Upheaval from Prague to the Pacific
In the past decade Christians in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe have borne witness to a dramatic alteration in political circumstances nearly unique in church history. The suddenness of the collapse of Marxist regimes over such an immense expanse--from Prague to the Pacific--and the halt to many decades of anti-religious campaigns underscore the improved prospects for the church and missionary outreach in the post-Soviet era.
Precedents Hard to Come By
The political upheavals of 1989-1991 produced such a radically reconfigured landscape for post-Soviet Christians that meaningful comparisons are hard to draw. In the twentieth century, the West German church emerged overnight from Nazi captivity, but that was not accompanied by any particularly pronounced missionary impetus. Likewise in Japan after World War II, General Douglas McArthur issued his famous call for a thousand missionaries to embark for this war-weary nation, but his plea went largely unheeded.
We can note other surprising reversals of fortune for the Christian church and missions in the twentieth century, however, not in terms of improved fortunes, but rather the opposite. Dramatically decreased possibilities for Christian proclamation and presence followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and Mao's 1949 victory in China. Christian retrenchment also followed other post-World War II Communist takeovers in Southeast Asia and the 1962 military coup in Burma (Myanmar). By way of contrast, one of the most sweeping missionary banishments in church history--the Communist expulsion of Western church workers from China between 1949 and 1952--was separated exactly 40 years from one of the most sweeping new missionary opportunities in church history following the dismantling of restrictions to freedom of conscience in former Soviet territories between 1989 and 1991. Earlier, between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europe amassed colonial empires that presented expansive new opportunities for Catholic and Protestant missions. However, these possibilities did not present themselves overnight, as occurred in the 1990s.
In terms of a rapid, positive reversal of fortune for Christendom and Christian mission outreach, perhaps the most meaningful comparison would be between post-Soviet territories in the past decade and the Roman Empire after Constantine's fourth-century conversion to Christianity. Both involved sudden reversals, both involved great geographic expanses, and both were preceded by intense persecution of Christians. Finally, in both cases state preferences for officially favored churches quickly prevailed. By way of caution, serious students of church history will stress that state recognition for the church has always been, at best, a mixed blessing. When any church--be it ancient Roman, Russian Orthodox, French Catholic, or German Lutheran--has been privileged rather than persecuted, it has run the risk of conversions of convenience and nominal allegiance. State favoritism predictably weakens established churches by tempting adherents with material and political advantages that undermine spiritual vitality.
Religion: Once Reviled, Now Revered
We all witnessed with amazement the rapid transformation of Soviet and post-Soviet official attitudes, from derisive condemnation of religion as opiate, to the current understanding of religion as a moral and national bulwark. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in his Tashkent speech of November 1986 predictably railed against the harmful influences of religion, but only 17 months later came his televised celebration of the Russian Christian millennium with Patriarch Pimen. By that point, April 1988, Gorbachev was praising the Orthodox Church for its defense of the nation and moral instruction across a thousand years of Russian history.
From Prison Cell to Presidential Palace
I remember well my firsthand exposure to this startling about-face. While escorting a Western tour group in July 1989 I had Bibles and other Christian literature confiscated by Soviet customs officials. But just one year later in August 1990, as part of an exchange program with Moscow State University, I led a student group through Soviet customs with quantities of Christian literature, no questions asked. For me the October 1991 issue of the Soviet humor magazine Krokodil, which I bought on a Moscow street, highlighted most dramatically how times had changed. On the cover a cartoon depicted a young couple gazing across the ocean at a sun, half hidden on the horizon. The portion that was visible was emblazoned with the initials of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the caption read, "Oh, what a beautiful sunset!" Mere possession of such anti-Soviet propaganda could have led to imprisonment a few short years prior. Yet by 1991 such sentiments could find their way onto the cover of a magazine produced and underwritten by the Soviet state. It was in this period that Czech dissident playwright Vaclav Havel exchanged a prison cell for a presidential palace in a matter of 15 months. No wonder he wrote, "We have no time to be astonished."
Wholesale Mission Transformation--For Better and For Worse
The spontaneous, popular revolutions that took the world by such surprise in 1989-91 spelled an end to Communist rule in East Central Europe and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. They also profoundly transformed prospects for the region's churches and East European ministry. West European and North American Christian ministries serving post-Soviet states, typically known as "East European missions," seized on the possibilities presented by radically altered circumstances. Elsewhere I have tried to describe, and make sense of, the burgeoning mission efforts of the 1990s. Ministries in this decade underwent wholesale organizational restructuring and dramatic expansion. They engaged in unprecedented cooperative undertakings, yet failed to reign in unseemly competition among mission mavericks. On the one hand, they promoted specialization that provided invaluable expertise to indigenous believers. On the other hand, they too often failed to respect or relate positively to indigenous Christians, whether Orthodox or Protestant. (Mark Elliott and Sharyl Corrado, "The Protestant Missionary Presence in the Former Soviet Union," Religion, State and Society 25 [no. 4, 1997], 333-51.)
Despite the commendable accomplishments of East European missions in the 1990s, it is disheartening to note the frequency with which they ignored hard-earned lessons missionaries had learned in other lands and in previous centuries. In the waning years of the twentieth century
1. too often missionaries intertwined the sharing of the gospel with advocacy for Western culture and Western political and economic systems;
2. too often a sense of urgency obscured the necessity "for painstaking, disciplined study of languages, history, and culture;"
3. too often missionary lone rangers made forays into Eastern Europe lacking proper accountability and proper respect for indigenous Christians; and
4. too often East European missions focused so intensely on translating Western literature that they failed to sufficiently encourage indigenous Christian writers. (Mark Elliott, "New Opportunities, New Demands in the Old Red Empire," Evangelical Missions Quarterly 28 [January 1992], 36-37.)
. . . And Lessons Learned
Too often--but not always. To be sure, East European mission miscues in the 1990s frequently repeated mistakes made by missionaries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in times past. At the same time, at least as often, missionaries serving in territories newly freed from Marxist overlords got things right. They preached the right gospel message of hope and redemption. They offered the right assistance to the needy. And they provided the right training and expertise that will provide church leadership for decades to come. I am reminded of the sage observation of my respected mentor, Peter Deyneka, Jr., who concluded that opposition to East European ministry stemmed not only from what Western missionaries were doing wrong, but from what they were doing right. In 1997 I elaborated on this theme as follows:
The fact of ill-advised and ill-informed Christian witness is only part of the explanation for the hostile reception. Communists, nationalists, and the hierarchs of former state churches also oppose Evangelical missionaries because they are just as often warm, winsome, and loving as they are brash, brazen, and culturally clueless. Opposition, then, is as much a function of what Evangelicals are doing right as it is of what they are doing wrong. It may be argued that so many ministries are having such a beneficial effect, in so many places, in so many ways, that their detractors cannot tolerate it, and as a result seek to restrict freedom of conscience by erecting political barriers which discriminate against arbitrarily defined "non-traditional" faiths (Elliott and Corrado, "Protestant," 338-39).
Opportunities and Adversities Hand in Hand
In I Corinthians 16:9 Paul wrote that in Ephesus "a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries." By using the conjunction and instead of but, Paul seemed to recognize that opposition to the preaching of the gospel should be seen as a natural, predictable circumstance. In East European missions the challenge is to be able to discern, while on bended knees, when opposition stems from correctable miscues, and when it stems from adversaries one should come to expect as a matter of course. In witnessing to God's love, the challenge then is to avoid confusing opposition unnecessarily provoked with opposition that is bound to come no matter how gracious the proclamation.
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
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© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report