Fishing in the Neighbor's Pond: Mission and Proselytism in Eastern Europe

By Volf, Miroslav | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Fishing in the Neighbor's Pond: Mission and Proselytism in Eastern Europe


Volf, Miroslav, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


A good way to describe the situation in Eastern Europe today is to say that yesterday's dreams have turned into today's nightmares.(1) This holds true not only in politics and economy but also in church life. One need not be an expert in Eastern European Christianity to know that at the very center of the religious turmoil are the issues of mission and proselytism. What precisely is the problem? One way to put it is to say that what Protestants (mainly of the evangelical kind) consider to be legitimate mission Catholics and Orthodox (whom I will refer to as established churches) consider to be illegitimate and culturally damaging proselytism.

For all churches in Eastern Europe the peaceful revolution of 1989 seemed a dawn of a new era. They had been discriminated against and even persecuted under Communist totalitarianism; now under democracy they were hoping for unhindered flourishing. Instead, new conflicts emerged, this time not with the government, but with each other. Churches were now politically free to pursue their respective goals, but they became trapped in the battle over their own colliding goals.

Catholics and Orthodox were hoping that some of the significant social influence they had before the Communists came into power would be regained. After all, for centuries they served as guardians of various Eastern European cultures, preserving the identity of their peoples. Hence to be Croatian was to be a Catholic Christian, to be Serbian was to be an Orthodox Christian, and so forth. Yet the years of Communist domination had partly de-Christianized Eastern European cultures. Moreover, the new democratic order has brought a wide variety of other cultural shapers (both Christian and non-Christian) into play and indeed guarantees them the right of existence. The same historical change that freed established churches to exert themselves again as a major cultural force has provided space for a wide variety of other forces that compete with the established churches. Conflict was preprogrammed. It was only a question of how it would be carried out: within the bounds set by the new democratic order, or using the skills honed in the totalitarian past; through civil dialogue, or through brute force; with regard and love for one another, or with indifference and even hate.

Evangelical Protestants, always a small minority in Eastern European countries, also had great hopes for democracy. Above all, they wanted freedom to worship God and proclaim the Good News to non-Christians. The trouble was that their definition of who were non-Christians included most members of the established churches. What compounded the trouble, however, was the zeal of various Christian groups from abroad who saw the lifting of the iron curtain as the unique opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ within what they used to call an "evil empire." In a 1993 study, the Center for Civil Society in Seattle determined that approximately 760 different Western religious groups, churches, and parachurch organizations were at work in former Communist nations of Europe. There were 200 to 350 different groups in the Commonwealth of Independent States, for instance, and 120 to 200 in Romania alone.

The following statement by Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia at the Conference of European Churches in 1992 expresses well the sentiment of the established churches:

We thought with certitude that after we received freedom, the solidarity of our Christian brothers in the West would help us to organize and restore our witness to Christ in our country, and our catechetical and missionary work in order to enlighten those educated in atheism and still ignoring Christ. And this would be in the spirit of the manifestation of the "joint witness" to Christ excluding and condemning any proselytism. . . .

And the long-endured [anti-religious system] and desired changes for the best came. The atheist totalitarian system of prohibiting the free witness to Christ broke down. …

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