Conversion and Defection among Roma (Gypsies) in Bulgaria

Richard Y. Hibbert

Roma Church Growth. . .

From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, and especially beginning in 1989 with the increased freedoms following the fall of Communism, thousands of Turkish Roma (Gypsies) in Bulgaria began to self-identify as Christians. (Gypsies, who call themselves “Millet,” traditionally have self-identified as Muslims.) In this period, the number of Millet churches increased from less than five to approximately 100 with, at one point, an estimated 10,000 Millet church attendees.1 Ina 1995 survey of 1,844 Bulgarian Roma conducted byline Tomova, 46 percent of respondents were Turkish and 15 percent belonged to Protestant churches.2 ElenaMarushiakova and Vesselin Popov noted that Protestant churches among Roma in Bulgaria were “especially effective and spreading fast among the inhabitants of large urban ghettos.”3

. . . Followed by Church Decline

The rapid numerical growth of this church movement stalled, however, during the second half of the 1990s. A survey taken in the first half of 2007revealed a total of 99 churches and 6,180 attendees at Turkish-speaking churches in Bulgaria.4 The decline in Millet church attendance from 1989 to 2007 amounted to 29 percent. Turkish-speaking weekly attendance in Bulgarian Protestant church meetings increased from525 in 1989, to an approximate average of 980 in 1995,peaking in 2001 at approximately 1,065, and declining by 2007 to approximately 753. As the author of this study, I can add that from my personal observation of living and working fulltime as a missionary among the Millet from 1992 to 2001, and from five subsequent visits to Bulgaria, the number of church attendees declined significantly between 1995 and 2007.


Traditionally Muslim, Turkish-speaking Millet number between 300,000 and 400,000 in Bulgaria. While they tend to identify themselves to outsiders as Turks, the latter do not accept them as such.5 The majority lives in the eastern half of Bulgaria, mostly in segregated urban neighborhoods, some of these in “Extreme slum conditions.” 6Roma in Bulgaria have traditionally affiliated with either Orthodox Christianity or Islam. Ilona Tomova’s1995 survey of Roma in Bulgaria revealed that 44percent of Roma respondents were Orthodox, 39percent were Muslims, and 15 percent belonged to various Protestant churches.7

Reasons for Growth According to Church Leaders

The reason church leaders most frequently gave for Turkish-speaking Roma coming to Protestant faith was the occurrence of a miracle, nearly always in the form of physical healing. Some conversions occurred because Roma saw the results of a miracle in another person’s life: “God did lots of miracles and people saw these.” People looked for help from believers when they were sick partly because they did not charge money: The main reason people come to faith is because of sickness. They get sick and they look for help. Doctors want money, and most of the Millet don’t have money. And they turn to God and God works through us to help them, and then they are happy, and they start Coming to church.8

The second most prominent reason given by leaders for people coming to Protestant faith was the togetherness and love of the believers, which helped to overcome the initial opposition to Christianity in an otherwise Muslim neighborhood. A practical demonstration of this love was that believers often visited sick people in their homes and prayed for them. This often resulted in healing.

Third, people came to faith because they saw change in the life of someone they knew who had become a believer. The radical transformation in lifestyle of one of the first male converts in one village affected many others: “Many people in the village heard that God had done something in my life and some people panicked. They understood that the Lord exists and that he is able to do anything, and then lots of people started coming to church. “A fourth reason for people joining churches (given by two leaders) was the beginning of a new church Meeting or the acquisition of a larger building for worship. For example, when a pastor and his wife moved into one Millet neighborhood, They started a house meeting. After that, the number of people increased a lot. God saw this and wanted lots of people. So what did we need to do? People came and helped us make a church building. God filled that building. We became 300 people. Two final reasons for Millet coming to Protestant faith were mentioned only in passing: evangelism(cited by two leaders) and material help (cited by one leader): “Some people came because something was being given out in the church.”

An Overview of Reasons for Decline

Several possible reasons for the decline in Millet churches since the late 1990s have been offered including the negative effects of foreign material and financial aid to churches, temporary “rice Christianity”(resulting in conversions for material gain), the transition from primarily female to male leadership associated with an increasingly authoritarian leadership style, poorly contextualized patterns of leadership adopted from Bulgarian churches, rapidly worsening poverty compelling Millet to live and work abroad, a lack of adequate discipleship of new converts, and Islamic proselytizing.9

The literature on religious defection offers a range of possible explanations. These differ from situation to situation, but most relevant to the decline of the Millet Protestant church movement are four of the five reasons for defection noted in Jorge Gomez’s study:

1) Sinful conduct of some church leaders, including 2) misuse of money, 3) a sense of shame about one’s lifestyle not matching the standards of the gospel, and

4) pressure from family and friends.10 Eugene Nida’ssuggestion that religious movements experience decline especially because of poor leadership supports the first of these reasons.11 Reasons for defection other than those suggested by Gomez, which are especially relevant in the Millet context, are a low level of interaction between newcomers and existingbelievers,12 and a lack of post-baptismal care.13Studies of conversion suggest possible deficiencies in the process of conversion that maybe associated with later Millet defections: 1) A lack of meaningful ritual to demonstrate conversion or to signal incorporation into the church; 2) insufficient development of social interaction with church members; and 3) motivations for conversion that are primarily utilitarian, such as healing, without sufficient understanding of the full meaning of the gospel.

Regarding inadequate social interaction, a number of studies suggest that the inability of newcomers to develop and maintain strong, satisfying bonds with church members and pastors leads to churchdepartures.14

Reasons for Decline According to Church Leaders

Reasons given by local Protestant pastors and regional leaders for people leaving their churches may be grouped into the following categories: Theological reasons, leader-related reasons, work-related reasons, sin-related reasons, the increasing influence of Islam, church-related reasons, and pressure from other people.

Theological Reasons for Church Losses

Nearly all surveyed church leaders offered theological reasons for decline, explaining that Churches were being “shaken” or “sifted.” Those who were not true believers were being “weeded out” from the churches.

Leader-Related Reasons for Church Losses

The first and most-often-noted reason given by church leaders for church decline related to church leaders themselves. They cited infighting among themselves, leaders caught in adultery and other sins, and leaders leaving the country to earn money. All six leaders surveyed mentioned conflict and divisions among leaders themselves. Their inability to resolve disputes with each other had a widespread negative effect on other believers’ attitudes toward the church.

The earliest conflict identified in church leaders ‘interviews occurred in 1993. In this case a Bulgarian pastor was said to have steered material aid from West European churches away from a Millet church to an ethnic Bulgarian church. The next incident occurred in1995, growing out of accusations that several leaders allowed believers who committed adultery to continue in the church. A final conflict occurred in 2006 over the use of foreign funds: two pastors disagreed over the location of a kitchen to provide food for the poor. As a result, one pastor confided, “Many, many people grew cold toward the faith because of our argument. We were left with only 10-20 people in our church. We– the leaders–are the main reason people have left. “Unfortunately, each conflict led to a church split. Another pastor noted that in one case infighting had occurred between pastors and older believers who had become envious of younger believers who were given responsibilities in the church. As a result, “The number of believers decreased because of the lack of agreement and the arguments in the churches. “Sin in leaders’ lives was the second reason cited by leaders for people leaving the church. Every one of the leaders in one town discussed an incident of adultery between two prominent believers. Although not pastors, the man and woman involved were both counted among the church leadership. One pastor related, “This event was covered over, but many people were shaken. There were many people in the church before that. The church was filled. But after this event, many people abandoned the faith.”

One leader explained that some people left one church because its leader “used to drink and smoke and use drugs.” In another case several church leaders took money from political parties during elections with the understanding that they would encourage their congregations to vote a certain way. “People heard that some of the leaders had taken that money and used it to buy things for themselves. Some people left the church because of that.”

Two leaders mentioned that pastors leaving to working Western Europe had led to congregational losses. The decline in one village church was largely the result of a pastor working in another country on two occasions for several months at a time without telling anyone he was going. As a result, the church failed to meet for several months.

Work-Related Reasons for Church Losses

The second-most-cited reason for people leaving churches related to work. Three interrelated aspects of work-related defections emerged: poverty, “running after money” abroad, and “growing cold.” According to most leaders, poverty led many people to seek work in Western Europe. Decreasing employment opportunities for Millet in Bulgaria became pronounced beginning about 2004. One leader clarified that work in itself is not the problem:

But it’s bad when they run after money and it gets in the way of their relationship with Jesus. People are poor and need to earn money, and that often means they spend all their time earning money and don’t give time to God or to the meetings. Their relationship with God grows cold. There are many people like that.In the same vein, another leader mentioned that over the previous two years, “a coldness has entered; people have given themselves to the world and to working.”

He contrasted this with the warmth that was in the church five and ten years ago. One of the leaders shed light on the subject: I grew cold in my faith while in Italy. Because Inexperienced this, I understand how it happens to others. Coldness comes when we work every day for five or six months, and people start to become greedy for money. You start to work continually. You have left your country, your wife, and your children to work. You start to think only about working to earn money. That’s how people grow cold. Once you stop coming to meetings – once, twice, three times – you start gradually to break away from spirituality, and the Holy Spirit starts to withdraw from you. Another respondent also described the extent of defections caused by people working abroad: Some don’t return, while others who do return only come back for a couple of months and then go again, and they aren’t able to keep the love they first had in the faith. From our church, about60 people have left with their families to work abroad. The ones who have returned have often stopped coming to meetings.

Known Sins Contributing to Church Losses

Some converts, after being in the church for a while, could not find the spiritual strength to abandon a life of sin. These individuals: Stop coming because of lack of money and they know they won’t be able to steal, but they like stealing, and they realize that God’s way is narrow. They think, “How am I going to earn enough money to live as a believer? And what will my life be like with only one wife?” One leader noted that adultery was a common sin among men when working overseas without their wives.

The Increasing Influence of Islam

In some villages with high percentages of Turks, Millet churches faced strong opposition from the local Muslim imam as well as from some Muslim villagers. Nevertheless, few left the church because of the growing influence of Islam. But for those who did abandon Christian faith, the next step sometimes was conversion to Islam. One leader shared that since 2000 “Many of the people who turned from the faith went to the mosque. Some of them had been coming to church for years.” In particular, young people became Muslims after 1995 following the incident of adultery noted earlier.

Other Factors Leading to Church Losses

Conflict among believers led to some church departures. In one case, two brothers worked together but one ran away with the money both had earned. Then the aggrieved brother reacted in anger and left the faith. In another case, a congregational split over ethnic tensions led to almost all Millet converts abandoning the church. Also, a denominational policy requiring church members to be baptized, to give a tithe of their income, and to attend worship services regularly caused some people to leave the church. As one leader explained, maybe the hardest thing for a Millet to do is to give money. Maybe this is our weakest point.

Some probably think they are stealing from God by not giving their tithe, feel guilty, and do not feel worthy of going to meetings. Also, older believers acting harshly toward other church members was said to have led to defections. Some church members were “driving people away by the things they did. They shouted at people and rebuked them saying, ‘You have this problem; you have that problem.’ People got offended and left.”

An additional problem concerned the distribution of food received from Christians outside Bulgaria. This material aid was given only to church members,  while people who had attended church but who had not become members felt discriminated against and consequently left the church. Finally, leaders noted that pressure from non-Christian husbands against believing spouses led to church losses. Muslim husbands, in particular, pressured Christian spouses to abandon their faith. ♦

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article  will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Fall 2010).


1 Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk, Operation World (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Publishing, 2001), 129.

2 Ilona Tomova, The Gypsies in the Transitional Period (Sofia: International Center for Minority Studies and International Relations, 1995).

3 Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov, “The Relations of Ethnic and Confessional Consciousness of Gypsies in Bulgaria,” Facta Universitasis: Philosophy and Sociology 2 (1999), 86.

4 Thomas Otto, “Spreadsheet of Attendees in Millet Churches in 2007,” unpublished paper, May 2007.

5 Marushiakova and Popov, “Relations,” 86.

6 Elena Marushiakova andVesselin Popov, Gypsies (Roma) in Bulgaria (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1997), 96; Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov, “Bulgaria: Ethnic Diversity—A Common Struggle for Equality” in Between Past and Future: The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe, ed. by Will Guy (Hatsfield, Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001), 372.

7 Tomova, Gypsies, 25.

8 Richard Y. Hibbert, “Stagnation and Decline Following Rapid Growth in Turkish-Speaking Roma

Churches in Bulgaria,” Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity International University, 2008. Editor’s note: Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent direct quotations will be taken from Hibbert’s survey research in his dissertation.

9 Otto, “Spreadsheet”; David Richards, phone conversation with author, August 2006; Sara Hewitt, email correspondence with author, February 2008; John Taylor, interview with author, combined with Excel file on church attendance with notes on 2001 developments, 2008.

10 Jorge Gomez, “Protestant Growth and Desertion in Costa Rica: Viewed in Relation to Churches with Higher Attrition Rates, Lower Attrition Rates, and More Mobility, as Affected by Evangelism (i.e. Message and Method) and Discipleship Practices (Including Church Discipline),” D. Min. project, Columbia International University, 1995.

11 Eugene Nida, “Dynamics of Church Growth” in Church Growth and Christian Mission, ed. by Donald McGavran (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library,


12 Allen Swanson, Mending the Nets: Taiwan Church Growth and Loss in the 1980s (Pasadena, CA: William

Carey Library, 1986).

13 Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970).

14 John Lofland and Rodney Stark, “Becoming a World- Saver,” American Sociological Review 30 (1965), 863- 74; Norman Skonovd, “The Process of Defection from Religious Totalism,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Davis, 1981; Swanson, Mending the Nets; Arthur Duck, “Attrition and Retention Factors in Three Pentecostal Churches in Curitaba, Brazil,” Ph.D.

dissertation, Trinity International University, 2001; Dean Hoge and David Roozen, “Research on Factors Influencing Church Commitment” in Understanding Church Growth and Decline 1950-1978 ed. by Dean Hoge and David Roozen (New York: The Philadelphia Press, 1979), 42-68; Janet Jacobs, “Deconversion from Religious Movements: An Analysis of Charismatic Bonding and Spiritual Commitment,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26 (No. 3, 1987), 294-308.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Richard Y. Hibbert, “Stagnation and Decline Following Rapid Growth in Turkish-Speaking Roma Churches in Bulgaria,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Trinity International University, 2008.

Richard Y. Hibbert is director of the School of Cross Cultural Mission, Sydney Missionary and Bible

College, Croydon, New South Wales, Aurtralia.