Mission Church-Planting Versus Mission-Church Partnership
According to many, often well-meaning, expatriate missionary workers, the traditional churches in Hungary are dead. No signs of life are present. According to their reports, traditional churches are not capable of multiplying and are not viable. Therefore, they argue, it is justifiable and even a calling to establish new churches alongside Hungary's roughly 1,700 existing Protestant churches. One mission leader involved in church planting recently underlined his perception of my supposed ignorance of the mission situation in Hungary by voicing this concern to me: "We need more churches in Hungary. I estimate that the church buildings in Hungary could not hold more than 30 percent of the population and most of the churches would not know what to do with new Christians. But God wants 100 percent of Hungarians to have new life in Christ so we better plant churches." He called on Reformed Churches to "repent of their pride and be humble enough to think that they do not own the world and control God" and he added, "I love the Reformed Church in Hungary, but God is able to work without it also."
A few years ago, while I was in the United States, a friend gave me a flier for a mission couple bound for Hungary. I had met them a few days earlier and my impression was that they had a deep, sincere love for the Lord Jesus and a concern for the spread of the gospel. On the way home, reading their flier, I was deeply disappointed because it left the strong impression that they would be among the first to start churches in Hungary. Nor was reference made to the local churches in the city where they planned to minister, nor to the many churches around the country. Either these churches were not considered viable or were omitted in order to "advertise" the "niche in the market" this couple hoped to fill. I was surprised to learn from the flier that they would be working with one of the few Western missions in Hungary that seeks to partner with the country's historic churches. This raised a question in my mind regarding the integrity of this organization: Is it really taking partnership with Hungarian churches seriously? I wondered whether its mixed signals really would help in winning the trust of the historic churches.
Signs of Life
I am well aware that, of course, there are occasions that warrant the planting of new churches within existing denominations. Also, in the 13 years I have been living and working in Hungary, I have discovered that Hungarian churches are far from perfect. But I came from a far-from-perfect church in the Netherlands, so the difference was not that great. Despite the shortcomings of Hungarian churches, I have discovered very many small and often concealed signs of Life. Even now God is working in His mysterious way in Hungary. Allow me to illustrate. Recently I was riding on a train reflecting on the mission conference at which I had just spoken. What a surprise the overwhelming interest had been for everyone. Elders, pastors, and church members came from far and wide. My audience was attentive and involved, asked good questions, and engaged in profound discussion. One organizer had warned me cautiously that perhaps not many people would come: The weather was bad, etc., etc. But to our surprise between 120 and 150 people were present.
As another example, I was asked this past July to speak about the task and the calling of Reformed women's societies in mission and evangelization. I will not soon forget the concentrated attention and the diversity of the more than 1,200 in attendance in the large Reformed church in Debrecen. Some came from the rural areas of Hungarian-speaking Ukraine where a revival is underway. From the dress of others I knew they had come from Transylvania, the traditionally Hungarian-speaking part of Romania. Many had come from western Hungary with very small and scattered Reformed Churches. All are having to deal with great pressures in family life and many are the linchpins in their local congregations. At the same time, they expressed a strong desire to learn more about their role in evangelism and mission. For me it made for another sign of Life!
Recently I came across a strategy document for mission groups working in Eastern Europe formulated almost ten years ago at a conference in Budapest convened by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. To discourage "free-lance entrepreneurial approaches," it included a focus on "enabling churches and mission organizations in eastern countries to undertake their own work of evangelizing their own people." It is high time to revisit this mission principle and to take it again as a starting point for partnership and cooperation.
Dr. Anne-Marie Kool is director of the Protestant Institute for Mission Studies, Budapest, Hungary, and professor of missiology at the Reformed Theological Seminary, Papa, Hungary.
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