Conversion and Defection among Roma (Gypsies) in Bulgaria

Richard Y. Hibbert

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Summer 2010): 8-11.

Leader Suggestions for Reducing Defections

Surveyed leaders made recommendations for helping people grow in their faith, helping them continue coming to church, and helping those who had left the church to return. Leaders recommended visiting people in their homes, teaching (especially young people), and gathering Millet believers together for meetings when abroad.

Visiting people in their homes was the most frequent suggestion for helping people come back to the church. One leader gave a poignant example from his own life: I left the church and God’s way. I was in the world the whole summer. I came back to the Lord’s way in late 1991. I went to the hospital and the brothers came to visit me there. They didn’t forget me. I was in the hospital 47 days. I knew that this sickness was from God and that he wanted me to put things right. I understood this. I didn’t expect the brothers would visit me but when they did, I completely changed. It really touched my heart deeply and I made a decision to go back to the church as soon as I left the hospital.1

Another leader generalized the application of this example with the following axiom: “Visiting people is the single most important thing in bringing them back to church. If you go and visit them, some come back. If you don’t visit them, they don’t come back.”

Two leaders stated that teaching, especially young people, was the most important means of helping people grow in their faith and keeping them in the church. Both underscored the need to teach people the real meaning of the Scriptures, as well as being an example to them. One leader emphasized that normally it is years after people start coming to church that they understand the gospel. The second leader explained: “We need to put more effort into making special meetings for youth and children. At the moment, we don’t have any at all.” He felt this need was particularly urgent in view of the rapidly increasing number of Millet youth becoming addicted to drugs, a problem which began in 2003. Another leader suggested that Millet believers working abroad should gather together regularly for worship: “It’s important to meet together and pray and sing hymns so that believers will be before God all the time and won’t become greedy for money and won’t start worshipping money.”

Sustained growth of village churches in one region ran counter to expectations. The explanation may be found in a feeding program that a town church operated with West European Christian funding. This outreach provided hot lunches most days of the week in several villages. Experience in other areas of Bulgaria, including my own and that of John Taylor,2 suggests that when food distribution stops, church attendance declines. This approach to church planting apparently bears fruit in the short term. However, it also has the inherent danger of promoting “rice Christianity” which is likely to stimulate defections once feeding programs stop.

Reasons for Leaving Church Given by Defectors

Reasons given by defectors for leaving church corresponded closely with those given by regional coordinators and by pastors, as well as with explanations offered by others interviewed. The 20 defectors interviewed gave four main reasons for leaving: 1) Being hurt by or disillusioned with their pastor or group of pastors (11 cases); 2) other commitments which seemed to be a cover for actions they—or others—considered wrong or sinful (four cases); 3) opposition from husbands (two cases); and 4) conflict with another believer (one case).

The predominance of leader-related reasons for departures is not unexpected, given the lack of opportunities for seminary training or support available to Millet pastors. Many leaders began pastoring churches while they themselves had been believers for only a few months or a few years.

The specific behaviors of leaders that former church members found hurtful or disillusioning included leaders acting independently, making decisions about money alone, misusing money, insulting parishioners, engaging in questionable behavior, and failing to visit church members facing difficulties. An inappropriately authoritarian style of leadership seemed to be at the heart of most pastoral shortcomings. Heavy-handed leadership appears, in turn, to derive from poorly contextualized Bulgarian denominational policies requiring a single, male leader and leadership patterns which fit poorly with Millet cultural values of togetherness and inclusiveness. Some missionaries among the Millet have made the same observation that an authoritarian leadership style has contributed to the decline in the Millet church movement.3

Another missionary hypothesis associates the decline with the transition from female to male leadership. Women church leaders would have had much more limited opportunity than men to copy the headstrong Bulgarian church leadership style, and the role of women in Millet culture does not lend itself to authoritarian behavior. Another contributing factor may be the process of institutionalization, as described by Thomas O’Dea, with its tendency to generate mixed motivations among leaders, including self-interest and desire for prestige.4

One of the most striking findings of this study is that all Millet defectors (except for one who became a local Muslim imam) still expressed belief in Jesus and continued to pray regularly. An estimated 6,000 or more Millet who no longer attend church may still have faith in Jesus. This statistic has important implications for future church growth among the Millet, with a large pool of people who are positive toward Jesus, but who are not currently part of any church.

Deficient conversions also contributed to church defections. Utilitarian concerns that revolved around God’s giving them what they asked for and his protection for them and their children were the most important features of Christianity for Millet converts, both those who have remained active in church and those who have left. Unmet needs characterize the accounts of at least three converts who left the church: They became disappointed with God when their desire to become pregnant, receive healing, or see a change in their husband did not occur. Although utilitarian concerns appeared to be the main reason behind defections, these individuals, surprisingly, still maintained that they had found deep and fulfilling meaning in being a Christian. They were continuing to experience a relationship with God characterized by prayer and the sense of His ongoing presence in their lives.

Reviving the Millet Church Movement

The unanticipated finding in this study that almost all those who left the church still believed in Jesus, prayed to Him, and viewed church meetings positively suggests that appropriate evangelism among defectors could bear fruit. At the time of the interviews most who had left the church were positive about the thought of returning, but were prevented from doing so by a sense of sin or shame. According to many of the pastors, visiting lapsed members in their homes was the most important action that could be taken to bring them back into the fold. Put succinctly, “If you go and visit them, some come back. If you don’t visit them, they don’t come back.” The simple act of visiting defectors in their homes and asking them about their departure led many interviewees to thank me and the believer who took me to their home. Many admitted that they were longing for such visits. Therefore, if initiative is taken by other believers – both fellow church members and leaders – to visit defectors in their homes, it seems likely that the warmth expressed by this action may overcome their sense of sin and shame.

For those whose departure from church stemmed from disappointment with leaders, reconciliation with those leaders is essential if defectors are to be won back. This resolution generally will require the initiative and willingness of the leader to ask for forgiveness. Both present and former church members stressed that their first church meeting had played a major role in their faith development. This finding underscores the importance of believers’ gestures of concern and friendship extended to first-time church visitors. These facts readily suggest actions that should be taken by Millet churches. First, Roma churches need to recognize the importance of newcomers’ first church meeting and to realize that they often come with a strong felt need, often a need for healing. Second, Roma believers should take the opportunity to ask first-time attendees about their specific needs and to pray for them then and there. Third, it would be well if some church members intentionally build relationships with newcomers. Preferably a small group of believers would take this initiative because interviewees in this study expressed particular appreciation for the care shown to them by groups of believers.

Home Visitation Vital

Perhaps the most important single activity for Millet church believers to stem defections is to visit the homes of people who have missed one or two meetings. Those interviewed reported that such gestures from fellow believers were the most important factor in shoring up the faith of those who were tempted to leave the church. Visits, encouragement, and prayer led many of those who had temporarily stopped coming to return. Churches that organize teams to regularly visit lapsed members and those known to be in difficulty should expect positive results. Where possible and relevant, material help from the church may be a powerful, tangible expression of care.

Believers also need support when they work abroad. According to many interviewees, the experience of being alone while away from home led people to grow cold in their faith. On the other hand, those who went abroad to work who gathered regularly with other Millet believers shared that they grew in their faith. Two strategies could be employed to prevent the loss of members working abroad. First, believers who decide to go abroad to work should be encouraged to go as a group with other believers and to find accommodations together or to join believers who are already in another country. Second, pastors could train believers who are planning to go abroad to lead worship meetings and to provide pastoral care for Millet working away from home.

An authoritarian leadership style, which characterizes many ethnic Bulgarian churches, appears to have been adopted in all of the Millet churches under study. This, in turn, has led to leaders acting in an overbearing and insulting manner toward church members. Patterns of decision-making in Millet society, in contrast, tend to be much more consultative, with a high degree of group participation. Alternative patterns of leadership in Millet churches should be explored. My observation is that plural leadership characterized the early phases of many Millet churches, whereas the emergence of a single male leader has often led to tensions and envy among other men in the church. The leadership model of the Millet extended family, which involves plural leadership combining several of the oldest members, including women, and one or two middle-aged spokespersons (men and women), should be considered.

New structures for gathering and supporting one another as believers – indeed for being church – seem to be emerging. A fruit seller shared that after 16 years of being a believer, he had discovered the true meaning of church. He and a small group of believers had been meeting in a home for more than a year and had found the support of this small house church invaluable. “We really care for each other, and are constantly on the phone to each other,” he said. This small group structure may lead to greater commitment and fewer defections by increasing the intensity of social interaction and expressions of care for one another, what Rodney Stark and Roger Finke call the density of the social network.5 A small group structure like this, whether in the form of house churches, a cell church structure, or home groups of a larger congregation have great potential.

Rigid denominational membership requirements led some regular attenders to leave churches following distributions of material aid to members only. This policy and the denominational requirement that church members tithe, tend to marginalize those who attend church regularly but who are not members. Such practices, which run counter to Millet cultural values, undermine rather than foster church loyalty.

The almost complete lack of youth and children in Millet church meetings, and the lack of separate meetings for them, suggest that youth do not find church appealing. Pastors interviewed, as well as sociologists including Rodney Stark,6 have identified inadequate socialization of youth as a major cause of church decline. One solution would appear to be meetings for children and youth that are more inviting.

Problems with leadership were the most frequently cited explanations offered for defections. Therefore, strategies aimed at improving the quality of pastors are crucial, not only in preventing decline, but also in fostering the health of the Millet church movement. Specific steps should include improved leadership selection stressing character traits essential for successful ministry. Leadership development for Millet church leaders is extremely limited, especially for those whose first language is Turkish. Opportunities for Turkish-language pastoral training should be increased. In addition, non-residential programs will be necessary because the majority of pastors are not able to leave their homes for long periods of time. Training done in groups, with more than one pastor from each multi-congregation neighborhood, is likely to help foster positive relationships among leaders and may help overcome some of the conflicts among pastors. Trainers also need to emphasize conflict resolution, together with mentoring. Finally, ongoing support and encouragement of pastors is sorely needed because most have no access to a mentor or other trusted person with whom they can share their struggles. The development of peer mentoring may be one way to address this need.

Implications for Other Mission Contexts

Those who leave churches, especially if they have stopped participating in church life for several years, are often assumed to be apostates who have given up both attending and believing. However, the finding of this study is that almost all Millet defectors still believe in Jesus and still hold positive views of the church Therefore, it should not be assumed that defectors are apostate; many may still believe. In turn, it may be possible to develop ways of drawing lapsed Millet believers back into fellowship with other believers in existing or in new churches. F


1 Unless otherwise noted, direct quotations are taken from Hibbert’s dissertation survey research without attribution.

2 John Taylor, interview with author, combined with Excel file of church attendance with notes on 2001 developments, 2008.

3 David Richards, phone conversation with author, August 2006.

4 Thomas O’Dea, “Five Dilemmas in the Institutionalization of Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1 (1961), 30-39.

5 Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

6 Rodney Stark, “How New Religions Succeed: A Theoretical Model” in The Future of New Religious Movements, ed. by Rodney Stark (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987).

Richard Y. Hibbert is director of the School of Cross Cultural Mission, Sydney Missionary and Bible College, Croydon, New South Wales, Australia.

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.