The presence of the Indonesian Anabaptist-Mennonites is very significant in the history of the Anabaptists worldwide, for it brings a new light not only on “Who are the Anabaptists?” but also “Who are the Anabaptists’ neighbours?”
Since its birth almost 500 years ago, the Anabaptist family consisted of mostly European-background people. But it changed radically in the 1850s when the Anabaptists came out of Europe and arrived in Java.
This mission not only broke the centuries-long image of the Anabaptists of being “quiet in the land,” but also introduced the first international mission, for it involved the Anabaptists from the Netherlands and Russia.
Since then, the Anabaptists are no longer mostly white. And by being present in a country such as Indonesia with the largest Muslim group in the world, now we can say that the Anabaptist’s neighbours are not only Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists, but Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists as well.
Three national churches
Today, there are three Anabaptist-Mennonite groups in Indonesia: Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (GITJ –Evangelical Church in the Land of Java), Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia (GKMI –Muria Christian Church of Indonesia), and Jemaat Kristen Indonesia (JKI –Indonesian Christian Congregation).
GITJ is a predominantly Javanese church in the traditional Mennonite area of North Central Java, although it has some members who are Chinese, Batak, Sumatran and from Nusa Tengarah Timur.
GKMI, one of the three Anabaptist-Mennonite groups in Indonesia, has been registered formally as a church as early as 1927, and it made this group to become the first organized non-Western Anabaptist-Mennonite church in the world.
Its founder Tee Siem Tat, a Chinese Indonesian, refused to follow the Dutch colonial zoning system (each denomination was allowed to spread the gospel only to a specific ethnic group in a specific area), resulting in a diverse church today. In 1960, GKMI Kudus ordained Rev. Sudarsohadi Notodihardjo, a Javanese pastor, to become its lead pastor. This is like ordaining an African-American pastor in a predominantly white church located in deep Mississippi during the slavery era.
Anabaptists in JKI represent the diversity of Indonesia, comprising members who have Batak, Chinese, Sunda, Dayak, Banjar, Menado, Bali, Ambon, Kupang, Papua, and Javanese backgrounds.
Indonesian Anabaptist-Mennonites have contributed to the larger Anabaptist family at all levels of Mennonite World Conference.
However, in Indonesia, the churches are known simply as Christians. There is no explicit distinction between denominational backgrounds such as Anabaptists, Calvinists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc. Living in the largest Muslim majority country in the world that officially recognizes six religious groups, Indonesian churches do not have much interest in exposing denominational backgrounds. The churches are active in mission and evangelism while putting aside distinctive denominational backgrounds.
Yet in the past couple of decades, there has been a growing interest among the Anabaptist-Mennonites, especially the youth, to learn and understand Anabaptism better. Some Anabaptist theology and history books have been translated into the Indonesian language so that both church leaders and laypeople can study them. Books on Anabaptist theology have been used as textbooks in interdenominational seminaries and colleges where the Anabaptist-Mennonite churches are officially involved as owners and the Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians as teachers. This movement has made more Anabaptist-Mennonites bolder in identifying themselves as Mennonites.
The relation between GKMI’s Mennonite Diakonia Service and the Hezbollah group in Solo is an example of how the Indonesian Anabaptist-Mennonites have boldly paved a new frontier as peacemaking Mennonites.
The oldest national church, GITJ, shares the gift of contextualization. Using art and traditions from Javanese culture, they show how the gospel is relevant to the people of Indonesia. The gospel of peace is an expression of “paseduluran,” a Javanese word for brotherhood.
The Indonesian Anabaptist-Mennonites have been involved heavily in interfaith peacebuilding. Some works of this interfaith peacebuilding have to do with disaster response. Some others involve training and workshops for mediation and peacebuilding.
The Anabaptist-Mennonites have also taken initiative, helped by Mennonite Central Committee, to open a master’s-level peace and conflict studies at Universitas Kristen Duta Wacana. This has been the first study program to be recognized by the Indonesian government. This initiative, and some others, have encouraged some Christian universities in Indonesia to established a peace centre in their institutions, resulting in peacebuilding courses now offered at all levels in many Christian universities in Indonesia.
Many Anabaptist-Mennonite churches and individuals have also taken the initiative to create alternative education and communities that foster peace. This includes things such as designing curriculum and providing Sunday school resources to enhance children’s ability to foster peace; creating a peace village that mobilizes people to work together in developing economic welfare and peace values; doing joint efforts with Islamic boarding schools to establish a peace library; networking with institutions and individuals from various religious backgrounds to foster peace.
The church’s mission is understood and practiced not as proselytism, but as reconciliation.
JKI has been exemplary in outreach, especially to the younger generation. The church founded and continues to support the largest interdenominational youth conference in Indonesia called Unlimited Fire Youth Conference, which brings together hundreds of churches and thousands of young people to equip youth leaders and mentors.
Churches have used social media to engage with their younger generation, providing online teaching, creative counselling and also fun activities to join. Most of the volunteers serving the church are high school to young professional age.
For example, Jakarta Praise Community Church raises passionate disciples who love serving God through music, multimedia, teaching, technology and the arts. Music written and composed by members of the JKI church makes an impact not only on Indonesian Christians but all over the world. Albums have been translated into English, Thai, Japanese, Mandarin and Korean.
JKI also supports a mission base in Sumba. Children are sponsored for school and villagers are trained to weave traditional tenun fabric which is then sold nationally and internationally. Currently, JKI is building an irrigation system and promoting alternative agricultural methods to help the community raise their standard of living.
Near Batam, JKI is reaching out to the “Sea Tribe People” (Suku Laut) who live on Indonesia’s myriad outer islands and on boats. They have minimal electricity, internet connection and often far away from stores or restaurants. They used to have to travel 8-10 hours by boat to hear the gospel through church services in Batam, but now, there are several churches among the Sea Tribe People. JKI missionaries also teach at a preschool.
The mostly rural congregations of GITJ live out peace in their communities. Congregations are involved in offering social assistance like medical care in their communities regardless of religion. A congregation in Magorejo has begun a project of reforestation of mangrove forests.
Challenges and opportunities
As Christians in a Muslim-majority country, the Indonesian Mennonites churches face challenges in worship and community. Sometimes there are restrictions in when and where people can gather for fellowship or services. There are obstacles to obtaining the necessary permission to build a church or to meet and preach the good news.
For 12 years, one GITJ congregation in the Jepara region petitioned to municipal officials to receive permission to use a church building. With persistence and peacefulness, church members built relationships with levels of government and with people from different religions. Their request was finally granted.
The rise of identity politics – especially regarding religious and ethnic-based identity – among the Indonesian people has made it difficult to promote peaceful co-existence among people of different ethnic and religious affiliations in Indonesia. Identity politics itself is not a bad thing, but it turns into an obstacle for social cohesion when the respected group feels superior while disrespecting and even alienating and terminating the other groups. Violence in the form of hate speech, discrimination and exclusion easily follow. This phenomenon takes place not only between groups but even within groups. The Indonesian Anabaptist-Mennonites are not exempt. Thus, there is a great challenge without and within.
In some areas, poverty, joblessness and low education remain a persistent challenge in church communities. For GITJ congregations, sharing good news means providing supplies and learning opportunities in addition to spiritual nourishment.
Other challenges include secularism and modernization that has made younger people avoid going to church. This has given opportunity to connect with the younger generation by engaging with them through multimedia, social media and creative activities.
Another challenge in the past year has been to keep moving forward as a church during the global pandemic, embracing technology in order to connect with the church members. Congregations have learned about online services, using Zoom, GoogleMeet, Instagram live, YouTube live, and WhatsApp video calls in order to have services, small groups, counselling, meetings and workshops.
Indonesia’s Mennonite churches love their neighbours in a holistic way. For example, parts of Semarang were severely flooded 5-7 February 2021, due to the heavy rainfall. Water submerged cars and homes. The churches in Semarang began to travel by raft to these areas, helping families escape from their homes. Stores and restaurants were already closed for the weekend due to COVID-19 lockdowns, so the churches delivered food for the families in need. They provided shelter for people who need to leave their flooded homes.
In the past, the relationship between the three synods was not that intimate. A Mennonite seminary in Pati is the remaining fruit of a partnership that flourished between GITJ and GKMI.
But in the last decade, a new way of partnering together has been carved in the form of the establishment of Indomenno. This new entity is intended to serve as a joint effort between the three synods to do work together and support each other, including partnering with Mennonite Central Committee and hosting the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in 2022. Some other joint efforts have been envisioned. However, COVID-19 has limited freedom to meet. Leaders had to postpone and re-work their agenda in order to prepare for the conference once again.
“We hope to remain solid and one-hearted in supporting this upcoming Assembly. We are very blessed and honoured that our global brethren could visit and see what God is doing in Indonesia,” says Eddy Suyanto.
Contributors: Paulus Widjaja (GKMI), Eddy Suyanto (JKI), Lydia Adi (JKI), Teguh Sagoya (GITJ), Edi Cahuyono (GITJ), Tri Gunanto (GITJ)
- The Radical Muslim and Mennonite: A Muslim-Christian Encounter for Peace in Indonesia, by Agus Suyanto and Paulus Hartono, trans. Agnes Chen (Semarang: Pustaka Muria, 2015)
- A Cloud of Witnesses: Celebrating Indonesian Mennonites, by John D. Roth (forthcoming)
- “Indonesia: struggling, learning, serving,” Courier/ Correo / Courrier, by Adhi Dharma
Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa
Persatuan Gereja-Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia
Sinode Jemaat Kristen Indonesia
Source: Global Statistics – 2018 Directory