Additional thoughts on ministry in post-communist Europe
Inthe early 1990s there was a huge need for gospel literature in Eastern Europe — and a very receptive audience. How hasthat changed? Are people in former communist nations still as eager to hear thegospel?
AndrewKelly, missionary in eastern Ukraine:“The need is even greater. As the time since the fall of the Wall grows longerthe need for more materials increases. Today we not only have a need forBibles, but for materials that will help grow the Christians. We need studyguides, devotional books, books that are scholarly and get to the heart of thematter, etc.”
ChrisLovingood, missionary in Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine: “In the early 1990s, mostpeople in the former Soviet Union were notparticularly interested in hearing the gospel. Itinerant U.S.missionaries generally misread the situation.
“Many people wereinterested in learning about the outside world. They were interested ineverything, including Western Christianity and the Bible. But it wasn’t aparticular interest in things spiritual. It was interest in things unknown orformally forbidden.
“Thousands of peoplewere baptized, but the vast majority of those people never made it into churchfellowships and most probably didn’t understand what they were doing. In ourattempts to compile a directory of Churches of Christ for Ukraine, wefound several churches reporting hundreds of baptism but having only a handfulof members.
“Today there isinterest in the spiritual world but that interest mostly expresses itself inthe health-and-wealth gospel, the occult or so-called New Age religions. Lifeis hard and people want a better quality of living. If religion can give that,then there is much interest. If there is no promise of a better quality ofliving, then interest wanes quickly.
“Kyiv is home to thelargest Protestant church in Europe, but itsmessage is ‘Give to God and he will financially bless you.’ BiblicalChristianity, while it has made some inroads, is still only scratching thesurface of the highly enigmatic Slavic world.”
DianaKnight, missionary in Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine:“We have seen many changes. It depends on where you are. It seems that peoplein the larger cities like the one we are in are not as receptive, and it may bebecause they are used to foreigners now.
“However, when we goto the villages we are overwhelmed by their desire to learn. There is still alarge void when it comes to translated or written materials in the Russianlanguage. We need commentaries that we can trust and a better Russiantranslation of the Bible.”
RoyceSartain, missionary to Estonia:“Naturally, in the course of time, the receptiveness of the folks hasdiminished some. But there are stillmillions who are receptive, and the need continues.
“Are they as eager tohear the gospel? Probably not, but again millions are eager and will continueto be as they are exposed to the gospel.”
Bill McDonough, former missionary to Romania:“The East is now facing the same opposition and post-Christian influences thatare faced in Western Europe. Churches thatwere planted in the early 1990s and are well-grounded are surviving, but feware still growing and my information tells me that none are growing rapidly.
“Those of us withexperience in Europe knew when the Soviet Unioncollapsed that we were dealing with a window of opportunity of five to 10years.”
Virgil andJackie Jackson, missionaries in Vlore, Albania:“People in this area are … less receptive than they were in the beginning. Ofcourse, their ‘receptivity’ was based on mixed motives. But as physicalconditions have changed in their lives there is less interest in knowing God.
“Materialism is astrong force in poor countries, as well as ‘rich’ ones, and it always conspiresto draw people away from a pursuit of God.
“The lessening ofreceptivity, of course, contributes to the shift of interest on the part ofprospective missionaries and sponsoring churches.”
Bob Perkins,missions leader for the Northeast Church of Christ, Taylors,S.C.: “There has been a change inreceptiveness of people in Lugansk, Ukraine. In1994 they were hungry for something that would offer hope. They were veryinterested in learning English. Using the Bible as a text was no problem atall.
“In the years sinceour first trip in 1994, several denominations have come and, unfortunately, afew groups have left a ‘bad taste’ in the mouths of people in Lugansk. We haveheard stories of some groups coming and taking advantage financially of severalpeople, promising great things but never returning.
“As a result of theseregrettable events, an attitude of distrust developed on the part of manypeople in Lugansk. Also, as the economychanges and improves many people do not feel the degree of hopelessness andhunger for spiritual things as they did just after the Soviet Union broke up.”
Eileen Emch,missionary in Rostov-on-Don, Russia:“Are people still interested? Yes, but at a different level. As the Soviet Union opened up, folks waited in lines for Bibles.They also waited in lines for Big Macs.
“It is true thataudiences were packed into lecture halls to hear the good news. The thing is,anything associated with the west was found fascinating. That which isforbidden tends to be considered fascinating and mysterious. That which isreadily available tends to be taken for granted.
“The interest in Christianitypeaked early in the former Soviet Union. Itstarted high and has leveled off considerably. We wish it had remained at thepeak. McDonald’s probably wishes the same.
“The crowds who cameto church early on included folks who came with expectations of finding abetter life. Some were thinking about their spiritual lives, for sure. Othershoped to connect with the so-called good life of the West, whether they wereaware of it or not.”
Rob Browne,missionary in Novosibirsk, Russia: “Are they eagerto hear it in the way we packaged it in the 1990s? ‘Come to the place of ourchoosing, hear a lecture of our choosing, set up a Bible study, make adecision, join a church.’ No, they are not! That model ceased itslarge-scale effectiveness years ago, yet it seems to be the default setting fora lot ongoing ministry.
“I am about fiveyears now into seeing that credible, lived-out faith, demonstrated over time,in and out of ‘church spheres,’ … is finding very, very receptive soil.
“Even though somereceptive soil can be found now, our ministry believes that a generation ormore of soil tilling needs to occur before the widespread results we saw in theearly 1990s can hope to be repeated.
“Was not what we sawin the early 1990s the result of 70 previous years of prayer and preparation?One of Eastern European Mission’s own directors once told me it will take twoor three generations before they see large-scale changes in Russian society asa result of the work they are doing now. That’s a long-termvision. That’s a sound vision. That’s a vision we all need to buyinto.
“There are noshortcuts to bringing Christ to an entire nation.”
Aremissionaries today more or less interested in moving to former communistcountries? What are the challenges of relocating to Central or Eastern Europe?
DraskoDjenovic, church member in Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro: “I am notsure how many missionaries are in some of these countries, but I know thatchurches of Christ in Serbia have not had a single missionary since 1995, eventhough we’ve tried to get one couple to serve in Belgrade.”
“Today in Sarajevo there are twiceas many mosques as evangelical Christian groups. As far as I know, today thereare no church of Christmissionaries in Slovenia andI am not sure that we’ve ever had missionaries in Macedonia. In Montenegro the church of Christhas never had missionaries.
“Generally speaking,I have the feeling that early 1990s was the time of Eastern Europe. Now it is ‘in’ to serve in Muslim countries, and servingin Central or Eastern Europe is not as popularas it was after the Berlin Wall fell down.”
DwightWhitsett, a dean of ministry training for Sunset International Bible Institute,Lubbock, Texas: “As usual, the problem regarding evangelism in bothEastern and Western Europe seems to be that scarcity of churches willing tosend.
“This may be aproblem of churches being ‘stung’ once too often. That happens when we send poorly trained andimmature families to difficult fields and then expect them to ‘produce’ withoutadequate physical, spiritual and emotional support. When they return home,broken and bleeding, in a couple of years, it puts us off doing more missions.
“If, however, wetrain them as best we can and prepare them for the target culture, thencontinue mentoring them for the first few years, the story will be verydifferent. Then missionaries will stay long enough to get the job done.”
RoyceSartain: “The new has worn off and there is not as much interest onthe part of missionaries going to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union —as well as diminished interest on the part of our churches to send them. Butthat is normal when the new wears off. The interest shifts as news changes. Weseem to want to go to the hot spots, so to speak, and that is not all badeither.”
RobBrowne: “American missionaries from churches of Christ seem much lessinterested in moving to the former Soviet counties. Personally, I know ofeight American families who have relocated to the U.S. since 2000 and two who haverepositioned themselves in either former Soviet countries or currentlycommunist countries. I know of no families from churches of Christ whohave moved to Russiasince 2000.
“As one missionarytold me last year, ‘Job security in missions is now found further east than Russia.’Whether that is true or not is not up to me to decide, but the comment doesmake you think about how much of our missional focus in Europehas moved east since the time Eastern European Mission first opened its doors.
“It should also besaid that some of those who have left living here full time did so not todisconnect themselves with missions here but to reposition themselves toparticipate in more appropriate forms of ministry based on where they see truereceptivity remaining in Russia.”
ChrisLovingood: “The greatest challenge of ministry in Eastern and Central Europe is the slow pace. Americans are trained tolearn the culture and language, implement strategies and meet goals. Oftenthere is a desire to numerically measure performance.
“It may take twoyears to learn the language and several to develop meaningful relationships.Church planting in the Slavic world, though, is more like watching a tree growfrom a seed. You can plant the seed and try to create a good environment for itto grow in, but it’s almost impossible to speed up the slow process.
“But patience doespay off. In our ministry, people take about two or more years to come to faith.But once they come to a decision, they usually don’t fall away.”
DianaKnight: “The biggest challenge would be the language. Americans canlearn Russian, but if they come over they need to take a year and not do muchbut study the language.
“Another challengenow (is) raising the funds to stay. The economy has changed drastically in thepast few years and prices are almost the same as in the States — and, in fact,some items cost the same.
“We are blessed tohave sponsors that come over and realize the changes that have taken place.”
EileenEmch: “Few missionaries seem to be around. Numbers are lower forseveral reasons. One is visa problems. Several dedicated missionaries have hadvisas denied, period. I’m not aware of any additional missionaries having hadthat problem within the last five years.
“Also, during theseven years that I’ve been here in Russia, I’ve seen a number of youngmissionary families come and go — after a couple of years. I’ve not had theopportunity to discuss it with any of them, but I would imagine that they leftprematurely (earlier than they had originally planned).
“Good things are happening,however. Fabulous things are happening. Developing national leaders is surelyat an all-time high, thanks to the Institute of Theology and Christian Ministryin St Petersburg, Russia. Equipping leaders for service is vital.
“It is quite an adventure to beserving in Eastern Europe, in Russia. I often have to pinch myself tounderstand that I’m really here, that I really have been entrusted with thetreasure of serving these fine people. I must say that I love it.”
Inyour opinion, are churches of Christ doing enough to reach former communistcountries? If not, what else needs to happen?
ChrisLovingood: “While a great deal has been accomplished in the last 15years, of greatest need is long-term (10 years or more) church-planting teamswho will use models of ministry appropriate for Europe and not attempt toreplicate models successful in Africa or South America.
“These teams shouldemploy creative strategies for ministering to human needs and sharing thefaith. Also of great need is the training and maturation of current nationalleaders, a training that is designed to lead to interdependence instead of uglyspiritual imperialism too often practiced in our fellowship.”
AndrewKelly: “Churches are not doing enough. More U.S. churches need toconsider investing in the souls of the Eastern Europeans. We need moremissionaries and more churches willing to support those working here. TheDonetsk region of Ukraine is the fastest-growing area for the church of Christin all of Europe — not just Eastern Europe, but the entire continent. Thetime is right and the soil is fertile.”
BillMcDonough: “New evangelistic methods must be developed that speak tothe masses. Little research has been done in this area, and few are prepared toface the old communist ideologies that are still so prevalent.”
DianaKnight: “Every missionary in a foreign field would probably say no,that we are not doing enough.
“What needs tohappen? Well, the Bible Institute in Donetsk (eastern Ukraine) is doing a greatjob of training men and women and they go out to different places. This is awonderful work. We could use a group of people to come in here and do what theydid in Donetsk, but we would also need people that could stay afterward. Wehave a campaign every summer but we can only reach out to so many people.
“When I am ridingaround town, I look at all the millions of apartments in the tall buildings andwonder how we can reach all these people, and I pray that God will bring themback to Him.”
Mac Lynn,chancellor, Nations University: “A surprising amount of mission workis being conducted across Europe and in the former Soviet republics. Many ofthese movements are by immigrants and most of the work is by people other thanAmericans. There is something to be learned by both their methodology and theirmessage.”
“Rather than writeoff Europe as unresponsive, cold and indifferent to genuine Christianity, weshould take another look. It is doubtful that ‘colonializing’ will show anylasting endurance. We will certainly need to be more concerned with a biblicalagenda than with a political one.
“Becoming all thingsto all men is not a novel or even a new idea. Our challenge is to promote a faith that is rooted in the nature of Godand that stands high and lofty, a faith that will surely bring resistance fromthe evil one but will lead to the glory of God.
“This is the likenessof the faith that is catching the interest of modern Europeans and CentralAsians.”
April 1, 2006