Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

The East West Church &  Ministry Report has issued a special theme edition examining the impact of the current Ukrainian crisis on the church and ministries in Ukraine and Russia.

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Reaching Irreligious Czechs

Petr Cincala

Suspicion of Religion

According to an article written in a Czech publication in 2000, principals of schools who think children should learn something about the Bible in class “are under pressure from parents who remain repulsed by religion.”1Parents in the Czech communities of Jablonec and Nisou wrote a petition against religious education classes in a private Catholic school.2In another instance, in which the British wife of Czech pastor offered English language classes, parents enrolled their children because the instruction was free and the teacher was a native English speaker. However, as soon as they discovered that the content had something to do with the Bible and religion, parents immediately withdrew their children. When approached later by the pastor, they said the reason for withdrawal was that they did not want their kids’ “minds to be fooled by God.”3

In addition to the widespread, popular bias against religion, other reasons help account for the church’s loss of credibility in the post-Communist period. The Catholic Church’s ambiguous involvement in politics is seen as problem. Also, church demands for the restitution of property raise suspicions that the church is still motivated by greed and power. Finally, the tension between leaders of the main Protestant churches and the Catholic Church is seen as a replay of past hostilities. Czechs disappointed with Christianity cite threereasons:4 1) Christians are said to believe something but do not act accordingly.5 Some think, “If you go to church, that is enough.” 6Also, they see no difference between Christians and non-Christians. 7 “Virtuous character has nothing to do with church affiliation.” 8 Peoplefeel “The church has nothing to offer; practicalreligiosity is missing.” 9 2) Many Czechs believethe church surrounds faith with elements thatdo not belong there. It is connected with politics (Christian Party). It is argued that churches use too much money without helpingpeople.10 3) Finally, churches are said to use faith to control and manipulate people.11 “I cannot believe the hierarchy they have. You don’t need hierarchy for your faith.”12 Former Prime Minister Klaus revealed his view of the church by saying that he did not see much difference between a church and an association of

gardeners.13

The Lure of the Occult

Symptomatic of the low standing of traditional Christian faith among Czechs are the findings of the 1998 International Social Survey Programme (ISSP). Of those surveyed 66 percent thought that some fortune tellers are able to predict the future, 45 percent believed in amulets, and 45 percent believed inhoroscopes.14 It is not uncommon for Czechs to pay a healer or “diagnostician” for counsel or medical advice.15 Occult religiosity is widespread among young people, as the vast number of horoscope magazines indicates.

Strangers Not Made Welcome in Church

Despite the common Czech distrust of institutional religion, the church had an unusual opportunity to regain the hearts of the people during a post-Communist wave of receptivity. Uncharted people were glad to Come to church. However, a group of strangers was something the church was not used to, and strangers soon became a threat to them. The unchurched needed a place of acceptance, aplace to belong. Instead, the church oftenbecame an institution generating intoleranceand servitude, “characterized more by summaryrefusals than by positive proposals.”16 One unchurched interviewee pointed out that many churches have a “vacuum cleaner” syndrome. If someone new comes to church one or more times, the script often runs as follows: “Either you become as we are, or you go away from us.”17Intolerance and judgmental attitudes on the part of churched people present a major barrier for unbelievers. I have heard repeatedly from the un churched that they do not appreciate thepressure they encounter in church.

The often hostile attitude of the unchurched towards the church obviously wounds believers who then, naturally, tend to use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from being hurt. And since Czechs use many defense mechanisms, the churched do well at defending themselves. The churched are unbelievably intolerant towards the uncharted. And since churched people have a rather passive view of mission, the gap between the churched and the unchurched is not surprising.

On a More Positive Note

Other models of churching besides the traditional churches include house churches and cell churches. These relational models of church growth have been successfully implemented all over the world. Within the Czech context, the bar or pub has taken the place of church for the uncharted. It is where Czechs naturally look for community, where they go when life treats them miserably or gives them reason to celebrate. A centrifugal approach to missions would be Czech theologian Jan Lochman’s model of churching, in which Christians appear in unexpected places. A pub Isa place where the Christian is not expected, but can meet people where they are. A ministry of love in a pub over time would be welcomed. The concept is derived from the Bible, where God desired to meet His people where they were (Exodus 25:8). A centripetal approach would bet build or rent a pub for the need of a newly planted community of believers. Such a place can serve as a sanctuary where people come to worship God. Also, during the week it could serve as a non-alcoholic bar and simulate the function of a pub. To go to the pub is natural for Czech people; to go to church is not. The example of the pub is only one possibility. The concept can be applied in different ways, according to the needs of a given situation.

The Alpha Course and Prison Ministry

Befriending people and communicating with them occurs best in informal settings and on alone-to-one basis. Teaching the Word may occur in a family setting, in small groups, or with cluster of small groups. A good example is the Alpha Course, which is designed to familiarize atheists with the basics of Christianity.18 Before each simple Bible presentation, people interact together while eating, each small group at one table.

The public is also receptive to the Church’s involvement in social and charitable ministries. The change towards a more positive view of the church is in place, says prison chaplain Renáta Balcarovám, because “the churches in the Czech Republic have done a lot of good in the last 11years.”19 By that she refers specifically to prison ministries carried out by the churches. While prison ministries are not as appreciated by the public as is help for needy children or other charitable activities, they present a unique example of ecumenical cooperation. It certainly has been a good starting point for greater cooperation among various churches. As matter of fact, cooperation of Czech churches imprison ministries is considered a rarity in Europe.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the Czech population has deep-seated suspicions towards Christian witness and its perception of church coercion. At the same time, Czechs are not uniformly irreligious and are appreciative of such Christian expressions as the house church, the Alpha Course, and social ministries.