Sunday, July 8, 2012

Visiting the Oldest Mennonite Church


Alttaüfergemeinde  ("Old Anabaptist Community")

A little history: persecution of the “Baptists” (that is what the Mennonites today call the radicals who were in Zürich and other urban areas in the 16th century) drove them out into remote, rural areas like the Emmental (in fact, the Emmental became, in the mid-1500s, the focal point of the greatest persecution in Switzerland.) Persecution lasted until the end of the French Revolution in 1798 and the French invasion of Berne.

Apparently the last forced baptism of an infant took place in the Langnau (Protestant) church in 1811. Laws that regulated the clothing Baptists could wear were enforced until 1816. The new federal constitution of the Swiss Confederation provided for religious tolerance in 1848. Finally, in 1874, when the constitution was in full effect, there was full freedom of religion. There are currently only 14 Mennonite congregations in Switzerland.

As Hans showed us around the church building, we took extra time to peruse a large poster with a map and photos of 38 farmhouses. It turns out these are the farms (each number on the map corresponds to the location of a particular house) where the church met (1) in the persecution times and (2) in more recent times until the first building was built in 1888. This part of their history is still with them: in color and right across from the door of the youth room. Kids cannot leave that room without seeing what used to be.

The theology is very similar to our beliefs. From a pamphlet found in the foyer of the church, their aim is “to reflect the love of God and offer a spiritual home to all, young and old. It is our desire that people may enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and through him experience a living faith in God.  It is our desire to put into words what our belief means to us and to describe its effect on our daily lives . . . . We are fully aware that we are not the only people who have given their lives to God . . . . We do not seek to separate ourselves from other Christians. On the contrary, we wish to be open for discussion, to learn from fellow believers and amicably together to search for truth and a correct understanding of the Bible.”

The Sunday morning service:
We were greeted by several folks as we came in. It was obvious we were outsiders (some people seemed unsure how to greet us, either because they don’t see many visitors that are not part of a tour group or because of the language barrier.) There is both a small pipe organ in the sanctuary as well as an electronic keyboard. The congregation is seated in chairs, not pews. There are people of all ages—plenty of babies and teenagers scattered among the older folks. Must be “progressive”: not only a keyboard, but also wireless headset microphones and no pulpit (just a tall, chrome table with a round top). May have been 225-250 people in attendance—and no dress code.

The service opened with an introit on the little pipe organ: “Amazing Grace”.
Then, there was a welcome, some announcements, and a prayer led by a woman who appeared by her demeanor to be one of the congregational leaders (not a pastor—the pictures of the three current pastors were on the wall upstairs).
We sang the first hymn—everyone in the congregation sang fully, without reservation. We didn’t recognize the hymn.

The choir sang (this appears to be a special occasion—there are choirs from several churches joining together here this morning.) They sang a cappella, very nice.
The woman then got up and told the story of John Newton and the hymn, “Amazing Grace”. I can only make out a few words she is saying, but the important ones come through. We are talking about Jesus and grace! Then she read from the gospel of Luke.

The choir sang again.
Then, it was time for the sermon. It was delivered by one of the layman in the church. This is a long-time practice: voluntary laymen preached in the church routinely until the mid-1940s, when the first pastor was called. He read the entire sermon, about 25 minutes. (Observations: he is a farmer, not a public speaker—no change in tone, volume or cadence. No apparent humor. Arms at his side the whole time. Have no idea of the content—don’t understand Swiss German at all. But he had prepared and he was sincere. The room was beginning to get warm. People were falling asleep everywhere. I guess some things are the same no matter where you are. I appreciated his perseverance.)

The choir sang again, a third time.
Then, the woman got up and asked for personal testimonies—these are impromptu, from the congregation. She carried the microphone around—two ladies shared. She then led in a time of prayer.

We sang a second hymn (again, did not recognize it.) This was sort of a “newer” sounding song—the hymnal said it was a “youth mission” song.
The man got up and said a few more words.
The choir sang a fourth anthem.
The woman made a few final announcements.
Then, we stood for the final congregational hymn.

Coffee time after the service (espresso machine in the kitchen.)
Sort of reminded me of home—

Questions in my mind as I observe the worship of another congregation:
No matter how “progressive”, some things are built in because “we have always done them that way.” Tradition will always play a part—and that is not always bad. Having a connection with the past, especially if it provides some healthy sense of roots and continuity, is important. Especially important, I think, in a day when change for change’ sake is a value and there is often no real sense of “from whence we came or why we are here” among our people, especially our young people.

Should church people have a sense of their history?
Do these particular people live with any sense of their persecution/martyr history? Does it matter whether they do or not?

On preaching:
Why do we do it at all?
Is it a perfunctory expectation or is it vital instruction?
How much of any sermon is typically incomprehensible?
Should it be instructive or merely pedantic?
What is its value if it puts you to sleep?
The length of a sermon: what is the optimum attention span (in Switzerland it may be different than in America; different between rural and urban . . . . ?)
I like the idea of the hourglass (there was a very nice one on the pulpit in Bern!)

Walking down the street in Langnau . . . this is a really lovely small country town.

 The "classic" Emmental curve on the eves of the house.

Another one . . . these are real houses, not pretend ones!

The sign on the outside of the church.

The interior of the church.

Just for fun . . . this photo and the next one are from the window of our little hotel room. It was really story book beautiful.

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