Influx from the West
In all East European countries there is a rush from hundreds of organizations in the West to do missions there. Some of them do good, some of them not so good, some of them do bad things.
There is much emphasis on evangelism. It seems to me that even the ones who do not come as evangelists end up doing the work of evangelists. They may come as pastors who want to preach in churches, but most of the time in their preaching there is an invitation and many people respond. People are able to return to the West and say they recorded so many conversions in Romania. I see a lot of that desire to show good results in conversions.
There is a big problem there. If you ask most people, they will gladly accept Jesus, but they don't know what that means. And so you will not see those people returning to the church after that Western evangelist leaves. What do we do in a city such as Constansa, where in 1991 an American evangelist preached two nights in the stadium. There were 26,000 conversions. All the evangelicals in the city amount to about 1,000 people. So what do we do about follow-up? Very few of those converted people show up in a church afterwards.
That's one of the sad aspects of the work of the foreigners. There should be much more emphasis on training locals to organize and pastor churches, to work with youth and other people. Otherwise, the conversions will come to nothing. Most of the foreigners cannot do follow-up. It could be done if they came to settle there, learn the language, and do the follow-up but there are very few who would do that. Most of the people want quick results and then they go away.
East-West cooperative effort: problems and possibilities
Many pastors and other Christians have come to see the needs. They came and kept the pastors and other Christians busy taking them to see the poverty, the hospitals, the orphanages. They took videotapes and photographs and promised help. We took them to local authorities and institutions. Everyone said, "Great! Christians will help us!"
They went back to their countries and we never heard from them again. Later on, the mayor and other people went to the Baptist pastor or the Pentecostal pastor and said, "Where are those people who made those big promises?" And in the eyes of the authorities we are the liars. It is very embarrassing, because we got so many promises and nothing was done afterwards.
There are many who come for short-term ministries--in orphanages, with the handicapped, other social work, and even ministries in churches or in the area of church-planting. I don't see much lasting impact in the lives of churches from the short-term ministries. But there are some. One of the most successful was a group of 145 who worked in three cities for two weeks. We employed 30 translators in each city to give them enough translators for them to have a real ministry. It was an extraordinary effort. They really reached areas where we could not go, such as the high schools. But I must tell you, the effort in organizing was tremendous. I doubt we could do that very many times. People had to take time off from work to provide the translations. Obviously, this is not something we could do on a regular basis. Western groups have also helped us start a Bible institute, a publishing house, and Christian radio. So it is possible, but there are many obstacles.
Short-term problems, long-term solutions
Many people who come want us to tell them our needs. It would be much better if someone who is serious and really means to help would say, "We see that you don't have children's ministry. We have a project for you. Here is exactly what we can do for you. Here is how much money we are prepared to spend on helping you develop this children's ministry." If you don't have such a project and you are not ready to spend money, don't go there to deceive people into believing that you are there because you want to help.
In the January 1992 census, only .2 percent of the Romanians registered as atheists. With that amazingly small proportion, everyone is claiming some link with Christianity, with some denomination. Politically and ideologically, the Communist idea has completely exhausted itself. Marxism is thrown out in every former Communist country of Eastern Europe. Everybody in the university is busy purging courses of everything that smacks of Marxism. People are looking to either the secular approach to their science or, in most cases, they want to add something Christian to their thinking and their world view.
Our fear is that the Romanian Orthodox Church will get much stronger as a national church and somehow end our activities. There is some justification for that fear. Among the six candidates for presidency, one of them stated that if he were elected he would get rid of Jews, Hungarians, and evangelicals. Ten percent of the people voted for him.
Some people were working for the new Constitution to name Orthodoxy as the national church. This was refused. Legally, there is no national church in Romania. They also tried to pass an article forbidding proselytizing, and that was also refused. There is going to be a new law on religion. I doubt that there will be some Christian input into the lawmaking process. Most of the lawmakers are secular people trained in Marxist schools. They now look to the West European system of law. There will be no real effort to understand Christian principles and apply them to law.
Eastern Europe never had a Reformation. Countries in Eastern Europe are either Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic. Orthodox countries include Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Georgia, and Armenia. [Editor's note: some specialists consider the Armenian Apostolic Church to be Orthodox. Others consider that its Monophysite belief, that the human and divine in Christ constitute only one nature, sets it apart from Orthodoxy.] Roman Catholic countries include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Croatia. None of these countries had a significant Reformation, with the exception of the Czech Republic and parts of Hungary.
I believe the most significant movement toward Reformation in Eastern Europe is taking place in Romania. According to the recent census (January 1992), there are 23 million Romanians, of which 230,000 are Pentecostal, 109,000 are Baptist, and about 50,000 are Plymouth Brethren. That makes about 400,000 people of the Reformation. If you add to that the Lord's Army, which is an evangelical movement within the Orthodox Church of Romania, you may add a few hundred thousand people. The leaders of the Lord's Army claim up to half a million followers. So there are close to a million evangelical people, and I believe that makes for the beginning of a real Reformation. Now we have to see which way to best impact an Orthodox society.
To be Evangelical and Orthodox
When the Lord's Army started in the 1920s, it started under the initiative of an Orthodox bishop who wanted to improve the moral condition of Romania. But about ten years into the movement, the priest came to see that there was no basis for moral life as long as people didn't have a clear understanding of who Jesus was, and a clear experience of giving their lives to Jesus Christ. At that point, he began to speak of the need for conversion. He became a heretic in the eyes of many in the Orthodox Church. Consequently, this man, Iosif Trifa, was put on trial and condemned a heretic. Since that time, the Lord's Army was a condemned movement.
The Lord's Army was also severely persecuted under the Communists. Two years ago, the Orthodox Church made the decision that the movement should be welcome in the church. When we created the Evangelical Alliance in 1990, all the leaders of the Lord's Army participated. They made great contributions to the drafting of the statement of faith and really strengthened it in some points. As their relationship with the Orthodox Church has been strengthened, most have maintained friendly relations with evangelicals, but have pulled out of the Alliance.
An appeal to Western Christians
Given the complex situation in Romania and the many mistakes of well-meaning but unprepared foreign workers, my appeal to missions is: Send us qualified people who are willing to invest in the nation and stay long enough to learn the language. If you teach nationals to do church-planting and follow-up ministries, you will multiply your ministries in a thousand ways. To the Western mission agency or church I say: Define clearly what you want to do, and send highly qualified people. Remember that you are in a European country with many highly trained people. They will look at your credentials and expect you to be intellectual on their level. Only then will you have effective ministry there.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The summer issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report will examine Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant relations. The editors invite your comments and perspectives on interconfessional cooperation and conflict in the former Soviet Union and East Central Europe.
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© 1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report