Since World War II, more than 300 parachurch and denominational missions have emerged in response to the needs of Christians behind the “Iron Curtain.” Largely cloaked in secrecy, their efforts have stirred controversy and evoked praise from various sectors of Western society.

No less intrigued, the governments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have kept a close watch on their activities. Perhaps nowhere are the recent stunning political changes better illustrated than in the reversal of official attitudes toward Western missions.

In 1986 the Soviet Union distributed an official booklet entitled Arguments, with a chapter headed “Lies in the Atmosphere.” In it, author T. V. Mikhailov wrote that Western “religious propaganda” is part of an “ideological” and “psychological warfare” with the purpose of “destroying the confidence of Soviet citizens in Marxism-Leninism.” Among the conspirators in this subversive scheme, Mikhailov writes, is “Peter Deyneka [Jr.], general director of the Slavic Gospel Association.”

This year, acknowledging that Marxism has failed to provide an ethical and moral base for society, the Soviet Academy of Sciences launched a survey on the impact of the Ten Commandments in the lives of people in the Soviet Union and other nations. Among those called upon for assistance is Peter Deyneka, Jr., president of the Slavic Gospel Association (SGA), in Wheaton, Illinois.

To varying degrees, the countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union now permit a scope of religious activity unprecedented since World War II.

Penetrating The Iron Curtain

In the Cold War era, political barriers between East and West made “penetrating the Iron Curtain” a natural imagery for the work of East European missions. Radio and literature ministries functioned best in this climate. Radio waves bounced off the ionosphere and into the short-wave sets of millions of listeners. (Some converts formed “radio churches.”) Bibles and Christian literature eluded border guards to reach the hands of Christians.

Because of recent political transformations, much has changed.

Today, more than 50 broadcasters produce over 1,000 broadcasts a month. In 1987, 12 of these ministries received a total of 2,997 letters from listeners. Because of more-open mail channels, these same ministries received 69,909 letters in 1989. Last fall, Trans World Radio (TWR) acquired permission from the Soviet government to establish a production studio in Moscow, staffed partly by Soviet nationals.

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Literature work has taken an equally dramatic turn. In 1967, the book God’s Smuggler took American evangelicals behind the Iron Curtain with Brother Andrew and his Volkswagen Beetle stuffed with Bibles. Brother Andrew’s organization, Open Doors, along with other ministries, based their tactics on the philosophy that they are called “to obey God rather than men.” This raised ethical issues for Christians from all sectors of the church. The most notable opponent was the United Bible Societies (UBS), which clearly stated its view in a 1977 report: “The committee emphasizes that all support given to the work by UBS member societies is provided through legal channels. The committee wishes to place on record its disassociation from Bible work done by illegal means.”

Now the debate is fast becoming irrelevant. The UBS and many formerly clandestine missions are cooperating through official channels to meet a demand for Bibles that, by many estimates, exceeds 50 million for the Soviet Union alone. “There is more work to be done than can be done by any single organization,” says John Erickson, director of the American Bible Society in New York City, a member of the UBS.

In the past two years, the UBS and groups such as Open Doors and SGA have combined to provide more Bibles for the Soviet Union than had been available in the previous 70 years. Many broadcasters, such as TWR, SGA, Far Eastern Broadcasting Company, Russian Christian Radio, and Word to Russia, have mailed thousands of Bibles to listeners.

A Scorecard on Religious Glasnost

While Eastern Europe’s political upheavals grabbed the headlines, remarkable steps toward religious liberty from the Baltic to the Black Seas deserve notice as well.


• The Parliament passed three new laws on religion in 1989 guaranteeing freedom of conscience, the right of public profession of faith, church access to mass media, and “full legal status” for the Catholic church (May 17).

• Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki underscored the new church-state relationship by attending the feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa (Aug. 26).


• The State Office for Church Affairs was abolished (July 1989).

• The ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party lifted its ban on believers as members (late July 1989).

• In 1989 all conscientious objectors were released from prison.

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• Religious orders were legalized (summer 1989).

• Billy Graham spoke to 90,000 people in Budapest’s Nep Stadium, with ads and the service itself broadcast on Hungarian TV (July 29, 1989).

• Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians processed through Budapest streets on Saint Stephen’s Day honoring the nation’s first king and founder of its Catholic church (Aug. 20).


• Seven thousand Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics demonstrated in Sofia for religious liberty and true separation of church and state.

• Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch Maksim gave a Christmas address on television, the first such Christian presence on TV.

• Much-harassed Pentecostals were able to hold a national congress and elect a new leader, Viktor Virchev (Dec. 15–17, 1989).


• Breaking an impasse of many years standing, the Vatican in 1989 named five new Catholic bishops and an archbishop without state interference.

• State-run television broadcast a Christmas mass for the first time.

Pacem in Terris, the state-approved organization for Catholic clergy willing to challenge Vatican authority, disbanded itself (Dec. 7).

• Cardinal Tomasek announced that in 1990 four new seminaries (three Latin Rite and one Eastern Rite) would be added to the two presently open.

• The Pentecostal church in Bohemia and Moravia finally was recognized in 1989 after many years of having legal status only in Slovakia.


• Reformed pastor Laszlo Tokes’s courageous stand against the mistreatment of ethnic Hungarians and the state’s manipulation of his denomination triggered massive sympathy demonstrations, first in Timisoara (Dec. 16–17), then in Budapest, resulting in the toppling of the Ceausescu regime in a matter of days.

• Baptist pastor Petru Dugulescu led 100,000 Romanians and Hungarians in the Lord’s Prayer on December 21 and preached to 200,000 people on December 22 in Timisoara’s largest square.

• The evangelical-minded Orthodox reform movement, the Lord’s Army, was legalized.

• The Eastern Rite Catholic Church was legalized.

• Exiled Baptist Pastor Josif Tson returned to his homeland, preaching to congregations of seven and ten thousand in the Oradea Sports Dom (Dec. 31) and to a national television audience (Jan. 2).

• The Reformed Bishop of Cluj, Gyula Nagy, resigned, while Bishop Laszlo Papp of Oradea resigned and fled the country.

• Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Teoctist was forced to retire because of his close collaboration with the old regime (Jan. 18), but he has been replaced, at least temporarily, by a committee of three equally compromised church hierarchs.

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• A January 30 meeting took the first steps toward the formation of a Romanian Evangelical Alliance, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Reformed, Plymouth Brethren, and the Lord’s Army.

By Mark Elliott, director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Marxism, Wheaton College. An earlier version of this scorecard appeared in Challenge to Evangelism Today, Vol. 3, No. 1, published by the Ed Robb Evangelistic Association.

Missions In Ferment

Many missions are in ferment, readjusting to a new environment that requires an increasingly sophisticated approach to the needs of churches in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Few Western observers, missions included, foresaw the cataclysmic events of 1989. Among the few who prepared specifically for such an occurrence was exiled Romanian Baptist pastor Josif Tson, president of the Romanian Missionary Society. In the 1970s, Tson’s study of communism led him to conclude that its demise in Romania was imminent. “By 1977, I told my friends that we should not waste our time unmasking communism, but start to build the alternative, the Christian church.” In 1981, Tson was expelled from Romania and came to Wheaton, Illinois, where he began a ten-year program to develop a curriculum of Protestant theology in Romanian.

Though some missions have been educating pastors for years, their scope has been limited. Tson’s group trains pastors through a combined mission effort called Eastern European Seminary. Based on theological-education-by-extension principles, East European and Soviet pastors receive training through individual and small-group work facilitated by North American seminary-trained personnel.

Denominations now have greatly expanded opportunities to establish their own seminaries, but more mobile training is still needed. In the Soviet Union, for example, the vast majority of the over 50 million Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic believers remains without trained leadership.

Specialized training is needed in other areas as well, says Anita Deyneka, director of SGA’s Institute for Soviet and East European Studies. “They need people who have experience and expertise in youth work, in marriage and family counseling, and preparing Sunday-school curriculum.”

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Social programs, previously off-limits to these churches, can benefit from Western experience. In Hungary, Word of Life Fellowship is assisting churches in drug-rehabilitation programs. In Czechoslovakia, church leaders have invited Western Christians to give testimony of their battle with alcohol abuse. Family advocate James Dobson is planning a trip to the Soviet Union this summer.

Groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth for Christ, and the Navigators are expanding their work among youth throughout Eastern Europe. Last summer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) sent a group of American Christian students to live with Soviet students in a program that drew high praise from its participants. This year, IVCF will send five groups to the Soviet Union. English teachers are in high demand. The Methodist-sponsored English Language College in Warsaw, for example, works with 6,000 students.

Secrecy And Cooperation

The new climate may go a long way toward improving the image of many East European missions. A need for secrecy has hindered accountability in these groups, and Eastern Europe’s intrigue has attracted its share of Christian mavericks out for adventure and high drama, says Mark Elliott, director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Marxism at Wheaton College in Illinois: “The Elmer Gantrys of East European ministries have raised questions in the American public’s mind,” he notes, though he claims these groups are in the minority.

Secrecy has been a primary hindrance to cooperation among many of the more respected missions, limiting ministry possibilities and often resulting in duplication of work. It is still not uncommon, for example, for several missions separately to translate a book into a particular language, unbeknownst to one another.

Cooperation has increased significantly over the past ten years, but it took a major step forward with a February meeting in Dallas where over 100 representatives of missions working in the Soviet Union gathered to share information and resources, and to plan joint programs.

Nevertheless, such missions are not immune to the human urge to grab the spotlight. Following the conference, one participating mission sent out a fund-raising appeal claiming that they alone are prepared to shape the future of the church in Eastern Europe.

“I think I am sensing that with more openness there is an increase in competition, especially in terms of newer missions moving into Eastern Europe,” said Hank Paulson, director of Eastern European Bible Mission (EEBM). “If we as Western missions cannot work together, we really have very little to say to the church in Eastern Europe.”

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For the first time many East European Christians, formerly reluctant to voice their concerns for fear of offending or cutting off assistance, are speaking up. One particularly strong message from the East is that many missions, though sincerely trying to help, have engendered a patronizing approach. Manfred Kern, head of the East German Evangelical Alliance, shared his concerns recently with Sharon Mumper, editor-at-large for Evangelical Missions Information Service.

“We are open to working with parachurch organizations,” Kern said, “but we have observed that some representatives of these groups came into our country and worked us like a horse. They didn’t consult the church; they just walked in and collected people from here and there, gave them money, and said, ‘Now we will do our thing.’

“These people will not have a good ministry in this country,” Kern said, “because they do not understand our context; they don’t know what needs to be done. They have ready-made concepts and ready-made programs.” Kern called on Western missions to respect the faith and experience of East German Christians.

Kern points out that some groups have demonstrated a proper model: “[They] said, ‘Dear brothers and sisters, may we help you? You have many possibilities. Can we work together?’ We really are open to friendship and partnership.… We understand we have a lot of things to learn, too.”

Many missions say they are catching this vision, including Holland-based EEBM, which plans to place some of its personnel in Eastern Europe and to work in partnership with indigenous churches. “You just cannot design a program for Eastern Europe here in the United States,” says director Hank Paulson. “You have to live, breathe, and interact with the East Europeans: in partnership with them, develop materials and programs that they feel are meeting their needs. Having a significant presence in Eastern Europe is needed to be sensitive to the structures and dynamics within the countries.”

Reared in a German community in Siberia, Mennonite broadcaster Viktor Hamm has seen Western missions from both sides. Missions should gradually wean Eastern Christians away from dependency on the West, says Hamm, now based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Literature work is a good place to start.

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“I think it’s good that a lot of books are being translated, but it’s not the ultimate,” Hamm said. “We should strive to reach the point where the Soviet people are writing books for themselves, reinterpreting the theology that we think we understand—reinterpreting it in their own cultural context and theological tradition.”

Media Associates International (MAI), based in Bloomingdale, Illinois, develops national Christian writers worldwide. Last spring in Kiev, with official permission, MAI conducted a seminar that drew 28 budding Ukrainian writers. The Ukrainians estimated that only 2 or 3 percent of their Christian literature is currently home grown.

Meeting The Challenge

Will a day come when evangelical Western missions are no longer needed in Eastern Europe or in the Soviet Union? Not soon, mission leaders say.

“It will take many years for the church to recover,” says Anita Deyneka. “They need time for young people to start entering universities, for example. They’ve been so crippled in this area. While they recover, they need from us methodology and materials.”

At this time of great spiritual awakening, the church particularly needs help in proclaiming the gospel, Deyneka says. Evangelicals make up a small percentage of the populations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, she notes. “Moreover, it’s a sector that for years has been isolated and excluded from involvement and influence in society. It’s too much to expect them to suddenly emerge with the new freedom and be able to evangelize the entire Soviet Union.”

Deyneka advocates Western missions sending people to do direct evangelism, but not without consulting national church leadership.

Already, evangelists such as Luis Palau have conducted campaigns at public stadiums in the Soviet Union with good responses. But follow-up is a major concern. Can churches receive large influxes of new Christians when they lack resources to handle their own?

Across Eastern Europe, church leaders fear the down side of freedom—the onslaught of cults, Eastern mysticism, pornography, and drugs—influences to which young people are often the most susceptible.

“As Pascal said in the sixteenth century, the heart abhors a vacuum, and for want of a good object upon which to focus attention, it will certainly focus on the bad. There is a vacuum right now in the Soviet Union,” says Kent Hill, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. “It behooves us to move quickly to respond with appropriate assistance because others will move into the vacuum quickly.”

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But Hill stresses that missions need people who are well prepared with language ability and knowledge of history and culture. Otherwise, Hill says, “We’re simply not going to have the kind of impact we would have if we just jump on a very glamorous bandwagon and do it in a way that potentially causes a great deal of harm.”

How should those who are not called to go discern how to channel their resources? Hill advises supporting a mission that has a long track record in Eastern Europe and competent leadership.

In his East European Missions Directory, Mark Elliott advises using several criteria. First, missions with annual incomes of more than $100,000 should belong to accountability groups such as the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Second, he lists five questions to ask: (1) Does the mission systematically rely upon emotionally charged reportage that dwells upon cases of injustice and violence against believers? (2) Does the mission champion the West in the same breath and with the same fervor that it champions Christ? (3) Does the mission dwell on its covert efforts? (4) Does the mission foster guilt feelings if support is not forthcoming? (5) Does the mission cultivate an attitude of hostility towards Marxist authorities who use or abuse Christians?

Many missions, such as Open Doors, report an increase in giving this year. But much more support is needed for programs, such as the SGA-sponsored project to supply the Soviet Union with 50 million Bibles and train 50,000 pastors.

“The big block we have is that the Christian community is still way behind in understanding the opportunities they have at the present moment,” Hill says. “There should be an outpouring of literally millions of dollars to these responsible ministries to enable them to walk through the doors that are now open.”

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