Poles probably have participated in more cross cultural missions than any other East Central Europeans to date. However, quite soon Romanians are likely to enjoy that distinction. The Hungarian Reformed Church is the largest Protestant church surveyed, but its active church membership is smaller than that of Evangelical churches in Romania. Poland’s population is nearly twice that of Romania’s, but its Evangelical population is only a fraction of Romania’s. Evangelical churches in Poland and Hungary are minuscule, in contrast to Romania, where they number approximately half a million.
Everyone involved recognizes that churches in East Central Europe do not have a lot of money, although significant differences exist among the countries in terms of per capita income. Romania’s average income is only about one third that of Poland or Hungary, which limits its missionary potential to some degree. However, it is not as poor as Ukraine or Moldova, which are missionary sending nations, and its spiritual dynamism suggests great potential for growth. Churches in all these countries struggle to pay their pastors, maintain their facilities, and provide social and financial assistance for church members who are unemployed, handicapped, widowed, or otherwise left uncared for by the state. Many, especially in Romania, have taken on large building programs which have left them beggars for help from Western Christians. Few wealthy businessmen belong to Evangelical churches, while most believers are living on the edge of survival. In none of the cases studied do national Christians fully support their own missionaries. Exacerbating the actual financial difficulties, Christians in these countries are used to thinking of themselves as poor.
Despite these handicaps, most leaders interviewed felt that the necessary financial resources would be found if a compelling vision for missions were communicated. Financial difficulties exist, but people will give if they believe the cause is worthy. Christians in East Central Europe have offered relief for flood victims, supplied food and clothing for Gypsy villages, published Bibles for people who had never had them, and sent missionaries to unreached areas.
Communism meant not just the restriction of physical movement (travel), but the restriction of mental movement (imagination). The 1989 Revolution brought not just freedom to act, but freedom to think about acting. The primary effect of the changes was the creation of conditions in which missions activity could become a reality.
Very few people in East Central Europe are struggling to develop a biblical theology of mission. Most people are still at the initial stages of building interest and motivation. Few have read missiological literature, most of which is available only in English or German anyway. Respondents made reference to a few basic resources such as the Perspectives course, Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World, or missionary biographies.
Missions is understood by most people first of all as something which is done locally. In Hungarian mainline churches, missions became the totality of church ministry. In Romania and Poland, mission means ministry outside one’s own local church: sending the choir to sing in another church, sending a preacher to another church to hold an evangelistic meeting, handing out tracts on the street, helping poor people, and running a drug rehabilitation center or clinic.
The notable exception to this conception of missions comes from the Lutheran Mission Society of the Hungarian Lutheran Church, whose members had been involved in foreign missions as young people and who kept that vision alive. A few people prayed for missionaries in other countries, but did not dream of missions for themselves. Otherwise, the overwhelming majority saw missions only as local ministry, in some ways synonymous with evangelism or simply ministry--everything the church does. One wonders to what extent sharing one’s faith is part of the Hungarian historic church message and practice, at least as it would be defined by Evangelical groups. The emphasis is more on service and living out one’s faith in daily life rather than evangelism or public proclamation of the gospel. One comment that American Evangelicals “can go ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ somewhere else” illustrates this attitude. It is not possible to determine at this time to what extent this evangelistic reserve is the effect of having the movement led by a missiologist rather than a pastor or evangelist or to what extent it reflects theologically more liberal views present in the historic churches.
One must ask to what extent those who are involved in the historic churches in Hungary would be comfortable with missionaries from Poland and Romania. Hungarians in mainline churches say Evangelicals speak a different language, even when they speak Hungarian. They say, “It hurts your ears.” In Poland and Romania, one does not hear the kind of questioning of truth or of the gospel that one does in Hungary. The movement is driven by a simplicity of message that many Hungarians would consider simplistic. An interesting comparison can be made between Hungary, where church leaders debate local versus foreign missions, but do little of either, and Romania, where active home missions has aided the development of foreign missions. Those doing mission at home, especially church planting, find it easier to become involved in cross-cultural ministry.
Many of those questioned spoke enthusiastically about the role that Western missionaries have played in encouraging missions. They have demonstrated, simply by their presence, the value of going to other countries. Some were very positive toward the possibilities of national churches sending missionaries, often when national believers themselves were not. A few outsiders have made themselves insiders (including Anne-Marie Kool in Hungary, Malcolm Clegg in Poland, and Tom Keppeler in Romania). These missionaries have been fully accepted into the national society because of their mastery of language and culture, their willingness to live like the people, their humility and willingness to learn, and usually, their presence in the country before the 1989 Revolution.
On the negative side, respondents gave numerous examples of missionaries who did not model humility or a willingness to learn. These missionaries refused to learn the language and culture and had no understanding of the religious and historical context. Some were motivated by a naive view that, as a consequence of decades of Communism, Eastern Europe was a spiritual desert with people waiting with parched mouths for someone to bring them the cold water of the gospel. Some missionaries used money indiscriminately, attracting people with less than pure motives, or drawing them from established churches.
Does the act of giving carry with it a sense of superiority? To what extent is Christian witness “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread” and to what extent is it the rich offering scraps to beggars? One Nazarene church in Bucharest consists of only six families, each with five or more children. Nevertheless, it fully supports a missionary family in Ethiopia because it has a vision to see that country reached for the gospel.
Missionaries from East Central Europe rarely command a higher standard of living than those they serve, suggesting that a servant attitude matters more than material resources.
Scott Klingsmith is a missionary with CBInternational and lives in Vienna, Austria.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Scott Klingsmith, “Factors in the Rise of Missionary Sending Movements in East-Central Europe,” Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity International University, 2002.
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© 2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report