Still serving in Romania — first European country entered by Southern Baptistscomment (0)
May 15, 2014
By Bob Terry
Like everything in Romania, Southern Baptist work there is impacted by history — specifically by the historic London Conference held in 1920. George W. Truett, the famous pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, and J.F. Lowe represented the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board).
For a week the two men hammered out an agreement with leaders of Northern (now American) Baptists, Canadian Baptists and British Baptists. The goal was to find a way to cooperate in spreading the gospel in Europe after the devastation of World War I rather than duplicate one another’s efforts.
As a result of the conference the SBC was assigned responsibilities for Spain, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania and Ukraine. Each of the other missions-sending agencies accepted responsibility elsewhere.
That is why three years later (1923) it was Southern Baptists who opened missions work in Romania.
But Baptist work was well established in Romania by the time SBC workers got there. Everett Gill, who directed SBC work in Eastern Europe at the time, reported to the 1923 SBC annual meeting that more than 17,000 Baptist believers from Hungarian, German and Romanian backgrounds were working together in the Baptist Union of Romania.
One of the first official acts by the union after Baptists were recognized as an official religion by the new government had been to start a Baptist seminary in Bucharest, the nation’s capital.
Gill told the convention, “There are with few exceptions no foreign missionaries in these fields (including Romania) and it is not yet clear that any considerable number should ever be sent” (see 1923 SBC Annual).
In the 1920s the number of Romanian Baptists doubled to more than 38,000. Southern Baptists’ primary contribution was supplementing support for national pastors. But the SBC did send workers to concentrate on theological education, do church planting and to head a Woman’s Missionary Union Training School.
All of that came to a violent halt as World War II neared. In the late 1930s foreign religious workers were forced out. All Baptist churches were closed and seminary property seized. Only the training school was permitted to operate and then for only a short time.
For the next 50 years Southern Baptists watched from outside the country as Romanian Baptists found ways to survive first the Nazis and then the Communists. During these years Baptists had few pastors although the seminary in Bucharest was allowed to reopen after World War II. Pastors served multiple churches and lay pastors served three or four churches. One current leader observed that lay leaders in the churches realized the work depended on them and they responded. And during those difficult years, the number of Baptists grew.
Almost pulled out of Romania
Shortly after the fall of Communism in Romania in 1989, Southern Baptists again sent religious workers into the country. Theological education was a focal point as was discipleship and church planting. But the strength of the Baptist Union of Romania caused Southern Baptists to consider pulling out of the country a few years later. The International Mission Board (IMB) strategy was to withdraw from a country with 5 percent or more evangelical population and Romania’s evangelical population topped that percentage.
Romanians and IMB personnel objected. True, they said, the western part of the country had more than 5 percent evangelical population. The great majority of the more than 130,000 Baptists live in the western part of the country. But in the eastern counties, the evangelical population was minimal. In Bucharest with its almost 3 million people, evangelicals make up 0.5 percent of the population. In the surrounding five counties, mostly rural, the evangelical population is 0.2 percent, statistics indicated.
In an area of more than 6 million people, there are about 7,500 Baptists.
The IMB ultimately agreed to leave a team in Romania — the Bucharest Team concentrating on church planting, discipleship and theological education. Today six families including career workers, Journeymen and master’s program workers serve in the area.
And Baptists are growing. At the time Communism fell, there were six Baptist churches in Bucharest and about 50 churches and missions in the entire Bucharest Baptist Association. Today the Bucharest Baptist Association reports 131 churches and missions — 75 churches and 56 missions.