years ago, it seemed that the beast of communism, which
had set its face against the church of Jesus Christ, was
dead in Eastern Europe. I remember the 200,000 Bulgarians
with raised hands and open souls standing in Sofia's downtown
square in 1991. They gathered not to march in honor of the
ruling party but to hear an overseas evangelist preach Christ
and heal the sick. I was in the crowd, a graduating law
student, a former anticommunist revolutionary, and a new
Christian. I drank from the invigorating hope and joy that
had descended from heaven on that warm summer night. A nation
haunted by darkness for years was about to receive a new
heart. But things did not go quite the way I hoped.
beast of communism may have been mortally wounded, but it
was not dead. In 1992 came significant reversals regarding
religious liberty—the first sign that freedom had not fully
arrived. Two years after the collapse of the regime, former
communists emerged as socialist capitalists. Their former
connections afforded them control of the economy and, with
it, the most influential newspapers.
the newspapers became torturous. I fumed at the sensationalistic
articles, written like communist propaganda, and aimed at
the new wave of American missionaries: Baptists were eating
children; American missionaries were feeding drugs to youth
in church meetings; Protestant pastors were signing up members
of their congregations for ritual suicide ceremonies.
outrageous claims fed society's skepticism toward evangelical
churches. American evangelicals have worked among Bulgarians
since the mid-19th century, but the memory of these missionary
contributions was lost during the reign of the Communist
Party. Exploiting a historical perception that Eastern Orthodoxy
was key to the Bulgarian national identity, the new socialist
capitalists used anti-evangelical rhetoric to stir up passions.
Unfortunately, many Orthodox voices joined hard-core atheists
in decrying "Western sects." Bulgarians seemed to want a
mix of Soviet spirituality and American prosperity.
I took this attitude personally. I had become a Christian
thanks to the witness of American evangelical missionaries.
The long history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, or its
contribution to the national spirit, meant little to me—she
never cared enough for my soul to let me know about salvation
in Christ. I found liberty because of people who left their
country, came to Bulgaria, and answered the questions that
had tormented me for years. I heard the clearly articulated
gospel for the first time in English. My first Bible was
also in English: an NIV New Testament.
defending the legal rights of U.S. missionaries and Bulgarian
Christians, I gladly vented my frustration at the injustice
done to my fellow evangelicals. I took some high-profile
cases that other lawyers had dropped. I filed lawsuits on
behalf of slandered and harassed evangelicals—against police
departments, newspapers, individuals, and organizations.
I delighted in the astonishment of police officials, used
to bossing citizens around, at the subpoenas I served them.
But most of the time, that was all the reward I got for
seeking justice for evangelicals in the courts. I lost 90
percent of the cases.
soon became obvious that even the Parliament would defy
the constitutional freedom of conscience and faith. A law
passed in 1994 indirectly required government approval for
the registration of Protestant churches.
1995 someone broke into my office and stole my computer
with the records of my court cases. I was growing tired
of meeting with "religious police" operatives who, using
only code names, tried to persuade me to rat on my pastor-clients.
I realized I needed a break. I wondered if I should again
do "purely spiritual" work (I had been in church-planting
teams since my conversion) or remain engaged in the battle
for religious freedom. But going to court or pointing officials
to the constitution made no difference. I felt like Moses,
working in the flesh to liberate God's people. After hearing
that I was being "surveyed" by the police in Sofia, my American
wife and I decided it was time to get out for a while. At
the end of 1995, we left for the United States, where I
ended up graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary.
I'm back in Bulgaria, where the freedom for evangelicals
to conduct services and outreach is still limited. Last
year the Parliament almost adopted a law that was "most
probably. … the worst in all Eastern Europe," according
to an October 2000 press release of Tolerance Foundation,
a Bulgarian human-rights group. Critics called the measure
more restrictive than the law of 1949, which was used by
the communist regime to end religious freedom in the nation.
For example, the proposed law stipulated that people could
not use their homes for religious meetings, and it imposed
enormous fines for preaching without registering with the
state. In other words, no expression of faith was allowed
under this project unless the state had approved it. The
restrictive draft was tabled only after the pro-Western
government heard protests from human-rights groups, church
leaders, and even U.S. politicians.
hearts and minds, not laws, need to change. "The constitution
provides freedom of religion; however, the government restricts
this right in practice for some non-Orthodox religious groups,"
says the 2000 Annual Report on Religious Freedom in Bulgaria
prepared by the U.S. State Department. "This restriction
is manifested primarily in a registration process that is
selective, slow, and nontransparent." The mentality is this:
If a congregation is not registered, then the state hasn't
recognized it, which makes it an illegal sect. A process
that should be just a formality ends up giving the government
power to approve or disapprove of religious beliefs.
Wind of Change
The dominant sentiment is that evangelicals had the most
freedom under the government of the Union of Democratic
Forces. (In 1997 the same union vetoed the embarrassing
anti-religion bill and convinced Parliament to approve the
status of the first evangelical seminary in the country
since 1948.) This first post-communist coalition of democratic
anti-Communist parties lost in this summer's election to
the party of the Bulgarian King Simeon II (a.k.a. Simeon
Saxcoburggotski), who is now the prime minister.
political trends are decided by political forces. Moral
trends and worldviews, which fuel political forces, are
decided by the spiritual climate. In the last several years,
I have become convinced that the problem of liberty in Eastern
Europe originates in the church. It's not that evangelicals
should be held responsible for a culture that has bred oppression
for years—but not standing up to such a culture, and letting
it shape the behavior of the church herself, allows oppression
to thrive in Bulgaria and other Eastern European nations.
the Iron Curtain fell and the gospel flooded the nations
of the Eastern bloc, alongside the good news came its counterfeits.
One of them was the prosperity gospel. Its message found
a fertile soil among young, charismatic congregations. I
was embarrassed for Bulgarian pastors as they imitated their
favorite U.S. prosperity preachers, sometimes even speaking
with a slight American accent. Many Bulgarian Christians,
tired of the years of marginalization and poverty, allowed
the health-and-wealth doctrine to seduce them.
Control, and Fear
It was not just the Western prosperity preachers' fault.
Evangelicals in Bulgaria were accustomed to seeking foreign
help—an understandable reflex after years of being second-class
citizens in their own country. The church did not err in
accepting help from American Christians; but the neediness
of many Bulgarian evangelicals had distorted their view
of American wealth. A leader of a Christian training school
in Sofia once told me that his school was reluctant to hire
Bulgarian theologians and teachers because they had to be
paid. If American teachers were invited to teach, they paid
their own way, did not receive any salary, and even brought
gifts to the school. This conversation made me realize how
difficult it is to break loose from the ruts of poverty.
evangelical Christians are a brutalized people. Stuck in
a wounded culture, church leaders tend to multiply hurt
and deny liberty, as if they took lessons from communist
leaders. Their harsh authoritarianism cripples Christian
witness and repels young and educated Christians.
Michailova, a manager of a Christian bookstore in Sofia,
had trouble finding a home church. The leaders of various
congregations were threatened by this avid reader who asked
questions. "The pastors I know don't allow anyone or anything
to challenge their authority," she told me. "They treat
people as if they don't understand anything, and with an
attitude of being irreplaceable."
traveling with her mobile bookstore, a bus loaded with Christian
titles, she finds a lot of rivalry among local pastors.
"They also seem to be threatened by [Christian booksellers],
and we just want to sell literature that will help the believers,"
evangelicals' church leadership style—a mix of control and
fear—reveals the need for spiritual mentoring that would
liberate leaders from their insecurities. My brother, Yavor
Kostov, pastor of four small congregations in the poorest,
northwestern area of the country, thinks dictatorial church
leadership inhibits church growth. "Pastors don't lead people
to Jesus but to themselves," he says. "This means that no
gifts, talents, or freedom can blossom in the church." His
primary church started after a dispute regarding leadership
is hard for many new-generation believers to join churches
that use methodologies reminiscent of the Communist Party.
When Milena Eneva was considering attending a U.S. Bible
college, her pastor bluntly told her that this was not God's
will and that she would lose the presence of the Holy Spirit
in her life—not exactly the blessing she wanted. She is
now a graduate of a U.S. Nazarene college.
harshness among evangelicals is not only a Bulgarian phenomenon.
Many evangelical churches in other post-communist countries
(such as Ukraine, Romania, and Poland) practice a legalism
that defeats the Christian message. A missionary to Eastern
Europe told me he once took a nonbelieving relative to a
Ukrainian Pentecostal church. The church members looked
at her makeup and fancy clothes with such obvious disapproval
that she vowed never to return to church again.
would anyone, beat up by a hard life to begin with, want
to come to church to be subject to the will and strife of
insecure individuals? Didn't Jesus say, "Come to me, all
you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest"?
By now you may be asking, "Is there anything right with
the post-communist church?" The zeal with which Eastern
European believers kept the message during the communist
era is an example of the church's strength. Persecuted pastors
put in hours of work, with minimal or no pay, and traveled
miles to care for their brothers and sisters. Evangelicals
were harassed, fired, detained, and interrogated for owning
Bibles or just talking about their faith.
Popov spent 13 years in concentration camps, accused of
spying for the United States and England. He was not a spy,
but a pastor of the largest Pentecostal church in Bulgaria,
when the communists took over in the 1940s. He not only
did not renounce his faith amid torture, but he also shared
the gospel and the love of Christ with his fellow prisoners.
In 1972 he founded Door of Hope International, a U.S. mission
agency that spread the news of the persecuted church in
the West and helped underground churches behind the Iron
Curtain. This past is the great spiritual inheritance of
Eastern European Christians, one empowered by the freedom
found only in Christ and displayed in the Book of Acts.
new generation with a vision for change is emerging, too.
Here are some of its leaders:
leads a missionary campaign with her bus, selling Christian
- A missionary
friend told me of a humble Bulgarian couple who minister
to Bulgarian Turks in southern Bulgaria, with the vision
of raising missionaries to go to Turkey.
- My brother's
primary church reaches out to institutionalized orphans,
and his church's rock band seeks to win young people's
these hope-filled glimpses show that true freedom for a
servant and visionary church is not that far away.
wife and I have returned to Bulgaria as missionaries with
Door of Hope to pursue "the Bulgarian dream," as I often
joke. But the dream is not a joke. The vision from that
summer night of 1991—for a whole nation, a bride of darkness
and hopelessness for decades, to find a better way, a way
to truth, forgiveness, and liberty in Jesus Christ—is still
very much alive in me. I think the same dream made the apostles
follow Christ against all odds. It made the apostle Paul
travel restlessly, building up churches. And it made missionaries
go to foreign nations, reminding us over and over again
that "for freedom Christ has set us free."