A Western message in Eastern Europe

Concerns and counsel from personal observations and interviews in a dozen former Communist countries.

Borge Schantz, Ph.D., is director of the Seventh-day Adventist Global Centre for Islamic Studies in Binfleld, Berkshire, England.

In the beautiful congress hall of an Eastern European capital, tensions were mounting. Participants had gathered there for the first symposium on religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The bishop of an ancient Eastern rite church had just delivered a stirring speech describing how believers had suffered persecution from both Muslims and Marxists. He was in full agreement that freedom of conscience was the basis for social peace, as the logo for the gathering succinctly stated.

To the surprise of the audience, how ever, he remained adamant that religious liberty in his part of the world should not mean open doors for every kind of Western sect and cult to operate. Some groups, the bishop claimed, were employing materialism and high-powered communication to pervert the gospel and "confuse" people in gaining members.

Other participants who represented various religious bodies objected vehemently to the apparent inconsistencies in the bishop's speech. Had he learned nothing from the past? Did he want to turn back to the era when his church had a monopoly on Christianity and abused her power over people? No doubt an element of paranoia lay behind his controversial address. However, the bishop's observations went deeper than his thinly veiled fear of losing his grip on the people, and he deserves to be taken seriously. Newly gained freedom also opened formerly suppressed nations to abuse by Western people, including religious representatives.

Conversion and confusion

When the East opened up, concerned people in the West appropriately felt a burden for the freed masses once isolated and denied the good things of life. Religious enthusiasts arrived with a mixed bag of spiritual teaching and social service to people starving for both. In the forefront, keen on having their share of the spoils, were evangelicals, charismatics, even Eastern cultic groups. Some outreach methods included free gifts (in one case cash dollars), modern communication vehicles such as films and videos, attractive female gospel singers, even indirect suggestions of visas and assistance to travel to the West. Such novel approaches overwhelmed the audiences sometimes numbering in the thousands unaccustomed to such enticing spiritual entertainment. However, the result was not just conversion. It was also confusion. How could the people distinguish among the many voices calling them in different directions? No doubt Christianity's great embarrassment doctrinal divisions and conflicting proclamations grew as competing groups focused on controversial issues and pet theological ideas.

As one person put it: "During the Marxist rule the dictators shouted, 'There is no God!' Today confused and bewildered people ask, 'Who is God?' "' Among the babel of voices, some may be heard proclaiming the three angels' messages. Seventh-day Adventists have been wise to the advantages of using Western evangelists in developing the providential situation. In some cases, fortunately, they involved experienced indigenous ministers eager to learn new methods and skilled in counseling on local issues. In a few cases the expatriate evangelists became lonely pioneers. In all cases there were opportunities to harvest sheaves where barren Western fields yielded only single ears. This was stuff that evangelists dream of. And to think it was happening in areas that for decades were declared inaccessible for gospel proclamation!

Back to our bishop's concern. He pointed out that Orthodox churches, predating not only Communism but also the Protestant Reformation, still have a mes sage steeped in and geared to local culture. He therefore insisted that the gospel should be preached in the cultural context of the people involved, convinced that the "dollar-based" evangelistic methods would draw people to foreign messages for the wrong reasons.

The missiologists among us admit that the Orthodox priest exposed a significant flaw in Western evangelistic methods applied in the East. Without question the message in all its saving fullness must be preached in areas that until recently were Communist-ruled and before that were dominated by totalitarian churches and Islamic sects. However, the evangelical witnesses should endeavor to learn about local culture and customs before engaging in the delicate task of communicating the everlasting gospel across cultural frontiers. Otherwise, well-meaning endeavors could be futile and might even backfire.

Culturally sensitive elements

Perhaps the following pointers might be helpful in resolving the problems mentioned.

1. The message. There are biblical absolutes for all cultures and ages. These must be proclaimed powerfully. How ever, application of the absolutes should and indeed must vary from one culture to another. We have to admit that a high proportion of one's Christianity is dictated by local culture. Often pioneers have difficulty distinguishing between what is their own culture (European, American), and therefore can safely be left behind, and what is biblical and must be proclaimed. The Adventist Christian lifestyle, involving such things as dress, food, and even styles of Sabbath-keeping, is often a problem area. If we make converts who equate Western Christendom with biblical Christianity in other words, to be an American is to be a Christian we have not fulfilled our mission. Lasting results in evangelism are accomplished only where the mes sage is adapted to local culture, and even grows out of it. Marxism was a Western (German) import to the East. Perhaps one reason for its final fall was the lack of its ability to adapt and fit the Eastern context. Is there a significant lesson here for church planners?2

2. The audience. Years of isolation and public condemnation of all things Western served only to whet the Eastern European appetite for everything from the First World. People there contrast life in Western societies with the dismal realities of their daily lives. This is an unfair comparison. Western ideals must be compared with Eastern ideals. Like with like. Western customs do not always emerge favorably when compared with Eastern customs.

Without doubt our target people have by definition received freedom. They can now choose for themselves governments, leaders, jobs, and places to live. They can change their religions or decide to be atheists. However, we must remember that these people, generally, are unused to making far-reaching decisions. Neither are they always able to distinguish between the bogus and the genuine in Western propaganda methods. This could especially be true for Russians who have mystical tendencies. For this reason a choice of whether to accept Christianity or Hare Krishna is rarely a decision between truth and error. It could well be determined by a trivial factor such as who rented a particular auditorium first.

Anything foreign there is attractive, especially for the less educated. Evangelists must also realize that although people have been exposed to Communist propaganda and isolated with few opportunities, many are still sophisticated and intellectually alert. During the writer's lectures in the former Soviet Union, he had markedly more sophisticated questions than after similar lectures in the West.

3. History. The areas ripe for evangelism today are those where varying degrees of Marxism in the past 45 to 70 years dominated the population. Now open to new ideas, in what church growth people call transition, they are winnable. But evangelists must work thoughtfully. In public presentation and private conversation they may be tempted to ridicule and cast contempt on Communism, gloating in its fall. Such expressions usually elicit some compulsive audience approval, which spurs the speakers to continue in the same vein. But deep inside, the sensibilities of the prospective new converts may be wounded. After all, they submitted to and perhaps even approved of the superiority of some aspects of Marxism for years. To this must be added that the rather arrogant denigration of Marxism may come across as an attempt to make local culture and customs seem inferior, leading to resentment of the Christian witness. It must be remembered that most of the newly opened countries have a pre-Marxist Christian culture that goes back centuries. There is even an evangelical mission history with Bible colporteurs and Bible schools going back well before Communism.3 Positive aspects of Communist society should not be ignored. For instance, they introduced a system of education where all children had free access to schools, they provided social security for the people, they broke the power of the monopolistic state churches, and to some extent they secularized at least 100 million Muslims enough to become open to Christianity.

Those involved in evangelism must remember that people are invariably proud of their own culture and past history and thus react negatively to criticism and ridicule from foreigners.

4. The loud cry of Western money. The well-known British missiologist Roland Alien suggested that money is an important complement to preaching. The importance does not lie in how the church finances are organized but rather in "how these arrangements . . . affect the mind of the people and so promote, or hinder, the spread of the gospel." 4

The Communist system collapsed largely because of economic conditions. It failed to deliver the goods. The West became synonymous with wealth and luxury and all that wealth embraces cars, TVs, videos, refrigerators, etc. In many cases the first "capitalists" with whom Eastern European people had con tact were Western evangelists. No doubt many of the people had a genuine inter est in listening to the gospel. However, the novelty of associating with friendly persons who as capitalists represented money also had great attraction. Evangelism often means big money, and it is not always under the control of the church. In some cases it is even spent without accountability. Sponsors who see few results in the West are prepared to invest heavily in the East.

No doubt the messages preached by Adventist evangelists are biblically sound and true. But what about the para-mes sages? The evangelists and their associates are generally well dressed, live in fairly expensive hotels, enjoy special food, and use costly communication equipment. Sometimes in ill-advised generosity they pay local employees well above the average salary. People may be enticed to meetings by gifts.

Do the hearers get the impression that Western Christians have great wealth? That the Communists were right in equating mission with capitalism? That church workers are over paid? Do Western Christians live by the moral code they so eloquently proclaim?

In planning for a stable future church, what basis do we lay for stewardship when old and new members get the impression (however incorrect) from evangelistic teams that there is plenty of money around? No doubt help from well-meaning outsiders is a great asset in the pioneer stages. However, outside ownership and complete financial dependence threaten to cripple the work for the future. The church will never be established in a meaningful way unless the financial sacrifices of local members are a part of all activities, including evangelism expenses, the building of churches, and the establishment of institutions.

It is tempting but shortsighted to be overgenerous with Western money that goes so far in countries where the monthly salary is often only a few dollars. Stewardship foundations laid in the first few weeks will determine future economic strategies for good or ill. Tithe and offerings are significant aspects of Adventist belief and practice. The impression that the church has great wealth, coupled with unwise use of money, will discourage poor new converts from paying a faithful tithe and giving generous offerings.

5. Follow-up. The next step after baptism, incorporating members into church life, presents a problem in many areas. There are not enough trained pas tors to care for newly baptized members. Without doubt, the Communist governments, years ago, realized the importance of pastoral training. They calculated that by closing theological seminaries they could cripple the future of Christianity.5 The result of insufficient pastoral care is a mass of apostasies immediately after the visiting evangelists leave. In one city in Russia during 1991, more than 200 persons were baptized, but after six months, fewer than 100 were attending church. Another re port shows that after a few months, only 10 remained regular church members after a baptism of 110. One pastor even claims that when he was entrusted with the important follow-up work after a short campaign, the evangelist did not even have a list of names and addresses of all who were baptized, making the discipling process so much more difficult even hopeless.

Perhaps part of the problem stems from the numbers game we often get involved in. Efficiency and success are thought to be in proportion to numbers baptized. For this reason evangelists could be tempted to make short-range plans aiming at a triumphant baptismal target, but little beyond that ceremony. This sometimes brings about a competition not only among different denominations but also among evangelists. This is unchristian and unhealthy, bringing a secularizing influence into the life and growth of the church. In the short term, such action may impress the Adventist public. In the long run, it will bring confusion, pain, disillusionment, and disappointment to the work in local areas.

Any church growth activity must in corporate at least a 10-year plan. There should be precampaign arrangements for effective follow-up. Pastors and lay members should be trained to be a significant part of the post-harvest activities. Perhaps the method of reporting baptisms should be changed so that evangelists can report only those candidates who are faithful church members one year after baptism.

Tension can be beneficial

The unexpected opening up of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to a free proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ has become a time of unprecedented problems. The new situation has created tensions. However, these tensions can be both creative and healthy. They can force Western churches to re think not only their strategies and theology but also their reason for existence. This in itself is a useful exercise even when applied to evangelism in the home fields.

The new situation has also meant a time of unprecedented possibilities. Western churches feel they must strike while the iron is hot. Some interpret the present openness as only a temporary interlude in the great controversy between Christ and Satan. Evangelicals believe there fore that they must preach to as many as possible as soon as possible. Such feverish urgency leads to ill-planned witnessing, shallow preaching, and careless followup.

Eastern churches are also alert. They have so far gained the most from perestroika, maximizing the fact that they are the ancient churches rooted in national culture, their teaching and liturgy representing an integral part of the country's heritage. They openly warn against evangelical intruders with foreign messages, categorizing them as superficial. They even push for legislation that will exclude certain kinds of Western sects.

All this can easily result in cultural and political discrimination against Protestants. Perhaps we should consider that the popular style of "evangelism" with cheap, artificial methods is one of the factors prompting the new states to close some doors that were opened.6 Some of the newly formed independent states already have laws in their constitutions heavily curtailing certain imported religious activities. In all honesty we must admit that we as Adventists have occasionally also been guilty of applying shallow church growth principles.

However, it is also encouraging for Adventists to observe, as one national leader told me, that indigenous pastors and laity are more and more to the forefront and are assuming an ever increasing responsibility both for soul winning and for the discipling of new members.It is also heartening to realize that on the administrative level, some divisions,unions, and conferences responsible for monitoring the new wave of evangelism have built-in control mechanisms, with more thorough prebaptism instructions,stricter examination of the candidates,and an age limit for baptizing young people. These controls are based on decades of soul-winning experience in Eastern Europe.

Perhaps all personnel involved in evangelizing Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union should be expected to take an orientation course similar to the well-established Mission Institutes.These minor institutes, perhaps of a week's duration, could be conducted atone of the training schools in one of the newly opened countries and have a curriculum including classes in local customs, history, and culture.

The work is God's

In closing, let us note that the work belongs to God. His Spirit converts,guides, teaches, watches, enables, unifies, and strengthens. The apostle Paul as an itinerant evangelist left us a good example for any pioneering work. He attempted to find the balance between control and trust in church planting. He was prepared to entrust the new converts to the Holy Spirit and leave them alone sometimes after only a few weeks of instruction, letting them deal with their own administrative, theological, and pastoral dilemmas. Yet the apostle Paul kept in touch. They wrote him letters outlining their problems. His admonition, counsel, and teaching constitute a significant part of his Epistles in the New Testament and form a base for biblical theology.

May the God of evangelism likewise give us the wisdom to find a proper balance between teaching the Bible and trusting the Holy Spirit as we press into newly ripening fields. And may God raise up national leaders to care for His church in these areas.

1 Brother Andrew, "There Is No God," Open
Doors News Brief, October 1991, p. 2.

2 Walter Sawatsky, "After the Glastnost Revolution:
Soviet Evangelicals and Western Mission,"
International Bulletin of Missionary Research,
April 1992, p. 59.

3 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of
Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), vol. 2,
pp. 698, 785, 786.

4 Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: Saint
Paul's or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962),
p. 49.

5 Randy Frame, '"Where Taxi Drivers Read
Dostoevsky,'" Christianity Today, May 18,1992,
p. 46.

6 Sawatsky, p. 58.

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Borge Schantz, Ph.D., is director of the Seventh-day Adventist Global Centre for Islamic Studies in Binfleld, Berkshire, England.

November 1993

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