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Polish Baptists in a Catholic World

Zbigniew Wierzchowski

Poland’s Solidarity Movement challenged the whole Communist world, resulting in 1989 in the establishment of a non-Communist government led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki.1 While the Catholic Church before 1989 was a guardian of Polish freedom, after that date it became a threat to freedom. The authority of the Polish Catholic Church reached its zenith in 1989, when public surveys showed that 90 percent of citizens felt the church exerted a positive influence on social life. But six years later, only 50 percent of people viewed the church’s activities as profitable.2 It can be assumed that the Catholic Church will fight to regain its former authority and will oppose other religions challenging its position.

The New Era

The new era of social and political changes provided an impulse for movement in the Baptist Church as well. Baptists, however, still endured the stigma of being viewed as a sect or cult. It was very difficult for Baptists in Poland to be seen as a healthy, acceptable church. The new economic situation forced people to work more hours than previously had been necessary. Before 1991, a typical Polish man worked eight hours a day and had time in the evenings for church work. Now hours spent at work are much longer, and jobs require more energy and dedication. It is no surprise that people do not have as much time to spend on church activities and ministry. At the same time, Baptists in Poland sometimes act as if nothing has changed since the 1980s. An alternative method would be to address the needs of whole families, avoiding separation of “spiritual things” from “earthly things.” People who live near believers need to see practical evangelism in different areas of believers’ lives, such as their professional lives, their approach to money, their priorities, and their family relationships.

One means of practical evangelism has been to provide a quality education attractive to outsiders. This happened before World War II when, for many residents, Baptist churches became the first centers of education in the Polish language and music. Such efforts are highly regarded and welcomed in a society that continues to seek the best possible education. The language, however, has changed. Now it is English, rather than Polish, that has become the tool. Society is now influenced by politicians who speak English, rather than Russian, as well as by English-speaking firms and corporations.

Worship and ministry in Baptist churches have changed over time. During the Communist period, following World War II, there was much fear and the spirit of worship in churches was calm. In the late 1980s, the charismatic movement touched Baptist churches. They began to ask themselves: Have the charismata faded out, or are they still present?

Growth in Numbers and Outreach

The Baptist Church in Poland progressively grew in numbers after 1980, especially starting in 1989, when about 320 people were baptized in one year, about 10 percent of all church members at that time. In 1995, the Baptist Church in Poland had about 3,680 members, most between the ages of 19 and 40. Nevertheless, local churches averaged fewer than 60 members.3

A period of an open door always brings new ideas and renewal to the church. In the 1990s many churches began to establish ministries alongside the church. Small ministries adopted the name “club” to be more attractive to outsiders, reaching into society in ways that traditional methods could not. In the city of Tarnów, a children’s program was established in 1990 called the Good News Club.4 In Gorzów Wielkopolski the church answered the needs of the community by serving food to street children. At the first meeting, when they did not expect anyone to show up, about 40 children came with their parents. Besides feeding the children, church members organized Bible lessons. Clubs still serve the surrounding communities, providing entertainment and building relationships with those around them.5 Through such organizations, church members connect with society on a non-church level. The success of this kind of ministry is enormous, and the club has become a testimony for the whole church.

An article published in 2000 about the changes and the new identity in the Baptist Church in Poland noted: On the one hand, we experience the openness of church members to new ideas for the church, but on the other hand, many congregations cultivate theological and methodological fundamentalism. We cannot say that only those churches that promote new ways of worship are growing. Sometimes the opposite happens: The results are worse, because to many members, the new experiences seem too innovative, which causes unbalance of church structures. And at that point people tend to drop out of the congregation.6

During the period of change, the Baptist Church employed new methods. Local churches started to use the media, the Internet, and computers. Baptists started to use radio in the 1980s much more often than ever before. Yet many people in the present-day church are afraid of cultural and technological changes such as new songs, classes, modern music, different clothing, new habits, individual or plastic Communion cups, and the use of the Internet to proclaim the Gospel.

 Polish Baptists

Before the 1980s it was incomprehensible to do missions outside of Poland. The new political situation changed that completely. Polish Baptists could not only receive help but also started helping others. A Bible Seminary in Wroclaw and the Warsaw Baptist Seminary began sending students to Eastern countries for a practicum. Many decided to stay there and continue their ministries abroad.7

Is it possible for the changing world to influence and affect the Church? This is the case with the Baptist Church in Poland. The cultural environment will always put its stamp on the style of worship in the congregations. The surrounding political system will cause either greater openness or reticence toward church outreach. At the same time, the church influences the society in which it exists. It seems that this effect is in proportion to the effort that congregations put into meeting the needs of the surrounding society. 

Notes:

1 Norman Davies, Serce Europy: krótka historia Polski (London: Aneks, 1995), 7. [Polish translation of Nor­man Davies, Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984].

2 Jaroslaw Gowin, Kościół w czasach wolności: 1989-1999 (Kraków: “Znak,” 1999), 6.  East-West Church & Ministry Report • Winter 2007 • Vol. 15, No. 1 Page15 3 Ryszard Gutkowski, “Informacje Statstyczne,” Bóg powołał nas do ewangelizowania Polski, (Warsaw, 1995), 10-11.

4 “Jubileusz 60-lecia Zboru Chrześcijan Baptystów w Tarnowie,” Słowo Prawdy (Nos. 7-8, 1992), 14-18.

5 Interview with Krystyna Terefenko, founder and leader (1995-2000) of the Good News Club in Gorzów Wielkopolski, 15 January 2003.

6 Miroslaw Paralon, “Kościól wobec zmieniającego sie świata,” Słowo Prawdy (No. 4, 2000), 8.

7 Interview with Andrzej Horyza, “Zobaczyć, czym jest misja i służba w innej kulturze,” Słowo Prawdy (Nos. 7-8, 2000), 18-19.

Edited excerpt published with permission from Sharyl Corrado and Toivo Pilli, eds., Eastern European Baptist Histories (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2007).

Zbigniew Wierzchowski is a pastor at the Baptist Church in Glogów, Poland. He also is an artist and musician. He currently is completing a doctoral thesis at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, Czech Republic.