I like to go hiking and the best hiking experiences are in the mountains. However, there is one thing I don’t like about hiking in the mountains. A lot of the path is uphill. In my head I know that everything that goes up must come down, so it stands to reason that fifty-percent of the time I am walking uphill, and the rest of the time is downhill. But it sure doesn’t feel that way. In the mountains it feels like it is ninety-percent uphill.
Planting churches in Bulgaria feels a lot like uphill hiking. There are particular challenges to starting churches in Bulgaria that are different from the challenges that a lot of pastors and missionaries in the USA experience. I want to try and share with you some of those challenges, not to complain, but so that you can pray more concisely for all of us who are planting churches in this uphill country.
You are a cult. One of the first hills we encounter on our journey to start healthy churches is the idea in Bulgarian society that if you are part of a Protestant church you are part of a dangerous cult. We are often looked at in the same way most of you might look at Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientology. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a state controlled and funded church, has a lot of political power and sway in most people’s minds. There have been many false reports written in the newspapers of young people becoming part of a Protestant “cult” and then a few days later commit suicide. It is a challenge to reach out and build relationships with people when they consider us part of a dangerous cult.
You are strange. Another uphill battle is simply that the Bible and Biblical morals are alien to most Bulgarians. Bulgaria was under Muslim slavery for five hundred years and then fifty more years of communism. A majority of people in Bulgaria have never read the Bible. Most have never been inside a church, so everything about we tell them about a life of faith is very strange. A typical example of someone in Bulgaria who shows some spiritual interest is a person who has never opened the Bible in their life, never attended church, lives with her boyfriend, has a child from a previous relationship, drinks heavily, smokes, steals from her workplace, cheats on her taxes and is thinking about leaving Bulgaria to find a better paying job overseas. As people of faith we know that God can untangle this complicated knot of life choices, but there is also a lot of uphill hiking for that person to undo thirty plus years of ungodly living. When we share the heart of the gospel with that person they look at us as if we are very strange.
You are a traitor. Lastly, when Bulgarians attend our church they are labeled traitors to their country and heritage. As I said before, the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria has a lot of power in the society and is the traditional church of this country. The state, religion, politics and patriotism are all intermixed. Many think that if you are Bulgarian, you must be Orthodox. If you start attending any other church, then you are traitor to your country and heritage. How difficult do you think it would be to witness to people in the USA if they considered going to your church on Sundays un-American or unpatriotic. It is an uphill fight for new believers to remain faithful when family members accuse them of being a traitor to their country by attending our church.
Planting churches in Bulgaria is all uphill. I wanted to honestly share with you some of the challenges we all face here when planting churches. Hiking in the mountains is always difficult, but we do it because we love it. While hiking there is nothing better then getting to the top of a steep ridge and looking back over a beautiful valley landscape. Spiritually, there is nothing better than seeing a person grasp the truth of God’s love for them for the very first time. We are here in Bulgaria planting churches because this is what God has called us to do. We are here because we love doing this; in spite of the challenges. Bulgaria is an amazing place to minister and we know it is only God who can bring healing to this country. As it is written, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth; the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”