Hidden churches

Mar 11, 2019 by

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While on a visit to the Netherlands in January, our hosts showed us around. Part of our tour included visiting two historic Mennonite “hidden churches.”

Both churches were built in the early 1600s when Mennonites were tolerated by the Protestant authorities. They weren’t persecuted, but they also weren’t openly accepted.

Mennonites were allowed to gather for worship, but their buildings had to be hidden — they couldn’t show up in the architecture of the city. Catholics had a similar status.

The two hidden churches we visited are vastly different in scale. One is a small meetinghouse in the little village of Pingjum in Friesland. Today the congregation worships together with the church in Witmarsum. Menno Simons ministered in this town, and the building was built later by his followers.

Marked by a flag, the hidden church in Pingjum, the Netherlands, is one structure of Doopsgezinde Gemeente De Lytse Streek: Witmarsum-Pingjum. — Joel Miller

Marked by a flag, the hidden church in Pingjum, the Netherlands, is one structure of Doopsgezinde Gemeente De Lytse Streek: Witmarsum-Pingjum. — Joel Miller

The other, on a canal street in Amsterdam, is a towering worship space with a two-tiered balcony.

What these spaces have in common is how, from the outside, they blend seamlessly into the surrounding homes. They are hidden, even though they were never intended to be secret.

I imagine worshiping regularly in a hidden church would impact a congregation’s sensibility. This could be for good or for ill. On the one hand, worship in a hidden church could be a weekly reminder that the faith of Jesus was never about social acceptance. His teachings simply don’t fit into the normal flow of society, and so his followers, rather than putting their identity into easily recognizable structures, pour their energy into nurturing ways of life easily recognized as loving and neighborly.

On the other hand, a congregation could fall into the mindset that their faith is overall a hidden thing — something personal and interior, but never public. A part of oneself to be cherished yet hidden, not registering in the moral/social architecture of society.

I imagine there are similar pitfalls and opportunities for those of us who worship in non-hidden churches. The danger of being fully accepted is becoming a mere function of the culture, uncritically reflecting its values, elevating respectability above prophetic engagement.

Or, we could recognize that our faith, like our building, is on public display. In opening our doors to all, by being a gathering place for community groups, by practicing hospitality in our building and homes and relationships, we are living a faith that is both personal and public, for our own growth and for the common good.

Joel Miller is pastor of Columbus Mennonite Church and blogs at Phloem and Xylem, where this post first appeared.

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