Revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe and a major Supreme Court decision on abortion dominated headlines.

More than any other year in this decade, future historians might well look back on 1989 as a landmark, largely because of the virtual political revolution in Eastern bloc nations. While there are still some who say the momentum of glasnost can yet be turned back, they are harder to find among the throng hailing the changes.

The days of missionaries preparing for life under communism as we have known it in Eastern Europe appear to be over. They may be replaced by days of preparation for evangelistic crusades. In September, Luis Palau became the first major evangelist to hold open-air meetings in the Soviet Union. Earlier in the year, 90,000 flocked to People’s Stadium in Budapest, Hungary, to hear Billy Graham.

There was, however, a down side to the reforms in the USSR. Advocates of Soviet evangelicals expressed dismay at U.S. immigration policy limiting to 50,000 the number of Soviet refugees allowed to enter the U.S. in 1990.

Hope for political change met with a different fate in China, as hundreds of demonstrators died at the hands of government soldiers in June in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The crackdown raised questions about the fate of the church in China, given reports of widespread support among Christians for the demonstrations.

Bishop K. H. Ding, leader of the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, earlier had expressed support for the prodemocracy demonstrations. But he later expressed general support for the government without specifically addressing the events of Tiananmen Square.

The news from China was troubling for the church in Hong Kong, which in seven years will be turned over to China. Christian leaders there have expressed concern about the current mass exodus of believers, including pastors. According to some estimates, half the pastors now ministering in Hong Kong are under age 30.

Churches Play Role as East Meets West

Often overlooked in coverage of the rapidly unfolding reforms in East Germany is the central role the church has played in the peaceful revolution, say Eastern bloc observers. Communist-party leader Egon Krenz met with Protestant church officials only one day after assuming power, indicating his regard for their role. In addition, churches in dozens of cities have served as rallying points for recent marches by thousands calling for change.

“Services of intercession,” filled with hymns, sermons, and prayers for peace, have been held in many churches for some time, said Arvan Gordon of Keston College, the London-based religious-rights monitor. “These have focused the spiritual power of the church,” Gordon said, “and have undoubtedly had considerable effect on the population as a whole.”

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Gordon expects the dismantling of the literal and political barriers between the two Germanys to have little impact on the church in East Germany, which has enjoyed far more religious freedom than other Eastern European countries (CT, Oct. 20, p. 26) and has maintained wide contact with its West German counterpart.

The predominantly Lutheran churches will continue to stress spiritual values and avoid direct political involvement, Gordon said. Church leaders, however, will continue to speak out on issues of justice and freedom, he added, as they have in the past.

Prolife Progress

On the domestic front, 1989 might be remembered as a pivotal year in turning back the tide of legal abortion. The Supreme Court in July upheld a Missouri law that imposed several important restrictions on abortion, paving the way for similar legislation in other states, some of which could test the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion.

A Boston Globe/WBZ-television survey early this year revealed that substantial majorities of the U.S. public oppose abortion when performed for reasons most commonly cited by women. But several winning candidates in November’s elections credited their prochoice stands.

Pennsylvania lawmakers approved prolife legislation, while a similar effort failed in Florida. Meanwhile, the rescue movement continued to pick up steam, even as its leader, Randall Terry, began a two-year jail term in Atlanta. Some in the prolife camp, however, argued that the movement has no basis in Scripture.

Mixed Feelings About Bush

Shortly after taking office, President George Bush encountered rough waters with evangelicals, many of whom opposed his nomination of Louis Sullivan as secretary of Health and Human Services, citing concerns about Sullivan’s views on abortion. Bush also disturbed some evangelicals with his comments implying he had abandoned his support for tuition tax credits.

The President later did some fence mending, inviting 18 evangelical leaders to a White House meeting at which he assured them his position on the issue had not changed. Later in the year prolife leaders were encouraged that Bush followed through on his promise to veto legislation proposing the use of federal funds for abortion in cases of rape and incest.

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There were also mixed reviews among Christians for C. Everett Koop, who stepped down as U.S. Surgeon General. Koop was criticized for his statements on AIDS prevention and for allegedly abandoning his outspoken opposition to abortion, a charge he consistently denied.

Another era came to end when Jerry Falwell announced in July that Moral Majority would be closing down. The announcement raised questions about the vitality of the Religious Right, as some of its architects implied they felt used by the Republican powers that be.

Conservative Christians, however, remained active on the boycott front, claiming victory in their efforts against the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. Though no one denied the film was a financial failure, there was disagreement over whether the boycott was effective.

In any case, Christian Leaders for Responsible Television (CLEAR-TV) in July announced a one-year boycott of the Mennen Company and the Clorox Corporation because of their alleged sponsorship of sexual and violent television programming.

1989’s Top Ten

The following stories were chosen by the CT news staff as the top stories of 1989.

1. Decline of communism. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall was perhaps the most visible indication of sweeping political reform in Eastern Europe.

2. Abortion. The Supreme Court’s decision in Webster v. Missouri sent the abortion battle to the states.

3. Televangelists and accountability. The highly publicized trial and sentencing of Jim Bakker to 45 years in prison marked the end, religious broadcasters hope, of a troubled era.

4. Drugs. Issues related to drugs cleared a bigger place on the agenda of the church.

5. Crackdown in China. The flickerings of democracy in China were quickly snuffed out, raising concerns about the future of religious freedom in Hong Kong, which China will inherit in 1997.

6. Moral Majority calls it quits. The organization that embodied the emergence of the Religious Right as a powerful political force closed shop.

7. NCC woes. The sudden and bitter resignation of the National Council of Churches’ top executive highlighted a year of fundamental restructuring of the ecumenical organization.

8. World evangelization. Two worldwide conferences highlighted an emphasis on reaching the world with the gospel.

9. Evaluating Bush. The jury is still out on the new President, who has sent out mixed signals on issues of importance to Christians.

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10. Missionary dangers. The risks assumed by those who witness in the world’s trouble spots were especially evident in 1989.

Decade in Review

The following are among the top stories that appeared in CT News during the 1980s:

1980. Popular speaker Bill Gothard stepped down as president of the successful Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, largely as a result of the way he handled charges of sexual immorality involving his brother, Steve, a ministry executive. And Seventh-day Adventists stripped Adventist theologian Desmond Ford of his credentials for debunking church doctrine.

1981. After 22 years of forced inactivity, China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement was granted permission to hold a major convention, opening the door to greater religious freedom. Missionary Chet Bitterman was killed by Colombian guerrillas, and Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice, to the dismay of most evangelicals, who questioned her position on abortion.

1982. A federal judge in Little Rock, Arkansas, ruled that creationism was religious in nature, and thus struck down a state law mandating that creation be given equal time with evolution in public school classrooms. Billy Graham preached for the first time in the Soviet Union and was criticized for allegedly overlooking religious persecution.

1983. Exiled Philippine leader Benigno Aquino was shot and killed in Manila. He had returned to the country because of his Christian faith, according to some who knew him. Billy Graham’s Amsterdam 83 gathered 4,000 itinerant evangelists from around the world for instruction and inspiration.

1984. Aggressive political activism was adopted by many conservative evangelicals, who played a major role in the re-election of Ronald Reagan. After fierce debate, Congress rejected the School Prayer Amendment, but as a compromise passed the Equal Access Act, allowing voluntary student religious groups to meet at school.

1985. Tensions in the Southern Baptist Convention headlined the SBC’s annual meeting in Dallas, at which conservative Charles Stanley was re-elected president and a peace committee was formed to study the SBC turmoil. Church groups and Christian relief agencies put millions of dollars into projects to ease the African famine.

1986. Pat Robertson all but formally announced his bid for President. The attorney general announced a major effort to crack down on illegal pornography. Prolife groups approved the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, and the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa denounced apartheid as unjust.

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1987. Televangelists’ troubles began when Oral Roberts announced in January that God would call him home if he did not raise $8 million for medical mission scholarships. Jim Bakker resigned from PTL amid revelations of sexual impropriety, and Robertson made his presidential candidacy official.

1988. Abortion opponents considered the election of George Bush an important victory. Amid hope brought by glasnost came the celebration of 1,000 years of Christianity in the Soviet Union. Jimmy Swaggart was defrocked amid revelations of sexual scandal. Christians took to the streets as part of the rescue movement and to protest the movie The Last Temptation of Christ.

Televangelist Woes

For the third straight year, religious broadcasters captured more headlines than they wanted. Jim Bakker’s former right-hand man, Richard Dortch, pleaded guilty, testified against Bakker, and was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the PTL affair. Bakker was later sentenced to 45 years behind bars.

Robert A. Cook took over for Ben Armstrong as interim head of the troubled National Religious Broadcasters, which ran into complications trying to ensure financial accountability among members and thus put the process on hold. And Oral Roberts in September announced that his university’s medical school would be closing down.

It was a tough year also for the National Council of Churches (NCC). General secretary Arie Brouwer resigned after charging some of his colleagues with, among other things, having an “appetite for vengeance.” NCC leaders approved a major reorganization plan intended to simplify the organization’s structure.

Meanwhile, there were hints of possible schism within NCC member communions, including the Episcopal Church, which consecrated Anglicanism’s first female bishop. But in an apparent effort to avert schism, the church’s bishops adopted a statement recognizing the theological legitimacy of a position opposing women clergy.

The Church’S Agenda

CT news in September reported on the hard choices faced by Christians in coca-growing areas of South America, as the U.S. church in 1989 began to reckon more seriously with the problem of drugs. The United Methodist Church appointed a bishop to full-time work against drug abuse.

The evangelical agenda was widened this year to include the issue of environmental stewardship, while more familiar issues continued to generate heat: the role of women in ministry, relationships with Jews, and the nature of salvation.

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Reaching The World

Evangelicals who participate in World Council of Churches (WCC) activities viewed with favor the acceptance of their views at the WCC’s once-a-decade conference on mission and evangelism. And at the Lausanne II conference of evangelicals in Manila, the big news was the larger role played by Pentecostal believers and a growing sense of the importance of social action. Another evangelical-based world evangelization movement, AD 2000, gained momentum in 1989, and CT reported on the increasing world evangelization efforts among black Christians.

Missionary Bruce Olson was released in July after nine months of captivity at the hands of guerrillas in Colombia. Earlier in the year Roy Libby and Richard Grover were released in Colombia after being held hostage for 68 days. David McBride and Mery Budd were released from jail in Nepal. But among the missionaries killed in the line of duty were three Westmont College students who died in a car accident while on a missions project in Mexico.

Christians in some parts of the world faced changes of political scenery. In Japan there were fears that the death of an emperor would bring about a revival of Shinto, but this did not materialize. A new president in South Africa gave some cause for optimism in the battle against apartheid.

In other parts of the world things went on much as before. Believers continued to minister amid tension and violence in Haiti, Lebanon, and in the Israeli-occupied lands of the Middle East. And would-be prophet Edgar Whisenant was proved wrong yet again by predicting a September 1 Rapture. So it was that in this year of remarkable change there was, in some quarters, remarkably little change.

By Randy Frame.

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