The Church in Central Europe: Not Prepared for Freedom

November 5, 2004 by  
Filed under News

freedom-for-all1David Machajdik and Juraj Kusnierik

The mid-1980s saw some Christians in some local churches starting to speak about and “do” evangelism. The climate in society was changing. It became possible to share one’s faith in a secular environment. People from a completely atheistic background became Christian. It was not a mass movement, nor was it a “national revival.” The only possible (and still today probably the best) method of evangelism was sharing one’s life—including one’s relationship with God—with friends and relatives. All this was done informally, sometimes secretly. The word “ministry” with its spiritual connotations was as yet unknown.

Then came the revolutionary changes in 1989. Christians “went public.” The first (and at the same time the last) big evangelistic events took place. Famous evangelists visited Eastern and Central European capitals. Mission organizations supported by local churches started to do “street evangelism.” Religion was given air time on radio and television. Foreign missionaries arrived. It was only natural to expect a great growth in the church. However, this growth has not taken place. People see the church as important and as a useful component of society, but they themselves do not want to be under its influence. After the initial enthusiasm was over, the church somehow “faded out.” It is still there; it is surviving, but not growing very much.* The reasons are many. We are able to perceive and comment on only some of them.

The Church was surprised by the complexity of the free world. After 1989 Christian leaders did not have much to say about issues discussed in society such as nationalism, business ethics, or the role of the state. Even topics frequently discussed by Christians in the West (such as abortion, ethics, social involvement, or education) were new to the church in post-Communist countries. During the first years after the change of regime, leading personalities in the church did not see these issues as important. They thought that preaching the message of personal salvation did not need to take a new context into consideration. The Gospel was thus unintentionally reduced to a set of slogans without any connection with the complex reality of life. Methods learned from nineteenth century revivals did not always work in a post-Communist society.

Gaps in theology were patched up by fervent activism. Only a handful of English or German speaking pastors had limited access to theological literature and even that was more on a popular level. Classical works of systematic and historical theology were not available. There were big and significant gaps in theology as a result of forty years of atheistic socialism. Problems arose when a lack of theological insight was perceived as a virtue. Weakness was called strength. Theology was seen as a useless intellectualism, leading one to confusion. Many activities were going on, but superficiality was often their common denominator. Religious programs on television are easily recognizable by their naiveté, simplicity, superficiality, and cultural weirdness. They are also very boring. They do not usually have much to say to the ordinary skeptical Central European even if he or she is searching for truth and the meaning of life.

The Church in post-Communist countries has been burdened by its unresolved past. The great majority of Christians living under Communism were apolitical. That meant that they did not openly criticize the totalitarian regime in which they lived. They very rarely supported or had any relationships with dissidents. Some church leaders tried, with varying degrees of success, to win more freedom for their churches by a “controlled collaboration” with the Communist regime. An example of this was that some signed statements rejecting the demands voiced by any given dissident movement, even if they were usually convinced that the truth was on the side of the dissidents, in order to gain greater freedom for various ministries in their churches. It is difficult now to judge these acts. The Church has not as yet gone through the process of reflecting on its activities under the Communist regime. It is awkward now to speak about a life of truth, about ethics, or about a radical rejection of evil. It makes it very difficult to react to accusations of compromising behavior on the part of the church and its leaders.

An inferiority complex fostered a small view of God. Many Christians, when they entered the “public arena,” were embarrassed by the questions they were asked. People who did not take Christian assumptions for granted asked questions which Christian activists, whose message was “Jesus is the answer,” were not able to answer. To avoid this embarrassment, they did not give space for dialogue and swept unpleasant questions under the carpet. A strange kind of inferiority complex has developed: those who in theory believe in an omniscient and omnipotent God, those who in theory boldly proclaim that Christianity has all the answers, in practice are afraid of questions. Jesus is viewed as loving, compassionate, and pious. He is not very often seen as the most intelligent person who ever lived.

Evangelical churches remain inaccessible. Like a hangover from the previous regime Evangelical churches remain locked up and fenced in. Only the initiated can find their way around. To outsiders, churches are practically inaccessible. It is no surprise that in some smaller towns or villages strange rumors are spread about bizarre religious rituals which take place behind closed doors. Shortly after the fall of Communism we were putting up posters in the streets of Bratislava, advertising a public evangelistic meeting. A young Gypsy stopped by and asked us about other similar events. He was very much interested, but only until he found out that sexual orgies are not part of the program. For him Evangelical fellowships had that connotation.

The Church is distant from its cultural and social environment. This might be a residue of the fears inherited from the times of Communism, when Christians were afraid of spies and secret police. It could also be based on a subconscious, but often correct, assumption that if they enter into an authentic dialogue with non-Christian fellow citizens, they will not be able to give meaningful answers to their questions. They know Jesus is the answer, but they do not know what the question is. The Church has a tendency to accept the role imposed on it by the expectations of society. It then becomes a social institution, aimed at the development of ethics and charity. It loses sight of its ultimate goal, which alone gives meaning to its existence: to know God as the creator and the one giving meaning and purpose to the whole of life.