Tag Archives: evangelism

Sofia, Bulgaria

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Until January of 2015 year my wife and I were missionaries in Pskov, Russia.  There we came alongside a local church and partnered in their ministry.

(Listen to the above audio for a more in-depth update)

In Pskov, our work centered around orphanages, drug & alcohol rehab centers, and youth ministry. Unfortunately, new legislation by the government has forced us to leave the country.

In conjunction with our supervisor we decided to relocate to Sofia, Bulgaria – a Slavic country in Southeastern Europe that borders Greece and Turkey.

Bulgaria Total Population: 7 million
Bulgaria Total Protestants: 65,000

Ethnicities:
Bulgarian: 5.25 million (30,000 = .5% Protestant)
Roma: 300,000 (30,000 = 10% Protestant)
Turkish: 560,000 (95% Muslim)

The Roma (Gypsy) and Bulgarian populations are highly segregated. Of the ethnic Bulgarian population, less than one-half of one percent self-identifies as Protestant of any kind.

(Evangelism in a Slavic, Orthodox Context)

Over the last several months, we have been evaluating the mission field, getting to know local churches in Sofia and missionaries around the country.

3 Key Areas of Opportunity:

  • Internship program: Christian groups aren’t allowed on campus, so we’ll embed Christians on campus. (Read more)
  • Sermon and Book Translations: Bring solid Biblical resources to the people of Bulgaria.
  • Church Planting: Initially in Sofia, with the goal of spreading around the country.

Below are two recent sermons that I preached:

Every Christian’s Ministry

Invited by the King: Would you turn down a free invitation to a royal wedding?

They’re not Christians, They Sing!

A conversation with our landlady in Pskov illustrates the challenges of evangelism in a Slavic, Orthodox context. Click below to listen:

Some highlights from the conversation:

  • “They’re not Christians, they sing!”
  • “The Pechersky Monastery is the most unholy place on earth. People come from all over the world to hang their sins there.”
  • “We’re Christians, we paid to have all our apartments blessed.”

Read about another conversation, “I don’t read the Bible, I’m Orthodox!

Evangelism on a City Bus – Russian Orthodox

“I don’t read the Bible, I’m Orthodox.”

You don’t expect to actually hear those words. Everyone knows it’s true, but it’s never said. Certainly not as a means of identification.

Orthodox Bible

On the bus home from a seminar the other day, Nansi had a Russian study Bible on her lap. The man sitting across from her, a Jehovah’s Witness, engaged with us – easy enough when someone is carrying a Bible! You can read the story of that encounter here.

There had been four of us sitting in tight quarters, like a restaurant booth without the table. Sitting next to the Jehovah’s Witness was a woman, who I initially thought was with him. After he left the bus, since she had heard the entire conversation, I asked if she read the Bible. Immediately she answered, “I don’t read the Bible, I’m Orthodox.”

[“Я Библию не читаю, я Православная.”]

In response I asked, “Are Orthodox not allowed to read the Bible?”

After an awkward pause, ignoring the question, she said “that guy’s not normal,” referring to the Jehovah’s Witness.

Below is the rest of our conversation:

“I come from a different branch of Christianity, and I don’t really understand Orthodoxy. What is most important in Orthodoxy?”

“To be a good person.”

“That’s only possible with God’s strength.”

“Sometimes I feel that way.”

“I know you might think that I’m also from a cult, we work with the Baptists. We can’t be good people on our own. You can’t be a good person. I can’t be a good person. My natural self does not seek the things of God. It’s only when God resurrects me, though Jesus Christ, that I can live.”

“Why are you here, in Pskov?”

“My wife and I moved here because we want to help people. We have some friends from the area who recommended it.”

“My priest told me not to help people unless they want to be helped. I’m old, I’m in my 60s, I’m tired of people, I don’t want to spend any time with them. People don’t have the same values today, they’re only interested in money.”

“Were you a Christian in the Soviet times?”

“I never thought of it that way. I sang in the choir at church. I was a schoolteacher and they threatened to fire me because of my church going.”

Orthodox WomanAt first we thought she was angry when she asked us why we were here. I think she was just generally confused, didn’t understand why we would come. Admittedly, it doesn’t make much worldly sense.

A standard, nominal Orthodox Christian, who never goes to church, would also say it’s important to be a good person. It’s enlightening, however, to hear that from someone who is a regular part of the church’s life.

She thinks the Jehovah’s Witness is in a cult, and he thinks she’s an unbeliever, but both of them are trying to earn their salvation. I hope she gives up. I hope she stops trying to rely on her own strength.

She knows who we are, and she knows where we meet, but the cultural baggage against Protestants is so strong that very few self-identified Orthodox are willing to engage.

Less than 10% of Russians have any connection to any church. Most Russians are Orthodox only by ethnic identification. To them all Protestants are “Baptists,” and they’ve been taught that Baptists are Western traitors who practice child sacrifice. Seriously. Most believe the first accusation, and some the second.

This is one of our greatest strengths as foreign missionaries in Russia. We’re not Russian. It’s ok for us to be Protestant – I’m not a traitor for being one. Russians can engage with us as a cross-cultural dialogue, not a negotiation with an enemy. The problem is, we don’t even have the Bible as a common foundation.

Do you have any experience in theological communication with Orthodox? Let me know in the comments!

Read part 1: Evangelism on a City Bus – Jehovah’s Witness

Evangelism on a City Bus – Jehovah’s Witness

As missionaries in Russia, we’re always looking for ways to steer conversations towards spiritual themes. Sometimes, you get asked directly!

My wife and I were on the bus, going home from a Romans’ seminar that was held at our church downtown. On Russian buses, there are sections of four seats that face each other, in pairs of two. Like a booth at a restaurant, but there’s no table and your legs are often intertwined.

Our Russian language MacArthur Study Bible was sitting on Nansi’s lap, the description written on the spine. The man across from her leaned over and asked what a “study bible” is. Talking to strangers is highly unusual behavior for Russians in public, so I was a little confused at first. I took the Bible, opened it up and showed that the text is at the top and commentary at the bottom of each page.

Study Bible Russian

The man asks, “how do you know to trust what the commentary says?” That’s a brilliant question, one that I did not expect from someone in a nominal Christian culture where nobody reads the Bible. “He’s a known, respected and trusted author,” I respond. Nansi adds that we compare what we read against the text – which was actually a much better answer!

“You shouldn’t read any commentary, just read the actual text,” the man replies. As if to prove something, I show him my English Bible, which doesn’t have any commentary.

“People pray here about the Kingdom of Heaven, but they have no idea what the kingdom actually is.” Presumably he’s referring to the Lord’s Prayer, or as even Russian Protestants call it, the “Our Father.” I took the bait, “what is the Kingdom of Heaven?”

“A government in heaven, ruled by Christ, established 100 years ago in 1914. If I give you some literature, will you take it?” Let’s find out who this guy is, I think – not knowing this piece of JW theology. As he’s getting ready to exit the bus, he pulls out a magazine – the Jehovah’s Witness style is unmistakeable.

My wife made an insightful comment, that would have been pertinent had the man not left. We’re not supposed to read commentary, just the Biblical text … but we should read the Watchtower? How is that not commentary?
Watchtower Russian May 2014
This is the second time that we’ve been engaged by Jehovah’s Witnesses. First, while in Bulgaria waiting for our visas – now, on a bus in Pskov, Russia. They definitely deserve an “A” for effort.

Granted, he had a very helpful hint that we would be a good target, we were carrying a study Bible in plain view. Still, I can’t imagine that many Protestants are looking to start spiritual conversations in the city bus.

I know, from speaking to other Jehovah’s Witnesses, that they need to earn their place in heaven, to be one of the 144,000. It is a religion of works, and he’s trying to do his part to evangelize not just because he’s concerned about us, but also because he’s concerned about himself.

He is trying to earn salvation by his evangelism. That may give him greater impetus to do it – but are we, who are secure in our hope, silent?

The conversation continued with the man’s neighbor in part 2: Evangelism on a City Bus – Russian Orthodox

Why Are Young Christians Becoming Atheists?

Listening to Young Atheists:
Lessons for a Stronger Christianity

Surveys in recent years have shown that between 60-75% of American Christian youth will cease attending church after graduating from high school. This low retention rate has led to many concerns about the demographic decline of confessing Christians.

Many speculate as to why, and a Christian foundation asked confessing atheists at colleges across the country why they became atheists. The conclusions were surprisingly uniform – and present a damning condemnation of contemporary approaches to youth ministry.

One student, Phil, shares his journey to unbelief:

“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kumbaya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.” …

[Phil] loved his church (“they weren’t just going through the motions”), his pastor (“a rock star trapped in a pastor’s body”), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim (“a passionate man”). Jim’s Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: “He didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.” …

During his junior year of high school, the church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim’s dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, “didn’t know a thing about the Bible.” The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil.

Too often we think that youth ministry should be about fun and games. With the reduction of “Big Church” sermons in the Evangelical world to simplistic, rhyming aphorisms for a better life, the standard has been set so low that the youth ministers are forced into farce. From the adults our youth have learned that doctrine isn’t fun, and catechism is a terrible game. Of course, catechisms were originally meant to train children in the faith.

In tandem with, and likely because of, the dumbing down of our teaching in youth ministry, there has been a devaluation of the depth of the Christian response to this world:

 “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. [Stephanie] seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. …

Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”

Jesus’ call is not to a better life, at least, not in the way that the world understands as better. Jesus calls us to lose our lives, to renounce all that we have. Personal significance, purpose, ethics – our whole lives – are to be understood through God’s plan of redemption and self-revelation in Christ.

Our answers are deeper, sharper, more meaningful … and costlier than the world’s. We just shy away from them. Through our methods we teach that fun is the core value of life. Are we surprised that when freed from church they continue to seek out self-centered pleasure?

We should not be ashamed of Christ’s full-throated proclamation of payment for and dominion over our lives. If people don’t sense that we take the Christian message very seriously, why would they?

But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening:

“I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,” someone asked.

“I do not,” Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, “But he does.”

You can read the full article here: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” [The Atlantic]

Atheist Billboard in Chicago

Atheist Billboard in Downtown Chicago
Atheist Billboard in Downtown Chicago

A billboard in the middle of downtown Chicago asks:

Are You Good Without God?

Millions Are.

The Chicago Coalition for Reason, who put the board up, describes themselves as:

An exciting group of organizations in the Chicago area, each of which celebrates a human-centered and naturalistic approach to life. For us, non-dogmatic and rational approaches to ethics, culture and the human experience are the most meaningful and satisfying.

As to the goals, the group thinks:

No reaction might be a good reaction.

“If Christians (or whomever) don’t react, that means atheism is becoming more acceptable in society. Which is great. If they do react, then what exactly are they opposed to?”

This is all part of the New Atheism, which is extremely evangelistic, and believes in proselytism more than most Christians I know – which ought to make us examine our zeal … or lack thereof. Though I have to admit, that my first reaction to the billboard isn’t shock. Most of the people I know and have grown up around are atheists, it isn’t exactly countercultural. Atheism has been the norm for a long time in the West.

A much more shocking billboard would be:

Do you know how much you need God?

HT: The Chicagoist

The Little Things