Christian Mission in Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

Europe's division into East and West after World War II was conditioned by both political and ideological motives and actions. The regimes spawned by Communist ideology oppressed the peoples of Eastern Europe politically, and they also tried to eradicate all religion from people's minds and hearts. Though the Communists never succeeded either in ideology or in the field of religion, the oppression they spread did prevent the churches of Eastern Europe, whose very existence was at stake, from undertaking any missionary activity. With the regime shifts of 1989 came changes in both ideology and religion, as the countries of Eastern Europe received both political and religious freedom. The churches in each country experienced amazing growth and expansion. But what of mission on the part of the Eastern Orthodox churches--did it expand and grow? This question is the focus of the present article.

Western Christian churches have "done mission" on a large scale (especially in the last two centuries), but the forms of mission used by Western Christians have never been part of the experience of Orthodox Christian churches. Therefore, though the 1990s saw the restoration of Orthodox churches' ecclesiastical and spiritual life, there was not a corresponding resurgence of their mission. For an Orthodox Christian the word "mission" sounds strange, even unknown; the closest equivalent is "witness'--that is, believers bearing witness to Christ and his Good News among other nations and peoples.

Some Orthodox theologians hold that the Eastern churches have in fact carried out mission, both now and in the past, as far back as the early centuries of the Christian era. (1) We need to understand, however, that this mission was usually done within national or other local boundaries in which an Orthodox presence already existed. The examples usually given--the Slavic missionaries Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Russian missions of the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, the missions to Japan, China, Korea, and so forth--represent dual missionary endeavors undertaken by the church and the emperor together, in which so-called caesaropapist relations between church and state are evident. Orthodox mission has always consisted primarily of "internal mission" on the part of the church in witnessing to the truth, not external ecclesiastical endeavors or missions in foreign lands, whether in the form of crusades or of some other sort. Examples exist of church planting done by local Orthodox churches in various countries on all continents today. But Orthodox churches' predominant concern continues to be internal witnessing; Orthodox missionaries are mainly engaged in the work of catechizing and liturgical "planting" of the truth in people's mind and heart.

This historic character and ethos seems to explain the fact that no substantial missionary movement has appeared within the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe since 1989. Beneath the surface of the slow and sometimes painful restoration of church life in Eastern Europe, however, we can now see tiny mission movements taking form. These are movements that engage increasing numbers of Orthodox Christians in obeying Jesus' call "Go therefore and make disciples" (Matt. 28:19), drawing them out of seclusion within the church's fence and leading them to serve their society and other peoples in their own country or abroad. Although these endeavors continue to be generally overlooked by observers, they seem to be increasing pace and are becoming more evident and influential both within the church and in society. In fact, missionary movements within the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe after 1990 may be divided into two large groups: the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church and the mission of the other Orthodox churches.

Russian Mission

The mission of the church is God's mission, reaching out toward the whole of creation and, viewed in historical perspective, carried out in practical ways by Christians in light of their local circumstances. …