Bulgarian Pentecostals

pentecostal-van11Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bulgarian Protestant movement claims over 100,000 members. This number is almost ten times higher than a 1975 German study which presented proof of approximately 13,000 “known” Protestants in Bulgaria. In the 1980s, this number had grown to 55,000, as this was the time when many Western missionaries were able to visit Bulgaria and gather information about the underground churches outlawed by the Communist Regime.

Although international reports confirmed the existence of over 100,000 Protestants in Bulgaria as early as 1994, the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute counted only 42,000 Protestant believers in Bulgaria for the 2002-2003 National Census. This number was detested recently by Dr. Stephen Penov, a professor at the Sofia University and a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, who has served as a Parliament expert on human rights and faith confessions. Dr. Penov stated that the members of classical Protestant denominations in Bulgarian exceeded 100,000 with over 60,000 identified as classical Protestants and a membership in the new Protestant denominations of approximately 50,000. During the past fifteen years, Bulgaria has experienced an ongoing Pentecostal revival. Therefore, it is not a surprise that over eighty percent of Bulgarian Protestants are Pentecostal or claim Pentecostal experience.

Protestant work on the Balkan Peninsula began in the 1800s when British and American missionaries were allowed to enter the Ottoman Empire. In the 1820s, the British Bible Society developed a Protestant translation of the Bulgarian Bible, which was completed and published in Constantinople in 1871. During this same period, various Protestant denominations began mission work in Bulgaria, among which were Congregationalists (1856), Methodist (1857), Baptists (1865) and Seven Day Adventists (1891). In 1871, the first Bulgarian Protestant Church was founded in the town of Bansko. By the time Bulgaria was liberated in 1878 and became an independent Balkan state, Protestantism was well established in the Bulgarian culture.

Pentecostalism was introduced in Bulgaria in 1920 as Ukrainian immigrants Zaplishny and Voronaev preached in the Congregational church at the Black Sea port city of Bourgas, where several were baptized with the Holy Spirit. This event marked the beginning of Bulgarian Pentecostalism.

In the next decade, the movement had spread throughout the country. The establishment of a consistent national structure occurred under the leadership of Nikolai Nikolov. The new denomination was formally recognized as the Union of the Evangelical Pentecostal Churches in Bulgaria, at a national assembly on 28-31 March, 1928. The organization, also known as the Pentecostal Union, was affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination.

Legally, the newly formed organization was required to register with the Bulgarian government. This caused a great deal of controversy and division. A conservative Pentecostal group, with congregations located mainly in Northern Bulgaria, emerged from the split and adopted the name, Tinchevists, after the name of the leader Stoyan Tintchev. The Tinchevists, who are often called Northern Brothers due to the fact that most of their congregations were located in Northern Bulgaria, later became commonly known as the Bulgarian Church of God (lit. Bulgarian God’s Church).

The split between the Pentecostal Union and the Church of God was mainly due to leadership instability and internal organization disagreement. Unfortunately, due to the historical developments which followed, true attempts to reunite both Pentecostal wings did not take place even after the original leaders were replaced.

In 1944, the Communist Revolution took place in Bulgaria. In 1949, Communist authorities tried and convicted fifteen protestant leaders on false charges of treason and espionage. The division among Bulgarian Pentecostals continued during the Communist Regime. The Pentecostal Union pursued legal existence by registering with the Communist state. This action led to the government’s interference with church business and the implanting of secret agents within the denomination’s structure.

The Bulgarian Church of God, on the other hand, chose to remain underground and was severely persecuted by the authorities. Archives report that in 1974, the Bulgarian Church of God had only 600 members nationwide. This number grew to 2,000 members with congregations in 25 cities by 1981 and doubled by 1986 when the denomination was affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).

At the same time, the Bulgarian Pentecostal Union had approximately 10,000 members and when the Berlin Wall fell, the denomination entered the Pentecostal revival that swept the country. In the decade that followed, the Pentecostal Union multiplied its congregation to 500 with over 50,000 members and adherents. A recent interview with Ivan Ivanov, the student pastor of the Pentecostal College in Sofia, indicated that the membership of the Pentecostal Union might have experienced a decline since 2002.

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Church of God continued to grow reporting over 32,000 members with close to 400 congregations in 2001. Its work among the ethnic minorities in the country has resulted in the emergence of large Roma congregations like the ones in Samokov with 1,700 and in Razlog with 450 members.

It is reasonable to ask the question why is Pentecostalism so attractive to Bulgarian culture in the beginning of the 21st century? How is Pentecostalism responding so well to the need for faith within the postcommunist Bulgarian society? What is the reason Pentecostalism has spread so rapidly in the postcommunist age? Is Pentecostalism simply filling a spiritual gap or is it successfully responding to postmodern thinking?

The answers to the above questions are found in Pentecostal theology, which claims the “five-fold Gospel.” The results of a recent survey of one hundred randomly selected Bulgarian Protestants asking about the fundamentals of their faith is shown in the following table:

Question Yes No
Does a person have free will? 78% 22%
Can a person choose to be saved or not? 75% 25%
Must a person accept Jesus Christ as a personal Savior in order to be saved? 97% 3%
Can a person lose his/her salvation? 75% 25%
Is the use of alcohol sin? 60% 40%
Can a person be saved without being baptized in the Holy Spirit? 72% 28%
Are you baptized with the Holy Spirit? 63% 37%
Have the spiritual gifts described in the Bible ceased? 10% 90%
Are there apostles today? 64% 36%
Do you go to church each week? 73% 27%
Do you pray daily? 88% 12%
Do you read the Bible daily? 77% 23%
Do you fast more than once a week? 35% 65%

The last characteristic is prompted by the obvious fact, that where two or three Bulgarian Protestants agree, one disagrees with them. It is for future researchers to determine if this is a reflection of Bulgarian cultural mentality, suspicion remaining from the Communist Regime or simply Pentecostal experiential curiosity with existential need for opposition of social norms even within itself.

Fortunately, Bulgarians remain in almost complete agreement on issues such as the person and work of Jesus Christ in the salvific mission of God and the importance of the Holy Spirit in the mission of the church. Perhaps, these are the points of agreement which future Bulgarian Protestants should use to build unity and construct strategies for the future development of the movement. Because these also serve as the cornerstone of Pentecostal doctrine and practice, a movement toward unity within the Bulgarian Protestant movement should be initiated by Bulgarian Pentecostals. However, before such initiation can be realized, Pentecostals must reach a balance between their numerical advantage and their social action.