Dusan Jaura and Juraj Kusnierik
Editor's note: In 1998 SEN, an Evangelical Protestant research center in Bratislava, Slovakia, surveyed Protestant clergy and active church members in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Croatia on subjects typically regarded as taboo. Answers given by respondents were analyzed and compared to identify the churches' most common "silent areas," which are described below.
Every community has its own favorite "no go" subjects--matters other people may often talk about but which, for various reasons, the community considers inappropriate. What is not talked about often better describes a community and its values than that which is a frequent subject of discussion. Sometimes our silence speaks louder than our voices.
We started to understand the importance of money after 1989. Obviously it did exist before, but its value was limited because only a few products and services were for sale. You often needed to know the "right people" to achieve your goals. Now, one primarily needs money.
Churches in all Central European countries are still significantly financially supported by the state. This is a residue of the Communist regime. Communist authorities controlled churches by making them financially dependent on state subsidies. Recently they have been receiving support from Western churches. As a result many local churches have relatively large buildings, fully equipped offices, and several paid workers--all of which mean high overhead costs. Church leaders know that this situation will not last very long and so they feel the responsibility for church finances. In spite of this pressing need, talk about money and finances is not very common.
"When are you going to 'make love'?" our seven-year-old daughter asked my wife and me one evening. Talking about sex and love has been part of her world at least since she started school. We, her parents, cannot avoid talking about it and thoughtfully explaining it. To pretend we are unaware of her questions, or that we do not hear them, would be counterproductive. However, Christians often do exactly that. Of course, we have lectures, write articles, and preach sermons about the importance of the family, the dangers of premarital sex, and the problems facing single-parent families.
All this may well be very good, but where or to whom does a teenager go as he or she comes to terms with his or her own sexuality? Is there somebody somewhere he or she can talk to? Is there a safe place for a mature man dealing with temptation at his workplace to talk and pray? To whom would a man discovering homosexual attractions go where he knows he would be really heard and not just rebuked or disciplined? These subjects need privacy. They are not supposed to be discussed publicly. The problem is that the atmosphere in churches in Central and Eastern Europe does not give the safe space needed for personal growth. Potentially threatening issues are avoided.
Interestingly, authority is a very ambiguous issue in Protestant circles, which generally share a low view of institutional authority. No church institution or office mediates between God and men; yet it is very common that a local church pastor, bishop, secretary, etc., of a denomination exerts considerable authority. When a pastor walks into the church assembly on Sunday morning, people stand up to show respect in some Evangelical churches. Pastoral authority is especially strong in small towns and villages. The rigid authority structures of many Evangelical churches in Central Europe (and not only there) are often gossiped about. It is often cited as the reason why more independently minded young people as well as mature middle-aged church members find it hard to identify with the church. It does not support, but rather suppresses, personal growth. The Church is seen as a good place for children and elderly people, but not for strong, active, and creative men and women.
Do strong, dominant personalities influence and/or manipulate a small community? To what extent do Christian fellowships take and copy prevailing cultural patterns of authority rather than seek biblical principles, values, and examples? These very important questions are rarely discussed in Central European churches. Why? One reason might be the fear of touching sensitive areas which could lead to tensions in relationships. The status quo might be brought into question.
Church attitudes toward public life have changed dramatically in post-Communist Central Europe: from apolitical (usually justified by theological reasons, but often caused by fear and uncertainty), through hyper-activism during and shortly after the revolutionary changes, to a cynical and skeptical attitude towards the "dirty world of politics" today. The situation seems to be "settled" in most Central European countries for now. No dramatic, revolutionary change is looming. Some people are interested in politics, follow parliamentary debates, government sessions, and international diplomacy. Most of the population is more interested in practical issues of everyday life, such as their family financial situation, their businesses, taxes, public transportation, crime, unemployment, healthcare, or education.
In Central European Christian communities, discussions of politics and economics carry a great amount of emotional baggage. To avoid conflicts, pastors and teachers tend either to avoid these issues or to repeat religious clichés that cannot offend anyone. The majority of the population sees Christianity as irrelevant. It does not seem to have much to say about reality as we know it.
Most Protestant churches in Central Europe consist of small groups. Many Christian communities still recall, in living memory, the negative attitudes secular society held towards them. This strengthens the feeling of being a small, insignificant group of "good guys" in a hostile environment. Such a minority attitude reinforces the tendency toward uniformity, strong group loyalty, isolation from the outside world, and the black-and-white concept of the world found in most Evangelical communities. Some areas of culture, such as politics, philosophy, or rock music, are seen as a threat to Christian group identity. Involvement in them is discouraged and suppressed.
The way out of this theologically weak and culturally irrelevant Christianity is to learn, think, and talk about the greatness of the church, which is the body of Christ. It is greater than a small group meeting behind closed doors in small, dimly lit rooms. Studying church history, communicating with other Christians, and getting information about what is going on in the Christian world, might help in the struggle with our sense of smallness.
From Defensiveness to Engagement with Society
Church communities were quite homogeneous until a few years ago. They consisted of slightly socially disadvantaged or marginalized people. The possibilities for work in some areas of life (art, management, or education) were limited. Other areas (politics or journalism) were completely closed to them. As a result of this, the economic and social diversity of Christians was very small. Political diversity was an unknown term. The picture is quite different ten years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Churches are attended by successful businessmen as well as by the unemployed, by sportsmen as well as artists, by people with various levels of education, varying tastes, varying political orientations. If church leaders continue to try to suppress colorful reality by uniformity and legalism, their churches will become irrelevant and unattractive places.
When we talk to Christians in various Central and East European countries we often hear the same complaint about the church: It is too rigid, too authoritarian, with too little space to be oneself. Safe space should allow people who come into church to be themselves and feel secure enough to ask their most significant questions in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Christians do not have to pretend they know all the answers, but should be committed to respecting those people who come to them. Safe space, a medium for the development of trust and deep, authentic interest in other people, should be a mark of the church.
Dusan Jaura is a researcher and teacher with SEN, Bratislava, Slovakia, specializing in youth culture. He is completing a Ph.D. in comparative religion. Juraj Kusnierik is SEN research and studies coordinator. He writes and lectures on various aspects of Christianity and culture in Central and Eastern Europe.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Dusan Jaura and Juraj Kusnierik, Taboos in the Central European Church (Bratislava, Slovakia: SEN, 1999). The 20-page paper is available for $10 U.S. at http://www.citygate.org, or from SEN. See p. 11 for contact information.
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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report