Eastern Europe and Eurasia are comprised of twenty countries with 188 least-reached peoples remaining among them. Serbia and Montenegro lead with 66.8% of their population. Here almost seven million people remain least-reached. Less than two percent are evangelical and less than five percent adhere to any form of Christianity. However, in sheer numbers, Russia exceeds them with over twelve million least-reached people in seventy-two different people groups. A decade of democracy associated with greed, crime, self-seeking politicians, a pervasive mafia and degeneration of the quality of life has caused many in Russia to hanker after the authoritarian certainties of Communist dictatorship.
The long-term disastrous distortions of Marxist economies in Eastern Europe adversely affected national infrastructures, ecology and the work ethic of the people. The dominant realities of the 1990s have been the gradual recovery of most former Communist states and the strengthening and planned expansion of the European Union from thirteen original members to most nations in Europe. Ethnocentrism and religion have become important and major causes for political confrontations since 1990. The Church overall in Eastern Europe and Eurasia is small and struggling; however, there are rays of hope in places such as Ukraine. Pray that the spirit of prayer will sweep through the Church and revive it. Pray for laborers for this volatile environment that is ripe for the good news.
- Deliverance from addictions. Pray God sets the captives free from bondages to addictions such as alcohol and drug abuse, sexual addictions, pornography and gambling in order that they may be as lights in the world, examples of God’s grace and the goodness in Jesus.
- Hound of heaven. Pray the Holy Spirit searches for the lost and demonstrates to them God’s goodness that leads them to repentance.
- Overcome evil with good. Pray that God shows believers how to overcome evil such as greed, crime, self-seeking, organized crime and degeneration with his goodness and love and that his kingdom may rapidly grow.
- All things to all people. Pray that the Church understands Paul’s command to become all things to all people that they might win some in order to bring the gospel in a way that can be understood and accepted.
- Invisible means of support. Pray for God to pour out his heavenly provision through those whose hearts are completely his so that he supplies and multiplies all resources needed for reaching those who have not yet heard the good news.
- Resources to pray, mobilize prayer and outreach.
- Discover East Europe and Eurasia’s 188 least-reached peoples.
- Pray for the peoples of East Europe and Eurasia.
- Obtain daily prayer guides for peoples of this region.
The Ebb and Flow of Christianity in Eastern Europe and Russia
(Prepared by Wesley Kawato for the Global Prayer Digest)
Eastern Europe is one of the Church’s oldest mission fields. Paul was on his second missionary journey when God used a dream to lead him to go to what is today Greece. Two of the churches Paul founded on that journey still exist today. Thessalonika (modern-day Salonika) and Corinth are still major administrative centers of the Greek Orthodox Church. For the first three hundred years, the Church focused on planting congregations throughout the Roman Empire. Early missionaries gave little thought to reaching people groups beyond Rome’s control.
Early Efforts to Reach the Goths and Slavs
There were early contacts with the peoples of Eastern Europe. Roman armies often raided lands north of the Danube River. These armies brought back slaves who were sold in the empire’s major cities. The Church reached out to these people with the gospel. Most of these slaves were from Gothic people groups. When the Goths began migrating out of Central and Eastern Europe during the decline of Roman rule in the late fourth century, various Slavic people groups moved into the lands abandoned by them. These Slavic tribes were in the process of being driven west and south by the Huns, a vicious people group who poured out of Central Asia in search of new pastures for their flocks.
Attacks by Slavic tribes drove various Gothic people groups into the Roman Empire. The tribes that Rome’s weakened armies were unable to expel were allowed to settle within the empire. Rome was now divided and weaker than anyone realized. Two emperors now ruled the empire, one in the west and one in the east. Some of the Goths who had settled within the empire revolted in AD 378. This led to the Battle of Adrianople. The defeat of the Roman armies at Adrianople would start a chain of events that would lead to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire nearly a century later.
Strong emperors in the east prevented the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire after AD 476. One of them was Justinian, who ruled from 518 to 565. Justinian was a Christian, and he strongly supported the churches within his empire. He encouraged missionaries to reach out to the Slavic peoples living north of the Danube River. These missionaries fought a hard battle against paganism and heretical doctrines. Aryan missionaries had contacted some of these Slavic tribes first, winning them to their own heretical brand of Christianity. Seeds of faith were planted among the Slavs; however, converts were few.
Missionary Efforts Stalled
After AD 600, missionary efforts in Eastern Europe got side-tracked by the birth of Islam and Arab attacks on the Eastern Roman Empire. Justinian’s successors had little energy or resources to reach out to the people groups of Eastern Europe. They were fighting a life-and-death war for the very survival of their empire and Orthodox Christianity. Lands that were once “Christian” were rapidly becoming Muslim with the advent of the Muslim empires.
Internal threats also side-tracked missionary efforts in Eastern Europe. Churches in the east and the west went their separate ways after 476. Increasingly, the doctrine of the Trinity divided Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. In the west, theologians believed the Holy Spirit emanated from the Father and the Son. In the east, theologians believed the Holy Spirit emanated from the Father alone. There was also a controversy over religious art. Statues of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles were considered acceptable in the west. In the east, such statues were thought of as idols and thus forbidden.
In the eleventh century, the break between east and west became final when the Pope excommunicated the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Patriarch returned the favor. After the split, the Roman Catholic Church tended to ignore the people groups of Eastern Europe. The only notable exceptions were the Poles and the Slovenes.
The controversy between east and west did not stop all missionary efforts in Eastern Europe, however. Around 800, two brothers named Cyril and Methodius made a series of missionary journeys north of the Danube River on behalf of the Orthodox Church. They are also honored today by Roman Catholics. They reached as far as Russia and planted small churches at every stop they made. Their efforts expanded the reach of the Kingdom of God.
Internal threats side-tracked missionary efforts in Eastern Europe. Churches in the east and the west went their separate ways after 476 AD.
The split between east and west freed the Orthodox Church to resume outreach efforts in Eastern Europe in earnest. New workers watered the seeds planted by Cyril and Methodius. Around the year 1000, King Stephen of Hungary was converted. His conversion completely changed the spiritual climate of Hungary, the land of the Huns. As late as the year 955, the Huns had still been sacking Christian churches in Austria. Stephen quickly made Orthodox Christianity the national religion. Orthodox missionaries preached quick sermons to the Huns, which were followed by mass baptisms. Many of these converts were less than sincere; however, it was a starting point.
Russia Converts to Orthodox Christianity
Other Orthodox missionaries worked with the churches Cyril and Methodius had started in Russia. One of them converted Princess Olga of Kiev. Olga’s grandson, Prince Vladimir, would later go on a spiritual search. He investigated Islam, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism. In 988, Vladimir embraced Eastern Orthodoxy and ordered his subjects to do the same. He also sent for more Orthodox missionaries. The churches of Greece supplied as many workers as they were able. Again, mass sermons were preached in every village of the Principality of Kiev, which controlled most of what is now European Russia. As with the Huns, after the sermons they held mass baptisms. Many of these converts, too, were not sincere; they knew that the penalty for refusing baptism was death. Only a few of the missionaries remained in Russia after the mass baptisms. Most new converts understood little of their new faith. In Hungary and Russia, the Orthodox Church had relied too much on conversions of the leaders. This mistake would lead to spiritual weakness. Vladimir quickly declared himself to be the leader of the newly formed Russian Orthodox Church. A shortage of workers led to a serious problem with nominalism in many Russian churches.
Disaster struck in 1237 when the Mongols invaded the Principality of Kiev. Kiev would remain under Mongol rule until 1480. During the occupation, the Russian Orthodox Church became a hotbed for opposition to Mongol rule. Faith and patriotism became entwined, creating another source of nominalism within the Russian Orthodox Church. The occupation diverted resources away from missionary work as the Russian church focused on winning independence from the Mongols.
In 1480 Russia threw off the Mongol yoke and established a new Russian state in Moscow. Internal divisions soon side-tracked the Russian Orthodox Church from missionary work. In 1503 there was a controversy over whether monasteries should own land, leading to a church split. After 1600, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon introduced a new liturgy that angered traditionalists into splitting from the Russian Church. In a twisted attempt to restore unity, the reformers persecuted the old believers.
During the 1700s, church/state relations became an issue when Peter the Great tried to take direct control over the Russian Orthodox Church. Although Grand Prince Vladimir had ruled the Russian Church directly, many of his successors had appointed patriarchs to rule the Russian Orthodox Church. This controversy would divert resources away from missionary work.
The Orthodox Church Suffers During the Communist Era
The controversy ended in 1917 when the Russian monarchy was overthrown and Tikhon was appointed Patriarch of Moscow. Tikhon quickly denounced Vladimir Lenin and his communist comrades, who had taken control of Russia during the chaos of the 1917 Revolution. Lenin put up with Tikhon’s denunciations until he was securely in power. Lenin then shut down all churches and banned religion. Many priests and believers ended up in labor camps in Siberia. The Russian Church, forced to go underground, was in no condition to engage in missionary activity.
Between 1941 and 1945 Stalin briefly legalized the Russian Orthodox Church in an attempt to unify all Russians against the German invaders. After they won World War II, Stalin outlawed all religion and persecution resumed. Attacks against the Russian Church would gradually ease starting in 1984, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Complete religious freedom would be restored in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Boris Yeltsin became president of the Russian Republic.
Today, nominalism is a major problem in East Europe and Eurasia.
Today, nominalism is still a major problem within the Russian Orthodox Church. Various church leaders are trying to get Orthodoxy declared the state religion. The Russian Church has also engaged in slander campaigns against other denominations such as the Baptists and Pentecostals. But there are still a small number of true believers within the Russian Orthodox Church, people who have joined forces with the Baptists and the Pentecostals to reach out to unreached people groups in what had once been the Soviet Union.
The Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe need our prayers. Nominalism is a serious problem. Some Orthodox churches are also plagued by hard-core nationalist elements. The Serbian Orthodox Church is a mixture of true believers and radical nationalists who believe God has called them to wipe out all Bosnian Muslims. Pray for a restoration of doctrinal purity. Because of division and heresy, there has also been a serious shortage of missionaries being sent out by the various Orthodox churches. Ask God to restore unity and put a stop to the diversion of resources away from the fulfillment of the Great Commission.