Christianity in Lithuania has a long and intriguing history. Entering more than 600 years ago, when Lithuania was forming as a European state, Roman Catholicism soon took the dominant position. Conflict between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches dates back to those times. The sixteenth century brought tense conflict with the churches of the Reformation, finally resulting in the reestablishment of Catholic domination. Various Evangelical and marginal movements which arrived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries still impact Lithuanian society today. Soviet occupation in the twentieth century led to the oppression of churches of all faiths. Recovery from this oppression and renewal of the Church in Lithuania could be the starting point for a discussion among different streams of Christianity in Lithuania.
The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church in Lithuania for years was the dominant cultural and religious force. Today, it is by far the largest Christian confession in the country, with about 70 percent of Lithuanians professing to be Catholics. While spread throughout the country, the largest concentration of Catholics is in central, eastern, and southern Lithuania, where Lithuanian nationalist and Polish influence has been strongest. Of course, not all who profess to be Catholic practice their faith. Statistics show that only 14 percent of Catholics attend church weekly. Years of Soviet occupation left a mark on Lithuanian Catholicism. The church leadership did not adopt the reforms of Vatican II and in some cases even opposed the changes. At the same time, renewal movements faced indifference or distrust. Today, unprepared to face the rapid changes brought to Lithuania by Western influences, the Catholic Church in many instances is losing its authority in the eyes of the common people.
However, the Catholic Church at the same time is experiencing renewal, resulting in a new ecumenical openness and cooperation with Evangelicals. The Charismatic, lay Franciscan, and other renewal movements that are evangelical in nature are having a strong impact, especially among youth. Publication efforts have been largely reshaped to face new realities and to become more relevant to the concerns of the laity. The leadership of the Church also is changing, as new Vatican II-minded bishops are appointed and seminaries are strengthened.
Traditional Minority Confessions
Protestantism in Lithuania, dating from the Reformation, is represented by Lutheran and Reformed churches as well as Baptists, Pentecostals, and new Evangelical movements. The Lutheran and Reformed churches are concentrated in the western and northern regions of the country, influenced by the ethnic German population and historically Protestant nobility. Closely connected to their local communities, these Reformation churches have felt some of the effects of renewal movements, but these movements have not been prominent in these traditions. The same is true of the Orthodox Church, which has its own diocese in the capital city of Vilnius. Above all, it serves Lithuania's ethnic Russian minority. Most ethnic Russians settled in Lithuania during the Communist years, especially in Vilnius and Klaipeda.
Indigenous Evangelical Movements
Baptists and Pentecostals, along with Adventists, are the most established and historically grounded Evangelical movements in Lithuania. Baptists date back to the middle of the nineteenth century, while Pentecostals and Adventists came to Lithuania in the early 1900s. While Adventists disappeared during Soviet rule, Baptists and Pentecostals survived and, as throughout the Soviet Union, were united by order of Stalin. After Lithuania regained its independence, Baptists and Pentecostals dissolved their union and formed separate denominations. Numerous independent Baptist and Pentecostal congregations, either underground in Soviet times or formed after the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, now function in Lithuania. Foreign missionaries established some of these churches. Baptist and Pentecostal congregations which date back to Soviet times often struggle with hyperconservatism and have difficulties adapting to the new situation, but Soviet-era defensiveness and a legalistic mentality no longer appeal to the majority of people. Nevertheless, the Pentecostal Union is growing dramatically. Between 1991 and 1998 the number of congregations rose from three to about twenty.
Alongside established Evangelical churches, Lithuania now is home to numerous nondenominational congregations even more closely tied to the West than Pentecostals and Baptists. The Free Christian Church movement started almost two decades ago and has developed an independent status, although it is still supported by Canadian Mennonites. Free Christian Churches have been working closely with the Baptist Union, but have been unwilling to join it for fear of losing their identity as nondenominational churches.
Located in the larger cities, a smaller number of nondenominational Charismatic churches have been very active in ecumenical efforts, as well as in interdenominational missionary efforts sponsored by Youth With a Mission and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. One Charismatic church has joined the Association of Vineyard Churches in order to find a larger context for its faith and practice. The question of identity in a culturally rich country such as Lithuania might well be one of the most important concerns for all nondenominational churches.
The Charismatic Word of Faith movement is probably the strongest Evangelical church in Lithuania. Started in 1989 by Christians heavily influenced by North American and Swedish Word of Faith Charismatics, the Word of Faith movement grew dramatically, spreading through dozens of cities, large and small, in its early years of existence. Much more moderate growth has been the case since 1993, perhaps because of the fading appeal of Western culture in Lithuania, as well as doctrinal changes occurring within the movement: Word of Faith churches gradually began deemphasizing Prosperity Theology, which promises material abundance for the truly faithful. The movement now cooperates with other Evangelicals and has been instrumental in publishing the first Bible in contemporary Lithuanian.
Overall, an estimated 25 Western missionaries currently reside in Lithuania, not including 30 to 60 Western faculty and staff at Lithuania Christian College in Klaipeda and Vilnius Theological College. While some churches and Christian organizations, such as the United Methodist Church and Youth With a Mission-Lithuania, are fully dependent on the West, the majority of missionary-led churches are not as strong as indigenous churches. The Western missionary presence may also at times be detrimental as it prevents the formation of genuine Lithuanian churches and ministries and creates an unnecessary "distance" between ministers and simple churchgoers. The strongest Protestant churches minister without extensive foreign funding and interference.
Christian Higher Education
Catholics support three seminaries as well as theological faculties in five state universities. Protestant educational institutions are not numerous in Lithuania. The Lutheran Church supports a theological faculty at Klaipeda University. Pentecostals operate Vilnius Theological College, a two-year training center, while Word of Faith and some other churches have their own training centers. Lithuania Christian College in Klaipeda has indirect ties to the Free Christian Churches, but this liberal arts institution emphasizes its interdenominational composition. Canadian Mennonite philanthropist Arthur DeFehr has provided generous funding for the school and has recruited a sizeable group of North American Mennonites and representatives of some other Protestant denominations to staff and support the college. The student body includes non-Christian and Christian students from numerous confessions. In time, this Evangelical, interdenominational center may help transcend confessional divisions. A current problem is a cultural gap created by North American influence and English-language instruction, but this difficulty should decrease as the College obtains more Lithuanian faculty and develops a more distinctly Lithuanian character. At the same time, the partnership facilitates links and crosscultural communication between Lithuanian and Western Evangelicalism.
Lithuanian Christianity is undergoing a transition common to Christianity in many post-Communist societies: a transition from uniformity to pluralism and an adaptation to the complexities of a democratic system. The Church has to learn to live in this new context, faithful both to Lithuanian culture, with the changes that liberty brings, and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Donatas Glodenis graduated with a B.A. in Christian Studies from Lithuania Christian College. He currently works for the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Lithuania.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report