From the late 16th until the beginning of the 20th century the growth of the Mennonite church was due mostly to the large size of Mennonite families. Although some people joined the movement from the outside, this was largely by accident; there was little effort put into active "evangelism" or recruiting new people to join the church. The explosion of Mennonite churches around the world in this century shows a significant change (just look at Did you know...!).
In Canada itself, several approaches were taken to encourage "outsiders" to join the church. Although more separated from the church worship service than is presently the case, Sunday School classes were being taught as early as the mid-19th century. By the turn of the century Sunday School had become fairly wide-spread in Mennonite congregations, and reflected an effort to welcome neighbourhood children into the church. Annual revival meetings were also common during this period. Such gatherings served to recommit members and participants to the church, as well as to provide opportunities for outreach to others in the community. Daily Vacation Bible School became another form of outreach to neighbourhood children. First appearing in the 1920's, some Mennonite churches continue to support DVBS programs.
Traditional emphases on discipleship and community have also affected methods of evangelism. During the 1930s and 1940s in Ontario, for example, Mennonite families would sometimes move to a new area, alone or in groups, in order to start a new church. They believed that the best way to "witness" was simply to provide examples of an attractive and moral lifestyle. This "rural evangelism" sought to attract new believers through casual and positive interaction with neighbours and other contacts.
During the 1950s some Mennonite churches were involved in more overt local mission efforts. Campaigns which included "evangelistic" tent meetings and handing out tracts flourished for a time, but died out as a widespread phenomenon in the 1960s.
The beginning of formal Missions
Emphasis on outreach was not limited to the local and rural level. Towards the end of the 19th and in the first half of the 20th century, several Mennonite groups became involved in formal "mission work". At the turn of the century, Mennonite organizations began projects in India and China; at about the same time local work began in the U.S. with the native population in Oklahoma as well as in inner-city Chicago. In Canada, the Faith Hope Charity Mission started in Toronto in 1907, but mission work among Native groups did not really begin until World War II.
Although several Mennonite Conferences began to organize mission work separately towards the end of the 19th century, perhaps the most significant event in Mennonite Missions came in 1920. After World War I and the chaos of the revolution in Russia, several branches of the Mennonite church in North America came together to form the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). This agency sought to help the desperate situation of many people in Russia by bringing food, clothing, and other supplies to Mennonite families.
From this beginning, MCC has grown into a respected international development agency, perhaps most significant because of its ability to incorporate and seek support from Mennonites of many different groups. MCC continues to work both overseas and in North America, with special emphasis on health, agriculture, education, fair trade, peace, and criminal justice issues.
By mid-century, missions were running at full force. The Mennonite Church conference, for example, began work in 20 different countries in just over 20 years (1934-1957). By the 1970s this push had waned somewhat, although several mission boards remained active.
Approaches to Mission
Mennonite missions have acted on a "whole gospel" approach to mission work. This perspective recognizes that evangelism is not limited to words, but also needs to address physical, material, and social concerns. As a result, mission efforts typically began by responding to some kind of need: whether that be famine relief in India (1900), hunger in Russia (1920), or orphaned children in Colombia (1945). Often relief missions have also included the beginning and growth of a church in the new country.
Groups with Mennonite heritage have transplanted themselves from place to place, and have settled on several continents. However, the startling growth of the Mennonite church in the world during the 20th century has not been the result of these migrations, but of fairly recent mission efforts. The beliefs and practices put forward by the Mennonite church have attracted people from many countries and cultures, and these people have in turn contributed to the wider church.
Partnership in Mission
For many Mennonites, "mission work" has referred to going overseas, providing support where needed, and "winning people to faith." As the Mennonite community has become more international and churches have matured and strengthened, "missions" now also involve supporting and working alongside local organizations and churches with indigenous leadership. The last several decades has seen a significant shift from "imperialist" mission models to more cooperative ones.
Local leaders have emerged who have brought the Mennonite faith into their own cultures and made it their own. An Indian woman named Margaret Devadason provides one such example. She has worked with MCC in India for over 30 years, where she has seen needs, initiated programs and projects, and provided leadership and supervision for them. After retiring from MCC, Devadason took on the tremendous task of being the Coordinator for the Mennonite World Conference in India (1997).
Larry Miller, the Executive Secretary of the Mennonite World Conference, summed it up well:
Created 1998 by Derek Suderman