Today's Church Buildings in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Tradition

By Funk, Harold | Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Today's Church Buildings in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Tradition


Funk, Harold, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: In the beginning of the Anabaptist movement there was no church building because it was unlawful to practice the new faith in public spaces. Gradually one form of building--the meetinghouse--began to be associated with church life. Taking on the vernacular of village buildings, its simple style speaks of a time when faith was practiced as a way of life. Here the faithful would meet as a homogeneous community of believers. As the Anabaptist-Mennonite church grew and became more integrated with the larger world community, its buildings became more attentive to questions of space and form. But the direct approach to faith, the simplicity of place and the virtue of purity embodied in the meetinghouse style continue to influence Anabaptist-Mennonite architecture.

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Questions of how our Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage has influenced the area of church buildings are relevant for our time in a flourishing church community where Anabaptist principles of faith are as important as they were in the sixteenth century.

For an architect who specializes in designing and implementing church buildings, questions of "space" and "place" are not only interesting but of crucial importance in discerning what form the "meeting place" should take. Architects think and design within the framework of a "process." Understanding the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage is also a process still evolving; and so the relationship between the building and the "faith" is a dynamic one. In this process "ideas" and "facts" should not be confused. It is therefore helpful to trace briefly those beginnings for purposes of constructive conclusions.

The Anabaptist uprising in the early sixteenth century directly challenged assumptions regarding long-established church rituals and the role of the sacraments in Catholicism. The cathedral and its symbols stood in direct opposition to the newly-emerging faith, whose meaning was found in the hearts and minds of its followers. Having direct access to the scriptures changed the meaning of church and the life it represented. New Anabaptist understandings of Christian faith changed the pattern of social customs and church rituals such as communion. The new forms that would evolve out of these ideas, however, could not yet be fully envisioned or expressed outwardly.

As one of the outlawed religious minorities, the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in its founding period met and practiced its faith in secret. Being forced to meet in secret shaped the future of the role the building would play in the life of the Mennonite church community. The enclaves were the first meetings were held had nothing to do with buildings; rather, they were simply "spaces" of a kind where the new faith could be shaped through instruction and re-baptism. The leaders were dissident Catholics, well-versed in the Scriptures; the main emphasis became preaching because it was a direct way into the Scriptures. Prevented from construction their own church buildings for decades, the early Anabaptists had a non-visible identity as far as the outside larger community was concerned. This influenced subsequent generations when a building became a necessity.

The meaning of the building in relation to the gathered community or the church continues to be a thought provoking and debatable issue. What is of interest here is the nature of the "meetingplace" within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition and the significance of the "meetinghouse" as an identifiable counterpart of that meeting. Both point to a time of suppression and isolation while the same heritage today speaks of integration and expression. The "meetinghouse" evolved from this background, and its migrant path took it to the North American continent where it still prevails in village remnants or in rural open spaces.

The early meetinghouses have been illustrated in various ways. Generally, they were in a "U" shape: seating on three sides with a pulpit on the fourth facing the people. …

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