Some 16th-century Anabaptist congregations were located in urban areas, and some Mennonite congregations in subsequent centuries were also located in urban areas. The period since World War II has seen a rapid increase in the number of urban Mennonite churches worldwide. As urbanization has increased around the world, Mennonites also have migrated from rural areas to cities, and Mennonites have established new churches in cities.
In 16th-century Europe, the Anabaptist movement began in (pre-industrial) cities. But as persecution increased, many of those who survived withdrew to rural areas. Large groups of Mennonites in the intervening centuries (especially those in Switzerland, Prussia, Russia, and North and South America) maintained their separate identity and beliefs by living in relative isolation from the people and cultures around them.
Although the Germantown Mennonite congregation, established in 1683, is technically the oldest North American Mennonite church in a city, it is a city church because Germantown later became incorporated into the city of Philadelphia. Most of the early Mennonite immigrants from Europe settled in rural areas, and, until World War II, Mennonites were still predominantly rural, more rural than Americans or Canadians as a whole.
The first major impulse for city churches came in the 1890s as congregations were established for eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites moving to such urban areas as Philadelphia or Souderton. During the period from 1890 to 1930, Mennonites were also influenced by the broader Protestant missionary movement. While overseas missions were beginning among Mennonites during that time, Mennonites were also looking to establish "foreign missions at home," that is, missions aimed toward recent immigrants from eastern Europe and other ethnic minorities in the large cities. Such missions were begun by Mennonite Church (MC) workers in Chicago in 1893; by Mennonite Brethren in Christ in Dayton, Ohio, in 1894; by Mennonite Brethren in Hurley, Wisconsin, in 1907; and by the General Conference Mennonite Church in Los Angeles in 1909 (although earlier city churches had been started by its Middle District and Eastern District). Most city missions during that period were directed toward uplifting the poor or lower middle class and bringing them into the North American mainstream. Rural Mennonites often viewed the city as a den of wickedness and a place as much in need of the gospel as a "pagan tribe" overseas.
Beginning with the migration of Russian Mennonites to Canada in the 1920s, the city became a home for Mennonites much more rapidly. Immigrants not only settled on farms but in cities like Kitchener and Winnipeg. In addition, daughters of those who settled on farms often came to the cities to find work. The girls' homes, social, spiritual, and residential centers established for these young women, often served as bases for new congregations in cities like Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Saskatoon.
Until World War II, however, North American Mennonites were still predominantly rural. In 1943, 54 percent of General Conference Mennonites, for example, were farmers. By 1964, only 30.7 percent of General Conference Mennonites earned a living through farming.
Beginning about 1940 in Canada and after World War II in the United States, all the major Mennonite groups experienced a spurt in urban church planting. (This was also the experience of other American denominations.) In the United States, the Mennonite migration to the cities was encouraged by the military draft. As conscientious objectors to military service, many Mennonite young men did alternative service in hospitals and other institutions in cities. Many of them adjusted to urban ways, found jobs after the terms of service, and stayed in the cities. Mennonite mission boards and district conferences followed these and other migrating Mennonites to the cities and founded churches. From 1956 to 1968 more new Mennonite churches were founded than in any previous decade in the century, and almost all of these churches were in towns and cities. Issues of this new push for city churches were discussed in the newsletter The Mennonite Church in the city.
Another stimulus for new Mennonites churches began in the late 1970s. Within the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM), about 270 congregations were established between 1970 and 1985, and 60 percent of these were in cities of more than 30,000 population. This represents a much higher percentage of urban congregations than among the 587 mission churches founded by the Mennonite Church between 1890 and 1960. Of these, 26 percent were in towns and 12 percent in cities and suburbs. Of the 71 MC city congregations founded 1890-1960, 46 were begun after World War II. The Mennonite Brethren (MB), in 1986, had 48 congregations out of 117 in the United States conference that were located in towns and cities of over 20,000 population. In 1983 there were 412 Mennonite congregations (MC, GC, MB, Brethren in Christ (BIC)) in North America in counties with populations greater than 500,000. Their average attendance was 120.
Urban churches were more likely to experience high mobility and to include house churches or small groups within the church to replace the natural social contacts with other church members often found in rural areas. Urban congregations were also more likely to be affiliated with more than one Mennonite conference. Almost all dually affiliated congregations (usually GCM and MC, occasionally also Church of the Brethren or other group) were located in larger towns and cities, where Mennonite divisions were less important than in the rural churches from which many members came.
Urban Mennonite churches in North America were more likely to have a higher percentage of members not of Mennonite background. It was estimated that 55 percent of Mennonite Brethren members in MB city congregations in 1986 were of non-German, non-Mennonite background. In addition, a growing number of urban churches were established for non-English-speaking groups, serving large groups of new immigrants. In 1986, the General Conference Mennonite Church had urban congregations for the following language groups: Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Laotian. A quarterly newsletter for urban Mennonite churches, Urban connections, began publication in 1985.
Central and South America
Urban Mennonite churches in Latin America have also been primarily a post-World-War-II phenomenon. The first German-speaking Mennonites in Latin America settled in rural areas. Mennonites began moving to the isolated Chaco area of Paraguay in 1926. But the first Mennonite church in the capital city of Asunción was founded in 1949. Most of its early members were urban immigrants from the Mennonite colonies, and a large part of them were students. A German-speaking congregation, Vilardebo, began in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1952. Its members are primarily managers, artisans, and students, and it attracts many young people from the Mennonite colonies. In Brazil, Mennonite dairy farmers settled near the city of Curitiba and both General Conference Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren German-speaking churches have existed in that city since the 1950s. The movement from settlement to city or suburb is bringing about changes in Mennonite life in Brazil. The education level of church members is rising. There is more acculturation to Brazilian life and the Portuguese language.
The earliest North American Mennonite mission work in South America was the Mennonite Church (MC) effort in Argentina, beginning in 1917. As in most Mennonite foreign mission work, the missionaries began in rural towns and villages. Work was begun in the city of Buenos Aires in 1949, initially to serve recent Russian Mennonite immigrants and then to serve Spanish-speaking people.
Even in the early post-World-War-II period, with its rapid expansion in mission work, most new Mennonite work began in rural areas. The General Conference Mennonite mission in Colombia began in 1945 with a school for children of Hansen's Disease (leprosy) patients near Cachipay. Within the next 15 years, both the GCM and the MB conferences in Colombia began work in cities -- the Mennonite Brethren in Cali, a city of over 700,000 (1958), and the General Conference in the capital city of Bogota, to follow up people from rural areas who moved to the city for studies. In 1986, that conference also had a second church in Botota and another in the city of Ibague.
Initial rural strategies were also followed by Eastern Mennonite Missions (MC) in Honduras (beginning in 1950), the Evangelical Mennonite Church in the Dominican Republic (1949), the Mennonite Board of Missions (MC) in Puerto Rico (1946), and the Brethren in Christ in Nicaragua (1965). Urban Mennonite churches were later established in all of these countries.
Mission work which began later has included both rural and urban churches at the beginning (Belize, Eastern Board, 1965; Guatemala, Eastern Board, 1971; Costa Rica, Rosedale Mennonite Missions [Conservative Mennonite Conference], 1965). In some instances work has begun in cities (Mexico City, 1960; Caracas, Venezuela, 1979).
Urban Mennonite churches have existed in The Netherlands and northern Germany since the time of the Reformation (Amsterdam, Danzig, Elbing, Hamburg, Emden, and later Krefeld). But in recent times across Europe, urbanization is affecting the shape of the church. Only a small proportion of European Mennonites are farmers.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, for example, congregations like Ludwigshafen and Würzburg changed already in the 19th century from completely rural to almost completely urban congregations, with a shift to a new location for worship or a change in name, or both. Toward the end of the 19th century, new congregations were founded in a few of the larger cities of Germany (Berlin, Munich, Hannover, Kaiserslautern, and Stuttgart) because Mennonites had migrated to the cities in the wake of industrialization.
The Mennonite refugees from West Prussia who came to West Germany after World War II settled mostly in cities, even though almost all of them had been farmers before emigration. They either joined existing city congregations or formed new congregations in settlements, but even these did not have a rural character. A similar pattern is evident in the more recent groups of resettlers (Umsiedler) from the Soviet Union. Where they have built congregations, they are city congregations and have members with urban occupations.
In 1986, all the larger Mennonite congregations in Germany were city congregations. Their membership, however, has either stayed the same or declined. Many Mennonites in the latest decades have trickled away because they live where there is no Mennonite church. The loss for Mennonites from the younger generation has been estimated at 30 to 40 percent. Another phenomenon resulting from urban mobility is nonresident membership over a long period of time. People want to remain true to their home congregation and, even if a nearby congregation is available, often do not transfer membership.
In Switzerland before World War II, the only urban congregation was Schänzli near Basel, in which a majority of the members still lived in the country. Since World War II, congregations have started in Bern (1959), Biel-Brügg (1966), and Liestal (1975). Les Bulles, a French-speaking congregation, was founded in 1894 with a membership composed largely of farmers. By 1986, more than half lived and worked in the city. More Swiss Mennonite congregations are becoming French-speaking, an effect of industrialization.
Early North American mission efforts in India and China were mostly rural, although the Brethren in Christ early established a church in Saharsa, India. In India, the four Mennonite groups began work in rural areas about the turn of the century. In more recent years, Mennonite people have been moving from the older, established congregations to new industrial sites for employment. These form the core of the Aaga-harra, Bailadila, and Durg-Bhilai congregations of the Mennonite Church in India and the Raipur and Korba congregations of the Bharatiya General Conference Mennonite Church.
Even the mission work that began shortly after World War II did not start in the cities. The Mennonite groups that came to Japan in the early 1950s did not intend to start churches in the bigger cities. Rather, they went to rural areas, e.g. Hokkaido (MC) and Kyushu (GCM). As people moved from rural areas for education or work, Mennonite pastors followed them up. In this way the first congregation in Tokyo was established in the 1960s. The Tokyo congregations in 1987 were small (10 to 20 people) and experienced high mobility. One of the first Mennonite city congregations in Japan began unintentionally as an outgrowth of General Conference Mennonite missionaries in language study in Kobe, far from their intended area of work on the southern island of Kyushu.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, Mennonite churches have been urban from the beginning, although in Taiwan there has also been work with mountain tribal people. The Fellowship of Mennonite Churches in Taiwan has 17 congregations in the three urban centers of Taipei, Taichung, and Hwalien.
In Africa, most of the Mennonite mission work was first carried out among animistic rural people, such as those in areas that became Tanzania, Rhodesia, Zaire, and Zambia. The major initiative toward Mennonite urban witness in Africa came from the local African churches. Frequently, missionaries were invited to participate and supplement the local effort. Much of the urban membership is comprised of rural people who had Mennonite connections before migrating to the city. This often results in small urban congregations with a rural or tribal mentality. Most African Mennonite congregations are rural or town-oriented rather than urban. However, they are affected by urbanization as men leave the villages to work in the cities, leaving women and children at home.
Some Mennonites had migrated to Nairobi, Kenya, as early as the 1950s. But a congregation did not start until 1973. Missionaries from the Eastern Mennonite Board began meeting for Sunday services with African Mennonite leaders living in Nairobi. A second congregation was opened in 1977 in a Nairobi slum.
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 900-902. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Barrett, Lois. "Urban Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 26 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/U74ME.html.
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