about our ideas of community. Do we have to go back to separation in order to survive? Or do we manage — in all our diversity — to look for new ways to be in the world but not of it?

The answer may come by incorporating the positive qualities of “family church” into congregations shaped less by long genealogies and more by the creation of a new family in Christ.

Astrid von Schlachta

Astrid von Schlachta of Weierhof, Germany, is head of the Mennonite Research Center and lecturer at the University of Regensburg. Read More

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