Previous | Next

Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 143–46 

Issues in Church Life and Polity in Germany

Alexander Neufeld

The Mennonite Brethren Church in Germany is diverse in origin, ethnic and cultural background, as well as congregational structure and practice. Some churches are four decades old, while others have been organized only a week ago. Some consist totally of immigrants from different parts of the USSR, South America, or even from Sri Lanka (Tamil speaking church). Others have totally native German membership and leadership. Some are comprised of largely ethnic Mennonites with long standing traditions; others are from Catholic and Lutheran backgrounds with little understanding of Anabaptist theology and free church practice. Thus, the stages of development, church patterns, and the issues differ widely. It is difficult to single out a few issues that are common questions for all of us. This short article can only be an attempt to provide a survey of the situation and to mention a few issues involved.

A unified Anabaptist view of the church and a solid biblical theology of the brotherhood is of great urgency.

The first Mennonite Brethren church in the post-war Germany emerged in 1950 and was originally composed of Russian and Polish Mennonites. The spiritual ministry of church extension, evangelism and church planting done over the years by North American missionaries {144} and German workers led to the establishment of seventeen churches with a total membership of about twelve hundred. Seven churches organized in a regional conference in Bavaria and seven in the Arbeits-gemeinschaft Mennonitischer Bruedergemeinden in Deutschland (AMBD). About forty percent of the AMBD-membership came as immigrants from USSR in the last fifteen years. Some of the churches have a large percentage of Mennonites who came from South America.


The issues of these Mennonite Brethren churches are basically the issues of mission churches becoming mature and independent, as well as, issues of ethnic churches of the second generation becoming accultured to the majority culture. These are issues of identity, of transition of leadership from experienced missionaries to young native leaders, and of conference structures and organization. We struggle to incorporate young visionary leaders in the weak conference structures. Several agencies with specialized and effective ministries have emerged from our churches; but we find it difficult to provide a solid financial base and have enough suitable people to staff all the different boards. Most of the leaders get their theological training in different German interdenominational institutions that stress apologetics and foreign mission. The church and the practical ministries do not get the same attention. Thus, a unified Anabaptist view of the church and a solid biblical theology of the brotherhood is of great urgency. How to maintain the independence of the local church and at the same time to live as a community of faith, as a family of God that consists of people of diverse origins and backgrounds and meets in different places, is the question that we have to deal with.

By now the “Aussiedler” churches form the larger part of the German Mennonite Brethren church. From the mid-seventies until now there has been a constant influx of immigrants (Aussiedler) from the Soviet Union. Their numbers dramatically increased in the last two years. The state authorities have taken measures to disperse them through the whole country. Thus, almost every week, a new local church or a fellowship is formed somewhere. It is difficult to keep track of them. Some estimate there are as many as two hundred Aussiedler churches at the present time, others count a total of one hundred to {145} one hundred fifty. There are small churches, yet there are large churches with as many as six hundred to twelve hundred members. In fact, they take the lead in the list of the best attended churches in Germany.

The issues in these churches are numerous and could fill books. There are personal questions about living accommodations, jobs, schools, and language difficulties. There are many practical and organizational concerns for the organization. Who are the leaders and what is the orientation in the philosophy of ministry? When the church grows there are questions: How to get land (in short supply and consequently quite expensive) and permission for the construction of church property, how to incorporate the large numbers of newcomers from diverse congregational backgrounds, etc. But theological issues are even more pressing: What is a Christian; what is “worldly”; what is our brotherhood; and with whom do we affiliate?


Little understanding for culture and the zeal to be faithful to the Bible (often legalistically and narrowly interpreted) make the ethical questions of daily conduct thorny issues in the churchly life. The practice of church discipline raises a whole set of questions in the churches. Families experience great stress in this context. Young people struggle a lot to find their way under the authority of a church that is foreign to the surrounding culture. The older leaders who received their “experiential training” in the oppressive context of the Soviet Union are often overwhelmed with the situation. The young emerging leadership may have received its formal theological training but lacks experience and recognition. As a result, some young folks have withdrawn and formed independent churches (second generation ethnic churches).

The issues of identity, affiliation and brotherhood are among the major concerns. The names of the churches vary from Baptist to Brethren church (“Evangeliums-Christen”) to Mennonite Brethren and compounds of these. Many of the Aussiedler are of ethnic Mennonite descent. In the meanwhile, Mennonite to the core, some do not want to be Mennonite at all. The issue of what it means to be a Christian in a Mennonite Brethren church is common to Aussiedler churches, as well as to German mission churches and the AMBD-churches. {146}

In regard to affiliation, the Aussiedler churches have adopted several solutions. Some prefer to stay totally independent. Some affiliate with an association within the German Baptist Union. About thirty-five churches form a lose fellowship, the so-called Bruderschaft. Most of those that were in the USSR in the underground church joined together in the Vereinigung der Heimgekehrten Evangeliums-Christen Baptisten Bruedergemeinden. Seven of the Aussiedler churches have united in a Bund Tauf-gesinnter Gemeinden. The latter have warm relationships with the AMBD. Of course, there are many other connections between different churches, groups, and individuals but institutionally we are very divided.

It is my great hope that some day the Mennonite Brethren/Anabaptist churches in Germany will be one body of dynamic, indigenous and missionary-minded churches that know who they are and what their mission in this world is. By the grace of God we have the potential to become these kinds of churches.

Alexander Neufeld is Chairman of the Mennonite Brethren Conference in Germany and pastor in Bielefeld, Germany.

Previous | Next