International Mission Board Church Planting in Central and Eastern Europe
“Why the continual emphasis on planting churches?” Many godly national evangelical leaders in Central and Eastern Europe posed this question to the International Mission Board (IMB) in the early 1990s.1 They quickly pointed out the need for trained pastors, renovated old buildings, erecting of new chapels, publishing of materials, and other pervasive needs. Not only were their churches going through an unprecedented transition, the IMB was also in transition and developing an unapologetic focus on church planting as the key to fulfilling the Great Commission. Clearly, the needs went beyond the establishment of new churches, but was any need truly greater?
Early IMB History in Central and Eastern Europe (1920-1942)
The work of the IMB in Central and Eastern Europe dates back to the historic London Conference held in 1920. This conference, following the end of World War I, was attended by representatives of Northern Baptists, Canadian Baptists, British Baptists, and the International Mission Board to chart out the next chapter of missions engagement in Europe. With personnel already serving in Italy, the IMB agreed to new assignments in Spain, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine “with territories east thereof.”2
The IMB responded immediately with humanitarian aid to Ukraine and Russia, helping with an acute famine during the early 1920s. Personnel could not obtain residential visas, so work was coordinated by sporadic visits and national coordination. Everett Gill led the IMB work in Central and Eastern Europe and reported in 1922: “As elsewhere, our principal work will eventually be that of helping in the work of theological schools, publication work, and church planting. For the present we must help the churches to support their pastors, though this is understood to be a temporary matter.”3
Missionaries arrived in Romania in 1923 and were embraced by Baptist Union leaders. Evangelicals were struggling in the face of intense government persecution, and early IMB workers helped the Romanian Baptist Union establish a theological school and publishing house.4 Funds were also provided for the Hungarian Baptist Union to start a theological school, publishing house, and to provide loans for new church buildings.5 The first IMB appointments arrived in Hungary in 1935.
Yugoslavia was first mentioned in IMB records in 1922, with the work described as “a small Baptist Union of about six hundred, which included Germans, Hungarians, and Croats.”6 Personnel finally arrived from the IMB in 1938 and helped purchase land for a seminary in September 1940.7 Unfortunately, by early 1942, all IMB workers had been evacuated from these countries due to World War II, and nearly 50 years would pass before residential visas could again be secured.
IMB History in Central and Eastern Europe (1988-1993)
During the Cold War, IMB workers lived outside the Soviet Union and its satellites, but often traveled into these countries. Ongoing contact continued with Baptist Union leaders, and some support was provided through intermediaries. Interestingly, Nela Horak was the granddaughter of the founder of the Baptist Union in Yugoslavia, Vincent Vacek, and the daughter of a Baptist pastor and Union leader, Josip Horak. She married an American exchange student, James Williams. They were appointed by the IMB to Yugoslavia in 1976 and were allowed to live behind the “Iron Curtain.”8 Tragically, James was killed in an automobile accident in 1980, after which Nela continued to raise their three children and serve in her assignment. She was the only IMB worker allowed to live in the region for several years. In 1988, Bill and Debbie Steele arrived in Yugoslavia as the first of a new wave of IMB missionaries who would enter former Communist states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The IMB was undergoing major changes in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1988 the organization released the “70/30” Plan for all workers. Of the plan, President Keith Parks wrote, “The ten-year plan to have seventy percent of Southern Baptist missionaries giving more than half of their time to evangelistic outreach and church planting is part of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board’s [IMB] effort to escalate the rate of reaching the world for Christ.”9 Many missionaries embraced church planting but some saw a devaluing of auxiliary ministries like medical and educational initiatives. This emphasis gained strength in the following decade and was replaced by a campaign called “New Directions” in 1997. Avery Willis, IMB senior vice president for overseas operations, commented:
As we began to look again at what God is saying to us, we saw there were some things we needed to come back to. New Directions is a return to a biblical mandate. The Bible is what we want our missionary manual to be. The basic concepts of New Directions are:
1) A strong emphasis on prayer support,
2) Focusing on people groups wherever they are instead of organizing by countries,
3) Missionaries who work in teams to plan comprehensive strategies for sharing the gospel with entire people groups,
4) Lay training programs that enable new believers to move quickly into church leadership roles,
5) Working in cooperation with “Great Commission Christian” mission partners,
6) Working and praying for God-led church planting movements to begin, and
7) A general “whatever-it-takes” approach to sharing the gospel, despite social, political, cultural or other barriers.10
Many Baptist leaders in Europe did not embrace this new emphasis and preferred the previous relationship and institutional support.
The vast majority of the first IMB missionaries deployed to Central and Eastern Europe were transfers from other countries. The argument was made that transfers would be able to more quickly acclimate to very different cultures and would be able to connect more easily to national leaders. The early workers were called “fraternal representatives” and served largely a liaison function with existing Baptist Unions. Since the priorities of virtually every union were consolidation and structural health, very few of these early workers engaged in the planting of new churches.
New Emphasis on Church Planting Bears Fruit
The noted changes in the IMB became obvious in the former Soviet Union and satellites by the middle of the 1990s. Four varied examples will be given over a 15-year timeline.
This author and his family arrived in Poland in 1991 and immediately began language study in Krakow. The local Baptist pastor and Union leadership were accepting and encouraging, but church planting was a new discussion point for most of the leaders. The Baptist Union had suffered momentous losses during World War II and struggled to survive during the following four decades. Despite government persecution and the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church, the Union continued faithfully to encourage churches, conduct camps, and be “salt and light” in the society.
In 1993, Gustaw Cieslar, pastor of the Krakow Baptist Church, was asked to serve as president of the Polish Baptist Theological Seminary scheduled to open the following year in the Warsaw suburb of Radosc. Cieslar agreed and asked Mark Edworthy to move to Warsaw and serve as dean and professor of the new school. Edworthy consulted with the Baptist Union which agreed to change his assignment from church planter in Krakow to church planter in Warsaw. He insisted that he was primarily a church planter who also served as dean and professor of the new seminary. Along with his wife, Susie, and three children, Edworthy moved to Warsaw in June 1993. The Baptist Union was positive about a new church but underscored that no city had two Baptist churches, no church had ever been started in a public building, and no church had ever been started by a foreigner. After several meetings with the elders of the existing church, Edworthy finally received a lukewarm blessing to start a second church. Along with six young Polish believers, the Edworthys began to earnestly pray and plan for the new work.
In October 1993, Edworthy invited a seven-day volunteer team from the U.S. to Warsaw to share the gospel in public parks, teach English in the high school where the new church would meet, and distribute invitations to the church start. The church planting team participated with the volunteers and also mailed 10,000 brochures announcing the new church and giving a coupon for a free New Testament. The team decided to launch with a worship service instead of a home Bible study, which historically took 10-12 years to grow to an official church with 25 members. The argument was given that many Roman Catholics preferred a measure of anonymity and might attend a worship service if they could observe and decide their level of participation. The first worship service had about 35 in attendance, including the 10 from the volunteer team. Many seekers without a church home visited the new fellowship, and attendance averaged over 25 for the first three months.
The worship was marked by its informality, upbeat music, testimonies, brief expositiory messages delivered by Edworthy in Polish, and extended times of prayer. The new congregation also hosted a time of fellowship with coffee, tea, and baked goods each Sunday after the service. Several people repented during that first year, and six were baptized. Several evangelical college students also joined the church during their years of study. Forty baptized believers were present when the congregation was officially constituted as the Second Baptist Church of Warsaw on the first anniversary of its initial meeting. The new church called a Polish bi-vocational pastor, Wlodek Tasak, about six months later. Though the church did not grow significantly numerically over the next decade, it was directly involved in the start of several other churches.
The IMB work in Lithuania began with the arrival of Milton and Lara Magalhaes in Klaipeda in January 1996.11 The first three years were spent in learning the language and visiting the few existing churches in the country. In late 1998, the Magalhaeses relocated to nearby Silute and started a group in their home. The Lord blessed, soon three families were actively sharing the gospel, and several people began attending the new congregation. Milton Magalhaes discovered that a Baptist church had existed many decades before, so the young congregation gave sacrificially and purchased the former Baptist parsonage in which to meet. Within a year, the church was officially registered and had a membership of over 30 baptized believers.
The primary strategy was intensive gospel sharing in the town and evangelistic visits with the relatives of new believers. The young church also organized camps and special events where the gospel was clearly presented. In a country where the existing Baptist churches usually baptized two to three believers annually, this was an amazing harvest. By the end of the decade, the church helped establish the New Hope Baptist Church in Klaipeda. This church emerged from a Christian-based recovery program where several residents had come to faith. One of the former addicts became the pastor and continues to serve in that role today.
The IMB deployed its first personnel to Russia in 1990. but several years passed before the first churches were started. By the mid-1990s, churches had been formed by the IMB in Khabarovsk and Moscow. In the ensuing decade, scores of churches were started across this vast country. To date, the best example of reproducing church plants in Russia is in Ufa. The city had one Baptist church when communism fell in 1991 and seven by 2005. Chris and Eileen Carr arrived in 2000 with a vision for reproducing models of church planting.12
Over the next decade, Carr shared various training models related to organic or simple church planting. He slowly began to influence the traditional mind-set and earned the right to influence the regional association of Evangelical Christian-Baptist churches. He expanded and sharpened his training which included: Indigenous Church Planting by Charles Brock, Training 4 Trainers (IMB), Acts 29 by Bruce Carlton, Pioneer Evangelism by Wade Akins, Universal Disciple/ProCare by Thom Wolfe, Alpha by Nicky Gumbel, The OrganicChurch by Neil Cole, and Rethinking the Wineskin and Rethinking Church by Frank Viola.
Carr used these many resources to develop a training course which became the basis for a doctor of ministry project. He shared the vision of replicating new churches at an associational retreat in August 2009. A small group of pastors and leaders agreed to attend the nine training sessions conducted in the fall of 2009. The group quickly embraced this new understanding of biblical principles and started 17 new house or cell groups by the end of the project. Within a year, these had expanded to approximately 30 groups in the city and surrounding areas. The fledgling movement is currently addressing the challenge of developing leaders as rapidly as the new groups are developing.
The final example relates to the expanding work among Roma (Gypsies) throughout Europe. The IMB’s work with Roma began in 1991 in Romania. It was focused primarily in that country for the first decade where several new churches were started. The work expanded to other countries over the next decade and presently includes groups in Poland, Macedonia, Slovakia, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
Roma believers at the center of the expansion are the most exciting part of the Roma story. Under the leadership of Boyd Hatchel, Roma have been sent as summer missionaries for several years.13 Partial support was provided to assist them during these weeks of ministry in which they were challenged to strengthen an existing Roma church and help start a new one. Many groups resulted over the past five years. The program was enlarged in 2010 with the sending of Roma missionaries on one-year assignments, resulting in the development of new groups in Skopje, Rome, and Prague.
Two Roma families agreed to move from Krakow, Poland, to dedicate a year to starting a church in Prague. They arrived in the summer of 2010 and immediately began sharing the gospel in the Roma communities of Prague. They saw a few people respond to the gospel and others express varying degrees of interest. They launched a new church in a rented room in January 2011. Over 60 attended the initial service and nearly 20 responded to the gospel in the following four months. The church continues to grow and actively share the gospel with Roma who have yet to hear.
The IMB has assigned over a thousand short-term and long-term missionaries to Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with approximately two-thirds of the total serving long-term. These workers served faithfully with varying degrees of effectiveness. New churches have been started in over 20 countries and countless national leaders have been trained through the work of the IMB. At the same time, missionary personnel are still learning how to more effectively plant reproducing churches and to work more closely with national partners and other Great Commission Christians. Thankfully many national and international partners now share the vision of planting churches. The prayer of IMB is that the Lord will continue to multiply His Church among every nation, tribe, people, and tongue throughout Europe. ◆
1. IMB was founded in 1845 as the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. The current name, adopted in 1997, will be used throughout.
2. William Estep, Whole Gospel, Whole World: The Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention 1845–1995 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 62.
3. Minutes of the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC, Annual SBC Convention, 17 May 1922, archives.
4. Ibid., 16 May 1923.
5. Ibid., 17 May 1922.
7. Ibid., 12 June 1940.
8. Nela Williams interview with author, 26 June 2008.
9. Don Martin, “Parks Calls 70-30 Ratio Effort to Speed Up World Evangelization,” Baptist Press, 27 July 1988, 1.
10. Mike Creswell, “Europe, Middle East Baptist Leaders Confer with IMB on Unfinished Task,” Baptist Press, 11 April 2000, 1.
11. Milton Magalhaes interview with author, 22 March 2011.
12. Chris Carr, interview with author, 1 April 2011.
13. Boyd Hatchel interview with author, 8 March 2011.
Mark Edworthy, based in Prague, Czech Republic, is a missionary serving with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.