Historical Challenges to Spreading the Gospel in Bulgaria

As a body of Christians which desires to spread the gospel and to fulfill the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ we always want to keep our mission statement before our eyes.

We exist to BRING people to God, to ESTABLISH them in the faith, and to EQUIP them for ministry by pouring ourselves into their lives, motivating them, and facilitating their REPRODUCTION into multiple generations Disciples of Christ.

This mission statement is based on the Great Commission. But we face challenges as we commit ourselves to fulfilling it. As missionaries we have a passion for spreading the Good News among the people we live with. But at the same time our missionary zeal and vigor can be quenched or at least fade off to a certain degree because of the spiritual, historical and contemporary challenges we face on a daily basis. Why is it so difficult to witness about Jesus in Bulgaria? Why the Bulgarian Church has such a slow or minimal numerical growth? We realize that there are reasons to these problems.

The Challenge of the Inherent Syncretism in the Orthodox Church

When we relate to the spiritual challenges it is best to turn to our historical background.

Cyril and Methodius were first Bulgarian missionaries. They were from Bulgarian origin but born in Thessaloniki, Greece. They were scholars and missionaries. The two brothers made it their mission to create an alphabet which could be used for one purpose – to translate the entire scripture in language, spoken by the Bulgarian people. This language was Bulgarian Slavonic. Bulgaria accepted Christianity in the IX century A.D. and the scriptures were made available to the Bulgarian people in their own language.

Christianity came to Bulgaria through the political act of one the medieval Bulgarian czars. His name was Czar Boris. This was a wise political movement. It created a lot of positive social energy. But at that time there was no democracy or a lot of personal freedom so when the king of the First Bulgarian Empire accepted Christianity, everybody formally became Christian. This seemed like a success for the Christian faith, but from another perspective Christianity cannot be forced onto a certain individual or entire group of people by force. However, this is what happened in Bulgaria. In an attempt to unify the new kingdom King Boris demanded that his entire royal court and feudal lords accept the Christian faith. Many of them did not want to do that. And because of their disobedience they were killed. He took their heads off their shoulders. The king killed their entire families with their wives and children making sure that nobody comes back to try to have a revenge for what happened. So enforcing Christian faith by sword was definitely a very negative development in the very first years of Christianity in Bulgaria.

This became an issue for the sincerity of faith among the Bulgarian population. Out of fear for their lives they simply subdued their true pagan beliefs and mixed their idolatry with the new faith. Today we call this syncretism. This social behavior continues even until today. Many of our neighbors confess faith in Jesus but in the same time have many superstitions that come from the pagan beliefs and the idolatrous practices from the past. Perhaps many of you can relate to that because of the history of the Catholic Church and the persecutions of the pilgrims.

The reality is that the basics of theology in Orthodox Christianity and the evangelical faith are the same. We believe in the divine inspiration of scripture. The Orthodox Church believes the same. They believe in the Trinity and we believe the same. Both branches of the Christian confession believe that we are redeemed through the redemptive work of Christ. We have the same views about the resurrection of Christ and the final judgment of all human beings when both living and the death will stay before the judgment seat of Christ. Easter and Christmas are the main Christian holidays we both commemorate. So, where is the difference between these two branches of Christianity? The difference came when the Orthodox Church added traditions and beliefs passed onto us by the leaders of the Orthodox communities in Byzantium and Greece. In this way the Orthodox Church gives the same authority to the traditions of the Church as they give to the divine authority of scriptures.

The Challenge of Religion Becoming a Mark of National Identity

Sometime after Spain pushed back the Islamic invasion of the Moors, in 1396 the Second Bulgarian Empire and Byzantium were conquered by the raising Ottoman Empire. The result of this collapse of the kingdoms on the Balkans was five centuries of Islamic domination through the hands of the Ottoman Empire. During that time there were several attempts to force Islam onto a large group of local population of Bulgaria, and many of these attempts succeeded. Today we have an entire ethnic group called the Pomacs which translated means “people who were coerced”. They were coerced to become Muslims.

So, we have two major attempts to force a religion in Bulgaria – first to Christianize the pagan Bulgarians by force and second to enforce Islam on the Orthodox Christians of Bulgaria. We know that God is love and these forceful attempts to make converts were definitely not in the spirit of love.

The era of Islamic dominance gave birth to another phenomenon. Bulgarians were trying to preserve their ethnic and religious identity in places as monasteries and nunneries where many educated individuals kept libraries and wrote books with the purpose of inspiring patriotism. At that time the Christian faith was closely associated with being ethnically Bulgarian. Perhaps like if you are a real Jew you confess Judaism.

Bulgarians started to think that a real Bulgarian means being Orthodox Christian and if you are not really an Orthodox in your faith, then you must be Muslim or Turkish. So faith become and continued even today to be a mark of ethnic identity. Orthodox means you are Bulgarian, Muslim means you are Turkish. This has become a strong paradigm or an underline supposition in our Bulgarian mentality. This is the reason why so many Bulgarians refuse to accept the gospel in the way presented by the evangelical church. They assume that if they accept this personal gospel they leave the Orthodox faith and if they leave the Orthodox faith they are not Bulgarians anymore. Perhaps many of you can relate to that idea when we mention the growing number of predominantly young Americans who dislike the superficial views of the liberal Church in the West and they make a choice of accepting Islam for their faith. Then the average western mind thinks that this person is not an American or real British or French anymore.

In the Bulgarian environment today we have this attitude toward us where our neighbors would say: “You can believe the way you do and carry on with your Church meetings, but please don’t bother us with your faith, because it is not Bulgarian”. They say, “We are Christians, and you are Evangelicals.” by which they imply, “We are Christians, and you are heretics or a foreign sect.”

The Challenge of Legacy of Militant Atheism

On top of these historical burdens we have 45 years of communist regime. The fundamental ideology of communism was atheism. The communists closed the doors of many churches. They closed Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic churches. But they didn’t want to look bad in front of the entire world so they left some churches open. In this way they could claim that they don’t violate human and religious rights. This strategy of curbing religious freedom was the way to say that there is no repression of the religious rights and worship in the country. They could turn to the free world and say, “Look, everybody is free here. If somebody want to go to worship they can go to these churches, they are open.” However every church had secret police agents who were members of the church. The communist party infiltrated the church through those agents in order to weaken and discourage the faith of believers and to stop any new comers from joining the church.

For example, if you were a believer you would have a file that says “unreliable citizen”. What did that mean? It went to say that you are not eligible to receive higher education or take high positions of authority or even to carry arms in the army. This is the reason why many believers when joining the two year mandatory army service were not allowed to carry arms but shovels and hammers. They were sent to the engineer corp. They were only builders and masons. Just imagine Israelites in Egypt. When Pharaoh told them to build the cities they were ordered to make brigs and probably carried instruments for building. But he was afraid of the Israelites and no one was allowed to carry arms. Only the Egyptians carried arms. The Israelites were the builders.

There were people who were fired from their job when they became believers. I knew people like that in the city where I grew up.

Every pastor who said “No” to the demand for collaboration to the communists was pushed away from his position and often his family was relocated to another remote location.

By putting pastors who were communist agents in position of authority in the church the communist party implemented a very shroud strategy. Their goal was to eliminate the possibility of young people and children from coming to the church. Anybody who would come to the church would be reported in school, at the job or university. In this way the church was aging and dying off.

Communists did not want to kill believers and turn them into martyrs. But they could quench the power of the church through control and harassment of believers which they did. Because they knew from history that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith” they did not want to repeat what the Roman emperors did. But they targeted young generation, the children and youth. There were no Sunday schools or youth ministries in church. At that time only people over the age of 18 could join a local church. When I was 12 years old and I wanted to be baptized, the pastor of the church was afraid to baptize me in water openly. That meant that he could lose his job immediately. That was the reason I was baptized away from church in a dam outside the city. At that time there were no churches in villages and small towns and in the bigger cities where you could find a church that was the only church in that city.

Two entire generations were completely separated, were kept out of the reach of the church, and they were raised as atheist. Our grandparents could go to church when they were children and even study the Bible in schools. As a contrast our parents and almost everybody from our own generation were kept out of the church and they are still atheists.

We can only praise God that in the 1989 to the surprise of most of the world the communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed and Communism as a system was over. We believe that this was a miracle and an act of God because the Communist party believed that this regime will last forever.

The Challenge of the Reluctant Volunteers

The Israelites left Egypt but Egypt didn’t leave their minds. In similar way Bulgaria left the communist world but the communist mentality didn’t leave the Bulgarian people. An example of this is the lack of excitement among Bulgarians when it comes to recruiting volunteers for different projects.

During communism communist party demanded volunteer labor which turned in a way in a force labor. This was volunteer labor which the communist party declared nationwide every once and a while without the option of saying “No”. This approach had a very negative effect on the population. Now, after the communist regime collapsed, and when somebody promotes a worthy, noble cause, most of the people react cynically or even with disgust when they are called to volunteer their energy and time. This comes as a great challenge for Christian leaders. We often teach that every member of the body has its own role and ministry purpose and we encourage people to contribute to the ministry of the church as they volunteer. But we don’t have a lot of positive response because of the legacy of the forced Labor Day during communism, people often times expect to be paid for what we consider as volunteer labor.

The legacy of these historical and cultural challenges puts many stumbling blocks or hindrances in front of the gospel in our country. This is why we can talk about prejudice, because prejudice means passing preliminary judgments without listening of the argument of the opposite site. Many of our neighbors walk around Christians very much prejudiced because they pass preliminary judgment on their faith or beliefs based on the legacy we have as a nation.

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