Together for the Gospel

Unity in the Community Logo2A Story of Unity Among Evangelicals in Latvia

By Charles Kelley

For what are the French famous? Romance? Fine wine?  How about cheese?  It is rumored that Charles De Gaulle once said, “Only peril can bring the French together. One can’t impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kinds of cheese.”

The French president was as correct as he was witty. Unity is something diverse people cannot easily attain. Yet its importance in life and society is foundational and applicable to the advancement of our Lord’s Gospel in Europe.

On the night Jesus was betrayed he prayed, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

For what are Latvians famous? Ah, it is not an easy question. Latvia, occupied and suppressed by foreign powers for all but 42 years since the 9th Century, is a tiny, oft-overlooked Baltic nation. Favorite topics of international journalists include animosity between ethnic Russians and Latvians and the topsy-turvy world of politics. Eleven parties or factions are represented in a Parliament where no one party has a chance of gaining sole power. Parties must work together to form coalition governments that seldom last longer than a year. Latvia’s lack of political unity reached new heights on July 23 of this year when the President called for a national referendum on the entire Parliament. Shockingly, 95% of those who voted sacked all 100 lawmakers.

Then on September 17, thirteen re-structured parties were on the ballot to elect a new Parliament. The pro-Russian Party, Harmony Centre, won the most votes with 29% while Latvian politicians were unable (or unwilling) to come together to build the unity necessary to provide strong and clear national leadership. The saga continues as new coalitions are temporarily formed in the never-ending grab for power.

It is in this context of mistrust and cynicism that the Lord has done remarkable things among pastors, churches and denominations in Latvia.

My grandfather, Karlis Zingers, was a prominent Baptist pastor for twenty years in Latvia.  In 1944, he and his family were evacuated from Latvia to a Nazi slave labor camp near Gdansk, Poland. Then after four years in refugee camps in Germany, he led his family to a new life in Los Angeles, California. I grew up in his home and his views and attitudes largely shaped mine.

When he was 16, my grandfather made a personal commitment to Christ as Savior and Lord. But when he was baptized in a Baptist church, his Lutheran father disowned him. This action reflected the strong animosity between Baptists and Lutherans that ruled the day. For the rest of his life my grandfather had a deep mistrust for Latvian Lutherans. So did I.

When I started going to Latvia in the mid-80’s I made no effort to get to know Lutherans, Pentecostals or other non-Baptists.  I was pretty sure most were not genuine believers. I was surprised when several of my new Baptist pastor friends explained to me how the historic animosity between Lutherans and Baptists had greatly reduced during the Soviet occupation years.  Those who share a common enemy are more willing to set aside secondary differences in order to survive.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, freedom was in the air in Latvia as the Soviet grip on its empire weakened.  Churches which had been prevented from doing any ministry outside of their walls began cooperating with one another…especially in public evangelism. In those years I often served as a guest evangelist in church and multi-church campaigns. How I rejoiced when thousands of people came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ! I also rejoiced as Baptist, Lutheran, Reformed and Pentecostal leaders worked together.

It is not coincidental that several of these leaders, myself included, had taken part in Lausanne II in Manila in 1989. For the first time they were exposed to the spirit and passion of the Lausanne Movement. The Lausanne Covenant brilliantly declares, “World evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” The Covenant further articulates, “We affirm that the Church’s visible unity in truth is God’s purpose. Evangelism also summons us to unity, because our oneness strengthens our witness, just as our disunity undermines our gospel of reconciliation…”

The growing unity in Latvia among various denominational leaders attained new strength prior to Hope ’99. This initiative took place simultaneously in 33 cities in September 1999 and was organized by Bridge Builders International, Partners Foundation Latvia, and the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association, in full cooperation with the three main Protestant denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, the Latvian Baptist Union and the Latvian Pentecostal Union.  Hope ’99 involved 153 Latvian, Russian and international churches, and organizations from 14 countries.

But the unity didn’t just appear…it was cultivated. Complicating the challenge of unity among Christian leaders was the ongoing strain between Latvian and Russian speakers within the Christian community. Russians made up nearly half of the Latvian population after liberation, and the deep-rooted antipathy in the society at large among Latvians toward Russian-speakers—and vice-versa—could be felt even in the churches.

We felt strongly that these obstacles within the church had to be overcome before we could effectively work together to spread God’s love outside the church. Believing that evangelistic events are only as fruitful as the prayer that undergirds them, the Hope ’99 executive committee issued an invitation to 70 church leaders from a wide spectrum of denominations and ministries to a three-day prayer retreat in a coastal Latvian city. We were uncertain of what the response would be to this unusual invitation, but soon RSVPs began pouring in. Before the deadline had passed, 110 people had registered for the retreat, representing 60 different churches and ministries. These included Baptists, Lutherans, and Pentecostals, and both Russians and Latvians, a significant and potentially volatile mixture in these divisive times.

There was a lot of curiosity about our program as the participants arrived, and there was some alarm when we emphasized that the bulk of our time was going to be spent in prayer with one another—not listening to messages or special music or other content-heavy structure. And to begin with, it was awkward. Most were unaccustomed both to the relative lack of structure and to praying with people from different denominations and ethnic heritages. But as the main coordinating pastor, Almers Ludviks, welcomed the participants, he explained why overcoming the awkwardness was worth the effort: “The unity among believers in Latvia is less today than ten years ago, but it’s starting again in a different way. If we want revival, we need to have unity. If we want to have unity, we need to pray together, from different denominations and from different national backgrounds.”

So we persevered, and gradually we sensed the Holy Spirit directing and inhabiting our prayers. People became more comfortable praying aloud with one another. We sang familiar worship songs together in three languages simultaneously. At the end of the first evening I asked the Russians to select their favorite Russian hymn as our closing song.  For about a minute they debated among themselves about what song to select.  Then they started to sing, “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder. . . .”

The only Swede in the crowd, my beloved mentor Ingemar Martinson, couldn’t resist laughing.  After lifting the roof with our multilingual rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” Ingemar asked, “Don’t you know that’s a Swedish song?”

“Can’t be,” replied one of the Russians.  “It is so good it has to be Russian!”

Everyone laughed.  That spirit of joy continued as we headed for the swimming pool and saunas where the next several hours were spent playing together.

The next morning, the atmosphere was much freer.  We prayed for each other’s ministries and families. We prayed for the upcoming Hope ’99 event and especially for revival in Latvia. One pastor said, “Barriers have been broken. We are starting to understand each other. There will be less competition between us. Instead of fear, there is love.”

On the final evening, I realized that one barrier had still not been breached: the wall between Russians and Latvians. I was quite nervous, but I felt strongly that it would be wrong to ignore this. So as the session began, I invited all the Russians to sit in the chairs in the center of the room. I then encouraged the Latvians to gather around them, lay hands on them and pray prayers of blessings for their Russian brothers and sisters.

After a few awkward moments, some of the Latvians approached the center and placed their hands on the heads and shoulders of the Russians. Janis, a young Lutheran priest, quickly found a place in the center of the Russian group where he knelt and lifted his folded hands upward.  He remained there more than an hour. Dmitri, a Russian pastor from Moldova, sitting in the middle, immediately dropped to his knees and began to weep.

Kristine, a young Latvian woman, moved toward the center and began praying blessings on the Russians, but as she prayed it was evident that she had harbored resentment toward Russians in general for what they had done to her country. As she confessed those feelings, she switched into tearful Russian and cried out, “Lord, when you saved me I asked you to forgive me of my hatred for Russian people.  You did, and I am grateful.”  But then directing her voice toward those in the center she continued, “But my dear brothers and sisters, I have never asked a Russian to forgive me.  Will you please forgive me?”

Literally before she could finish her prayer there was a loud response. “We forgive you, we forgive you, sister,” exclaimed one Russian after another.

Some Russians asked both God and the Latvians to forgive them for their negative attitudes toward Latvians. They continued to thank God for Latvia and for the Latvian people who were their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sadly, not all in the room were pleased with what was taking place.  Several pastors actually took steps away from the center and hugged the walls.  This bold step was simply too much too soon for them.  One older Baptist asked with agitation, “Why should I bless the Russians?  I have nothing against them!”

But in the center of the room, the prayers continued from both sides, deeply, fervently, and with many tears. Vladimir, a Ukrainian who pastored a Russian Baptist church in Riga, later said, “I was crying with such tears of joy that I couldn’t stop. But I didn’t have a handkerchief, so I used my necktie to wipe the tears from my eyes. I will never wash that necktie, for it is stained with holy tears.”

Hope ’99 was an amazing success, not only in terms of the numbers of people who came to faith in Christ, but because it served as a framework for ongoing fellowship and collaboration among so many key spiritual leaders. Two years later, these same leaders formed the Latvian Evangelical Alliance. And in the ensuing years the spirit of mutual respect and the understanding that more can be done together than separately, a long list of joint initiatives have taken place, including the most recent major evangelistic initiative, Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham in November 2010.

As I have observed, participated and even led numerous intentional multi-confessional initiatives in Latvia for more than twenty years, the following principles of unity have proven to be true again and again.

1.  A common center is required. Unity must take place as we come together under the banner of the Lordship of Christ. No other center has the necessary glue to keep unity unified.

2.  A willingness to downplay non-core distinctives is crucial. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” – attributed to Richard Baxter, 17th century Puritan leader and theologian.

3.  An extraordinary power is indispensible. “It certainly must help us if we recognize that it is the presence of the Holy Spirit, which creates a unity which we can never create.” – Roland Allen, 19th century Anglican missionary to China in Pentecost and the World.

4.  Prayer is indispensible. The best way to establish and maintain interconfessional unity is for leaders to come together for extended prayer.

5.  Outsiders may be more important than we think. Unifying catalysts often come from outside existing structures. I thank God for the privilege that we have had to serve in this capacity.

6.  A delicate balance must be maintained. Ongoing unity engages both contemplatives and activists; it is equally based on ‘being’ and ‘doing’.

7.  Unity expresses itself in tangible initiatives. Years ago I listened to a journalist interview a famous American country singer, Kenny Rogers. She asked Kenny if he was happy. He paused and then replied, “In order to be happy we need someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.” He then described his new girlfriend, latest recording project and upcoming world tour.

I smiled as I listened to Kenny and said to myself, “Kenny, that’s not bad for a country singer.” This is true in the family, the church, the work place, the mission field and also among leaders who bring people together.

Someone to love.” In evangelical unity it is clear that we called to love God and one another. What’s not clear is identifying what it is that God is calling us to do together. This underscores the fundamental values of praying together. And when we identify “something to do” together that we wouldn’t ever dare to attempt alone, we immediately have something “to look forward to.” Unity is the de facto result.

Here are more examples from Latvia.

Mission Days is an annual 3-day mission mobilization conference since 2005. Cooperation. Education. Inspiration. Motivation. Transformation. Every month leaders from Youth With a Mission, Agape Latvia, IFCA Latvia, Bridge Builders International, and the Lutheran and Baptist denominations come together to plan what has come to be known as the “Urbana of the Baltics”. Every year world-class mission leaders are invited as keynote speakers. This list includes Lindsay Brown (ICFA and the Lausanne Movement), Johan Candelin (First Step Forum and Friends of the Martyred Church), Jeff Fountain (The Schuman Centre and YWAM Europe), Don Richardson (author of Peace Child) and John McNeil (Agape Europe). Becky Pippert will be the main speaker in January 2012.

Celebrate Recovery is an effective church-based program designed to help people who are struggling with destructive ‘hurts, hang-ups and habits’. It has been mightily used of God in thousands of churches all over the world. Two years ago, several ministry and church leaders sensed the powerful leading of the Holy Spirit at the same time to give leadership in bringing this program to Latvia. Five resource books and 25 training videos have been produced in Latvian. The speakers on the training videos included the Lutheran archbishop, Baptist bishop, and two well-known key ministry leaders. Two nationwide multi-denominational training events have taken place and now several churches have begun to actually offer hope to people who are struggling with terribly difficult issues.

The Latvian National Prayer Breakfast has been an annual outreach for the last seven years. Former Parliamentarian, Inese Slesere, who has involved politicians, pastors and ministry leaders of several organizations, leads the committee that leads this event. Every first Friday of November, more than 150 of Latvia’s most influential people gather for more than three hours of music, testimonies, prayer and messages. Every year the President, former President, government ministers, ambassadors, MPs, cultural leaders and business heavyweights take part. The heads of the four largest confessions, Lutherans, Catholics, Russian Orthodox and Baptist, are actively supportive.

When we organized the Hope ’99 prayer retreat we had no idea that it would become an annual event, continuing to this day. We now call it Prayer Days and it is still a time for pastors, ministry leaders, missionaries and even pastoral students, to come together for three days of prayer, fellowship and vision casting. The last two years, leaders from Lithuania have enthusiastically participated. Every year the Holy Spirit does remarkable work in individual lives. And as relationships are established and strengthened, He prompts the participants to work together in new ways.

It is not certain that the French have ever overcome their differences due to 265 varieties of cheese. But this I know…thousands in Latvia have come to know Christ as Savior and Lord because leaders in Latvia have been willing to come, pray and work together under the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is, in part, an answer to the prayer of the Lord Jesus.

This article was first presented at the European Leadership Forum, Egger, Hungary, May 2011.

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