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Fall 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 2 · pp. 218–27 

Seventy Years Under the Southern Cross: Brazilian Mennonite Brethren on the Eve of 2000

Victor Wiens

Ask the average person on the street what comes to mind when conversation turns to “Brazil,” and the answer will probably include references to World Cup Soccer, Carnival in Rio, or the ecological threat to the Amazon. On the other hand, the informed church worker might refer to a growing number of ministries to street children, to Brazilian Evangelicals as the third largest such group in the world (after Americans and Chinese), or to the tremendous missionary force that is emerging from Brazil for global mission in the twenty-first century.

On the eve of the year 2000, Brazilian MBs speak more Portuguese than German, cooperate frequently with other Mennonite and non-Mennonite Evangelicals, and are growing a global vision for mission.

Whichever one’s perspective, Brazil is no longer the “sleeping giant” it was known to be in decades past. Although its many social problems remain seemingly gigantic in proportion, this great nation has awoken in recent decades to the potential it has as a giant in Latin America, and in the world at large.

Into this land of superlatives, Mennonite Brethren were providentially placed nearly seven decades ago. To a people who lived under the Southern Cross, by a people that had borne the cross of Soviet suffocation, came the message of a saving cross.

In this brief essay I hope to help the reader understand the reality of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Brazil on the eve of 2000. Space {219} limitations necessitate only a selection of possible perspectives, namely historical, missiological, theological, leadership, and ecumenical. Following descriptions of Brazilian Mennonite Brethren from these five reference points, I will conclude with some evaluative reflections and offer some tentative recommendations.


Mennonite Brethren first arrived in Brazil from the Soviet Union in 1930. They were part of about two hundred Mennonite families who had received permission from the Brazilian government and sponsorship from the Hanseatic Colonization Company to settle in Santa Catarina state. While many would have preferred emigrating to Canada or the U.S., as with thousands of other Mennonites fleeing the oppressive Soviet communism of the 1920s, the economic depression of 1929 and following had closed those doors. Likewise Germany, having temporarily received four thousand fleeing Mennonites, would not keep them for long. Providentially, the doors were open in Brazil and Paraguay. Some eleven hundred came to Brazil and most of the remainder emigrated to Paraguay. Four years later, another one hundred eighty Mennonite refugees arrived in Brazil having escaped from Siberia over the frozen Amur River into Harbin, China (Minnich 1970, 2/7-2/9).

Naturally, the first decades were occupied mostly with settlement and resettlement. As early as 1933, some families began to leave the harsh pioneer conditions of the original Witmarsum colony for a more promising future in urban centers such as Blumenau, Curitiba, and São Paulo (Minnich 1970, 2/10).

A significant step in the expansion of the Mennonite Brethren Church took place in 1945 when the Board of Foreign Missions (now MBMS International) and then the North American General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches approved the opening of an orphanage near the Mennonite settlements in Curitiba. From the beginning, it was understood that this mission venture would “seek the involvement of local Mennonite Brethren churches in the work of the home” (Toews 1975, 64). The significance of this initiative lies in the catalytic role the orphanage played in awakening missionary vision, in training mission workers, and in beginning mission churches among Brazilians.

By 1960, mainly due to economic resettlement, German-speaking immigrant churches had been established in the four southernmost states of Brazil: Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná, and São Paulo. These eight churches came together that year under the leadership of {220} Hans Kasdorf to form the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Brazil. They listed three purposes for their existence: (1) to strengthen the fellowship between the different churches and establish a spirit of unity; (2) to conserve a unified doctrine; and (3) to unite the churches for the mission program (Esau 1972, 63).

Already in the early 1950s, some of these immigrant churches began to act out their mission vision in evangelism, church planting, and whole-person ministries among Brazilians. In addition, North American Mennonite Brethren missionaries increasingly focused on church planting during the late 1950s and 1960s. In 1966, delegates from seventeen Portuguese-speaking churches at different stages of development united under the leadership of Dietrich Reimer to form the Brazilian Convention of Mennonite Brethren Churches (Klassen 1977, 102-3). Its purposes were “to maintain spiritual unity, offer assistance to the churches in evangelism and Christian education, and promote and supervise all home and foreign mission programs of the Portuguese-speaking M.B. churches in Brazil” (Esau 1972, 80).

By the 1990s, the primary differences that separated these two Mennonite Brethren conferences, language and culture, had become secondary. Indeed, for nearly thirty years the two conferences had coexisted in a fraternal and often cooperative manner. In 1995, for reasons essentially equal to the founding of the two original conferences, the same merged into one Portuguese-speaking conference, named the Brazilian Convention of Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Churches (COBIM).


Brazilian Mennonite Brethren see themselves as a missionary church. At times the mission dimension has been more intentional and intense than at other times. Furthermore, different emphases have been evident over the seventy years that Mennonite Brethren have been in Brazil. To better understand this generalization, and for the purpose of missiological analysis, I have divided mission work into four categories: evangelism and church planting, whole-person ministries, training for mission, and theological reflection for mission (this last aspect will be discussed in the theological section).

The first “Brazilian” Mennonite Brethren were those of German-Russian origins (nearly half of today’s forty-five hundred Mennonite Brethren have this ethnicity). Therefore, initial efforts at evangelism and church planting among Brazilians were cross-cultural. The first two decades were given primarily to settlement and resettlement by {221} the immigrants. This included at least a minimum of acculturation in terms of language and economic relationships. Beginning in the 1950s, one sees increasingly intentional and church-owned efforts at evangelism and church planting. Indeed, an overview of seven decades reveals at least a dozen church-plant attempts occurring in each decade from the 1950s through the 1980s. This pattern diminished significantly in the present decade due to greater emphasis on consolidation, greater energies expended on the conference merger, and resource cutbacks by MBMS International. Currently COBIM has forty affiliated churches (another ten churches are independent or not yet affiliated).

Whole-person ministries for mission have not received the same attention as have those of evangelism and church planting. Nevertheless, the biblical and Anabaptist understanding of a holistic gospel has not been absent among Brazilian Mennonite Brethren. My research thus far among local churches indicates there is involvement in these ministries; however, it seems to be carried out most often by individuals, and informally or spontaneously. Formal and programmed efforts over the years have included the aforementioned orphanage, Christian schools, and medical ministries. More recently, individual churches have given substantial support to inter-Mennonite missional ministries in the areas of mental health and assistance to rural families. A number of churches sponsor or support ministry to urban street children. Tangible support, whether formal or informal, for Mennonite Central Committee’s work in northeastern Brazil is virtually nonexistent.

Training for mission has typified Mennonite Brethren as compared to other Mennonite churches in Brazil. Historically, the approaches utilized have been both informal and formal. Among the latter could be cited local church Bible schools, a German conference seminary, a Portuguese conference Bible institute, a joint conference Bible institute and seminary (current), and most recently a regional conference training center. Nonformal training has also increased in recent decades. Qualitatively, there appear to be some trends toward a developmental philosophy of education (as compared to a “banking” approach), a stronger mission dimension in ministerial education, a contextualization using available Brazilian resources, and a willingness to partner with other Mennonite and Evangelical groups in training for mission.

A discussion of mission among Brazilian Mennonite Brethren would not be complete without some comment on the vision for global mission. Although initial mission efforts by the German-Russian immigrants should be classified as cross-cultural, it has taken nearly fifty years for Brazilian Mennonite Brethren to become involved in global mission. {222} The crossing of frontiers for mission has been limited to geographical, subcultural, economical, and spiritual frontiers in the five southern states of Brazil. In recent years individual churches have supported and/or sent cross-cultural missionaries to other states and countries, mostly via nondenominational mission agencies.

However, global vision is rising and activity is stirring. Short-term missionaries have been sent to assist Mennonite Brethren in Portugal and Angola. Although not yet staffed, a mission board structure is in place. More mission-minded churches are holding mission conferences. Finally, cross-cultural mission workers are emerging in answer to increasing prayer for global mission.


Most of my survey research and participant observation has had to do with the theology of mission among Brazilian Mennonites. This being the case, I will limit my discussion to that perspective and allow myself only a few general theological comments at the end of this section. The following comments are based upon questionnaires returned by seventy-one Mennonite Brethren church workers, my own interpretation of their responses, and seventeen years of participant observation.

One of the questions asked was whether the Mennonite understanding of mission was at all different than that of other Evangelicals. Forty-nine percent of Mennonite Brethren answered “no” and only 31 percent responded “yes.” A tentative conclusion that Mennonite Brethren mission theology is more diluted than distinct needed further testing. Scales were developed in order to compare general Mennonite mission understanding with the theological traditions of Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, Anabaptism, Pentecostalism, and Liberationism. Of six Mennonite missions surveyed, Mennonite Brethren scores reflected the highest amount of influence from Fundamentalism while Anabaptist influence was the lowest of the group.

MBs appear to have been strongly influenced by nineteenth-century Revivalism and twentieth-century Fundamentalism. These are characterized by an individual salvationist approach to mission, a literalist approach to the Scriptures, and a preference for evangelism over social ministries. The survey revealed less influence from Pentecostalism and Liberationism. However, of these two, personal observation suggests that Pentecostal influence is increasing and Liberationist influence is decreasing. If current trends continue, non-Anabaptist theological influences will continue to affect our mission understanding. These come by way of {223} theological education, liturgy, literature, and ecumenical relations.

Two comments concerning theological reflection conclude this section. First, very little formal theological reflection has taken place among Brazilian Mennonite Brethren. Publications and consultations for the purpose of dialogue and theological reflection are absent. This is not meant to be a criticism. Like first-century Christianity and most of the church in the Two-thirds World, theological reflection takes place informally—in worship, in ministries of the Word, and in witness. Second, an encouraging sign of theological contextualization is evident in that the national Pastoral Council has recently undertaken a revision of the Confession of Faith. Until the present, the North American Confession was simply translated into Portuguese and adopted as Brazilian. Pastoral and theological leaders now see the need for a Confession that has a common core with global Mennonite Brethren, but that is also relevant in addressing issues unique to Brazil and Latin America.


A number of descriptive comments have already been made concerning training for missional leadership (see above under “Missiological Perspective”). In this section I will offer three additional perspectives concerning leader typology, formal theological education origins and levels, and leadership composition by ethnicity and gender.

In terms of formal church leadership, the most common type of leader among Brazilian Mennonite Brethren is the church planter and/or small church pastor. This has been so historically and continues to the present. More than fifty church plants have been attempted (beyond at least ten immigrant churches established). The typical pattern has been to send a pioneer couple to plant and pastor the new church. Currently there are at least twelve emerging churches. Of today’s established churches, three-fourths have less than one hundred members (median membership is seventy-two).

In the aforementioned survey sent to church workers (men and women), of those that received formal theological education (66 percent) roughly half had gone to Mennonite Brethren schools. The other half was equally divided between other- and interdenominational schools.

In my estimation, the level of formal education (theological or secular) among Brazilian Mennonite Brethren pastors is quite high. Almost all have received some kind of formal theological education. Roughly a quarter have at least a Bible institute education, half have a Bible college or an undergraduate degree, another quarter have completed graduate {224} studies (half at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California), and two are currently engaged in postgraduate work.

Finally, concerning leadership composition, it is noteworthy that while only 40 percent of the current pastors are of German-Russian origin, national conference leadership is composed of 78 percent German-Russian origin. Regarding gender, the debate over the role of women in church leadership is virtually nonexistent among Brazilian Mennonite Brethren; of forty-nine national conference positions, only one was recently occupied by a woman. No local churches have salaried woman pastors.


While it could be said that the first Mennonite Brethren in Brazil were more separatist than ecumenical, the overall record shows a substantial, even if selective, ecumenism. Among the original eleven hundred immigrants, “there was an attempt to unite all the refugees in a federated Mennonite Church” (Klassen 1977, 27). However, the Mennonite Brethren Church had decided to retain its separate identity. Indeed, “the first steps for the founding of a Mennonite Brethren Church were taken during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean” (Pauls and Penner 1992, 424).

Although there are some theological and administrative differences between German-speaking Mennonite Brethren and Mennonites (General Conference Mennonite Church), the record is much more one of cooperation than conflict. Until the late 1950s, joint worship services were held, even while maintaining separate membership and administration. Since the 1930s, the two groups have jointly sponsored schools, hospitals, and agricultural cooperatives. In recent decades, this inter-Mennonite cooperation has led to the founding of organizations that conduct ministries for the elderly, mental health, and social assistance.

Inter-Mennonite cooperation that does not have an ethnic core has been limited. Other than occasional fellowship and ministry exchange at the local church level, Mennonite Brethren have not sought a cooperative relationship with the remaining three Mennonite denominations: the Evangelical Mennonite Church (relates to the Mennonite and General Conference Mennonite Church of North America), the Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman), and the Renewed Mennonite Brethren Church (Pentecostal). Moreover, although in the past Brazilian Mennonite Brethren have been members of the Mennonite World Conference, since 1995 membership has been discontinued.

Relationships to other Mennonite Brethren conferences have been {225} and continue to be healthy. Of these, three bear special mention. Due to geographical and cultural proximity, Mennonite Brethren of German-Russian origin have had frequent fellowship with the same in Paraguay and Uruguay. Indeed, the immigrant churches from these three countries formed the South American Mennonite Brethren Conference of Churches (1948) which continues active to this day. Furthermore, because of the ongoing mission partnership with MBMS International (now over fifty years), Brazilian Mennonite Brethren have had a special relationship with North American Mennonite Brethren. Finally, since its founding in 1990, Brazilian Mennonite Brethren have participated actively in the International Committee of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB).

A discussion of Mennonite Brethren relations to other Christians and churches would be incomplete without some comment on how they relate to non-Mennonite Christians. Since the first decade to the seventh, relationships with other conservative Evangelical Christians have been at least cordial and often cooperative. In the 1930s Mennonite Brethren resettling in Curitiba found fellowship with Lutheran Pietists (Entschiedenen Christentum). In the 1990s Mennonite Brethren have enjoyed the added sponsorship of their seminary by the Evangelical Free Church.

The exception to this rule has been cooperation with Brazilian Pentecostals, discouraged to this day due to a history of doctrinal and ethical differences as well as conflicts in the local church. As with Mennonite Brethren in many other countries, Brazilians appear to have found greatest compatibility with Baptist groups. This is evidenced by the mutual exchange of pastors, the widespread use of a Baptist hymnal and Sunday school curriculum, and the number of Mennonite Brethren workers trained in Baptist seminaries. Ecumenical relations with mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics have been minimal.


Brazilian Mennonite Brethren arrived nearly seventy years ago with an orientation characterized by a colony mentality, an agricultural preference, a cultural and ecclesiastical separatism, and a limited global mission vision. On the eve of the year 2000, they live among fellow Brazilians, mostly in cities, speak more Portuguese than German, cooperate frequently with other Mennonite and non-Mennonite Evangelicals, and are growing a global vision for mission. The merger of the German-speaking and Portuguese-speaking conferences in 1995 was more than streamlining church structures. It was a symbol of the integration into Brazilian society that has occurred in the last seventy years. {226}

Although mission intentions were limited during the first decades, the mission dimension was latent in this missionary church. Significant mission activity has occurred in the latter half of this century. MBMS International has played a significant role, yet Brazilians have pulled their share of the load, especially in this last decade when MBMSI resources have been reduced in Latin America for deployment elsewhere. As Mennonite Brethren integrate even more fully into Brazilian Evangelicalism, one can expect to see an accompanying engagement in global mission activity in the next century.

At the same time, their theology of mission will continue to be influenced and tested, as it has been this century. As with Mennonite Brethren in most other countries, North Atlantic Evangelicalism in general and Fundamentalism in particular have been strong shapers among Brazilians. Recent efforts at theological contextualization have the potential to create more formal theological reflection which may lead to discussion about influences and identity.

Informal and formal efforts at leadership training have produced a capable lot of church planters and pastors, mostly of the smaller church variety. Formal theological education has been a priority among Brazilian Mennonite Brethren and one expects to see more of the same type of leader being produced. Weaknesses in leadership emerge when one evaluates the number of non-Germanic national-level leaders, the scarcity of large-church leaders, and the virtual absence of women in conference leadership.

A final reflection concludes that, unlike many other Mennonite churches in Latin America, Brazilian Mennonite Brethren have been carefully ecumenical. Undoubtedly, urbanization, theological education, and cultural integration have all played a part in this process. As post-denominationalism increasingly influences Brazilian Evangelicalism, Mennonite Brethren will be challenged as to the nature of ecumenism they will continue to embrace.

The careful reader may have noticed some implicit recommendations in the reflections mentioned above. I will conclude by making these explicit. First, Brazilian Mennonite Brethren, while undoubtedly missionary in dimension, would do well to examine their mission intentions in three areas that allow greater growth: mobilization for global mission, formal whole-person ministries, and theological reflection for mission.

Second, careful reflection is needed as to theological identity. Who would deny that Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have made positive contributions to Mennonite Brethren around the world? At the same {227} time, discernment and caution are needed so that these currents (and others) might enrich rather than erode our biblical understandings of faith, church, and mission as seen through Anabaptist glasses.

Third, intentional efforts are advisable to broaden the kind of leadership needed for integral church growth in the twenty-first century. Brazilian Mennonite Brethren will have more non-Germanic members, gifted women leaders, and churches larger than one hundred members in the next decades. The church, from local to national levels, will be healthier with a leadership that reflects and projects these realities.


  • Esau, Heinrich. 1972. Mennonite Brethren mission in Brazil. M.R.E. thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, CA.
  • Klassen, John J. 1977. Two methods of evangelism and church planting: A case study of the Brazilian Mennonite Brethren Convention. D.Miss. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.
  • Minnich, R. Herbert. 1970. The Mennonite immigrant communities in Paraná, Brazil. SONDEOS Series 64. Cuernavaca, Mexico: Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC).
  • Pauls, Peter, Jr., and Teodoro Penner. 1992. Os Menonitas no Brasil. In Uma introdução à história Menonita, ed. Cornelius J. Dyck, 414-31. Campinas, Brazil: Editora Cristã Unida.
  • Toews, J. J. 1975. The Mennonite Brethren mission in Latin America. Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature of the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church.
Victor Wiens is Director of the Mennonite Brethren Training Center, São Paulo, Brazil, and serves as a missionary with MBMS International. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the School of World Mission of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

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