RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Walls of the mind and heart are harder to tear down than walls of brick and stone.
The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago brought great hopes of a new birth of spiritual and political freedom, not only in the communist orbit but around the world.
In many ways, those hopes were realized. Old tyrannies began to crumble. The Cold War ended after more than a generation of East-West conflict. Churches and believers long imprisoned by persecution and fear were released into the sunlight of liberty.
The collapse of the Soviet Union followed the glorious opening in Berlin. Waves of Christian workers from the West flooded into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics to assist their brothers and sisters in the faith. An exciting era of evangelism and church planting began.
That era continues, despite the turmoil that has followed Soviet communism’s demise.
“The wall was an outward symbol of an inward reality,” Mark Edworthy, IMB strategy leader for Europe, told IMB writer Nicole Lee. “Communism had erected a spiritual barrier with its incessant denial of God’s existence and its cycle of cruelty. Spiritually, we eagerly took up a hammer and chisel to work against that greater barrier.” A quarter-century later, “we can see greater trophies than stone and mortar as the Lord has continued to build His church throughout the former Soviet sphere.”
But believers are working with urgency in Eastern Europe, Lee reported, “because no one knows how long the door to some of these countries will remain open. The ongoing war in Ukraine highlights the fact that, although the Cold War is over, communism and other secular philosophies are still at work.”
The social and economic chaos of the immediate post-Soviet years led to yearning — in Russia, at least — for a “strong hand” at the helm, which has resulted in new tensions with the West in recent years. Those tensions are pushing the world to the “brink of a new Cold War,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned at a Nov. 8 event in Berlin marking the wall’s fall. Gorbachev, whose reforms helped hasten the end of the Soviet empire, criticized global powers for failing to work together to end conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Ukraine.
For now, open ministry continues.
As a Christian worker based in Russia put it, “We really don’t see any comprehensive political pressure that hinders the advance of the Gospel. Materialism and consumerism have replaced communism.” Still, he added, “Our time might be short. Have we planted an apostolic burden among Russian church leaders? There are some who [are passionate about reaching the lost] but we need many more.”
The message is one that has been repeated again and again throughout history: There are no guarantees — except for the presence and sovereignty of the Lord. Walls may fall, while others rise. In the political realm, the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing occurred in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall came down. Yet the Chinese church, which suffered one of its darkest hours during the savage persecution of 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, continues to grow in size, vitality and passion for global mission.
“God may seem silent on occasion. At other times, people simply don’t trouble to hear his voice,” Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, noted in Christianity Today. “As an example, we might look at the experience of China, which over the past two millennia has remained the world’s most populous nation. The story of Chinese Christianity is a recurrent cycle of mighty boom years followed by what seemed like total annihilation at the time, an obliteration so absolute that on each occasion, it was quite clear that the church could never rise again.
“That cycle has occurred five times to date since the ninth century,” Jenkins wrote. “On each occasion, the Chinese church has reemerged far more powerful than at its previous peak. Each successive ‘nevermore’ proved to be strictly temporary.”
Today, the very existence of the church in the Middle East, the cradle of the Christian faith, seems threatened by the advance of Islamic extremists. But God will not leave Himself without a witness.
“Even when institutional churches vanish, believers persist in many different forms,” Jenkins writes. “As Anatoly Lunacharsky, the frustrated Soviet minister of education, complained in 1928, ‘Religion is like a nail: The harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood.’ Sometimes it goes in so deep, you can’t even see it.”
One day that nail reappears, stronger than ever.