April 23, 2014

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This seminary has legs: a story about two Bluffton University alumni in France

Neal and Janie Blough

Note: Neal and Janie Blough are Bluffton University alumni. Neal's mother, Celia Blough, lives in Bluffton.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were almost no Mennonites left in France. Between the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine (historically home to many Mennonites) into Germany, and immigration to North America, the population had dwindled significantly.

By the end of World War II, the distinctive edges of Anabaptist theology had been slowly worn away by years of secularization, injections of Evangelical theology, and two world wars. Those who still professed Mennonite faith joined the French army or were shipped off to the front by Hitler's invading forces.

Now, nearly 70 years later, Anabaptist theology has crept back in to France. It started with the help of a small network of European Mennonite historians and pastors in the early 20th century and was supported by Mennonite Central Committee relief efforts. It continued to develop thanks to the work of John Howard Yoder and several key French Mennonite leaders.

In the mid-1970s, two mission workers arrived from what was then Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network. They didn't expect to stay more than a few years, but Janie and Neal Blough have spent most of their adult lives working in and around Paris.

They were preceded by other longterm workers who began working in Paris in the 1950s. Robert and Lois Witmer, along with French Mennonites, laid the foundations upon which this generation built. Linda Oyer, with another mission agency, also arrived in Paris in the 1970s, and then joined MBM in the late 1980s. She, too, has been a long-term presence in the country.

Oyer and the Bloughs are, according to their director, Tim Foley, "like a walking Mennonite seminary education." Through long-term presence, research, teaching, friendships, church leadership and more, the Bloughs and Oyer have made a major contribution to the resurrection of Anabaptism in France.

Neal Blough and Oyer are writers, having recently contributed chapters to the 11th book in a series on Anabaptist faith perspectives, this one on redemption and salvation and edited by Claude Baecher, a French Mennonite. The Paris Mennonite Centre started gathering an Anabaptist library in the late 1980s, and French-language resources have been shared with Mennonites from Quebec to Benin.

"If I look back over the last 50 years," said Neal Blough, "interest in and reception of Anabaptist/ Mennonite theology is as strong now as it ever has been."

According to Blough, French Mennonites have more doctorates than any other Evangelical denomination in France. Therefore, there's been plenty of teaching and historical research, and the library of Anabaptist theological material has grown.

The Mennonite church in France is comprised of a majority of historically Mennonite churches in eastern France, while the three Parisian congregations are more recent and have many members of immigrant origin.

According to Neal Blough, one of the questions that pastors and Mennonite Centre staff are asking is, "What does it mean to be Mennonite or Anabaptist in a secular, urban context?"

"Intercultural congregations are a fascinating place to deal with the basic tenets of how we live out our theology," said Blough. "An urban multicultural congregation is the place to do it. These are like laboratories of Mennonite theology. How do you take that core and give it different flesh in different settings?"

Janie Blough focuses on worship from an Anabaptist perspective. She's in the midst of earning a doctorate in worship studies while training new worship leaders at her church. As part of her doctoral studies, she's asking questions: How do you build worship? What should be in worship? What is liturgy?

Janie was recently commissioned in her church as a worship minister.

"The term 'worship minister' doesn't really exist in France," she
explained. "No one is specifically a worship minister in terms of training."

But churches need someone who is in tune with the whole congregation and each person's distinct spiritual needs, Janie said. In addition to her work within her own congregation, Janie helps train leaders from other churches to play that role.

"More and more people are becoming interested in these things," Janie explained, "and I'm being asked to do training sessions in Mennonite churches and other denominations."

But beyond their educational work, the Bloughs and Oyer are clear examples of what happens when people dedicate their lives and careers to work in one place. All three of them are regularly invited to speak or teach at conferences and in congregations, as well as to write. Oyer is particularly involved in a European Christian women's leadership organization.

Anne Meynier-Schweitzer, Oyer's friend and colleague, attended a women's conference where Oyer spoke. Oyer's talk was on the many different kinds of spiritual expression that can exist, both between denominations and within a single denomination. At the end of the event, Oyer arranged a worship experience that honored the traditions of all the women present.

"There were more than 140 women from denominations from Catholic to Baptist to Salvation Army washing each other's feet and sharing bread and wine,"Meynier-Schweitzer said. "And she made it all happen."

This story appeared in the February 2012 edition of "Beyond Ourselves," a publication of Mennonite Mission Network.