December - January 2023
Lighting the Darkness
Starting From Minus Ten
By Tim Awtrey
Years ago, I saw a chart entitled “Gospel Receptivity.” The chart started at minus ten and continued to plus ten. Minus ten represented cultures hostile to the gospel. Plus ten indicated a culture open and receptive toward missionaries. Newly arrived in Bulgaria to plant churches, Lydia and I sat in a smoky coffee shop with 4 a.m. jetlag. Drunk men lolled in one corner while a depressed waitress pointedly ignored our attempts to get coffee. Bulgaria had recently turned from communism to embrace democracy, and I thought this must be a country greater than minus ten.
Communism’s long-term cultural legacy erected distinct barriers to an individual’s openness to the gospel. First, in post-communist countries like Bulgaria, we see a marked change from the past, especially as it relates to Christianity. In 1948, many Bulgarian Protestant pastors were arrested and put on trial as American spies. Many were killed and others sent to concentration camps—like the one only a few miles from our Free Will Baptist church. For years, my wife lived within a stone’s throw of this prison and heard only “bad” people were sent there. The past was erased and replaced with a communist narrative, a pseudo history.
Today’s Bulgarians have no knowledge of the hospitals, schools, and businesses begun by Protestant missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is a challenge to missionaries working in post-communist countries. However, we also have an opportunity here. Bulgarians are proud of their history. If a missionary is willing to study this forgotten past and reiterate it, he will open a door into the hearts of Bulgarians. When Bulgarians realize Protestants helped shape language and literature in the early 19th century or hear the impact Protestants had in the Bulgarian war of independence against the Ottoman-Turk Empire, they take a step toward the reality of the gospel in their own life.
Missionaries in post-communist countries must redeem history.
In addition, an undercurrent of communism profoundly stifles the gospel…even in post-communist societies. To everyone living under communism, it is an open secret that it is all a lie. Communism is a well-placed, widespread, and demanding fabrication. There is no equality. There is no harmonious gathering of the proletariat. There are the rulers and the ruled. The titles have changed, and the various seats of power shuffled, but, at the end of the day, it is the same despotic rule. Yet, the propaganda machine continues, day after day, year after year. The missionary is seen as just another type of propaganda. So, of course, no one believes your message. Every message is false, only designed to manipulate. So, too, must be the message of Jesus Christ. This is a significant barrier to every missionary working in post-communist societies, especially in the beginning stages.
Here, too, is an opportunity. If the church is the church, not only in word, but also in deed and action, over time the truth of those words and actions will ring true. For this reason, it is immensely important churches in post-communist countries, like Bulgaria, be active in their communities. Remember the deeds of our forefathers who brought the gospel with words and deeds, so people can see the power of the Good News in action. Lies bring a hunger for the truth.
If a missionary can demonstrate the gospel is true, he will see the lie of communism shred before him.
Missionaries must not only redeem history, but also redeem the truth so the community can see the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Working in post-communist societies poses a significant challenge to missionaries who would go to those who continue to be denied access to the gospel for lack of community-impacting churches. In these countries, often, you must start from minus ten. Yet, Christ can, and will, redeem all things. There are substantial challenges working in post-communist societies and, still, there are opportunities for the life-giving transformation of the gospel.
Just as in our own lives, to be effective as missionaries in post-communist countries like Bulgaria, the past must be redeemed, and the truth must set us free.
About the Author: Tim Awtrey and his wife Lydia have been serving in Bulgaria for over fifteen years. Tim grew up in a Free Will Baptist Church in California and Lydia grew up under the communist regime in Bulgaria. While Tim started attending church a week after birth, Lydia didn’t see a Bible or hear the name of Jesus until age 20. The couple is dedicated to starting churches in Bulgaria to make sure that never happens to anyone again. Learn more: iminc.org.