by Sharon Mumper
Interviews with Church and Mission Leaders in Eastern Europe.
At the Berlin wall
"It still stands." The words were spoken into the air, to no one in particular. In late December last year, while East and West German families celebrated Christmas together, and Western news reports referred to the "fallen" Berlin wall, a young German stood and stared at the section of wall near Checkpoint Charlie. Massive, thick, seemingly impenetrable, it stood defiant before the small army of entrepreneurs and sightseers chipping away at its surface. Nevertheless, only 10 feet from the young man a few square inches of East German territory was visible through a hole in the wall. "Yes," replied a bystander. "It stands-for now."
Throughout Eastern Europe, at the start of a new decade, a sort of freelance demolition crew was chipping away at communism, and whole sections of wall were tumbling. A heady exuberance characterized both reformers and Western onlookers. Yet, amid the shouts of joy at the crumbling of each communist stronghold, wary voices were being raised. This is a dangerous time for Eastern Europe, some were saying.
"I want to sound the alarm," Andrew van der Bijl (Brother Andrew), president of Open Doors With Brother Andrew, said in January at Mission ’90, in Utrecht, Holland. "The process of democratization in the Soviet Union is not ret irreversible …Events in all of Eastern Europe are moving too fast to be healthy."
Eastern Europe’s changing situation has brought both new opportunities and challenges to the churches. Perhaps surprisingly, the sudden demise of the atheistic systems under which Christians had learned to live and function is not without its "down" side.
"We are seeing a rising tide of nationalism in many countries," said Peter Kuzmic, director of the Evangelical Theological College in Osijek, Yugoslavia. "In most Eastern European countries, nationalism and religion are identical. If you were Polish, you were Catholic; if you were Romanian or Russian, you were Orthodox. Protestants have always been under suspicion as a Western, imported religion-a threat to national and cultural identity," he said. "That is why it is so important that we explain what faith in Jesus Christ is all about."
In fact, Eastern Europeans may be more open now than ever before to faith in Christ. "There is a tremendous spiritual vacuum," said Kuzmic. "Marxist-Leninism, which functioned as a secular pseudo-religion, has broken down. People are searching for truth."
A potpourri of ideologies is rushing to fill the vacuum. "Eastern religions, occultism, satanism, Western consumerism-all are coming in," said Kuzmic. "There is a lot of confusion. It is important we pray and work together for intelligent, biblical evangelism."
Plunged headlong-with the rest of the world-into this critical moment in history, the church is largely unprepared to make the most of the opportunities now before it.
"I hope the Eastern European churches are awake enough to see the possibilities and new opportunities," said Gary Cox, Eastern European director of Eurovangelism. "I have some doubts about that."
Cox, who was the Eastern Europe coordinator for Mission ’90, noted the presence at the conference of young delegates from Eastern European countries. "I believe it is God’s time to give these young people a vision of what is possible," he said. "At the conference, they were exposed to the evangelistic explosion in the southern hemisphere. Suddenly, the God who, because of the restrictions of the past, seemed so small, turns out to be much bigger. All at once, they are thinking he might do great things even in their own lands. I don’t think they really believed that before. They were so busy trying to survive."
Even where Eastern Europe’s evangelical church is awakening to the possibilities before it, daunting obstacles remain. In many countries, the tiny evangelical church-many denominations have fewer than 1,000 members-has been further fragmented by distrust and suspicion. Even within denominations, conflicts are shaping up between the younger generation and older leaders who may be seen as overcautious-or even as having compromised with communist regimes.
"In more closed, totalitarian systems, where the government tried to control church leadership, many of the stronger, more intelligent, bolder people were suppressed," said Kuzmic. "now, they are coming to the surface and beginning to speak out."
New obstacles replace the old
Finances present a major stumbling block. In most countries, publishing and broadcasting restrictions have been eased or completely removed. Yet, collapsing economies and soaring inflation have robbed churches of the ability to support their own pastors, let alone invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing, broadcasting, and evangelistic campaigns.
Even if money were available, necessary skills are lacking. In most countries, evangelical theological schools for decades have been restricted in size-or prohibited altogether. Most pastors have had no formal training or theological education.
"The quality of teaching and preaching in Eastern Europe in general is pretty low, due to the lack of training and quality literature," said Cox. Other expertise is also lacking. Systematically excluded in most communist countries from higher education of any sort, Christians generally do not have skills necessary to launch aggressive printing and broadcasting projects, or even to contribute in important ways to rebuilding society.
These are some of the areas in which Western help can be most useful. "There is a void in leadership and potential leadership among the Christians," said Brother Andrew. "Our help should be directed to training Christian leadership to be involved in their nations." Many churches are eager for help. They are not ready, however, to surrender evangelical impulse in their nations to outside agencies. "Come in and cooperate with us," is the cry.
Christian groups in the West should join forces to work together, said Al Akimoff, director of Slavic Ministries, YWAM. "It is not a time for people to go in and plant their own flag."
Cox encouraged missions to view their ministries as partnerships. "We have a lot to learn from Eastern European Christians," he said, "especially when it comes to faith, perseverance, and prayer."
The neglected mission field
"Eastern Europe has been a neglected mission field," said John Eibner, Eastern European research coordinator, Keston College. "Now there is great opportunity for churches in the West to help their brothers in the East. We do have a responsibility to help churches in the East that have been oppressed for so long."
These are times of both danger and opportunity. "If we fail now to grasp the great opportunities before us," warned Brother Andrew, "eventually we may be worse off in all of Eastern Europe than we were before all this began."
By the first of the year, the hated Berlin wall was nearing collapse in sections especially hard hit by hammer and chisel-wielding souvenir hunters. To the jeers of onlookers, police were reinforcing sections deemed to be a peril to those who sought to tear it down, stone by stone. The act of destroying a wall had come to pose a threat to the ones who wished to see it demolished. At the first of the year, much of Eastern Europe faced a similar situation. As the walls that bound them, proscribed their lives-and provided the foundation for their societies-came down, the very real danger is that societies-and churches- could be crushed beneath their weight.
East Germany: Good Christians in small Trabants
Solid, dependable, moderately prosperous, an example of a communist society that works-no one expected East Germany’s government to fall so suddenly.
"Ten weeks ago, I would have been afraid to even dream such things could happen," marveled Elim Church pastor Lutz Reichardt in late December. The German Democratic Republic was the most prosperous of the Soviet Bloc countries and the one in which the church had the greatest freedom to operate.
But the economy was slipping and people were growing of tired of leader Erich Honecker’s iron-fisted rule. As borders in neighboring countries opened and the flood of refugees from the GDR reached tidal wave proportions, the call for reform swelled to a roar that could no longer be ignored.
Surprisingly, as the Honecker-led government slid down the perilous slope of public opinion, the German church passed it on the way up.
Churches were among the first to speak out against the government following flawed elections last fall. Eventually they became meeting places for reformers and rallying points from which peaceful demonstrations spilled out onto city streets throughout the GDR.
"Christians have done some things to change the situation," said Reichardt. "As a result, we are more accepted by the people. Now when we preaching, we hope they will listen to what we have to say."
This is a time of opportunity for the church, according to Manfred Kern, executive secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of the GDR. Nevertheless, grave concerns remain. The country is straggling economically, the political situation is far from certain, skilled workers continue to emigrate in large numbers. Another worry, as the border opens, is the free access gained by less desirable influences.
"Pornography and drugs are coming in now," said In-grid Kern, member of the Women’s commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship, and wife of Manfred Kern. She fears also that the church’s unity may be damaged by the free flow of ideas-and problems-from the West. "Up to now we have had good working relationships with all the churches," she said. "In West Germany, state churches and free churches do not cooperate. Everything crosses the border now; we are afraid eventually we will have the same problems."
Also crossing the GDR’s borders are Western para-church organizations. Other groups which have already been at work in the country now are making plans for expansion. East German Christian leaders acknowledge they need help, but have reservations about the new groups setting up shop in the country. Too often, they say, the church is not consulted; ready-made programs are simply slapped into place.
"We really believe we could be partners," said Manfred Kern. "Our American friends especially find it difficult to understand people who drive a Trabant (a three-cylinder East German-manufactured car) are full persons. There are a lot of good Christians in small Trabants."
Hungary: ‘Anything is possible now’
"No one really believes in Marxism anymore." Dora Bernhardt is leader of the Hungarian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a group that began unofficially to 10 years ago, but was formally recognized only last year. The failure of Marxist ideology has opened wide the doors to witness on university campuses, she said in a January interview.
Christian responsibility today is enormous, she said. Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have entered the country, and are finding a receptive audience.
"We have to be very creative in our presentation of the gospel," she said. She said growth of the student work was relatively fast last year, as workers reached out to involve students from a variety of denominations.
"For the last 40 years it has been almost unknown for different churches and denominations to work together," she said. As perhaps the first truly interdenominational ministry since the end of World War II, the student group’s work is especially significant, Bernhardt believes.
Last year, Hungary’s tiny evangelical church-comprising less than 1 percent of the population-experienced rapid growth, according to Szabolcs Kerekes, youth pastor, Free Christian Church, Budapest. "It is possible to do anything now," he said. "We can sing, do pantomime on the streets, rent state halls for evangelistic crusades. We want to use these possibilities."
"Hungary is the country in which the communist system has collapsed to the greatest extent," John Eibner, Eastern European research coordinator, Keston College, said in December. He said restrictions on religious education have been dropped and efforts are being made to revive opportunities for optional religious instruction in the public schools. Moreover, church leadership appointments will no longer require state approval.
In the face of this new development, younger reformers within the churches last year were calling on church leaders approved by the former communist governments to step down.
Despite this, on the local level in many churches, there is trust between generations. "In our church, the older people are also ‘burning hearted,’" said Kerekes. "They are always praying for us and encouraging us."
Poland: From communism to Catholicism
"We are too small as it is. If we allow ourselves to be divided as we have been up to now, we will not be able to do anything." Edward Lorek is vice-president for mission and evangelism for the Pentecostal Church of Poland. With some 8,200 members and adherents, the church is the largest evangelical denomination in a country where all Protestants together make up a fraction of 1 percent of the population.
The needs are great. The beleaguered country continues to lose workers at an alarming rate. Chicago is poised to surpass Warsaw as the world’s largest Polish community. Alcoholism and drug addiction are major problems. According to official statistics, more than 7 million of Poland’s 10 million workers are registered alcoholics, said Lorek. The rate of inflation for the last six months of 1989 was 900 percent.
The need-and opportunities-are great. The challenges facing the Protestant church in a Roman Catholic country are also daunting. During 40 years of communist rule, the Protestant church’s greatest persecution came not from the government, but from Catholic neighbors. Converts were often beaten and kicked out of their homes, said Lorek.
For this reason, Protestant leaders, although they are glad for the increasing democratization of Poland, are wary of their future under a Catholic-dominated government in a country where.Roman Catholics make up nearly 100 percent of the population.
"We will have to see what happens in the next few months," Konstanty Wiazowski, president of the Baptist Union of Poland, said in a December interview. He noted that because the government was appealing for help to the West it could be more tolerant of Protestants than it might otherwise be.
One of the most encouraging developments in evangelical Christianity is the rapid growth of biblically-oriented evangelical and charismatic groups within the Roman Catholic church.
In Poland, as in the other Eastern European countries, the future is a very large question mark. Nevertheless, Lorek is optimistic. "We believe that in the future evangelical churches and Catholic charismatic groups will grow rapidly," he said. "Regardless of what happens in the future, if we do our part-what we are able to do-the church will grow fast."
Czechoslovakia: A generation is missing
"We prayed for our political situation to change-we wanted more democracy; more Christian freedom," said Miroslav Kochan, a lay pastor in the Evangelical Methodist Church in Jihlava, Czechoslovakia, said in a January interview. "But we never thought it would happen so fast." Ruefully, he added, "We are not prepared for the work ahead of us."
Since communist rule began, Czechoslovakian Christians have been severely limited and the churches tightly controlled. Church rolls list over 1 million members for the Evangelical Czechoslovakian Brethren, according to local church worker Miriam Necilova. Fewer than 10 percent are active in the church, she said. Sadly, the same is true of many of the country’s other 17 registered Protestant denominations.
Almost entirely missing, said both Kochan and Necilova, is middle-aged people. Because Christians were severely limited in educational opportunities, those who today are middle-aged dropped out of the church in order to give their children a chance at a better future. Today, many of those children are opting to go back to church.
The churches younger members, however, are appalled by what they regard as nominalism and liberalism in churches and theological schools. "We need to build a whole new structure of Bible schools and theological schools," said Kochan.
Under relaxed government policies, the churches have new freedom to evangelize. Churches now must learn to unite; to join forces for mission, Kochan said. Christians approach their new opportunity with a sense of urgency. Eastern groups and cults like the Hari Krishna and Jehovah’s Witnesses, once banned, have begun to operate openly. "People are hungry for everything spiritual, and they are not discerning," said Necilova.
Because for so many years Christians have been the subject of communist ridicule, people do not automatically turn to the church, Necilova said. "I think it will take some time, but I believe people will discover our churches again."
Christians like other citizens, speculate only very cautiously about the future. Nevertheless, there is a sense of hope. "I think this will be a decade of great mission in our country," said Kochan. "I believe many young people will receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. Perhaps some day, we can even send out missionaries."
Bulgaria: Time to mature
It is time for the church in Bulgaria to grow up and mature, a young lay pastor and two church workers said in an interview in January. Emanuel and Evgenii Naidenov and Mimi Furnodzhieva believe a time of reaping lies ahead, as one generation turns over reigns to another, younger generation.
Evangelicals comprise only about half of 1 percent of the population of Bulgaria. Despite decades of intense persecution, the church continues to grow slowly. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the years of communist indoctrination they have endured, an increasing number of young people are flooding the churches. Even before the lifting of some restrictions by year’s end, young people were active, said Furnodzhieva. "They were not afraid of the authorities," she said. She hopes that with the "new wave of democracy" others who were afraid will now become more active.
There have been no schools for the training of pastors in Bulgaria. Young people hope now that students may be sent away for training in Western institutions. Trained Bulgarians are needed more than missionaries from other countries, said all three.
Some Christians hope to begin to offer social services once again. Some 40 years ago, the churches were active in education and care of the elderly, orphans, and handicapped people. Now, some churches are once again beginning to collect material and money for such projects.
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