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Jirí Unger, General Secretary of the Czech Evangelical Alliance, analyses the current situation of the evangelical church in Czech Republic, which is is “viewed with deep suspicion.”
The Czech Republic. A beautiful country with an eventful history. Suppressed by outside forces for many centuries, now a free country. Today known by many as one of the most atheist countries in the world.
But is that actually true? I spoke recently with Jirí Unger, General Secretary of the Czech Evangelical Alliance since 2003. His experience and position enable him to provide an insider's perspective.
Question.The Czech Republic is percieved by many to by an un-spiritual nation with an atheist majority. What is your experience with the spiritual atmosphere in the Czech Republic
Answer. I think it is a mistake to percieve the Czech Republic as an unspiritual country. I don't think we can say that it is really full of atheists who posess a thought-through atheist worldview. Definitely it's post- Christian. It is very secular. More than 75% of people would say they are not affiliated with any church or religious institution. But it doesn't mean they are irreligious. If you look at the sociological research about European countries where Christianity is in decline, there is also a sort of general decline in overall religiosity.
But in the Czech Republic, the steep decline in church attendance is accompanied by an increase of beliefs in all kinds of other things. So I wouldn't say the Czechs are not religious. Part of the trouble is that their religiosity is very individual, it's not connected with established institutions. It is very diverse. Often it is not carefully thought through, you will find contradictory beliefs.
Of course there is a large proportion of the population that was brought up during communist times, so there is a generation of people who are in their 50's, 60's, 70's now and their worldview has been significantly influenced by what they heard at school. So unless they came from a Catholic background they will have absorbed a scientific naturalism worldview.
As I said, it is a basic misunderstanding about the Czech Republic that it is completely atheist. But there definitely are a lot of people who have simply lost touch with any knowledge of the Christian narrative at all. Most people under 40 have very little knowledge about Christianity or the Bibical narrative. More and more people have no clue about Christianity or its basic ideas. For example, they have no idea what Christian holidays are actually about or what they mean. Often you encounter young people that simply have no idea, no knowledge. This is in some ways an advantage, but also a disadvantage.
Question. With all of this lack of knowledge about Christianity, what do Czechs think of the Church?
Answer. The Czech Republic may be unique in how the church as an institution is percieved. The church as an institution is viewed with deep suspicion. Actually, there is great suspicion of every institution in this country - obvious ones like local government, and also institutions like marriage.
This cynicism comes from Communist times. People are afraid of institutions. One of the biggest problems from communist times is that they actually destroyed civil society in the way they organized it. So now it is very difficult to encourage people to rebuild a sense of civil society. It is very difficult to help them believe there is something worthwhile beyond their own individual interests.
Q. That is an interesting development - that out of the communist heritage which attempted to institutionalize everything, there is now a sort of opposite extreme where everyone has become extremely individualistic. How then do you see this hyper-individualized worldview and spirituality affecting the overall social climate of the nation?
A. Generally, if you replace belief in God with something else, people are open to belief in anything and everything. They become vulnerable to all kinds of manipulations, all kinds of beliefs that are not tested because they are so individual. This individualism affects our sense of common goals, of the idea of working together for the better of society. You see a lot of skepticism, a lot of cynicism, a lot of negativism - especially in the older generations, but also now with younger people. It is hard to encourage them to stand for something.
Even though churches are quite weak, they are still the "super-power" in providing a sense of community life, especially in smaller cities and villages in more rural areas. But of course when you have churches in decline, that kind of communal aspect is starting to be missed, and it is very difficult to replace it with anything else. Perhaps people try with something like sports, but there is a question of how much that can be real community.
Q. Does this individualism and negativity have any impact on morality?
A. There is definitely an impact on morality, on ethics and values. Some people may have the impression that we're not that much different from Poland, for example, in how people actually behave in everyday life. But there is an impact on values. You can see it in some of the current debates, for example abortion. We are much more liberal in certain views, much more liberal towards abortion, homosexual activity, to the sex industry, to gambling. Solutions to these issues require some moral narrative and we don't have that.
We also lack moral authorities, people who are really respected for their moral stance. Especially after the death of Vaclav Havel, it's very hard to find anyone. And even Vaclav Havel, who was kind of a moral hero, is a mixed legacy- he had trouble with his marriages and relationships with women. There is kind of a mixed approach to morality that thinks your private moral life does not interact with your public moral life.
There are other aspects to this lack of morality. A high divorce rate, the rate of abortions, especially in the least Christian areas, such as the border regions with Germany and Austria. The church there was damaged when the German population was exiled after World War Two. Still you see there in areas where a society was destroyed the highest crime rates, highest divorce rate, highest domestic violence rates, all kinds of issues connected with a damaged society that lost its roots and history, and because the influence of the church was weakened.
Q. What do you think are some of the greatest challenges to the advance of the Gospel in the Czech Republic right now?
A. I think one of the greatest challenges is how to share the Gospel with people who just haven't heard anything. Very often young people are open, they don't have as many prejudices as their parents have. Parents are often afraid that if their children get too close to church, their children will be brainwashed. There's a story about a boy who became a Christian, and his mother warned him, "They will brainwash you." The boy responded, "If you knew what was in my head, you would be glad I was brainwashed." But it can be very hard, especially for young people who do become Christians, to defend their conversion when facing their parents.
When it comes to the Gospel, the challenge may actually be more inside the church. The ability to be open to new people, to adapt and innovate, to consider non-believers actually coming to their churches. To think about how the non-believer would feel, how to communicate with them. How you preach to both believers and non-belivers is sort of a forgotten discipline. I see this in the churches. It's a big challenge. How do churches conduct their activities so as to genuinely be open to non-believers?
Q. What hinders the churches from being more innovative and open?
A. A major challenge we face is a lack of leadership in the churches. Many seem to think that a denomination or a church doesn't have to be led, that everything will just somehow work out. But any major change requires someone who has the courage to see the reality and determine how to respond. Leaders who have the courage to lead.
Sometimes it's about a lack of a sense of security in the leaders themselves. They aren't confident enough in their ability to really lead and address some obvious elephants in the room. It's also connected some with who are becoming leaders and pastors in the churches. How do we recruit pastors and new leaders? That's yet another big challenge!
Q. What circumstances have made leadership such a challenge?
A. It's hard to generalize, but if you look at our theological seminaries, they are mostly designed for teacher/pastoral roles. So people who feel attracted to that model are the typical applicants to the seminaries. It is also connected to the issue that being a pastor is not really a respected position or calling here in Czech society. So very often the quality of the students at the theological seminaries is very low, therefore very few will even actually become pastors.
Then even those who are becoming pastors all too often are not the best of who could be available. That's another obstacle: we are not recruiting the younger people, maybe more entrepreneurial people, to church leadership. We're not doing it intentionally or systematically among the congregations or at the denominational levels.
So very often succesful youth leaders, for example, who are ideal future leaders in the church , are just not challenged at any time to think about becoming church planters or church leaders. So we are losing the leadership quality in our churches.
Q. These are some significant obstacles. What are some of the bright spots? What hopeful signs do you see where the Gospel is still advancing in the Czech Republic?
A. Actually, I see quite a lot of innovation in outreach and evangelism in the Czech Republic. For example, there are youth ministries that are finding innovative ways to reach young people. One example is the Fusion music ministry by Josiah Venture. Camps are a 'super power' here.
English camps, sports camps, all kinds of summer camps. We can still reach public schools with the Gospel through Christian programs. Christians can go into to schools and share programs based on Christian values. This is quite unique and may not be possible anymore in Western Europe.
There are a lot of new things happening in church planting right now. There is a growing interest in trying new things and adapting. And if I look on the broader scale, the church is still the 'super power' in serving young people - there are youth clubs, there is charity work helping addicts, working with migrants, working with prostitutes, all kinds of diaconal work that churches are good at and even respected for.
Also there are all kinds of things to help people with their reltaionships - a number of books have been published and there are initiatives like National Marriage Week as well as marriage courses. Churches are still very active in their local communities.
Q. How can people pray for the Czech Republic, for the Czech Evangelical Alliance, and for you?
A. How to pray for the Czech Republic? The Czech Republic needs revival. It will probably come through courageous Christians willing to be more open about their faith. Pray for us to be more open, to not be afraid, that we will be willing to share the Gospel and to be publicly Christian. That's the paralyzing thing for many Christians, they are scared to share, even thought there is no real reason, there is no real persecution here.
Pray for courage for church leaders to try new things, to open doors for the young people, to plant new churches. Pray for more mother churches or hub churches to provide suppport for new leaders and new church planters. Also pray for my personal desire that many people of influence, people with bad character yet high public profile, may become Christians. I think there are some people who, if they would open their eyes to God, could be a huge testimony to the whole country. Pray that the Gospel will somehow come to these kind of people.
For the Czech Evangelical Alliance… Right now we have 11 teams from 4 denominations in training for church planting, and we are trying to create a national forum for church planting, where we want to invite more churches to become mother churches and specifically invite more believers into church plating. We pray that this would be a huge and successful resource and be helpful and bear fruit.
For me personally, we have a newborn fourth son. So [chuckles], pray for enough sleep and the strength to survive parenthood. I was also just re-elected as an elder in our church, which has just under 120 adult members and about 80 kids, so pray that I may be wise in co-leading this growing congregation. Thank you.
This interview with Jiri Unger was conducted in October 2015. The article was prepared with the generous assistance of Nelleke Wolters