All of Eastern and Central Europe received much attention in the late 1980s as political change came swiftly. The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, which ended religious restrictions, prompted an immediate influx of Western missionaries who desired to take advantage of the new conditions. Now, nearly a decade later, what is the spiritual landscape?
Certainly, the need for the gospel is great, but the "rush for souls" in the early 1990s included many spiritual counterfeits with which true Christianity has had to compete. According to Christian Fellowship Prague senior pastor, Dan Drápal, "It was much more open in the first years after the revolution, but it's tough because freedom is freedom for everybody."1
The Czech Republic has been heavily secularized for many years. Forced Catholicization under centuries of Hapsburg rule, followed by fifty years under nazism and communism, robbed many Czechs of any vital Christian experience. A mindset of unbelief best describes the legacy of Marxist indoctrination. Because communists believed that the sufficiency of man was to be demonstrated through science and culture, God and the church were unimportant. A 1991 survey of European values showed that the Czech Republic is one of the least religious states in Europe.2 Today, 80 percent of Czechs are atheists or agnostics. Commenting on the decline of belief and church attendance in Europe, Martin Jan Stransky, publisher of the monthly magazine The New Presence, noted,
Nevertheless, Roman Catholicism remains the largest religious body in the Czech Republic. Although it outnumbers the next five religious groups combined by a ratio of 8:1, its influence is far less than in earlier times. Approximately 500,000 (5 percent of the population) attend mass each week. Tomaš Halík, philosophy professor and chaplain at Prague's Charles University, noted that Catholicism had a brief opportunity to regain influence immediately following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, but failed "because the Church itself was unable to hold its ranks together and its words were not followed by sufficiently tangible and credible actions."4 On the other hand, the Catholic renewal movement is active and young people frequently attend Halík's masses. He challenges them to work together and to dialog with humanists who similarly opposed communism.5
Other religious groups have somewhat less influence. The Czechoslovak or modern Hussite Church dates from 1920. While its members oppose Catholic Church practices, it is not connected with the teachings of Jan Hus (1372-1415). The Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren appeared when Czechoslovakia became independent in 1918. It emerged from a consolidation of Calvinists and most Lutheran groups. Both churches have embraced theological liberalism and have memberships of less than 200,000 each, a small fraction of their pre-World War II levels. Lutherans who did not join the Czech Brethren number about 50,000 and Eastern Orthodox, about 20,000.
Evangelical Christians constitute one-half of one percent of Czechs, about 50,000 people. The largest of the evangelical groups is the Brethren Church with 8,000 members. According to the denomination's president, Pavel Cerny, the Brethren Church has 46 churches and 100 mission fellowships with a goal to plant a church in every community without an evangelical congregation. Seventh-day Adventists are similar in size and have very active radio and social ministry. Various other religious bodies, including Judaism, Moravian Brethren, Baptists, Methodists, and the Apostolic Church (Pentecostal), have memberships estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 each. Christian Fellowship Prague, an indigenous Czech church, added 15 percent to its numbers per year during the early 1990s, but its growth rate has leveled off since then. At present this group has 62 churches in the country with a membership of approximately 2,200. Other religious bodies such as the Church of Christ and Grace Brethren are establishing, or have established, churches, but their numbers are small.
Leadership Training and Other Needs
An essential step to growth is leadership training and the cultivation, discipleship, enrichment, and continued education of Christian workers. Leadership development was formerly the exclusive domain of the communist government and to even use the spoken or written term leadership was dangerous. The church focused on survival. It has taken six of the first eight years of freedom for pastors in training to confidently say, "We think we will be able to lead." Fear of failure, a feeling that "others can do it better," a critical spirit, and an inclination to be divisive, all stifled the church's willingness to take responsibility.
Understanding and rejecting this "theology of failure" are keys to change, along with an environment which encourages a supportive, rather than a critical spirit. Unity is understood to be crucial to church growth and divisive issues have to be addressed directly with biblical teaching, modeling, and practical application. Czech Christians also need more inductive Bible study methods, in contrast to the deductive approach common in Eastern and Central Europe. Teaching inductive Bible study along with solid hermeneutics is foundational to growth and discipleship.
Another key need is instruction about the family. The absence of biblical teaching about relationships, a climate of social and economic hopelessness, sexual immorality, and alcoholism combine to undermine family stability. Because of the country's high divorce rate, the need and the desire for teaching on single parenting is great. Christian retreats, workshops, and seminars can address a myriad of marital and family problems. The development of lay and professional counselors is a critical need, especially in view of the limited number of Christian therapists and marriage and family counselors.
What is being done to meet the need for training and education? Evangelical (Reformed) Theological Seminary in Prague is developing a new campus as part of its current degree-granting program. The International Baptist Theological Seminary (IBTS) relocated to Prague from Rüschlikon, Switzerland, in 1995. It shifted its focus starting with the summer of 1998 to specialized theological studies at the master's and doctoral level, in partnership with several European universities. At the same time, IBTS will continue its commitment to continuing education and nontraditional training through conferences and workshops. Programs such as those offered by Christian Leadership International (formerly Biblical Education by Extension) and Training Christians for Ministry in Europe (formerly Taking Christ to the Millions) continue to provide excellent and consistent biblical teaching. Small training programs, extension classes, and individual workshops and seminars offered by various churches and ministries such as the Institute for Christian Resources are essential in order to help fill the gap in Christian education. More Christian literature in the Czech language remains a critical need. Indigenous evangelical publishers, including Navrat Domu and Nova Nadeje, continue to address the shortage.
Evangelistic outreach to minorities and refugees has not received adequate attention. Unfortunately, Czech society tends to view Gypsies with a certain level of disdain, with open discrimination and individual acts of violence against them on the rise. In 1997 substantial numbers attempted to seek asylum in other countries in search of a better life, but few succeeded. The superstitious nature of Gypsies' religious practices and their close-knit communities have made evangelistic efforts difficult.
Equally isolated is the rather closed Vietnamese community which, since the 1989 Revolution, has been stranded by the cancellation of labor agreements between communist governments. Some efforts also have been made to reach out to Bosnians, Ukrainians, and others living in refugee camps through the distribution of Bibles and personal items, but there are many unmet needs.
The Missionary Presence
Currently, at least 125 single missionaries and missionary families are serving in the Czech Republic, about half in Prague, and one-third in Brno. Independent parachurch organizations, denominational mission boards, and individuals are active in a variety of ministries which can be divided into seven broad categories: church planting and direct evangelism; English language and other teaching; university and sports ministries; communications and radio ministry; leadership development; library and Christian literature distribution; and ministry to families, including marriage and youth camps.6 All of these efforts supplement what indigenous churches are doing, including the efforts of the Christian Missionary Society (KMS). Indeed, Czech churches have a passion and determination to become "sending" churches.
Western ministries are finding work in the Czech Republic more challenging today. During this season of adjustment and refocus some organizations are downsizing and some are pulling out completely. Factors include discouragement and health problems related to the environment. Also, restrictions now being considered by the Czech government could make it more difficult for foreigners to obtain long-term residency permits.
Fundamental change in a post-communist society takes time, at least a generation. Understanding felt needs and working in partnership with the indigenous churches continue to be essential. The challenge is great, the opportunities are enormous, and time may be limited. We must seek God's purposes and not our own; we must desire to be God's instruments, pliable in His hands; and we must serve with a focused perseverance.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1998 Institute for East-West Christian Studies