Dutch navigate shrinking numbers, more outreach

Feb 5, 2018 by and

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Faced with steadily declining membership, Dutch Mennonites are streamlining their structure and working to build their identity as Anabaptist Christians in a thoroughly secular society.

A 2016 document by general secretary Henk Stenvers outlined a vision for the future of Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit, the Dutch Mennonite Conference. He suggested reorganizing to better suit lower numbers and making Anabaptist identity more explicit. After much discussion at congregational and regional levels, the ADS board accepted the document as policy.

Dutch Mennonite Conference general secretary Henk Stenvers gives a presentation at an annual gathering Nov. 18 in United Mennonite Church of Amsterdam, also known as the “Singelkerk.” — Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit

Dutch Mennonite Conference general secretary Henk Stenvers gives a presentation at an annual gathering Nov. 18 in United Mennonite Church of Amsterdam, also known as the “Singelkerk.” — Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit

“The goal is to make the organization more flexible and effective,” he said. “This means a smaller number of organizations, smaller boards” and a reorientation of ADS’s role.

The denomination has 5,725 members in 107 congregations, down from about 9,000 members in 2009 and 12,203 members in 126 congregations in 2000. There were 38,446 members in 1956.

One organizational change is a decision-making shift away from taking votes. Stenvers said the consensus method is more in line with the Dutch Mennonite way of being the church.

At the annual national ADS Brotherhood Meeting Nov. 18 in Amsterdam, Stenvers introduced the consensus approach used by Mennonite World Conference, where he is Deacons Commission secretary and regional representative for Europe.

“In a Christian church you could expect that we search for a way of decision-making where the voice of everybody is heard and taken into account and not only the voice of the majority,” he said. “. . . A number of years ago we had already decided that we would try to make decisions by consensus, but we did not formalize our statutes and never really worked on this methodically.”

Reaching out, drawing in

Many entry points to the world of Dutch Mennonites are based on introspection and fellowship.

Mennonite Church Leeuwarden has been able to connect with people in its surrounding community by offering contemplative opportunities. In 2011 it opened a house of meditation.

Mennonite Church Leeuwarden's meditation space is open to the public on Fridays. — Mennonite Church Leeuwarden

Mennonite Church Leeuwarden’s meditation space is open to the public on Fridays. — Mennonite Church Leeuwarden

The Oergong (ear gong) — as it is called — is open every Friday for a half hour of meditation and inspiration. One of the church’s pastors, Tjitske Hiemstra, said most times around 10 people attend. The little room can handle a maximum of 15.

The Leeuwarden church has also begun hosting Taizé services six times a year on Sunday evenings, when about 50 people sing and pray alongside quiet times.

“This is a positive development where people from outside our Mennonite community also attend and participate,” she said. “We have some new brothers and sisters from these activities.”

Though it began with an inward focus, one of the world’s oldest Anabaptist camp associations now serves mostly non-Mennonite youth.

Wouter de Waart, left, mans an oar during a rousing bit of boating at the Zeilzwerf (sailing ship) AKC camp for 15- to 17-year-olds, which takes place on a sailboat based out of Friesland. — AKC camps

Wouter de Waart, left, mans an oar during a rousing bit of boating at the Zeilzwerf (sailing ship) AKC camp for 15- to 17-year-olds, which takes place on a sailboat based out of Friesland. — AKC camps

Since 1920 the Algemene Kamp Commissie voor Doopsgezinde Kampen (General Camp Committee for Mennonite Camps, or AKC) has been organizing summer camps for young people ages 9 to 21. From camp leaders to administrators to cooks, every aspect of the dozen camps is run by about 90 volunteers.

“In contrast to the shrinking numbers of the ADS in general, our numbers have been growing again in the last few years,” said AKC board chair Erik Hemmes of Groningen, who noted about 300 youth have attended camps the last two years.

While the first AKC summer camps were led by pastors and reserved only for church members, today the camps are open to all, not just Mennonites. Hemmes said 34 percent of campers last year were associated with a Mennonite church.

“This has sparked discussion about the Mennonite identity of our organization a few times over the last decades,” he said. “Our connection to the Mennonite community has changed over the years and the role this plays in our summer camps has also changed.

“At the same time we can’t ignore our origins, and through our traditions and core values the culture within our organization is strongly connected to Mennonite values.”

Among those are acceptance and openness, equality, nonviolence and solidarity within the motto, “in the world, and yet (equally) not.”

“We do not only have a lot of fun, but create space to explore underlying themes that kids and teens do not generally discuss with their friends,” Hemmes said. “In this way we give the participants an experience that helps shape personality and is — for some of them — life-changing.”

Identity encouragement

Times are changing, in church and society. Mennonite Church Canada recently overhauled itself to streamline national functions, shifting emphasis and decision making down to regional bodies.

Stenvers said, in comparison, the ADS changes are more like adjustments.

“Those were really immense changes,” he said of Canada. “I do not think it will be necessary for us to be that radical because we have a much looser and smaller structure.”

Likewise, stronger Mennonite identity won’t be achieved by national dictates but by encouragement to think about faith and motives.

Putting a Mennonite witness into practice in a thoroughly post-Christendom society means stressing the Anabaptist focus on actions more than words.

“It is at the moment mostly about encouraging the congregations to think about how they want to be a Mennonite church in the local context,” he said. “What do you contribute to the local community as an — often small — peace church?”


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