Low German speakers seen in need of gospel

As the world’s influences impact communities, doors open for evangelism, too

Mar 11, 2019 by and

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Many Low German-speaking Mennonites have had little access to the outside world, but times are changing, and a new network wants to capitalize while it can.

The goal is to evangelize Low German-speaking people who, despite membership in a Mennonite community, may lack a basic foundation of faith.

David Peters, left, pastor of Burwalde Mennonite Church in Cuauh­témoc, Mexico, talks with others during exploratory meetings of the new Low German ministry network. — Anita Kehler

David Peters, left, pastor of Burwalde Mennonite Church in Cuauh­témoc, Mexico, talks with others during exploratory meetings of the new Low German ministry network. — Anita Kehler

“There are 250,000 to 300,000 Low German-speaking people, and many of them don’t have a clear understanding of the gos­pel,” said Al Kehler, conference pastor of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, a mostly Canadian denomination.

About 60 people representing 20 ministry organizations and denominations from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Belize and Bolivia gathered Jan. 30-31 at Steinreich Bible School in Mexico to discuss how they can better network with each other to more effectively share the gospel in Low German, also known as Plautdietsch.

Using the name 1Gloowen (1Faith) the emerging network hopes to leverage pockets of expertise across a multitude of groups that work in Low German and to consolidate training at the Bible school.

Kehler, who was elected at the gathering to chair an interim 1Gloowen board, said the meetings used a model of a wheel, with Steinreich Bible School at the hub. He stressed it is not a new agency or denomination but a way to help network existing groups.

“We’re looking to the local churches having a lot of autonomy,” he said. “We’re not calling ourselves church planters. We’re planting the gos­pel and knowing the church will grow out of it.”

Tradition or faith?

Low German is the primary language for a variety of conservative Mennonite groups. Kehler said most live in colonies in Latin America or in Canada.

Many have migrated multiple times to avoid worldly influences such as public education. This, combined with a bishop leadership system focused on tradition and rules, can have shortcomings.

For example, sermons and Scripture are read in otherwise unused High German, and biblical instruction for children can consist of copying catechism in script they can’t read. Those who do choose to talk about the Bible in the more common Low German can face excommunication from the church, the colony, their job and even the colony store — a daunting prospect for people ill-prepared for the outside world.

Tradition, rather than faith, has shaped these communities, Kehler believes.

“They lost the beliefs, but they kept the practices,” he said. “There are lot of very good people, but there are also bad things happening. And many, when they come to Christ, are excommunicated and can’t work. Many can’t read or write, and when they learn, they are understanding and hungry to learn more.”

Education is often the door to evangelism. Other opportunities for inroads include relief and development projects and work around justice issues — particularly in regard to vulnerable women and children. In the past, control by bishops and the limited range of horsepower restricted access to the outside world. Today, radio and phone ownership is on the rise and eroding those walls.

“We’re working with radio work and translation to make it more accessible to do children’s programs and gospel music,” Kehler said. “. . . We don’t want to come across as we’re trying to disturb and disrupt. We’re not trying to change their lifestyle, but the culture coming in from the outside is doing huge damage.

“The pornography and information they’re getting is doing harm, so we’re trying to come in with a message to help them understand with a biblical perspective. There’s a cultural shift happening everywhere, even here in Winnipeg, but that cultural shift is opening opportunities.”

A sense of urgency

1Gloowen anticipates having a staff member based at Steinreich Bible School to help coordinate information and resource sharing among affiliates and use the school’s experience and location. It already gathers students from across the Western Hemisphere.

Some cooperation is already happening. Mennonite Evangelical Mission (known more commonly as MEM) is a partnership of three Canadian conferences — Evangelical Mennonite Conference, Evangelical Bergthaler Mennonite Conference and Sommerfeld Mennonite Church — working in the Santa Cruz, Bolivia, area.

Kehler said there are about 90,000 colony Mennonites just in that country, and they are growing by about 10 percent a year. But only 1 percent are being reached with the gospel.

Working together was difficult in the past because congregations and conferences have split over disagreements.

“What’s different today, rather than a few decades ago, is church­es are understanding the urgen­cy,” he said. “When a hurricane hits, we don’t hesitate to help, and this is an urgency.”

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