A Glimpse of the Universal Church

Global Communion and Why It Matters: Exploring our shared commitment to being a worldwide family

As Mennonite World Conference, we share a commitment to being a worldwide communion (koinonia) of faith and life. Together, we seek to be a fellowship that transcends boundaries of nationality, race, class, gender and language. Yet because of our diversity, each MWC member church brings a distinct understanding of the importance of global communion to its participation and investment in MWC.

The April 2015 issue of Courier / Correo / Courrier seeks to discern the variety of reasons why Anabaptist communities from around the world come together to form MWC. In the articles that follow, writers reflect on the question: Why does my local or regional fellowship need a global communion?

A Glimpse of the Universal Church

I pastor the Mennonite congregation in the town of Enkenbach, near the city of Kaiserslautern in the Palatinate area in southwest Germany. Our church has 260 members and an average attendance of about 100 persons at a regular Sunday service.

The congregation was founded after World War II by Mennonite refugees from east and west Prussia (now Poland) who had to leave their homelands because of the war. (By contrast, other Mennonite congregations in the Palatinate area date their origin back to the 17th century, when Mennonite refugees seeking refuge from persecution migrated from Switzerland.) In Enkenbach, non-German young men serving in Europe through Mennonite Central Committee’s PAX program, a post-war relief effort, erected houses for Mennonite refugees here as a settlement, allowing our congregation to flourish. Today’s members are either refugees who came here at a young age or first generation “Palatinate” Germans.

Our congregation is one of the larger ones in Germany, much larger than the average Mennonite congregation in the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden conference (not counting the larger congregations from Russian-German background).

The local congregation plays a very important role in our German Mennonite tradition. Early Anabaptists emphasized the centrality of the local congregation, and this emphasis helped the movement survive in times of persecution. Throughout the years, though, this congregationalism has led to weaknesses, including a sometimes-too-strong sense of self-sufficiency. For example, many members of our congregation think of themselves not only Mennonites, but “Enkenbach Mennonites“ who are not so much interested in other Mennonite traditions. In the years of its origin our congregation had around 500 members and over the decades that large membership sustained many programs, making the congregation quite independent from other Mennonite groups. This has changed over the decades, due to declining membership numbers. Still, a real danger exists: the possibility that congregations will lose sight of one another, developing a mentality of “we are we and others do their own business.” 

Fortunately, many people in Germany – including many people in our congregation – have a vision for ecumenism. (This probably developed as a result of German history, which includes the major Protestant-Catholic split of the 16th- century Reformation era.) We value close cooperation with other denominations for a better witness to the world. In our town, which has Catholic and other Protestant (United Church) congregations, we have good fellowship. We have a sense of the unity of the Christian church.

At the same time, our congregation needs to realize that our Anabaptist-Mennonite family is larger that our local congregation. That expanded worldview comes through our involvement with Mennonite World Conference.

Involvement with MWC offers several tangible benefits. First, it helps to strengthen our common identity as Anabaptist-Mennonites. In our local congregation, we organized two small groups that read and studied the shared convictions of MWC, using Alfred Neufeld’s book What We Believe Together, a book from the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Shelf of Literature, recommended by MWC. Currently, another small group reads another book from MWC’s bookshelf: Bernhard Ott’s God’s Shalom Project. Both books help us to “stay in conversation” with each other about our faith and practice as well as with the thinking and believing of the wider Anabaptist tradition. We read them not as prescriptive documents; instead, we desire to be part of a wider process of thinking and believing. We find these recommended books helpful.

In addition, involvement in MWC offers a reminder that the Anabaptist-Mennonite family has grown way beyond the ethnic German (Swiss or Prussian) cultures in which Anabaptism was first nurtured. For instance, we observe the annual World Fellowship Sunday (WFS) in our congregation, and as a result we regularly receive interesting information on the life of MWC brothers and sisters. Moreover, at every WFS observance we collect a special offering for MWC in addition to what we give through our conference for the MWC Fair Share. In 2012, when the MWC General Council met in Europe, we invited two guest speakers – women theologians/pastors from Japan and Democratic Republic of Congo – into our worship services. This was unique and gave us an important glimpse into the growth of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition into a global, multicultural phenomenon. A year before, in 2011, we were fortunate to have MWC General Secretary César García visit our church to give a presentation on the work of MWC. His time with us also helped to show our people the reality of global Anabaptist faith.

Furthermore, we have been fortunate to host individuals from North America through the Intermenno Trainee Program, an exchange initiative that invites young people to live in Europe and gain firsthand experience with European culture and languages. Moreover, we have hosted Paraguayan volunteers who have served in our midst. Some have even stayed and got married here.

Beyond these ventures in the local congregation, a considerable number of our members who can afford to travel have attended MWC Assemblies over the decades, including the gatherings in India (1997), Zimbabwe (2003) and Paraguay (2009). In each instance our people have come back enriched and impressed, and have given reports on their experiences.

Surely the biblical understanding of the Church is more than just the local congregation. Christians from many tribes and nations are bound together by more than just local identity. From a biblical perspective, the Church is a communion of believers who transcend labels of nation, ethnicity and race. It is a universal (or catholic, in the truest sense of the word) body. To make this known and to help experience its truth at the local congregational level, we need MWC. Ultimately, MWC offers us a glimpse of the universal, even ecumenical, identity of the People of God.

Rainer W. Burkart is pastor of the Enkenbach Mennonite Church in Enkenbach, Germany. Beyond his local congregation, he has served on the MWC Executive Committee and Faith and Life Commission, and co-chaired the Lutheran World Federation/Mennonite World Conference International Study Commission (2005-2008), which laid the groundwork for an of reconciliation between Lutherans and Anabaptists.