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.

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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.

Fourth, there was the tension of short term and long term. For most of the past 20 years, IFES has recruited young graduates to serve across the continent in pioneering student work. In my period of service, nearly 1,500 young people from over 20 countries served in over 60 locations across Europe and Eurasia. It was a significant strategy, representing a swift mobilization of missionaries as soon as the Wall fell. And it was a peer-group ministry, because despite the new world of post-Communist Europe, students from across the continent also shared a common student culture. They had a natural platform of entry and could secure student visas. Hundreds of Western students have been encouraged to think about the cause of mission for the rest of their lives. But there is a tension. There is the danger of superficiality: "Short term" inevitably means limited language acquisition and cultural orientation, and a potential "tourist" mentality. Many young believers were thrown into demanding (and often lonely) situations. It was, of course, a time when God's sovereign grace was at work, when the mistakes of mission were overruled to produce a{?} lasting impact for the gospel. But the strategy had to be accompanied by a determined commitment to build for that which would last. And here, perhaps, is the most significant lesson of all.

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This final tension is perhaps the most significant, and is one which now shapes the work in which I am involved with the Langham Partnership, which seeks to grow a new generation of Bible preachers and teachers. The tension is of breadth and depth, of pioneering and consolidation. The year 1989, and the decade which followed, was a time of new horizons, new territory where the gospel needed to advance. The apostle Paul was always working to see the frontline of the gospel pushed forward, as we should be. Yet he was also working for depth and maturity, as he explains so passionately to the Colossians: "We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me" (Col 1:28-29). The story in Eastern Europe has some sobering lessons. In Albania, for example, thousands attended evangelistic rallies in their local football stadium, and hundreds declared their faith in Christ. But what happened next? Only a very small percentage is now found in the churches.

In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul expresses his hope that his ministry could continue in Corinth, and he refers to two significant potential developments (vv. 15-16). First, consolidation. Having begun the work, it was vital that it continued. He wanted to see their faith mature: "Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow. … " This was central to Paul's missionary strategy. He was concerned with depth as well as breadth, with consolidation as well as extension. He wanted to see mature congregations made up of godly disciples, not just statistics of the number of converts in each city. But second, he always had an eye on the next evangelistic challenge, as he explained: "Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you." Alongside his concern to consolidate the work, he retained his pioneering vision. By sustaining a strong sense of fellowship with the Corinthians, he hoped that this would provide the platform from which to launch further missionary initiatives.

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The twin themes expressed in these verses represent the challenge we have seen in Eastern Europe over these 20 years. They represent the missiological tension for churches and missionaries of every generation. Paul was always concerned to see "faith continue to grow." Yet alongside the demands of nurturing, teaching and strengthening a church, we need to keep alert to "the regions beyond," where the gospel has yet to be proclaimed.

The story after the Wall has some sobering examples of failure. But by God's grace, there are also many growing churches, effective ministries, mature disciples, and transformed communities. There remains an urgent need for bringing growth with depth, a calling which is at the heart of Langham Partnership's efforts in Europe and around the world. And there remain huge evangelistic needs—in the Balkans, in Turkey, across the Russian Federation, and throughout the Central Asian Republics (not to mention the materialistic and secular societies of western Europe).

Our calling is to ensure that, as evangelicals in partnership across our continent, we learn the lessons of the past 20 years—and the lessons of the Pauline mission. Unlike those who constructed the Berlin Wall, we must build for that which will last.

Jonathan Lamb was the East European coordinator for IFES during the 1980s, and then Regional Secretary for Europe & Eurasia and Associate General Secretary. He is now the Director of Langham Preaching for Langham Partnership International, of which John Stott Ministries is the U.S. member.

The article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Evangelicals Now. "Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.

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Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today also posted "An Invisible Wall" and "Germany's 'Cold Religion'" today.

Other Christianity Today articles on Eastern Europe include:

Theology in the News: Europe's Past Is Today's Hope | Rome won't cede the continent to secularists without a fight. (October 5, 2009)
A Lost Generation | Mainline churches in East Germany rediscover a sense of mission. (October 1, 2009)
Eastern Europe's Evangelical Hub | A scholar discusses the development of evangelicalism in Ukraine. (January 29, 2008)
Under Reconstruction | How Eastern Europe's evangelicals are restoring the church's vitality. (October 13, 2005)
East German Church Lost 'Distinctive Voice' After Reunification | Forty years after the building of the Berlin Wall, cleric claims some churches are worse off (August 1, 2001)