Protestant Revival in Bulgaria

baptism.jpgOn November 10, 1989, a day after the border between East and West Berlin opened, the Bulgarian Communist leader of over 30 years resigned and change toward democracy began (Lalkov, 62-63). For those of us, who lived in the final days of Communist Bulgaria, the Fall of the Wall was a modern-day miracle. Emerging from severe Communist persecution and surrounded by the Balkan religious wars, the country of Bulgaria suddenly experienced a time of liberation. Before our very eyes, began a national spiritual revival despite a collapsing economy and political insecurity.

The industrial policy of the Communist government in the 1950s produced farmland nationalization and urban industrialization. These dynamics initiated a nationwide migration to the cities and forced the development of unsustainable manufacturing industries. Unsuitable for the rapid and unplanned transition toward a capital market, the Communist economy collapsed creating economic chaos in Bulgaria between 1994 and 1996. With growing poverty and corruption, today the country suffers 20% unemployment which has forced a third of Bulgarians to live below the poverty line with an average monthly income of approximately $100 (World Bank). Poverty is highest among ethnic minority groups such as Roma and Pomacs, the elderly and unsupported children. For the past ten years, over one million Bulgarians have left the country in search of a better life (Geshakova). In the prolonged economical crisis and desperate macroeconomic situation, the spiritual revival became an answer for many.

Evangelistic meetings in towns and villages began immediately in 1989 since the church was no longer underground. Despite the pressure and constant media attacks, the Protestant movement grew rapidly. In the first five years of democracy, a number of Pentecostals churches exceeded membership of a thousand. Many Muslim and Roma communities were reached with the Gospel. The Mission for Christian Upbringing alone reported ministering to over one million Bulgarians. As Communism left even its strongest supporters hopeless, Protestantism was able to give thousands of Bulgarians hope and encouragement.

A second period of revival followed as the twenty-first century approached. In Bulgaria, the second half of the 1990s experienced the recognition of freedom as a motivating force in both the person and the community. In the midst of the deepening socio-economical crisis, the Protestant movement confronted issues such as religious tolerance, human rights, church tradition, legislation and social transformation. Soon strategic steps were taken toward church planting, membership growth, ministry training and Christian education. All of these factors formed a religious environment in Bulgaria which demanded a new democratic paradigm for ministry amidst the typical Balkan milieu of explosive numerical growth and severe opposition.

In 2003, the Protestant community in Bulgaria became a prime example of such perplexity when the National Statistical Institute reported that the number of non-Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria was only 42,000 (NSI). The Protestant movement which had reported approximately 13,000 members in 1975 (Grothusen, 564) had grown to 55,000 in the 1980s despite persecution of the Communist Regime (Lausanne Committee). By the end of the twentieth century, various agencies reported that the number of Bulgarian Protestants had reached (GCN) and exceeded (Elliott) 100,000 members. This number was confirmed by the report of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee which noted that while the 1992 census taken by the Bulgarian National Institute of Statistics registered only 21,878 Protestants, the number of 100,000 published by Protestant denominations was more probable (Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 1999).

In 2001, the Bulgarian Church of God presented statistics showing 32,000 members with 250 ministers in over 400 congregations nationwide. In 2003, the Bulgarian Assemblies of God reported 550 churches, over 50,000 members, 150 national pastors and one Bible school with 173 students. Combined with the membership of the remaining Protestant denominations, these statistics documented over 100,000 Bulgarian Protestant believers in a nation of eight million.

Dr. Stephen Penov, a professor at the Sofia University and a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science who served as a parliament expert on human rights and faith confessions, in a recent interview confirmed that the members of classical Protestant churches in Bulgarian exceed 60,000 while new Protestant denominations have a membership of approximately 50,000. The Catholics in Bulgaria are approximately 70,000 strong and almost 6,000,000 identify as Eastern Orthodox (Religia BG, July 31, 2004).