The School of David
Bishop Malkhaz (Songulashvili), of the Baptist Union of Georgia, has a vision for his flock: “To be the church in Georgia for Georgians,” a church that is “theologically of the Reformation, but culturally Orthodox.” Worship in this Protestant communion is neither European nor North American. The Georgian Baptist School of David exists to raise the musical and liturgical standards in local congregations. Georgian Christianity in its various expressions is neither fully Western nor fully Eastern, neither European nor Asian, a place of contrasts and contradiction. Careful attention is paid to architecture, aesthetics, and the order of the liturgy, which is participatory and multi-sensory. Litanies (prayers read sentence by sentence for the congregation to repeat) allow the uninitiated to participate without any feeling of disorientation.
The sense of Baptist identity is preserved through social ministry (the priesthood of all believers), in the provisional nature of the worship tradition (the bishop referred several times to the reforms with the word experiment), and the development of cultural styles understandable to Georgians.
Critics have claimed that the ministry and mission of the Georgian Baptist Church is syncretistic, but Bishop Malkhaz is quick to point out that their practice is to learn from others, not merely to borrow. Diversity is encouraged and it is not unknown for worship styles within the same service to appear inconsistent. The Lord’s Supper might contain twelfth-century Georgian music, contemporary music, and liturgical dance. The church celebrates major church festivals and uses a calendar that honors saints and godly individuals from all Christian traditions, including John Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., William and Catherine Booth, and several Georgian Orthodox not yet recognized as saints by their own church. Meetings are held in the Baptist Cathedral in Tbilisi every Wednesday evening to teach the practice of prayer, with time for questions and answers on spiritual, political, personal, and biblical matters.
The School of St. Luke
Western Baptists, as well as others, are likely to be shocked initially on discovering a Baptist school teaching iconography. Two young, talented iconographers, painting icons in the pre-canonical ninth-century Georgian style, are developing a freer style of icon painting than the formalized icon painting of the Byzantine and Russian Schools. The seven male and female students (two Orthodox and five Baptist) show promising signs of innovation in a contemporary style. Bishop Malkhaz and other Baptist leaders view icons as one means of communicating the gospel. The bishop shares, “If we ever achieve anything through our experiments we would like to share them with other Baptists, to help them overcome their suspicion of a particular form of communicating the gospel.” The goal, he says, is “to break the free church fear of beauty and its commitment to mediocrity.”
Prior to the fall of Communism, Soviet authorities allowed only one Baptist congregation in Georgia, in the capital of Tbilisi. Now, every major city has a Baptist church. From 20 churches in 1992, the denomination now counts 60, with a further 60 small mission stations.
The Order of St. Nino
The Baptist Order of St. Nino for women currently consists of 11 nurses (two with medical degrees) and 48 volunteers reimbursed on an expense-only basis. Celibacy is not a requirement. The Order supports 11 diaconal stations in Georgia, six of which are in Tbilisi, with a vision for more. An ambulance service and home visits are the main means of offering primary healthcare. In a society emerging from a regime under which the church was not allowed to offer social care, the Order has had to overcome initial suspicion. These Baptist sisters began by collecting the names and addresses of people known to be in need of health care. They now have many hundreds of people under their care. The German Baptist Gemeindearbeit in Berlin has offered the sisters further training in diaconal ministry. Medical and nursing qualifications are augmented with this training. Services offered in this way have given rise to opportunities for verbal witness in several situations. The sisters are trained to deal with questions that people ask from time to time, such as, “Why do you do this kind of work?” Several of the patients have confessed faith in Christ. It is likely that in due course some of the patients contacted through the Order will move to the facilities being built at the Beteli Center. Two part-time chaplains will be appointed, one Baptist, the other Orthodox, to celebrate mass and offer pastoral care to patients. By offering counsel to members of each other’s faith community, it is hoped that fears and mistrust can be overcome.
Baptists in Georgia benefit from long-term relationships with key leaders of the Orthodox hierarchy, dating back to their university days. They self-consciously seek to acculturate their mission within Georgia’s Orthodox context, drawing upon religious elements of Georgia’s national heritage and incorporating them into their worship and witness. “Learning from the Orthodox Church without simply copying it,” is how it is described. More conservative Baptists have been critical of such reforms, although an official European Baptist Federation inquiry in 2003 found in favor of their remaining within the family of European Baptists. The current reforms within the Georgian Baptist Church are widely regarded as visionary, although some observers believe “the majority of Baptists may not be ready” for the changes.
“Report of a Visit to Georgia, 16 - 18 August 2004.”
Darrell Jackson, based in Budapest, Hungary, is a British Baptist pastor, serving as Researcher in European Mission and Evangelism for the European Council of Churches.
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© 2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report