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Mission to Romania

by Tim Prochnau May 2001

Four men were interviewed about the state of the church in Romania, and the status of people there unreached by the good news of Jesus Christ (see Appendix for interview questions). The first interviewee was a young adult, native Romanian evangelical Christian studying theology in the United States. All of his time in Romania has been in Bucharest, the capital, cultural, and commercial center. The interview was conducted outdoors over lunch on the campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. The first 18 questions were asked in personal dialog and recorded on paper, the final 10 completed by written response.

The other three interviews were conducted via email. The first was an American evangelical missionary in his thirties who has been in Romania more than four years, three of which have been in Curtea de Arges, a suburban setting. The second was a young adult, native Romanian evangelical Christian who has spent the majority of his life in a village, but eight years in the cities of Cluj and Timisoara. The third is a native Romanian, Orthodox youth who has spent his life in Curtea de Arges and has been exposed to the gospel.

This paper reports on the findings from the four interviews; some gaps have been filled in with information gleaned from outside readings.

The Eastern Orthodox church is the majority church, with some 70% of the population. The Roman Catholic church and the various Protestant denominations account for about 7% each. Other, newer “cults” have arisen since the fall of communism from both eastern and western tradition. Among the non-Orthodox are the Repenters, a term encompassing the various legalistic followers and groups who believe in salvation by works rather than grace. Geographically, the eastern part of the country is predominantly Orthodox. The western and northern parts, Transylvania, had been under Austro-Hungarian rule and thus encountered more western influence; the Hungarian minority there tends to be Reformed, Catholic, or Lutheran. In general, churches in the western parts and the cities are less legalistic than those in the east or in villages.

There is a tremendous pressure to be affiliated with the Orthodox church: from family and friends, from tradition, and from politics. Culturally, one needs to be Orthodox to be considered a good Romanian. The Orthodox church has also been campaigning to be the official national church. Thus, those who have been in the Orthodox tradition tend to remain Orthodox.

People have various motives for joining another church. Those seeking financial help or advantage may be drawn to the Repenters and other groups, who seek to attract people with western money, although they frequently don’t deliver on their promises. Some people are drawn to churches that exhibit western influence. Others join a church because they are convicted by biblical teaching, or as a result of religious experience, or because they feel welcome. These are often people searching for answers to life or life’s problems.

The fall of communism in 1989 granted a sudden freedom to the churches, so that all the various denominations experienced revived activity. Some results included a marked increase in publications, and the advent of private schools (some religious). However, it also opened the door for disagreement between the socially more progressive advocates, with changes toward western European culture, and the traditionalists, who distrust western values and want to return to eastern practices. Overall, there is great distrust and little cooperation between the various church denominations, resulting in an atmosphere which is competitive and combative.

In contrast to modern western values, family, community, and tradition are valued highly. There is still a prevailing feudal world view enduring from nineteenth-century serfdom. In conflict with and in direct contrast to the western world view, the feudal view holds that the individual is not able to fend for himself, or alter his status or condition in society. Thus he has to ally himself with a person or entity more powerful who will be his protector. Any dissension from this system is considered a threat and must be resisted. Combined with the feudal world view is European animism, fatalism, and materialism from the west, and communist distrust from the east. Additionally, in practice Romanian education emphasizes rote memorization but not practical application. As a result, in Romania the westerner encounters lack of initiative, lack of education, and lack of thinking for oneself.

People agree that economic stability (inflation) and unemployment is the greatest problem. Widespread corruption and immorality are others. Avoiding the appearance of evil (e.g. not smoking or wearing jewelry) is considered much more important than living ethically. There is great distrust among Romanians, and an even greater distrust of Americans. One internal conflict involves the status of Transylvania, whereby Hungarian minorities want to be reunified with Hungary. Other significant problems include high divorce and abortion rates, poverty, alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, homelessness, and orphans. There are also few constructive social outlets where people can spend their free time; only bars and Internet cafes are open at night.

The interviewee from Bucharest felt that financial difficulties have heightened people’s sense of dependency, such that more are looking to God for solutions to their problems and suffering, as well as meaning for their lives. In contrast, the other respondents thought that the poor economy only heightened people’s interest in money, not in spiritual matters.

The respondent from Bucharest found that the people most receptive to the good news of Jesus Christ are the younger generation, people in bigger cities, the more educated, and those more western. He found the The least interested to be older people, and those living in villages, where the Orthodox church is particularly strong. Because of the strong association identifying Romanian with Orthodox, there are strong disincentives from turning to follow Jesus Christ; converts to other groups are considered traitors, and evangelical Christians are thought far from the truth. Their practices are also western and very strange: there is often no building, no priestly dress, and no Byzantine feel. In contrast, two of the other respondents found those most open to the gospel to be the Orthodox and the poor, and those least open to be the Repenters and the wealthy. There is a lingering influence from communism which says that only poor people need God.

The respondent from Bucharest painted the most positive picture of the condition of the churches. The Romanian Evangelical Alliance is an association of about 1.5 million evangelicals whose main purpose is Christian mission and evangelization. Some social programs include visitation to orphanages or to seniors. Evangelistic efforts are varied and include mission groups, concerts, and youth meetings. Beyond the local churches, para-church agencies have ministries to orphans, prisons, and schools, as well as ministries of music and Christian radio. Bigger churches in the cities sponsor missionary groups and have planted satellite churches.

However, the other three interviewees presented a much bleaker scene. Of the various “Christian” groups, it appears that only a few of the more evangelical organizations are true believing churches, seeking to faithfully follow Jesus Christ in belief and practice. Everyone talks about having a personal relationship with God, but few have it. The local churches are doing almost nothing to meet people’s social needs. There is little interest in sharing the good news through evangelism. As stated already, the different denominations are antagonistic toward one another.

One of the most effective ways to reach people with the gospel has been to send missionaries to the villages to start church plants. Toward this end there is an Alliance for Saturation Church Planting. Methods for proclaiming the message include evangelistic preaching, gospel movies, and Christian radio. Individual evangelism has worked the best. Mass evangelistic events with famed foreign leaders have been mostly ineffective. While they can draw large crowds, those in attendance are mostly curious. The foreigners are not trusted; there are few conversions to follow Christ, and for those, little follow-up for spiritual development. Also, methods calling one to “make a decision for Christ” are counter-cultural to an eastern world view.

The Orthodox church is opposed to the evangelical efforts to share the gospel in Romania. Orthodox priests are particularly engaged in leading the opposition; at times this has led to physical conflict. Orthodox publications and preaching are against the “proselytizers,” who are accused of “stealing the sheep” out of the true fold. But the antagonism is not one-sided. The Repenters are also hostile to the bearers of gospel. They can actually be worse than the Orthodox because of their legalism. Whatever church is predominant in an area, it slanders the other denominations. Slander may be the worst element of Romanian society that has permeated the church and threatens to destroy its purity. The presence of legalism also prevents the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.

Other difficulties face the church as well. The unstable economy means that little money is available for funding buildings or projects. This has only encouraged the young, gifted intellectuals to study abroad, and many do not return to Romania. Lack of training has impeded leadership. Biblical doctrine is undermined by unbiblical traditions and legalism. Churches in big cities have to overcome the individualism and lack of friendship prevalent in urban centers, and find ways to instill Christian fellowship.

As one would expect, new followers of Jesus Christ face many challenges, including facing ostracism received from family and friends for giving up their faith/tradition. Existing friendships pose temptations contrary to obeying Christ. Another impediment is loneliness. One respondent said, “There are so few ethical Christians here that it takes years to find one.” Even people in the church can’t be trusted. It is thus difficult to be integrated into the church fellowship, and to receive adequate love and care.

On the worldwide scene, several nations (mostly western, and in particular the US) are active in helping to proclaim the good news to Romania. This is done through mission agencies, Christian broadcasting and publishing ventures, and church partnerships, and by the sending of professors and missionaries, to name just a few efforts. Cross-cultural missionaries, however, face several hurdles, including learning the language, overcoming culture shock, and learning to work with the nationals. Their greatest needs include being held accountable, maturing spiritually, and learning people skills, love, and grace.

Romania is in a state of economic and spiritual malaise, and there is no simple, short-term solution to the problems.

Part of the problem is with the existing churches. Some of the Protestant churches are very western in feel, reflecting the western churches they’re patterned after. This is a case of under-contextualization, where cultural forms from the sending churches are imported, making the church seem foreign. Romania needs to work at a more contextualized, indigenous church for people of eastern persuasion.

There are a couple interesting case studies in contextualization. One is the Greek Catholic church, which is part of the Roman Catholic church, but expresses the Eastern Orthodox practices of liturgy, spirituality, discipline, and theology. In this case we have a Roman Catholic church contextualized to an Eastern Orthodox culture. Other phenomena worthy of note are the 20th century evangelical revival movements that occurred within the Romanian Orthodox church. These movements emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The most significant was the Oastea Domnului, or Lord’s Army, which featured hymn singing, ordained and lay preaching, and evangelistic publications. So for a time, at least, there existed believing Christian fellowships within the context of the Eastern church.

Care must be taken, however, because many Protestant churches are uncritically contextualized to the existing culture, adopting the bad with the good. While there are a lot of external expressions of Christianity, there has not been a change in world view, an opening of the eyes of people’s minds to the truth. Churches need to break their forms of legalism and find relationships with Christ. They need to become spiritual.

The churches also need to find ways to better assist the new follower of Christ in facing the challenges of his or her new faith. Leaders especially need to exhibit integrity in all areas of life, so that they will be above reproach and build a reputation conducive to trust. A social structure needs to be provided, a welcoming fellowship where people are willing to form genuine friendships. New believers need encouragement and equipping of scripture in order to resist temptations, especially modeling by and personal testimony of those who have walked with Christ and persevered against similar situations. The new believer will suffer ostracism and slander, and so needs to be taught how Jesus also suffered unjustly.

Finally, a few suggestions follow on how the worldwide Christian church can play its part in helping to reach Romanians with the good news. First, there are no short-term solutions to problems so deeply situated. Thus long-term missionary efforts are needed, not short-term. Cooperative efforts need to be undertaken between the cross-cultural missionary and the local people. The sending countries need to be understanding of the Romanian world view and culture. They should stop enticing the nationals with foreign money and goods; rather they should encourage good local church financial stewardship, and stress that people help each other. Teaching must emphasize responsibility to God and to fellow believers. Additionally, the missionaries themselves need to be dedicated followers of Christ, exhibiting integrity in every area of life, and proficient in the Romanian language. They also need to adopt the cultural forms of the country (e.g. head coverings for women).

Comments on the Interviewing Method
Some comments are warranted on the values and limitations of interviewing as an approach for missiological study. Some major benefits of a personal interview over other methods of research include the opportunity to interact, clarify questions and answers, and approach a subject from a particular angle. The person’s eye contact, expressions, and body language can at times also add further dimensions to data that would otherwise only be factual.

There are also limitations to the personal interviewing method. Answers may not always be well-thought through, nor their certainty clarified. The short time frame available means that the topic cannot be comprehensively treated. Answers are only one person’s opinion, and not necessarily representative of others or even accurate in description. Further, if the interviewer and interviewee are of different cultures, there can be cross-cultural misunderstandings (e.g. different meanings associated with certain words), and the focus can get off-track.

The email interview introduces a few more limitations. For one, questions and answers can’t be clarified, unless they are done through subsequent emails. Without the ability to clarify, there are more opportunities for misinterpretation, both by the respondent to the question, and by the interviewer to the response. Again, the cross-cultural bridges only amplify the possibility and extent of misunderstanding. A possible benefit of the email approach, though, because it is written, is that there may be less pressure and more time available for the responders to think through their answers.

Dixon, Thomas. 1998. “Under the Streets,” Christianity Today, 42: 50-51.
“The Regeneration of Christian Mission in Urban Context,” Statement of the Brasov, Romania, Conference on Urban Mission, October 1996, International Review of Mission. 29-31.
Luxmoore, Jonathan. 1997. “Eastern Europe 1996: a Review of Religious Life in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland,” Religion, State and Society, 25 no. 1: 89-101.
Pope, Earl A. 1997. Book review of Ion Bria, Romania: Orthodox Identity at a Crossroads of Europe, in Religion in Eastern Europe, 17: 38-43.
Anonymous. 2000. “The Ecumenical Influence in Romania,” 2-15.
Anonymous. “Ministry in Eastern Europe: A Discussion Paper,” 1-4.

Romanian Missions - Interview Questions

The Religious Scene
1. What does the religious scene look like in Romania? What are the different groups claiming to be Christian? How does geography and ethnic background play into the picture?

2. What has been the impact of the fall of communism on the various “Christian” sects?

3. What other external factors impact the various “Christian” institutions? How?

4. What are the biggest factors determining why a person would affiliate with one type of church over another?

5. Briefly describe the prevailing worldview(s) that the typical Romanian might have. Note any significant socio-cultural contrasts to more western nations.

6. What are a few of the most pressing social needs in Romania?

7. What do people perceive to be their greatest personal needs?

8. What impact has the Romanian economy had on people’s receptivity to spiritual matters in general? To the good news of Jesus Christ in particular?

9. What types of people are most receptive to the gospel message? Least receptive? Why?

10. What cultural barriers would prevent a person from receiving Jesus Christ?

11. Which of the “Christian” groups seek to faithfully follow Jesus Christ in belief and practice - i.e. who are the “true” believing churches?

12. What efforts are the local believing churches extending to meet people’s needs?

13. What efforts are in place to sharing the good news?

14. What efforts are being expended to planting new churches?

15. For the above efforts, what approaches have proven most effective, and why?

16. What types of opposition do these evangelizing churches encounter from the majority churches?

17. What elements of Romanian culture threaten the biblical purity of the church?

18. What are the greatest limitations facing the believing church (e.g. finances, leadership training, availability of Bibles, etc.)?

New Believers
19. What particular challenges does a recent believer face as he/she begins to follow Jesus Christ?

20. How could the church better assist new believers in these areas?

The Christian Missionary
21. What part(s) of Romania have you lived in? For how long? What type of setting is it (e.g. rural/urban/suburban)?

22. What particular challenges does this locale pose to Christian ministry?

23. What areas of Christian ministry have you been involved with?

24. What are the most significant hurdles for the cross-cultural missionary?

25. What challenges do you face in de-contextualizing the gospel message from your home culture, and contextualizing it in Romania?

26. Briefly explain how your ministry experience has altered your philosophical approach to missions in Romania.

The Worldwide Church
27. Which countries in the worldwide Christian church are most active in proclaiming the good news to Romania? What kind of partnerships exist?

28. How could the worldwide Christian church be more effective in helping to reach Romanians with the good news?

29. Please comment on any other important issues for mission outreach that I have missed.

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