The Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20) gives Christians a universal mandate to make disciples. In fact, to follow it is a crucial part of being disciples ourselves. Yet each generation must discover particular methods by which to discern and act accordingly. From the beginning of the 21st century, this process of discovery has unfolded in the Republic of Latvia.
As the Soviet Union collapsed and Latvia regained its national independence, there was an awakening spiritual hunger among Latvian people. Among other things, this spiritual hunger was manifest in an initial responsiveness to familiar Western evangelical missionary methods, such as Billy Graham-style crusades and “first contact” gospel presentations. However successful these methods were in the short-term, it quickly became apparent to church leaders in Latvia that these methods did not yield long-term disciples or healthy churches. A new approach was needed – one that could arise organically from Latvians themselves.
Speaking generally, the Latvian people are strong, determined and reserved. Most tend to have small, tightly knit social groups of close family and friends that endure over long periods of time. Factor in 50 years of Soviet occupation, and the result is somewhat unsurprising: namely, a people who are kind, friendly and cautious in relationships. The future of the church in Latvia would have to reflect these distinctive social and cultural qualities. But how?
Under the leadership of Peteris Sprogis, elected Bishop of the Union of Baptist Churches in Latvia in 2006, Latvian Baptists began to move toward a “missional” approach to evangelism. In this context, to be missional means to live out the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:35-40) with a heart for the Great Commission, wherever God places us.
As this simple, yet powerful mindset took hold in Latvia, particular strategies based on missional communities began to develop. Pastors and church planters launched missional communities within their spheres of influence. They may have arisen in apartment complexes, neighbourhoods or in rural areas. Wherever they are, these small groups of committed followers of Christ sought to fulfill the functions of the local church while serving their community.
Missional communities continue to thrive in Latvia. They serve others first by discerning the core needs of the community, then developing creative ways to address those needs. Sometimes “church” is represented by a single missional community, though this need not be the case. Multiple missional communities often gather to form a larger body for worship, fellowship and larger ministry projects.
Lessons from Latvia
In our work with Bishop Sprogis and the Latvian Baptists, two key truths have become clear as we seek openness for the gospel message through missional communities in Latvia:
Latvians want to know that our motives are authentic. If we seek to serve the community, we must be motivated by concern for the community itself, as well as a desire to effect real change. Latvians are very attuned to simple “ploys” aimed at little else than getting people to convert to Christianity.
Latvians want to know that faith works! When presenting the gospel message, a follower of Christ must be prepared to share how and why following Christ has effected authentic, positive transformation in people’s lives.
Another important element of this missional approach to evangelism is patience. Latvians wisely wait not only to hear that faith in Christ works, but also to see it born out in the lives of new Christians. This is especially true in the life of the missional community as a whole. In our work, it is not uncommon to have multiple encounters over weeks, months and even years before a person is open to the gospel. This slow trust-building process naturally flows through the missional community. After all, this is where most of the members will have rooted their lives.
The missional community strategy is unthinkable without intentional, relational connections. When a person does commit to Christ, that person has usually already established strong ties among multiple members of that community. This results in far greater effectiveness in accomplishing the second and third parts of the Great Commission, respectively: baptism and discipleship. It is far easier for a person in a generally reserved culture to be baptized if he or she feels that the occasion is cause for celebration of the community together. Finally, discipleship – that is, to “teach them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:20) – is much more effective in a context of mutual accountability provided by the missional community.
While it is day
In 2018, Latvia celebrates its centennial as a nation. After enduring 50 years of Soviet occupation, followers of Christ in Latvia understand Jesus’ remarkable response to his own disciples’ question about the blind man in John 9: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). The task is urgent, especially in a world marked by the uncertainties of increasing political pressure, secularism, materialism or even another occupation. Missional communities in Latvia are making disciples, preparing them to endure in faith no matter what the coming night may bring.
The wide-ranging, dramatic stories of missional communities in Latvia are inspiring, to be sure. In fact, they may be more than that. If North Americans retreat into a posture of passive admiration, we might miss the lessons that the Latvian Baptists are poised to offer for our own communities. After all, as societies in North America move more and more into a “post-Christian” worldview, developing missional strategies of evangelism may be increasingly important for the followers of Christ in our own neighbourhoods. Let us heed the words of Christ, the sent one who sends us “while it is day.”