How Can a Religious Minority Influence Society?
T a r t u – How can a Christian minority influence the societies of Eastern Europe? A symposium hosted by the European Baptist Federation’s (EBF) Division of Theology and Education in Tartu/Estonia dealt with this issue. Division Chair Toivo Pilli (Tartu) noted that this situation is by no means new: ‘We can regard New Testament Christians as well as 16th-century Anabaptists as our partners in conversation. We can learn from them.’ The gathering was entitled “Baptist Churches in Changing Societies: The Experience of Eastern Europe”. The nine participants from seven countries concerned themselves with the deep-seated changes transforming the countries of Eastern Europe during the past 20 years. It was stated that many countries are not only post-communist, but also post-Christian. The differences between them are very significant, as can be seen by comparing Russia, Latvia and Romania.
Olegs Jermolajevs and Edgar Marzis of Latvia noted that Christians in their country have tired of ever more mission projects. What now count are meaningful relationships. The German Old Testament Professor Michael Rohde (Elstal near Berlin) declared that it is also important to carefully analyse the needs of a society and respond to them – to do more than simply plant new churches. He added: ‘It is as important to research the context – the society – as it is to research the text – the Bible.’ Cornel Boingeanu of Romania noted that his country’s evangelicals in general and Baptists in particular encourage others to read the Bible. Bible study groups help believers to grow in their faith and to reach out to their neighbours. Boingeanu added: ‘Jesus commands us to go to Jerusalem and Samaria and to the whole world.’ Romanian Baptists are asking themselves: ‘What is Samaria for us?’ They have answered: ‘Our Samaria is the Roma community.’ The Baptists of his country are consequently serving the Sinti and Roma in word and deed.
Conversations noted that regions such as Eastern Germany and Estonia are suffering a dramatic decline in church membership. In Eastern Germany, 70% of the population no longer belongs to any church. Although the institutional church is becoming less significant than ever in everyday life, certain values remain in high regard: education, family, work. Participants asked how Christians can best address these needs. Alexander Popov of Russia and Zbigniew Wierzchowski of Poland reported on the social transformation in their countries within the wider Orthodox and Roman-Catholic contexts.
Gunnel Andreasson of Sweden presented a paper focussing on Scandinavian and East-European partnerships in the course of the last two decades. She reported that many partnerships have ceased to exist because personal relationships between East and West never reached the stage of mutual sharing and learning. ‘It is apparently easier to build relationships from the position of a giver,’ she concluded. The Baptist congregations of Eastern Europe need to become aware of and to verbalise what they have to offer to their partners: experiences, theology and insights. It was suggested during the ensuing discussion that partnerships be revived. One would need first of all to understand what transpired during the 1990s and then to realise a new kind of partnership involving equality and parity.
Toivo Pilli was especially pleased by the conclusion a Catholic priest from Latvia drew: ‘You Baptists are like a cucumber: small but fresh!’ Pilli expressed the hope that this meeting will contribute to an appreciation of Baptists as deserving of this image in everyday church life.
The EBF Division of Theology and Education is planning a further symposium on a similar topic, yet this time primarily from a Western perspective. It is to take place from 12 to 14 August 2011 in Elstal Educational Centre, Germany.