Festival of Hope, Vilnius, Lithuania
October 11, 2011 - Christians throughout Lithuania are looking forward to reaching out to their nation with the hope of the Gospel during the Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham Oct. 29-30 at the Siemens Arena in Vilnius. Giedrus Saulytis, the Festival’s executive chair, took some time to describe the current state of the church in Lithuania and why he believes the Festival of Hope comes at a crucial time for his country.
Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, and the Soviet Union crumbled not much later. After 50 years of repression and absolute marginalization, churches finally were allowed to hold public evangelistic meetings.
Thousands came as a response to the spiritual vacuum, and the last decade of the twentieth century saw the revival and rebirth of Christian life and ministry in Lithuania. The Word of Faith Church, of which I am senior pastor, moved from one hall to another in order to accommodate new believers until we ended up renting the biggest sports arenas in the cities of Vilnius and Kaunas.
In the words of Daniel: ”God changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others” /Daniel 2:21, NIV/. Even non-religious observers described that era as a spiritual revolution.
Without a doubt, the prayers and tears of persecuted Christians, sown like precious seeds during the Soviet era, had finally germinated. New churches, as well as the denominations that had survived Soviet times, grew rapidly, spread across the country and founded more churches. Evangelical periodicals found a way into publishing. Two different translations of the Bible were published in Lithuanian during this time, and three theological institutions were founded.
However, the waves of revival have subsided in the past 10 years. Materialism, relativism and growing secularism have contributed to this change. Despite the growth and public presence of evangelicalism after the rebirth of Lithuania, evangelical Christians remain a minority. Based on national census data in 2001, all evangelical denominations put together comprise roughly 1 percent of the population, whereas almost 80 percent of Lithuanians refer to themselves as Catholics.
For 50 years Lithuanian churches were fighting to survive. This led to certain strengths. Pastoral care during Soviet isolation was almost solely based on the experiences that the older generations of pastors handed down. Pastors and lay ministers had to rely on their own experience and understanding of the Bible, as there was almost no theological literature available.
Thus, insights gained through devotional times and the inward witness of the Holy Spirit guided the pastors’ teaching. Theology was the outcome of pastoral practice. I consider this to be a great strength, because it encouraged pastors to be deliberate and responsible in nurturing their own relationship with God.
Second, evangelical churches in our country, both traditional ones and those born in the twentieth century, have a high view of the Bible and acknowledge its divine inspiration. The liberal views that disregard the authoritative status of the Bible have not reached us yet. Scripture, not culture, sets moral values; they are universal and do not change with time.
Finally, the church is still considered to be the cradle of spiritual life in the nation, a center of spiritual development and growth.
But despite these strengths, Lithuanian Christians also have challenges to cope with.
Consumerism and materialism have brought us false notions of happiness and success. Remember the first temptation of Jesus? After fasting for 40 days, He was tempted to transform the stones into bread. After 45 years of starvation under Communism, we are tempted to do just that. We have to stand the test by remembering the words of Christ: ”Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” /Matthew 4:4, NIV/.
Second, there is a lack of unity among churches. We must fight the illusion that one denomination has it all—the peculiar anointing of the Holy Spirit, the most biblical doctrine, the oldest tradition. Unending splits and divisions impede the growth of the Body of Christ and dishonor God.
Finally, the segregation and marginalization of evangelicals has contributed to the development of a ghetto mentality. Evangelical churches have to find out how to communicate with the rest of society without feeling guilty or inferior. We need to employ effectual ways of reaching out with the Gospel. Our voice has to be heard in the public square as our country faces serious issues.
The Festival of Hope is coming Oct. 29-30 to Vilnius, our capital. The title itself says a lot. The Festival will bring hope to many hopeless people in our country—hope that one can be accepted by God through faith in Jesus Christ and have purpose in life.
We are working to demonstrate this already through Operation Christmas Child, a summer camp for street children, an exhibition called The Colors of Hope (to be held in the Lithuanian Parliament the week of the Festival) and the National Prayer Breakfast.
The mobilization of churches right now is unprecedented in this nation. Countrywide, 248 churches from 12 denominations are involved. The preparation for the Festival has been a catalyst for unity among churches. The Festival is helping churches to revisit the concept of winning souls, through efforts such as the Bring a Friend program, which encourages Christians to pray for their nonbelieving friends and bring them to the Festival.
Will you pray with us for the Festival of Hope?