After the Wall
Twenty years ago today, I was driving through Germany one November evening when, on the car radio, I picked up some news which was to shake the continent: East Germans were pouring through a breach in the Berlin Wall. I had been visiting Christians in Poland and Hungary and knew that they would find this almost unbelievable. According to Vaclav Havel, "The fall of the Communist Empire is an event on the same scale of historical importance as the fall of the Roman Empire." Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash has suggested that there is not a corner of the world that has not in some sense been touched by the consequences of 1989.
There is no doubt that it had a profound effect on the cause of European mission. Many churches and mission agencies responded to the open door, along with thousands of cults and millions of tourists. One year after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic alone received some 53 million visitors. Looking back, there are some significant lessons which represent ongoing missiological tensions.
First, there is the tension between partnership and indigeneity. One of the great dangers in Eastern Europe was of Christian agencies parachuting in with little reference to local believers. Mostly well intentioned, such an insensitive response understandably resulted in the State churches reacting against what they perceived to be unwarranted intrusion and evangelical churches embarrassed and overwhelmed by Christians who had little grasp of the real situation. There was no question that partnership between European churches was urgently needed, but such partnership needed to respect the priority of local Christian witness that was rooted in the culture and that had national leadership and indigenous ministry. To remove the initiative from local leaders or shortcut the demanding struggles associated with a sensitive response to a new political reality was to weaken Christian witness. Yet the Christian family still needs international fellowship and the wide deployment and redistribution of resources across every border. But here lies the tension: Indigeneity does not mean independence, and international partnership does not mean imperialism.
Closely related is a second missiological tension which we saw in the Eastern countries: generosity and overdependence. Twenty years on, many of the countries still have weak transition economies and very small evangelical minorities. There is no doubt that churches benefitted greatly from Western funds which sustained their building projects or supported their pastors and Christian workers. But there were few agencies which were able to help develop indigenous support structures. The work of the East European Literature Advisory Committee, which helped national believers to establish their own publishing houses, has been one success story. (It is now part of Langham Literature, a program of Langham Partnership International.) This missiological tension recognizes the need for generosity between believers across Europe and around the world, and has an acute awareness of the needs of others. But on the other hand, it works with care to avoid a welfare mentality, overdependence on external donors, or the potential jealousies and corruption associated with the poor management of money. This is a constant tension, not least in the urgent task of supporting churches in many of the broken states across the continent of Africa.
When the Berlin Wall fell, I was working with International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), which supports student witness in countries all around the world. We faced another tension: that of church and para-church. In the early years following the political changes, many new territories of the Soviet Successor States were open for the gospel, and many students came to faith. IFES, of course, exists to serve the church, and it has had a long and commendable history in that regard. But what should you do when the church is very weak, or where internal rifts make inter-denominational evangelistic ministry impossible? It is essential that mission agencies work with patience and sensitivity in building trust with local churches and their leaders. They must work together to teach young believers to give their energies to such Christian communities and to equip them to become the next generation of church members and godly leaders. Church planting might also be part of that challenge. But nowhere can we dispense with God's purpose of establishing the local church as it serves its local community. Twenty years on, many churches are the stronger because mission agencies refused to cut corners, but encouraged believers to live by biblical guidelines.