Editor’s note: The editors of Ministry interviewed the presidents of the three church divisions that cover various portions of the European continent. Guillermo Biaggi is president of the Euro-Asia Division, which covers Russia and much of eastern Europe; Bruno Vertallier is president of the Euro-Africa Division, which covers portions of western and central Europe as well as the African countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea; and Bertil Wiklander is president of the Trans-European Division, which covers a large area ranging from the British Isles to the Middle East.
Willie Hucks (WH): During the past five years, what are some of the positive events and significant developments that have taken place in your areas?
Guillermo Biaggi (GB): The Euro-Asia Division now has the opportunity in the former countries of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to reach thousands of people with the gospel of salvation through the satellite programs. So, we have been blessed by speakers such as Mark Finley; Artur Stele and his wife, Galina; Moses Ostrovsky; Michael Kulakov; Peter Kulakov; and Eugene Zaytsev.
This year, many thousands of people attended at our locations, watched at home, or watched through the Internet. More than one thousand people followed each evening just through the Internet, and we are thankful to the Lord for that. By mid-March, we recorded 1,054 baptisms.
Bruno Vertallier (BV): What we have been doing in the Euro-Africa Division, and I want to say with great hope and satisfaction, is the start of the new Islamic Hope Channel. We are now on the air 24/7. This is a great accomplishment. It took a long time to prepare this event, because we were challenged to have more than one thousand programs ready before entering into the process. I’m glad to say that, due to our division’s collaboration with the Trans-European Division (TED), we have the pleasure of seeing thousands and thousands of people responding to these programs. We believe the people in these Muslim countries need to know the gospel. With this in mind, we broadcast in Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi, among other languages. We also have witnessed the start of Adventist World Radio (AWR) in Spain. From there, they will reach out to Morocco.
In Paris, we are glad to also have opened an evangelistic center where programs are run almost every day of the week. This is especially important for reaching the secular population. We have also been focusing on our schools and universities and becoming greatly involved in the quest for revival and reformation. The work is hard, but we have to praise the Lord that He has given us the means, people, and resources to carry on.
Bertil Wiklander (BW): We are very grateful for the fifteen percent growth in the Trans-European Division’s membership in the past five years. Many unions grow in Europe, particularly the British Union, due to immigrant evangelism. People come in from the outside with a very religious perspective. But they grow by witnessing. Integrating the different nationalities into one homogeneous church is a challenge. But we are very grateful for what God has done for us in terms of growth.
We have also devised a program called “Relay Christ.” A team travels from union to union, training forty to fifty young people in each union. Then the unions involve the eager youth in specific projects. For example, in Poland four hundred young people from eighteen churches go knocking on doors and ask questions like, “Would you like to have a Bible study?” Many say “Yes.” They then produce an address list of people who have an interest in being visited. They visited twenty-six thousand homes, and had numerous addresses that they handed over to the local church pastors. Out of this has come a growth that is tremendous. So, in the Polish Union, they, right now, have a higher membership than they’ve ever had before. And last year, they baptized more people than they’ve done for many, many years.
In Sweden, the same trend among young people has led to a growth so that Sweden, who had negative church growth for many years, has now had positive church growth for several years in a row. It is a very secular country, and it is said that to lead someone to Christ in Sweden, you need seven years to work with them. In Greece, we also started the Two Hundred Missionary Movement where they’re trained to go out and witness. We see trends in Europe that lay people, young people especially, want to take ownership of the mission of the church. We also have a special emphasis for children that we call “Kids in Discipleship.” It’s something created in North America, that we brought to Europe, and now have in every union.
Another significant development is the TED Media Center where we produce excellent programs. We have also the Al-Waad Media Center, which means “the promise” in Arabic. It is based in Beirut, and they have produced new programs in Arabic for a year. This is now being translated by the Hope Channel. We also have a private ministry, which has become a supporting ministry of the church—LifeStyleTV in southern Sweden, which covers northern Europe with their productions. And we have developed a life-connect ministry, which uses the Internet as an interactive tool.
In the Middle East, a sheikh gave us permission to build an Adventist church, which means that we can now obtain visas, and a whole new day is going to dawn on the work in that region. We have been given very generous funds from the General Conference to enter three different countries where we don’t currently have a presence: Syria, Yemen, and Northern Cyprus. We call it the SYNC project. And the most people baptized in our division are baptized in the Sudan. These are just a few highlights of what God is doing in our division.
Derek Morris (DM): What are some of the greatest challenges you face?
GB: The greatest challenge we face revolves around training our pastors and elders. We have plans during the next three years to implement newly established courses to assist in this process.
BV: Leadership development for pastors, elders, and other laypeople remains an important issue in our territory. Also, our pastors express a deep interest in theology and want to know more—they want to be better able to address current issues.
There is also the issue of secularism. Pastors need to be aware of the multiplicity of cultures, and we have to work on this because it is not uncommon to have at least ten languages spoken in any given large city. I believe our pastors in Europe sometimes get depressed because of the lack of success. They do their best, but hardly baptize anyone. They must remember that what they sow will be fertilized by the Holy Spirit. We must always encourage our pastors to not give up, because theirs is a wonderful ministry.
BW: The European mind-set is so different from the traditional Seventh-day Adventist mind-set. In order to speak to people about our faith, we need to find a common language, know where these people are coming from. And that is sometimes painful. There are many things we take for granted as Seventh-day Adventists: knowledge of the Bible, and the beliefs we hold and love. But many Europeans are secular. They place confidence in science and do not believe there is a God. There are also many postmoderns who are always open to the fact that God may exist, they just want to be convinced of His existence. We have to find other ways besides the Bible to convince them. In developing various methods to reach different people in Europe, some Adventists are unhappy because they feel that we’re not preaching the message that we’ve been given to preach. Of course we are, we’re just taking a longer time to do it. It takes up to seven years for a pastor to lead someone to Christ in Europe, which, of course, as Bruno mentioned, is a very tough experience for pastors. The pastors need a lot of encouragement.
The mind-set of Europe is that Christianity is something of the past. In America, you might see people praying in a restaurant before they eat. You wouldn’t see that in Europe. If you say you are a Christian, they will look at you and say, “Are you crazy?” It’s a very post–Christian society that has left Christianity behind. Christian values no longer have a place in the public dialogue. We have all the freedom in the world, but we are marginalized in Europe. And that is the atmosphere in which we have to witness.
Mostly, our churches in Europe are small, between fifty and one hundred members, with very little resources and very few people who can make things happen in the local church. That’s a challenge. We also are challenged with many different cultures because people immigrate into Europe. How do we create an atmosphere of belonging, being one people?
We also have a challenge in that we have many small unions. We have thirteen unions in the Trans-European Division. Eleven of those are in Europe. The British Union has thirty-two thousand members; but all the others possess memberships ranging from twenty-five hundred to eight thousand. The smaller the union, the greater is the financial burden they bear, and the departmental directors carry additional responsibilities.
WH: As we focus on revival and reformation, a personal question to each of you: How do you, amid the busyness of your daily schedules, manage to maintain a vital connection with God?
GB: That is the challenge that all believers have, to spend more time with the Lord. Psalm 5:3 says, “Early in the morning You hear my requests.” We need to come to the Lord early in the morning each day. We are trying to adopt, in the Euro-Asia Division, a program developed in the South American Division to spend forty early mornings with the Lord in order to establish a good habit of spending each morning with God. The material, in two books, has a devotional for each of the forty days. So, I have been praying in my personal life to have the desire every morning to have separate time with the Lord. Early in the morning, I try to meditate in the Lord, and repeat in my mind about forty different Bible texts. One of the ways I find very interesting is to memorize Bible texts following the alphabet. So I start with A, what Bible texts start with A, and then with B, and then with C, and so on. I follow all the letters. It’s a way of meditating in the Lord. In that, we find a wonderful source of strength in the Holy Scripture, to help and strengthen us during the day in service for the Lord.
BV: Apart from praying and reading the Bible, studying, preaching, I have challenged God on one thing: “Lord, revival must start within me!” This is something I really want to experience. But also in a practical way, I find it important to connect with people. I find such to provide revival for me, a refreshing experience.
BW: I have taken this call to revival and reformation as an invitation to review my life and change things I did not feel were working the way they should. One such thing I noted was that I was working too hard, and got worn out. Working too much does not help my spiritual life. I have become more aware of the length of time I am working, and try to put life back into balance. I try to exercise, and also feel that the Sabbath blessing can sometimes, in our job, be under threat, because we travel, visit, preach, and meet with people. When you’re at a church on Sabbath, perhaps preaching twice on that day, then talking to people about their problems—that is not really resting. It is service, active work. But I think watching those things [is] important.
Many have mentioned prayer, meditation, and Bible study; I think also witnessing and sharing your faith. So now every time I have an opportunity to do that, I talk sometimes to official people who are outside of the church. When I travel, with passengers around me, I try to use every opportunity to share my faith with others because talking to others about what we believe has an impact on me spiritually. You feel that the Holy Spirit is talking through you. I have found that when I preach, which I do gladly, I go to my archives and use some old sermons, it doesn’t really inspire me that much. Now, I have made a point of trying to prepare new sermons every time. When I discover the Word of God, and really study it to preach about a good passage of Scripture, that really puts me close to God. It’s important to do that thorough work. It blesses me. I also think to keep reading a devotional book all the time, to have that beside you, so that everyday you come back to a devotional type of reading, is important. And finally, I think that if you are close to your office team, it is normal and natural for you to just go on your knees and pray together at any time.
DM: Powerful insights. Thank you so much for sharing with us. I know that there are many pastors and spiritual leaders who will read this interview and be encouraged, not only by your words, but by your example in seeking a personal spiritual relationship with God. Ultimately, our prayer is that the readers of Ministry would experience revival and that we would see the outpouring of His Spirit in new and profound ways both in Europe and around the world.