The UMC’s work in the Vojvodina region (the northern part of what is now Serbia) was begun by German missionaries. German emigrants who had left their homeland and settled in this fertile region between the Danube and Theiss rivers to start new lives noticed them and invited them to come. Thus the first Methodist worship service was held in this region in 1898. Soon, the entire region was affected by a great awakening, and thriving new congregations were born (until 1904 exclusively among the German-speaking population, later among Hungarian speakers as well). But beginning in 1944, as a result of developments in the Second World War, the “Donauschwaben” or “Danube Swabians” were forced to leave the country or died in concentration camps. Since most pastors and members of the Methodist Church were members of this ethnic group, many churches were closed. It was a painful juncture in the Church’s history. One of the few positive aspects of this period is that the men and women who fled from Vojvodina took their faith with them to new countries, and thus founded new congregations.
However, the work of the Methodists in Serbia continued, albeit under more difficult conditions. The charitable and educational work was no longer allowed. Yet new congregations were founded among the Slovak, Hungarian, and Serbo-Croat speaking minorities. Just as in Macedonia, the “Bible women” played an important role in the growth of these congregations, and it is no coincidence that the second woman to be ordained a Deacon in the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe (Paula Mojzes, 1957) lived in what was then Yugoslavia. Under the pressure of the political situation at the time, several congregations of the “Blue Cross” also joined the Methodist Church in the 1950s.
Waves of emigration later led to the loss of significant numbers of members. Even today, following the political unrest, wars, and waves of refugees of the past years, many people, especially the young, see no hope for the future in their own country. The economy is weak, unemployment is high, and many people subsist far below the poverty level. Even groceries, electricity, and medicines are beyond the means of many people.
So spreading the Gospel must also mean living the Gospel and offering the people practical help (firewood, medicine, food). The congregations of the UMC do both. In a country that is searching for its identity, they overcome boundaries by caring for ethnic minorities, as in the evangelizing and social services for Rom which have been initiated in several places.
Today, Macedonia and Serbia are two politically independent countries, but the UMC congregations still form one organizational unit (Annual Conference) with two districts. However, due to the unfavorable economic situation, they are able to cover only about 10% of their own budget, and the lack of pastors is also a heavy burden, although this aspect is improving. With great dedication and faith in God, the members of the UMC accept these challenges.
In 1920, missionaries from the US-based Methodist Episcopal Church, South began their work in Czechoslovakia. They organized evangelization meetings, distributed Bibles, and provided emergency services to the people, who were still suffering from the consequences of the First World War. This work led to the founding of various congregations and to the birth of the UMC in Czechoslovakia. In the early years, the Church grew rapidly. Later, the young Church experienced very difficult years, at first in a financial sense, and then for political reasons. Yet in spite of persecution and oppression by the state, from restriction of activities to the arrest of pastors, rays of hope always managed to shine through.
At the end of 1989, the political changes in Eastern Europe suddenly offered many new opportunities for Christian service in a highly secularized society, and the UMC was still there, with renewed missionary zeal that soon led to the founding and growth of new congregations. For the most part, the new members were young people who were hearing the message of the Gospel for the first time, and who with their enthusiasm brought a strong new dynamic into the Church.
The political separation of the country in 1993 and subsequent founding of the Czech and Slovak Republics did not separate the Annual Conference. The UMC in these countries has undergone structural adaptations, but is still organized as an annual conference with two districts.
The growing congregations in the Slovak Republic are confronted with many social challenges. The fact that the country joined the EU in May 2004 has not changed this situation. But these needs are viewed as an opportunity to spread God’s love. Because of this, they often lead to new dedication to the Kingdom of God and to programs which also try to alleviate the material needs of the people. For example, one emphasis of the UMC in the Slovak Republic is the work with the Romani minority, who live in the eastern part of the country as poor and underprivileged outcasts, without hope of improving their condition. The Romani people receive not only clothing, furniture, and household utensils, but also attention, unconditional acceptance, and educational assistance as a basis for improving their own future. Other areas of emphasis include support for radio evangelization programs and inter-church cooperation, such as the theological program supported by several Christian Churches and groups at the university in Banska Bystrica.
The Methodist Church in Spain was started in the northeast part of the country by missionaries from England in 1869. But before this date, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was some missionary work done by a British Methodist minister, William H. Rule, who from Gibraltar established some Protestant day schools and groups of worship in the south of Spain that had no continuity because of the presence and action of the Spanish Inquisition. But this attempt to establish a Protestant church in Spain was the first done in the country since the 16th century.
In 1868, a change in the government started a new period of tolerance and the first Protestant churches were established. The first Methodist church was organized in Barcelona on September 1, 1869. Afterwards others were created in Catalunya and the Balearic Islands. The life and witness of these churches has been limited by intolerance and lack of liberty that prevailed in Spain all through these years with just very few and short expectations. There was no religious freedom in the country until Franco’s death, when a new constitution (1978) was approved that established a clear separation between church and state and total freedom.
In 1955 the Methodist churches were integrated in the already existing Spanish Evangelical Church that was formed by congregations with Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Lutheran traditions. Since then the church has strong relationships with the Methodist Church in England and The United Methodist Church USA. The Spanish Evangelical Church was received as a member of the World Methodist Council in 1981.
The first Wesleyan congregation in Switzerland was founded in Lausanne in 1840. The Methodist Episcopal Church began its work sixteen years later in Lausanne and Zurich. And finally, the Evangelical Brethren Church founded its first congregation in Berne in 1866. Thus today’s UMC in Switzerland was formed from three different Methodist movements.
In the early days, missionaries from Germany, Great Britain, and America worked to build the Church. Local preachers soon cared for a growing number of congregations. However, this period was a time not only of growth, but also of resistance and oppression. Any religious movement that belonged neither to the Catholic nor to the Reformed Protestant Church was treated as a sect, and proselytizing was viewed as «stealing members». Violence against preachers and lay missionaries was not uncommon.
But the spread of Methodism in Switzerland was not to be stopped, and soon Switzerland was itself the source of missionary work. Members of the Church, especially women, were sent out to nearly all continents to do good works, to teach people about God, and to help build new congregations. Today, eleven men and women work in the service of Connexio, the mission and service network of the UMC, in Argentina, in the Congo, in Algeria and in Croatia – in projects for development cooperation, emergency aid, missionary congregation building, and inter-church aid.
In Switzerland as elsewhere, the UMC’s field of activity includes much more than pure congregational work. The Church maintains close ties with various social and missionary institutions:
– Bethanien Charity in Zürich
– Bethesda Charity in Basel
– 8 homes for the elderly
– 1 group living facility for mothers and children
– 1 day nursery
– 1 home for the mentally handicapped
– 2 hotels
– 1 backpackers villa
– 5 retreats
In many places, the congregational efforts emphasize work with children and youth and the organization of worship services in a contemporary style. Music also plays an important role, just as in the early Methodist movement. In addition to numerous choirs and vocal groups, many congregations also have their own bands, brass choirs, or other instrumental ensembles.
The cooperation with other Churches — be it in the context of the Evangelical Alliance or in the ecumenical context — is an important priority of the UMC and is considered to be an active contribution towards a common Christian witness.
There are still a number of women’s groups and missionary societies. In the past 15 years, congregational partnership teams have been established. In all these groups, the participants not only discuss the issues of their own lives, but also follow the work of Methodist congregations in other places (Eastern Europe, Africa, South America, Asia), and make practical contributions.
On the other hand there are several groups and congregations made up by people from Latin America, Africa or Asia which meet in UMC buildings and which have an already longstanding or a rather new but growing relationship with the UMC.
And finally, there are missionary activities and serving ministries at many places (working with drug addicts and the socially disadvantaged; open youth work; lunch projects, support for asylum seekers, etc.). Many congregations are opening themselves to the non-members around them by initiating programs based on the needs of people not affiliated with any church.
Together with the UMC in France and the Methodist congregations in Northern Africa (Algeria/Tunisia), the UMC in Switzerland makes up the Annual Conference of Switzerland/France.