New ways of being church
Posted on November 5, 2018 by VMMissions Staff
David and Rebekka are exploring new ways of being church in post-Christian Germany. In their multicultural context of Mannheim, they have started a missional community.
David Stutzman (right), VMMissions worker in Germany, meets with his friend Uwe for discipleship and Bible study at a nearby kebab restaurant. Provided by David Stutzman
I was in the Netherlands when I experienced the startling “Aha” moment that propelled me into my call to mission in the Western context. It was the early 2000s. I was a young volunteer serving in Germany, attending a European Mennonite Missions conference.
For the first time, I heard a sobering proclamation of the state of affairs in post-Christian Europe from the lips of a Dutch conference minister as he welcomed us to the opening gathering. Unvarnished and mournfully, he chronicled the steady decline of the Dutch Mennonite church over the course of a half century, plummeting from 90,000 to 12,000 members. He spoke of the alarming increase in median age and of watching in bewilderment the exodus of the younger generations.
“We are dying,” he said, “We need to be talking about mission.”
It was a clear God moment in my life. It is why my wife and I are now church planters who are face-to-face with the huge cultural shifts that have been happening and will continue to happen. Whereas the church, for better or worse, was once at the center of culture, it is now experiencing loss of status, influence, and presence.
Yet, because the fact that the “weather” has changed has not been fully grasped, churches still function as they always have, with little change in their posture or practices of relating to the communities around them. In post-Christian contexts such as ours in Germany, the church is no longer connected to the people around them.
While there is much to lament, this shift gives us a chance to reflect on and rediscover our vocation and identity. Instead of asking, “Why aren’t people coming to our church? Where is the younger generation? What is the future of the church?” we need to be asking, “Where is God at work? How can we participate in what God is doing in this context? What are we inviting people to be part of?”
These are the questions we have been asking since we began this adventure of forming a new church community in Mannheim, Germany.
Two years ago, we moved here with the vision of starting a new church community and exploring new expressions of church in a post-Christian context. Along the way, we have learned much about living out faith in a secularized and spiritually-privatized society and have rolled up our sleeves to experiment with how church community can be missional, reproducible, and contextual.
We have started a missional community, meeting as a house church, which we call Emmaus Gemeinschaft. Gemeinschaft means community or fellowship in German, and the name comes from the Emmaus story at the end of the Gospel of Luke.
Two disciples are on the way to Emmaus, processing their thoughts and the dramatic events in Jerusalem. They are joined by Jesus, who accompanies them, engages them, and finally reveals himself in the breaking of bread together. This story of Jesus meeting us in the midst of life’s circumstances inspires our vision for church. We expect to meet Jesus on the way and in the breaking of bread.
The logo for Emmaus Gemeinschaft contains symbols for the bread and cup. Provided by David Stutzman
There are a few keys that have emerged through our experience during the last several years.
We have learned the importance of presence. As community, we seek to integrate faith into our everyday lives, serve our neighbors, embody and teach discipleship. We are inspired by an incarnational approach to church, one where presence has become an essential concept for our understanding of church. To be incarnational we must live our faith where we are at. We meet in public spaces and do Bible study in kebab shops. We go to the park on Sunday mornings to work out with our neighbors and organize events for our neighborhood. We try to place relationships at the center of our community activity.
We invite people into table fellowship. We have learned that we have to be clear about what we are inviting people into. Unless we intentionally ask ourselves this question, we may find ourselves hoping that people will attend worship and eventually become active members, participating in church in the ways that seem so familiar and intuitive to those of us who grew up in a traditional church culture. We have to wake up and realize that our Sunday culture, our liturgies, and our love affair with committees don’t make much sense to the uninitiated! Thus, from the onset we wanted to keep things simple, easy to model, and easy to have others participate in or imitate.
For us it starts with the table. We take our inspiration from the early church and the weight given to the table as the center of fellowship, worship, and communion. Thus, we see the table as the space and time where people experience hospitality and belonging. Relationships deepen. We live out discipleship with the Lord’s Supper.
Table fellowship can also be replicated in many different situations; it brings an integration of social and sacred life. It has been exciting for us to see how God can be at work around so many different kinds of tables: at home around the dining room or kitchen table, at restaurants, cafes, and as we gather for picnics.
Friends and neighbors of Rebekka Stutzman (center) and David were invited to go hiking, with a picnic lunch. “We try to naturally include people into the activities of our community life,” said David. Photo: David Stutzman
We envision church as a network. Church is a network of relationships centered on following Jesus together. While we work at that locally, we want to encourage a movement of people on a mission together. Rather than being a community in isolation or a centralized commuter community, we call ourselves a “Netzwerk Kirche”, a network church.
Every four to six weeks we gather for worship with others from the region who are also interested in exploring and practicing missional living in their own neighborhoods and cities. It is a time of celebration and mutual encouragement.We hear about what God has been doing in our lives and in our communities. Rather than clumping together as Christians, we continuously practice this gathering and sending rhythm, blessing one another for serving in and relating to our own contexts.
This coming year, we are going to develop resources and offer training for creating missional communities. We are extremely grateful for God’s presence in this venture of seeing a new and alive version of Christian community emerge in our generation!
David Stutzman serves with VMMissions in Mannheim, Germany, with his wife Rebekka and three children, in partnership with Mennonite Mission Network.