Indonesia: Struggling, learning, serving

The Mennonite community in Indonesia is diverse and dynamic! Discussing its origins and development may bring to mind many questions, especially for those in the Global North: How did Mennonitism take root in Indonesia? How did Indonesia become the fifth-largest Mennonite centre in the world? And how did people with names like Dharma, Widjaja, Pasrah, Arum and Sutrisno come to identify as Mennonite, since “familiar” Mennonite names are Yoder, Roth, Neufeld and Rempel?

Just like other countries in the Global South, Indonesia has its own unique story of its inhabitants’ encounter with Anabaptism. Indeed, its story is key to understanding the explosive growth of Anabaptism outside “origin places” like Europe and North America. And yet this particular story also reflects the challenges and opportunities faced by Christians around the world.

A patchwork of cultures and religions

In order to fully understand the Mennonite community in Indonesia, we must first explore (briefly) the culture, history and religious developments in our country.

Indonesia itself is an archipelago country, comprised of more than 17,000 islands scattered around a 735,000-square-mile region of Southeast Asia. Over its long history it has become a melting pot of various cultures, traditions, languages and religions. Chinese merchants brought elements of their culture to the region beginning in the first through sixth centuries. In the fifth to fifteenth centuries, Hinduism dominated the nation’s religious and cultural horizons. Beginning in the thirteenth century, Islam became a major influence in the region, and today it is the majority religion.

Christianity came to Indonesia in 1522, when Portuguese colonizers built a port on the island of Ternate, in the Moluccas of eastern Indonesia. As implied by its arrival, Christianity was closely coupled to modern European culture, which strongly influenced Indonesia during its colonial period (sixteenth through early twentieth centuries). Throughout most of this period, Indonesia was controlled by the Dutch, who brought Mennonitism – among other traditions – to the region.

Indonesian Mennonites today

Nowadays, approximately 108,000 Mennonites call Indonesia home. They worship in more than 350 Mennonite churches affiliated with one of three conferences, or synods: Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (Javanese Evangelical Church, or GITJ); Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia (Muria Christian Church of Indonesia, or GKMI); and Jemaat Kristen Indonesia (Christian Congregation in Indonesia, or JKI).

From Mission Church to Independent Synod: The GITJ Story

Mennonitism came to Indonesia during the latter half of Dutch colonial rule, through the efforts of Pieter Jansz. In 1851, Jansz – sent by the Doopsgezinde Zending Vereniging (DVZ), a Dutch mission board – landed on the island of Java, and soon settled near Mount Muria. At first, he found little success, as three big challenges stood in his way. First, the location around Mount Muria was not a fertile area for evangelism. Second, conflict developed with the Dutch Indies government. And third, anti-colonial struggles were increasing in strength. Working within this cultural and political dilemma was not easy, and Jansz finally realized that mission work could not depend on foreigners. Evangelism and the work of the church had to arise out of the convictions of indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, Jansz’s effort to involve indigenous people in his ministry did not have a major impact, sinze Jansz continued to operate out of a western understanding of leadership – an understanding that in some ways did not fit with Javanese culture. This reality helps to explain Jansz’s conflict with the indigenous Javanese missionary Tunggul Wulung, whom Jansz viewed as too strong in his mystical beliefs (which were very closely related to his Javanese cultural background). Neither Jansz’s nor Wulung’s outreach efforts resulted in significant growth.

Politics also played a role in the slow growth of the Mennonite missionary efforts. Unlike other missionary agencies operating in the country at this time, Mennonites refused to use political authority to spread Christianity. Students of Indonesian history have noted that political authority has long played a key role in the growth and spread of particular religions, including Christianity. Because of their beliefs about church-state separation, Mennonites did not seek political power, relying instead on educational and medical outreaches to spread the gospel in Indonesia.

The growth of the Mennonite church in Indonesia began in earnest following the chartering of the GITJ synod in 1925. The issue of autonomy – of indigenous people assuming leadership from the Western missionaries – had been a tension point for many years. With the maturation of the GITJ congregation in the 1920s, some began to point out the church’s dependency on the mission board, especially in terms of finances and leadership. Gradually, indigenous believers determined that self-governance was the only way out of that dependency. Moreover, the political crisis brought on by World War II convinced the mission board of the need to turn leadership over to local church leaders.

The autonomy ultimately strengthened GITJ. A 1957 report noted 11 mature congregations with 2,410 adult members and 2,850 children. Growth of this magnitude continued well into the 1980s.

Yet growth brought with it problems. Achieving independence from the mission board was not easy, as the churches had relied on this body for spiritual direction and financial aid for many years. Despite hard work, conflicts over leadership and finances peaked in the 1980s. The synod struggled to identify a called leader to guide its churches, and to develop revenue streams to replace those from the mission board. Even now, the church continues to wrestle with these issues. At the same time, it continues to experience vitality: in 2012, the synod had 43,250 members in 104 congregations.

An Indigenous Church from the Start: The GKMI Story

As GITJ was moving toward autonomy in the early twentieth century, another Indonesian Mennonite group – GKMI – was born. Unlike GITJ, which started under the auspices of a Western missionary board, GKMI began through the efforts of a Chinese entrepreneur, Tee Siem Tat, in Kudus, Central Java. Before his conversion, Tee was a follower of the Confucian religion; he met Christ during a time of personal sickness from which he experienced deliverance. Healed, he claimed, in body and soul, Tee decided to share the gospel with his Chinese relatives and friends in Kudus and the surrounding environs near Mount Muria.

Three years after his conversion, in 1920, Tee and 24 of his friends were baptized by Nicolai Thiessen, a Dutch Mennonite missionary, at Tee’s house. After their baptisms they continued to share the gospel with their friends in the area.

Tee decided to identify with the Mennonites because of their values, and soon began to work with the missionaries near Mount Muria. However, the fruit of his ministry – the GKMI synod – was from the outset independent financially, theologically and administratively from the Mennonite mission board.

Recognizing God’s call to share the gospel with all peoples in every land, Tee and his friends extended their ministry beyond their Chinese friends and relatives to the Javanese people living in their area. In 1958, they changed the name of their church from “Chinese Christian Mennonite” to “Muria Christian Church of Indonesia,” and elected a Javanese pastor, Soedarsohadi Notodihardjo, as synod’s general secretary.

Today, the ministry of GKMI extends to seven islands in Indonesia, and its membership rolls include people from various tribes. The synod still struggles to articulate a clear Mennonite identity, to form an appropriate church order and to develop reliable leadership.

Reaching Youth: The JKI Story

The youngest Mennonite community in Indonesia is JKI. In the span of less than 40 years, JKI has planted over 50 congregations; at present, the church includes 45,000 members in a total of 189 congregations. Its churches are clustered in the cities near Mount Muria, as well as in East and West Java, and some places abroad.

This synod began through the efforts of a group of GKMI youth called Keluarga Sangkakala (Trumpet Family), who initiated several creative ministries. This group combined revival services with social ministry and used media to spread the gospel message. Over time, the group grew, and soon the necessity of forming an independent church became evident. On March 4, 1979, in Ungaran, Central Java, the baptism of several new believers led to the formal establishment of the JKI church.

JKI continues to show great growth, especially among youth. While most rural congregations are small, larger congregations lie in the cities. In fact, the synod’s four largest congregations are urban: Jakarta Praise Community Church in the nation’s capitol has 10,000 members; JKI Injil Kerajaan in Semarang has 15,000 members; JKI Bukit Zion in Surabaya has 5,000 members; and JKI Maranatha in Ungaran-Semarang has 1,800 members.

Challenges and opportunities

All three of these Mennonite communities face similar challenges; four deserve specific mention here.

1. Mennonitism does not have deep roots in Indonesian culture, society or politics

Most Indonesians view Christianity as tied to and associated with Western colonialism. As a result, the religion has a negative connotation for most people. Unlike other religions, which have been more smoothly integrated into local cultures, Christianity is seen as an “intruder.” Therefore, reframing the “dark” history of colonialism while introducing the Mennonite vision is a big challenge for our communities.

2. Churches sense a kind of “competition” with other Christian denominations

We cannot deny that today’s churches feel a kind of “competition” with other Christian denominations. What’s more, in the cities, many churches tend to direct their ministry toward interdenominational agencies, rather than develop projects in their local communities. Over time, these “para-church” agencies develop into their own churches, further eclipsing local congregations. Thus, strengthening the local church has become a major issue for Mennonites in Indonesia.

3. Ministries tend to emphasize pragmatism, ritual (entertainment) and fulfilling people’s needs

In my opinion, many contemporary churches are making every effort to fulfill people’s needs – their desire to be entertained and to be ministered to personally. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this tendency toward pragmatism in ministry – so long as we maintain the values of Christianity. As Mennonites, we are challenged to hold strongly to our emphasis on community while also giving people what they want (or expect).

4. Politicians see religion as a commodity

Following the resignation of President Soeharto in 1998, reformation transformed the political landscape of Indonesia. The development of democracy resulted in the formation of many new social and political groups. The new political groups especially have sought to create networks for political mass, and have courted many religious groups for these efforts. Churches – especially Mennonite churches – should remain aware of these efforts, and should resist efforts to make religion a practical political commodity.

In the midst of these challenges, the Mennonite community in Indonesia is also embracing many opportunities for renewal and revitalized ministry. One opportunity before us is a return to the four basic pillars of the church: history, theology, ecclesiology and missiology. We need to remember and review the history and values of our Mennonite ancestors. In so doing we will be strengthened to face today’s challenges.

Moreover, we need to strengthen our Mennonite identity. In part, this will happen as we translate and publish books that offer instruction on Mennonite history and theology. At the same time, we need to think about how to more effectively contextualize Mennonite values for the Indonesian setting. This is not an easy task, and yet we know that nothing is impossible with our God.

Another opportunity embraced by the Indonesian Mennonite community relates to the global family of faith. All three Indonesian Mennonite synods are members of Mennonite World Conference. We welcome the support of our MWC brothers and sisters around the world, and we hope to offer the same kind of support as we invest more and more in the work of MWC.

Many faces, same mission

The Mennonite community in Indonesia has three “faces” – GITJ, GKMI and JKI. Each “face” reflects a different background and set of experiences. At the same time, the challenges and opportunities facing these three groups are – in some ways – the same challenges and opportunities face by other Mennonite communities around the world. We all have our struggles in this modern world: we all struggle to contextualize Christian faith in appropriate ways; we all struggle to develop local ministries without stirring up a spirit of competition; we all struggle with shifting cultural landscapes and personal expectations; we all struggle to speak truth to power, whether in poverty or in plenty. As a global family of faith, shall we work together – hand in hand – to help one another? In this way, we not only struggle together – we also learn together and serve together.

by Adhi Dharma, general secretary of the GKMI synod.

This article first appeared in Courier / Correo / Courrier October 2013