Old-fashioned Western missionary organizations still classify the former communist world as “unreached,” a designation which is no longer true, according to Romanian Baptist scholar Otniel Bunaciu.
Christian congregations are now established almost everywhere in the former Soviet Union, Bunaciu said at a recent mission conference sponsored by the European Baptist Federation, and they are beginning to play an important role in missions.
Samford University’s Global Center describes Bunaciu as a “representative of the new, brilliant generation of scholars who had the opportunity of studying abroad and then returning home to use the gifts entrusted to them by God.”
After earning one of his degrees at Oxford, Bunaciu returned to Romania to join the faculty of Bucharest Baptist Theological Seminary, a school noted for producing some of the best and most respected Baptist preachers in Romania.
Bunaciu, who is scheduled to lead a Bible study at this week’s Baptist World Centenary Congress in Birmingham, England, told mission leaders gathered in Moldova that it is now more appropriate to train these native Christians to be missionaries rather than to simply send foreigners, according to a report this week in Christianity Today.
The Baptist Union of Moldova organized two conferences in the capital city of Chisinau: one for home missions for churches belonging to the European Baptist Federation and the other for native, non-foreign missionaries supported by the EBF.
Based in Prague, Czech Republic, the EBF, a federation of 51 Baptist associations and one of six regional fellowships in the Baptist World Alliance, supports a total of 39 missionaries in 16 countries of the former Eastern bloc and the Middle East through its Indigenous Missionary Project.
Started in April 2002 with the goal of planting Baptist churches in Europe, the project began modestly, supporting four missionaries in Moldova.
With 390 congregations and 21,000 members, the Baptist Union of Moldova is now well on its way toward its goal of establishing a strong congregation in every city and village in their country, said Daniel Trusiewicz of Poland, director of the Indigenous Missionary Project (IMP).
At the conference in Chisinau, Trusiewicz laid out a vision for modern mission, with a goal of new congregations becoming self-supporting and self-administering within five years and in turn going out to sponsor new congregations.
Theodor Angelov, since-retired general secretary of the EBF, founded the IMP. He viewed it as the federation’s “response for the need of Eastern Europe, which is still very open to the gospel after a long time of atheistic influence in the past.”
The EBF adopted a model of planting new churches with native missionaries for several reasons, according to a recent Baptist World Alliance newsletter article.
Experience shows that indigenous missionaries are spiritually the most effective and culturally the most sensitive. They are also the cheapest. By supporting only natives who plant congregations in their own countries, the IMP doesn’t have to worry about crossing unnecessary cultural or language barriers. They know their situation better, have natural contacts and have proven to be the most successful in church planting ministry.
Tony Peck, the current EBF general secretary, said the IMP continues to grow both in the number of missionaries and its impact on the Baptist mission in Europe. Together with mission partners from the United States and United Kingdom, the project recently expanded into Georgia, Estonia, Lithuania and Norway.
Peck singled out Moldova, a country that despite its poverty and the loss of many of its Baptist members to the West has achieved phenomenal growth in the past 15 years.
One of the smallest of the former Soviet Union countries, Moldova is sandwiched between Romania and the Ukraine. Once considered the “garden” of the Soviet Union, Moldova has no natural resources of its own and owes enormous debt to Russia for natural gas. Inflation has skyrocketed, its currency devalued and the United Nations has declared it a bankrupt nation.
About one fourth of the population has migrated out of the country looking for work, and 60 percent of young girls trafficked into prostitution in the Balkan region come from there, according to Baptist Family and Children’s Services in San Antonio, Texas.
Ninety-eight percent of Moldovans are nominal members of the Orthodox Church. Fewer than 1 percent are evangelicals.
Peck described a congregation in a village in Moldova, which already has managed to purchase a building for its work. The church planter is now planning two more congregations and wants to see the building used as a training center for more church planting in the surrounding villages.
Along with church planting, the EBF, founded in Ruschlikon, Switzerland, in 1949, emphasizes human rights, religious liberty and aid programs. The federation represents about 12,000 congregations of Baptists with more than 800,000 members.
Also speaking at the conference in Moldova, EBF president Billy Taranger noted that while the Muslim segment of the world population is growing, Christianity is on the decline. In 1900 Muslims represented 12 percent of the world’s population and Christians 37 percent, he said. A hundred years later the Muslim percentage increased to 20 percent, while the Christians dropped to 33 percent.
Taranger, a theologian from Norway, said the answer is for Christians to stop relying on pastors and trained missionaries to spread the gospel. He called on Baptists to focus more strongly on the priesthood of all believers and teaching church members how to talk about their faith.
“Normal Christians,” he said, are the ones who can ensure that the non-Christian two thirds of the world’s population become acquainted with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.