by Sharon Mumper
Reports from around the world.
Sweden—skin deep in state-mandated piety
In a hospital in Stockholm, another Lutheran church member greets the world with a wail. What is going on here? Just another birth in a country where membership in the state church is not a decision, but a birthright, a privilege bestowed on every newborn.
When that child grows up, he or she will become a church contributorâ€”by government-mandated payroll deduction, and without stated permission. It is possible to be exempted from the church tax, and concurrently, membership in the state church, but most Swedes, even evangelical Christians who are members of "free" churches (those outside the state church), don’t bother.
As a consequence, most Swedes are contributing church members. Most do not go so far, however, as to actually attend church services. Moreover, nearly a third of Swedes could be classified as nonreligious or atheist, according to Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World. Only 3 to 4 percent of the population, largely members of free churches, regularly attend church.
Members of evangelical churches comprise only a tiny proportion of Sweden’s free-thinking, permissive population. Mostly spawned out of a series of revivals that the country in the last century and the early part of the 20th century, evangelical churches in Sweden have lately fallen on hard times.
Most evangelical churches, with the exception of the major Pentecostal groups, have seen their membership rolls decline in the last decade. Even the Pentecostal churches, which for most of the century produced steady growth, now are experiencing only slight increases, according to John Cooke, president of Bjarka-Saby Bible School in LinKoping.
The largest evangelical free church in Sweden is the Pentecostal Movement, a fellowship of independent churches with a total membership of about 100,000. Three more Pentecostal/charismatic groups together number about 50,000. The second-largest Protestant free church is the Swedish Covenant Church, with about 50,000 members. Altogether, some 300,000 Swedes are members of evangelical free churches. Another 50,000 youth are involved in church programs.
Evangelicals are not completely unrepresented in the state church. Evangelical groups in the church have tended to break away, unlike those in the state churches of some other European countries, where "fellowship groups" offer an evangelical alternative within the largely-liberal church. Nevertheless, conservative pastors evangelical congregations dot the state church "landscape." Altogether, there are some 100,000 evangelicals within the state church, according to some free church leaders.
While Protestant free church membership declines, Roman Catholic church rolls bulge, primarily as a result of immigration from largely-Catholic Latin America and Eastern Europe. With some 200,000 members, the Roman Catholic church is now the single largest free church.
Also increasing are the numbers of Muslims, swelled by the recent influx of Middle-Eastern political refugees. Last year, Sweden welcomed 17,000 refugees from Iran and Iraq alone.
Out of control in Sudan
Violence-wracked Sudan has literally managed to cut off its own head. Now, as the head and body stubbornly hammer at each other, the whole country is in danger of bleeding to death.
The southern one-third of Sudan is under the control of independence-seeking rebel groups. Only the southern city of Juba is controlled by the northern-based Sudan government. The city is virtually an island. Swollen to twice its normal size by 800,000 refugees, the city barely survives from airlift to airlift. The situation, says Wolfgang Heiner, whose Good News Mission Agency has helped to supply food to Juba, is "very, very bad."
At one-quarter the size of the U.S., Sudan is the largest country in Africa. The arid northern two-thirds of the country is largely populated by Arab Muslims. The fertile, heavily-forested south is home primarily to darker-skinned Christian and animist African peoples. From the country’s inception some 33 years ago, southerners have fought for independence from the Arab-controlled northern government. The most recentâ€”and most disruptiveâ€”fighting began in 1983 when Sudan was declared to be an Islamic republic and Islamic law (Sharia) was imposed.
The effect of the last six years of fighting has been disastrous. Thousands of civilians have died, millions have become refugees. Farming in the south, once a fertile bread basket, has been completely disrupted. In many southern villages, there is not a single child under five years of age, according to relief workers.
Churches have disbanded and reformed in new locations. At one time, the small northern church was composed almost entirely of Christians of Egyptian origin. But the influx of some 1 million Christian refugees from the south has swelled the Christian population.
These newly-arrived Christians have found it difficult to build the churches they need to accommodate their numbers, says a mission executive who asked not to be named for fear of compromising his mission’s medical work in the country. A church can be built only when the government grants permission. In most of the country, it is difficult to receive permission to build. In Muslim-dominated areas, it is nearly impossible.
Muslim regions hold greater dangers for Christians, however, especially in the northwest, where radical Muslim civilian militias have been armed by the government. Roving bands in that area attack Christians at will. Last year 1,000 Christian Dinka tribespeople were massacred in a single incident, according to the mission executive.
Because of the violence of Muslims in the west, Christian organizations are not able to deploy relief workers there. A number of international Christian agencies are involved in relief work in the northeast, where some half million refugees from Eritrea live. The government has not permitted missions work in the south since 1964, although some medical and relief organizations were able to work there for a period of time before they were expelled about two years ago. Now expatriate Christian involvement in the south is limited to the precarious airlift ministry to Juba.
Almost nothing is known about the plight of Christians in the south, but mission leader Wolfgang Heiner is convinced the churches are continuing to grow. Clearly, many Christians have suffered and died, and many more may yet. It is obvious that both the government and rebel groups are tiring of the conflict. But knotty problems remain unresolved. Possibly only God can perform the surgery required to stitch this country back together again.
Pakistan’s weak church has only itself to blame
When Pakistan became an Islamic republic a few years ago, both local Christians and mission agencies held their breaths. They have since let it out in a long sigh of relief. Today, although Pakistan is continuing to Islamicize its legal system and public life, it is one of the most tolerant Islamic republics in the world.
Pakistan continues to welcome missionaries, says Michael Wakely, Operation Mobilization’s associate area coordinator for South Asia. As a recognized religious minority, Christians enjoy freedom to worship, witness, practice, and propagate their faith. Even evangelism is permitted. Sadly, what the government has not restricted, lack of interest has curbed.
"Unfortunately, most Christians in Pakistan are nominal," says Wakely. "There has been little conversion church growth for 40 or 50 years."
The Punjab region experienced a tremendous people movement at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, with tens of thousands of low-caste Hindus turning to the Lord. The movement peaked in 1920, and most growth since then has been biological, says Wakely. Today, Christians in Pakistan estimate 3 to 4 percent of Pakistanis are Christiansâ€”double the number the government claims.
Since the independence of the country in 1947, when Christians were suddenly an unimportant minority in a Muslim majority, Christians turned inward, says Wakely. Church, politics and power became all important, and many Christians became carnal. "However, there is a beautiful minority of believers," says Wakely. Smaller, newer denominations like the Brethren Pentecostal churches show promise he says.
Even among the more lively believers, however, evangelism largely means reaching nominal Christians. There is little interest in reaching Muslims. Only a few parachurch groups are making an effort to evangelize Muslims, are seeing a little success, says Wakely. Many Christians are afraid to witness to a Muslim; some believe Muslims cannot become Christians. However, a few outstanding Pakistanis have effective ministries among Muslims, says Wakely, and in six to eight places former Muslims are meeting in groups of 20 to 100.
Today, the church’s greatest need is revival of unconverted or carnal church leaders and members, says Wakely. "Until then, there can be no large-scale turning to the Lord among unbelievers."
At the moment, expatriate missions are free to enter and operate within the country. "While the opportunity is there, we must go in and help. But we must help with wisdom and discernment. The church needs help, but not too much help. It may well be the national church will on its feet when it has to and not before," says Wakely.
"There are no signs the door is likely to close any time soon. But in God’s wisdom, when that day comes, I think it will be for the best."
Sky is the limit for Russian language broadcasters
"We used to cry because we didn’t get enough response from listeners," says Alex Leonovich, executive director of the Slavic Missionary Service. "Now, we cry because we don’t know what to do with all the letters we receive. They are coming like a tidal wave."
The Soviet Union’s new glasnost experiment has unleashed a torrent of mail to Christian broadcasters, many of whom have labored for nearly 45 years with little encouragement from those who were the object of their efforts. Now, broadcasters are pedaling as fast as they can to keep up with the requests for literature and counsel. It is a new day for Christian broadcasting to the Soviet Union.
According to an article in Pravda, an official government newspaper, every second person in the U.S.S.R. owns a shortwave radio. The sky, it seems, is the limit for who use the airwaves to reach Russia for Christ.
Not everyone, however, sees it that way. Russian listeners today are more selective and sophisticated than previously, says Paul Semenchuk, Russian ministries coordinator for Trans World Radio. Soviet radio broadcasting is slicker and more professional. Television is competing for the ear of the listener. If Christian radio broadcasting is to continue to attract listeners, programs must be geared to the needs and interests of Soviet people, and must meet their standards.
In fact, TWR has dropped a number of inferior programs, and today is broadcasting fewer hours in the Russian language than two years ago. "We’d rather go on with less programming, but with programs to which people want to listen," says Semenchuk. Now, TWR is working with their cooperating broadcasters to develop the kind of programs for which listeners are asking.
Amazingly, it may soon be possible for those who for decades have been on the receiving end of Christian broadcasting to actually be involved in broadcast production. Some Christian broadcasters are planning forays into the country with mobile equipment to record the voices of people on location. Even now, TWR is negotiating with Christians to supply the station with raw material to be incorporated into existing programs or around which new programs can be built.
Even more exciting, it may soon be possible to set up production facilities in the Soviet Union and to train Christians to produce entire programs for broadcast from transmitters outside the country. It is an enticing possibility, but Semenchuk has more basic concerns on his mind.
"Christians in the Soviet Union are facing challenges they have never before experienced," he says. "We must keep up with them and their changing lifestyle. We need to get a handle on the needs of people, both Christians and the unsaved, and to produce programs that meet those needs."
Perhaps the sky is the limit after all. But if Russian language broadcasters are to take full advantage of the unique opportunities now available to them, they must keep their heads out of the clouds and their eyes firmly fixed on the earthy reality of today’s Soviet Union.
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