by Hans Finzel
Dramatic political changes in the Soviet Union are having an unprecedented impact on the churches there as well as in other Eastern European countries.
Dramatic political changes in the Soviet Union are having an unprecedented impact on the churches there as well as in other Eastern European countries. Persecution that has plagued and hindered the churches since Stalin’s reign is diminishing. Mikhail Gorbachev has reversed long-standing state opposition to the church.
Last year, as part of the millenial celebrations of the Russian Orthodox Church, Gorbachev acknowledged that "mistakes with regard to the church and believers in the 1930s and the years that followed are being rectified." Apparently, he is determined to make good on his pledge to give the church a new start.
However, many Christians remain skeptical and suspicious. Are the changes substantive, or part of a propaganda offensive? So far, to me at least, after study and travel in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the changes appear to be real and good for the churches.
So far, the Kremlin has:
* Allowed the church to engage in a year-long millenial celebration, launched last summer and just completed.
* Televised pictures of a smiling Gorbachev assuring church leaders that the church could "carry out its activity without any outside interference."
* Relaxed postal censorship, allowing thousands of Bibles and packets of religious literature to be mailed to Soviet citizens.
* Returned nearly 1,000 church buildings to the Russian Orthodox Church and authorized more than 1,600 new religious associations.
* Repealed a series of decrees that, contradicting constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience, severely limited religious activity. The long-awaited move, announced by the Council of Religious Affairs in early April, included removal of a 1929 ban on charitable work by religious organizations and a 1960 edict prohibiting bell ringing.
Country-by-country, the situation looks like this:
Soviet Union. Soviet believers are experiencing rapid "persecution decompression." Like a diver coming up too quickly for oxygen, believers are experiencing such rapid change in coming up for freedom that some of them are in spiritual shock. Missions likewise sense that the changes are so rapid that entire strategies must be abandoned and rethought from the ground up.
Suddenly, Christians are free to meet with Westerners, build churches, receive and print books, and open new seminaries. Usually the last in the East to experience a loosening of the grip of the authorities, this time Soviet Christians are first in line for the changes. Though some permissions have been granted, changes are slow in coming.
Hungary and Poland. In Hungary and Poland there is great freedom for the churches to do almost anything they wish. At the time of this writing, Hungarian soldiers are dismantling the barbed wire fences between their country and Austria. As unbelievable as it seems, the Iron Curtain is coming down in this 130-mile stretch of border.
Romania. Whatever may be said about new developments in Eastern Europe, it does not hold true for Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu the tyrannical leader, has a cold relationship with Moscow and no interest in glasnost. Persecution continues to be severe and economic conditions worsen each year.
Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. These two countries have many parallels in their degrees of freedom. Though strongly aligned with Moscow, changes are much slower in coming than in places like Hungary Poland. Christians are still severely restricted and leadership needs are critical.
East Germany. The Protestant church in East Germany has always enjoyed a relatively free hand and has kept its seminaries open. The state church has a good supply of trained leaders schooled under traditional models.
Albania. Albania remains closed, with no Christian presence to speak of. Efforts are being made in neighboring Yugoslavia to reach Albanian expatriates.
Yugoslavia. Not aligned with Moscow in the Warsaw Pact, Yugoslavia has enjoyed much religious freedom. When it comes to seminaries and training institutions, it has the best situation in Eastern Europe. This country has received more missionary input than all the other East Bloc countries.
Mark Elliott, director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Marxism at Wheaton College, observes:
In Eastern Europe we find no overall pattern of improved church-state relations in response to Gorbachev’s new approaches. In some countries conditions for believers remain more difficult than in the Soviet Union: in Albania, most certainly, and arguably so in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. And where the church enjoys comparatively greater latitude than in the USSR, as in Yugoslavia, Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, the relative advantage would seem to be the product of local circumstances rather than glasnost. Indeed, the preferable circumstances in the vast majority of instances predated Gorbachev.
While Gorbachev’s influence on East European church-state relations would appear to have been negligible, the potential for the future could be significant. Glasnost and perestroika could precipitate a loosening of the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe. If not checked militarily, as in Kremlin moves against Hungary in 1956 and against Czechoslovakia in 1968, a looser Soviet leash on Eastern Europe could lead to greater political pluralism. There are dear signs of this already in Hungary and Poland. And the church could benefit in such a climate.
For the most part, as goes the Soviet Union, so goes Eastern Europe. Therefore, churches are planning new strategies in evangelism, publishing, building programs, and leadership training. But the changes across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are bringing to a head a tremendous new demand for trained leaders in the churches. Because persecution had been aimed primarily at pastors and denominational leaders, the churches suffer from a serious leadership crisis. Seminaries were forbidden and many pastors were driven from their pulpits. The church’s greatest problem was the erosion of its leadership base because of a lack of new trained leaders at all levels.
Now that they are being allowed to train their leaders denominational and independent leaders are grappling with various educational issues. Their big decision now: What is the best way to train our new leaders? Very simply, the issue is whether to fall back on the methods of the past, or to try some new and better methods of training leaders.
Because the churches of Eastern Europe have rich history and traditions, they naturally suspect new methods. They tend to gravitate toward resuming the old ways to the waves of persecution. In the Protestant traditions, clergy came from theological schools and seminaries. Theological curricula were rigid. Students were required to take Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. One result of the old patterns was a great gulf between clergy and laity. However, although we might disagree with the old approach , the training did keep the pulpits supplied.
But, in the end, as noted above, when this system was all but squeezed to death by government pressure, the supply of new pastors dried up. Churches that relied on traditional education and training found themselves in a bad way. Even where seminaries remained open, students were few.
Generally, this lack of trained leaders has produced a church that looks like this:
* Too few pastors. On the average, each one pastors five congregations.
* Lack of fresh ideas for training leaders. Denominations have put their hopes in traditional seminaries.
* Lack of zeal and vision.
* Inadequate pastoral care.
* Rampant false teaching and theological divisiveness.
* Shortage of Christian books and training materials. The average pastor has five leadership level books.
* Lack of dialogue through books and articles by national leaders.
* Although conversions are growing in some countries, discipleship is weak, leading to many dropouts.
* Many weak, tradition-bound churches.
* Rigid, formal atmosphere in many churches repels young people.
* In some places, leadership is in the hands of those who have previously compromised with communist authorities to survive.
These problems can largely be traced to a leadership vacuum in quantity and quality. This condition, in turn, goes back to the selection and training of pastors. Current seminary training is wholly inadequate in terms of the number and quality of graduates.
The choice of students often is in the hands of compromised church leaders, with final approval coming from communist authorities. The most promising students often are rejected because they pose a potential threat to the system. Weaker students who can be more easily controlled by the authorities are allowed to enroll.
Students who do get seminary training often find it inadequate for the pressing needs of the churches. Focusing on the traditional disciplines, liberal biblical criticism, and church history, the seminaries offer little help in evangelism, discipleship, and church growth.
Over the years, this approach to church leadership training has stifled initiative, vision, and faith. If you look at specific leadership problems in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, you would find there are not enough pastors and the few in place have not been properly trained to meet current needs. Often, the brightest potential leaders are denied formal training. Power rests in the hands of compromised leaders who want to keep the churches from trying anything new. There is a growing confidence and trust gap between denominational authorities and local church leaders.
However, this is a new day of opportunity and many Eastern European believers are calling for new approaches.
Here are some recommendations:
Formal training. Improve existing seminaries. Many new schools are asking for help. Curricula should be revised to include more practical theology. More Western evangelical theological literature is becoming available in the East Bloc seminaries. Western missions should provide strong help in effecting changes in the seminaries.
Nonformal training. Theological education by extension (TEE) is growing rapidly in Eastern Europe. Missions should expand this effort. TEE is particularly useful for increasing the number of students in training and for circumventing the entrenched selection process. TEE is further removed from government control.
Publishing. Church leaders should be encouraged to write. New laws have created opportunities for books and magazines to be published. This can be a tremendous encouragement to new leadership development, as well as helping to create nationally written materials.
Informal training. Western missions are showing the effectiveness of informal training across Eastern Europe. This trend must be strengthened, because for the first time laymen are getting the training they need to help fill the gap. Eventually, they become prime candidates for formal training.
New associations and opportunities. With new freedoms for religious associations, parachurch organizations are starting to flourish. We should encourage these groups, because they offer many leadership resources for the churches. For example, women are no longer being neglected and young people are flocking to the churches because of the ministries of these organizations.
However you look at the current scene, one can only conclude that God has provided an unbelievable opportunity for church and missionary expansion in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. God is working mightily throughout the region. The question is, What will we do with this opportunity?
The selection and training of future church leaders lies at the heart of this question. Although there is a desperate need for massive infusions of new leaders, little is being done to provide that leadership. The church will best not look back to its pre-1917 traditions, but look ahead to bold, new, innovative approaches.
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