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Czech Church Life: Mainline Decline and Neo-Apostolic Growth

 

Petr Činčala

Mainline Membership Decline

From 1991 to 2001 mainline churches in the Czech Republic lost vast numbers of congregants. Both the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical churches suffered losses of 33 percent, while the Czechoslovak Hussite Church declined 46 percent. However, in the same period, smaller, less well-known churches grew by 161 percent.

Czech Church Affiliation1

Census   Roman Catholic      Evangelical      Hussite         Other

1991     4,021,400                  204,000      178,000          120,300

2001     2,709,900                 137,100        96,400           314,500

Only about four percent of Czechs identify themselves as Protestants. The Evangelical Church and the Czechoslovak Church represent the largest segment of this group. However, a significant portion of their membership is not active. One obvious reason for this lack of involvement is that many of those who joined these churches between the two world wars did so for political reasons rather than religious beliefs. Today, remaining Protestants in smaller denominations total under 10,000 people.

Comparing Traditional and Neo-Apostolic Protestant Churches

In 2001, in an attempt to understand better the psycho-social dynamics of church life in congregations of smaller Protestant denominations in the Czech Republic, I applied the “Natural Church Development Survey” of Christian Schwarz2 to eight denominations, receiving responses from 157 pastors and 3,820 members. In this study, 128 Protestant pastors and 2,928 lay persons from traditional Protestant churches responded, compared to 29 pastors and 892 persons from neo-apostolic congregations. [Editor’s note: Neo-apostolic churches are conservative in theology, reject historic Protestant denominational structures, and emphasize local church autonomy.]

Some of the main differences between traditional Protestant and neo-apostolic churches concern leadership style and level of lay participation. Neo-apostolic congregations have a 15 percent higher score in initiating change and an 18 percent higher score in creativity and managing change. Development of small group leaders happens 14 percent more often among neo-apostolics than among other Protestants.

Neo-apostolics connect to each other primarily through small group ministries. In their small groups, the atmosphere of transparency, sharing, and trust is 17 percent higher than among other Protestant groups. Also, neo-apostolic small groups meet members’ felt needs 21 percent more often and are 14 percent more active than other Protestant small groups.

A comparison of these two Protestant subgroups offers an interesting conclusion. Traditional Protestant denominations are resisting change despite declining membership and despite living in a culture in flux. This passivity threatens their very existence. In contrast, neo-apostolics have taken advantage of a new wave of church renewal. However, the limited degree to which they are able to build bridges to society and reach out to the unchurched undermines the missionary purpose of their existence.

Tempering the “Irreligious” Czech Stereotype

While survey findings reveal weaknesses in church life, disbelief is less entrenched than many observers suppose. A significant number of Czech atheists are not godless. On the contrary, faith in the supernatural is maintained in the Czech Republic despite the minimal significance of traditional churches. As Dana Hamplová explains, “The distance from traditional churches and Christianity does not mean that Czechs would deprecate the existence of the supernatural as a whole. Only approximately one person in 100 surveyed definitely denied not only that God exists, but also denied specific demonstrations of the supernatural in life.”3

My own survey findings from 2000-2001 were similar.Only two of the 191 atheists surveyed answered negatively all questions about God and a higher power.1

Atheists expressed uncertainty or no opinion about God in 34.6 percent of their answers, while 27.7 percent of their answers about God were positive. Of those who considered themselves atheists, 38.4 percent disagreed with the statement that the idea of a personal God is an outworn concept, while 42.6 percent agreed that the idea of God is a symbol helpful in the human quest for the good life.

 In two previous Czech surveys, having assurance in God appeared at the bottom of life values, and religious life was at the bottom of leisure activities.4 However, my survey indicated that 36.7 percent of atheist respondents disagreed that religion was a waste of time and did not help to solve human problems. Also, 63.6 percent agreed that religion was a valid way of dealing with the most important issues of life. Although atheists were 14.2 percent more afraid of death on average than members of other religious groups, 33.3 percent of atheists believed in life after death and 43.2 percent used religious means to cope with death. In any case, Czechs are not atheists who would deny anything that supercedes knowledge derived from our physical senses. Although they stay away from church, many of them have a religious conscience.

NOTES:

1 Czech Statistical Office, http://www.czso.cz/sldb/index.htm.

2 Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (Carol Stream, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996).

3 “Naboženstvί a nadpñrozeno ve společnosti: mezinárodnί srovnánί na základĕ empirickéno výzkumu ISSP [Religion and the Supernatural in Society: International Comparison Based on the Empirical Research of the International Social Survey Program],” Sociological Papers, SP 00:3 (Prague: Sociologický ústav AV ČR, 2000), 43.

4 Hana Fiedlanderova and Milan Tuček, “Češί na prahu nového tisίciletί [Czechs at the Threshold of a New Millenium],” Studie Slon, 25 (Prague: SLON, 2000), 172; Petr Sak, Promĕny české mládeže: česká mládež v pohledu sociologického vίjzkumu [Transformations of Czech Youth: Czech Youth in View of Sociological Research] (Prague: Petrklič, 2000), 134-35.

5 Ludék Frýbort, Češi očima exulanta aneb osmaosmdesát pohledŭ zvenku: výbĕr zúvah a esejί 1992-2000 [Czechs Through the Eyes of an Immigrant or Eighty-Eight Views from Outside: Selection of Thoughts and Essays 1992-2000] (Prague: Annonce, 2000), 16.

Edited excerpt published with permission from Petr Činčala, “A Theoretical Proposal for Reaching Irreligious Czech People Through a Mission Revitalization Movement,” Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 2002.

PetrČinčalais research manager for NCD International and a missionary