SNAPSHOTS OF DISCIPLESHIP
bulgaria or bust
An Interview with missionary Tim Awtrey conducted by Mark McPeak, director of communications
To learn more about the work of Free Will Baptist International Missions in Bulgaria, visit their website at www.fwbgo.com.
“A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.” Proverbs 16:9
In a significant move, the Free Will Baptist International Missions Board approved Bulgaria as a new field for missionary efforts in December 2005. Earlier this year, the board approved Tim and Lydia Awtrey as our first career missionaries to Bulgaria. I recently sat down with Tim to hear how this came about.
Mark McPeak: When you were first contacted by FWBIM, Steve Lytle (director of field operations) asked if you would be interested in working in Russia or Central Asia, one of our established fields. You and Lydia were resolved to go to Bulgaria. How did you conclude this is where God has called you to serve?
Tim Awtrey: Bulgaria is the only place for us! Let me give you some background. I was raised in a FWB church in California and saved as a boy. However, by the time I considered college, I was not at all serious about serving the Lord. So, I chose a college where Christian influence was almost non-existent—the University of California at Santa Barbara. I like to say God has a sense of humor. He put me in a room with one of the only Christians on campus!
Mark: So your roommate influenced you for Christ?
Tim: In a way. My roommate invited me to a meeting about summer mission opportunities. I’d like to say I went to learn about the ministry, but I really went for the free food. By the way, that’s a great way to reach any college kid—food! I listened to the challenge to work with students around the world and decided to go to Bulgaria that summer.
Mark: What was your summer ministry like?
Tim: We were part of an English language exchange program sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We partnered with Bulgarian students who wanted to learn to speak English. Our “job” was to spend time with our student—hanging out, speaking English, and making friendships. Over time, many students came to know Christ because they saw something different in believers’ lives—something they wanted themselves.
Mark: After that summer, how did you stay connected with Bulgaria?
Tim: Well, I really didn’t, even though I wanted to. After graduation I couldn’t get Bulgaria off my mind. As I thought about my life and future, I wanted to go back to Bulgaria. I contacted InterVarsity, but they were not sending more teams there.
Mark: Were you discouraged?
Tim: Not for long. Six months later InterVarsity called. They were putting together a Bulgaria team and hoped I would join it. I went as part of another summer project. I saw God working in my life again.
Mark: Through all this, how was your spiritual life?
Tim: As I said, when I went to college, I was away from the Lord. One of the wonderful things about InterVarsity is their commitment to small group discipleship ministries. We held each other accountable and asked questions like, “How’s your prayer life?” I had to either get myself right with the Lord, or do something else. To this day, I am thankful for the spiritual disciplines and depth I learned through the experience.
Mark: What happened after your second summer in Bulgaria?
Tim: I decided to stay with the team leader after everyone else left. I began a six-year student ministry. At first my “in” with students revolved around ping-pong. There were many tables, but few paddles and balls. My mom sent me a supply of them. I would gather a group by providing the implements for a good game.
Mark: So, you were in “ping-pong ministry.”
Tim: Yeah, imagine that on your business card! While, I made some initial inroads through games, the real goal moved slowly. We had leadership challenges and little growth. For three of my years, I felt like the work was just barely progressing.
Mark: Were you ready to give up?
Tim: Not yet. At the end of that tough time, we hired a Bulgarian staff member named Trif. (He now serves as the national director of InterVarsity’s Bulgaria program.) That school year (1995) we made many contacts around the country. Trif and I traversed Bulgaria, starting and developing student discipleship groups. We saw unprecedented growth as students were saved and more campus groups were added. Within a year, we went from nothing to 14 groups with more than 250 students attending!
Mark: But you chose, at some point, to return to the U.S. What happened?
Tim: Two factors influenced me to return in the spring of 1998. The first was the arrival of a new leader, a Scottish gentleman. Because I had been there so long, many of the Bulgarian people trusted and relied on me. I decided my presence created a challenge to his leadership.
But, even more critical, was a trend I observed. Students who graduated and moved back to their hometowns were spiritually adrift. Over and over I would meet former students, even some who had been in leadership positions, who were now away from the Lord and uninvolved in a good church. Truthfully, I saw it as a problem with the churches. Remember, Bulgarians are not so far removed from communism. They still tend to wait for someone to tell them what to do. Very few good churches and even fewer trained leaders exist. These believers literally had no place to go. And, for all the good work we were doing, we were not planting churches and neither were those we trained. I knew I had to come back to the U.S. and prepare myself to return to Bulgaria as a church-planting missionary.
Mark: You didn’t come back alone. Tell me about Lydia.
Tim: Let me tell you about the best thing that happened in Bulgaria. One of my Bulgarian ministry partners is now my wife. I met Lydia in 1993; she served as an area leader in the north of the country, leading two Bible study groups and an evangelistic study for unbelievers. Over time Lydia needed more and more of my supervision for some reason. (Tim smiles.) We were married in September of 1997, before returning to the States.
Mark: Eight years after returning to California, you’re ready to go back. Tell me a little about those years.
Tim: They’ve had their difficulties, but overall they’ve been great. I’ve worked my way through a challenging seminary program to prepare myself educationally. I’ve been a part of the most wonderful church! I serve as the Congregational Pastor at Discovery FWB Church in Stockton, California. We’ve been immersed in the ministry of this growing fellowship. Discovery has been like home for Lydia, our two children, and me. Pastor Matt Upton, and the good people of the church, have embraced us and our commitment to Bulgaria. We could never have made the decision to return without their loving support.
In fact, we were so comfortable at Discovery, I began to envision staying and ministering there for life. But, in 2004, I made a trip back to Bulgaria. I thought it would feel strange to be there. Almost immediately, however, I knew it was where God wanted us. Our commitment was reaffirmed.
Mark: What will you do upon arrival in Bulgaria?
Tim: As you know, our priority is to plant churches, to begin a Church Planting Movement. Because Lydia is Bulgarian and I have spent so much time there, we will not need lengthy language training. We will be able to begin immediately working with a small group of believers who await our arrival in the city of Svishtov on the Danube River. Svishtov is a vibrant university town strategically located on the border between Bulgaria and Romania. Working with the few Christians already there, we will quickly start a FWB church. From the foundation of an initial work, we are asking God to multiply churches in the country.
TIM AWTREY: FAST FACTS
Education: B.A., History, University of California at Santa Cruz (1993)
M.Div., Biblical Studies, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (2004)
Th.M., Old Testament Biblical Studies, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (2006)
Married: Lydia, September 1997
Children: Yanna, July 4; Alex, February 20
Appointed as career missionary to Bulgaria, July 18, 2006
Languages spoken: Bulgarian, 85%; Turkish, 10%
Population: 7.4 million
Unreached people groups: 8
Land area: 110,550 sq. km. (slightly larger than Tennessee)
Terrain: mostly mountainous
Religions: Bulgarian Orthodox, 82.6% (nominal); Muslim, 12.2%; Evangelical Christian, less than 1%
HINDRANCES TO THE GOSPEL :
45 years of communist domination
Untrained, sometimes even illiterate, pastors in a country of educated people
Lack of commentaries, biblical resources, etc. in Bulgarian language
Lack of an accurate Bible translation
Want to be a team player?
The Awtreys hope to have another couple and three single, young adults join them in ministry. If you’d like to find out more about the Bulgaria team, please contact Judy Lytle for an application and more information: email@example.com or (615) 760-6129.