My mum always said, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.’ I try to operate by that principle with my blog posting. Ok, I revise it a little. It goes more like this: ‘If you don’t have something to be appropriately critical, insightful or encouraging to say, then don’t say it at all.’
Hence my lack of Missions Musings in the past 6 months. Yes, life has been that ordinary. But here I am for number 16 to break a few missiology rules, be a little politically incorrect and probably succumb to some form of colonial indiscretion.
Here it goes:
If I was to summarise my time in Bulgaria with one word I would choose the word ‘control’.
When I reflect on my time growing up in Australia I was blessed with the freedom to do what I want, when I want and how I want. I’m sure that I annoyed my parents, teachers, Bible college professors and the like no end. I could choose what I would study at university. I could choose if I wanted to get a job or not. I had complete control – or so I felt.
I sound like a spoiled brat!
Whatever I may have been I rarely felt as though I was fighting the system to be able to live my life.
Since arriving in Bulgaria we have felt as though we have been doing nothing but fighting the system. We have felt like a piece of property, or a possession. We were a resource to be used as the owner felt. We were not our own. Whether is was government, church denominations, individual churches, other organizational bodies, and sometimes even friends, we were at their mercy and under their control… well, so they thought.
Why was this, and was this necessarily a bad thing?
I’ve thought a fair bit about this issue because of the pervading reach of it. My conclusions are not conclusions per se, but thoughts about how this cultural phenomena might be comprehended by a foreigner trying to make it long-term in this country.
Firstly, communism is the elephant in the room. Control was how the communist rulers perpetuated ideology, and perhaps more importantly its own rule. If you wanted to head to Sofia for the weekend you would have to report to the police when you left your village and report to the police when you arrived in Sofia. You could not pack up and move villages or cities easily for work, etc. If you were a teacher you would holiday with the other teachers. The engineers with the engineers, and so on, and so on. The family was dismembered and subjected to the control of the state.
It is clear that this method of operation is still a major part of the DNA of the government structures and voices within it, the non-govenment structures, and also the church.
I’ve observed that the release of control to others in nearly non-existent. It is closely guarded. Micro-managing is the natural tendency. Dissenting voices are not welcome and quickly shut down. There is next to no leadership development and handover.
As you could therefore imagine, our feeling of being controlled is a fairly normal thing. A day in the life of 7.2 million Bulgarians. Our experience is not an exception. We are just another stat in the fat part of the bell curb experiencing the same thing as everybody else. It is culture clash. We are resources to be controlled. We are a resource that is available for the leaders to use when they see fit. If you don’t fit then you get thrown out. It’s really that simple.
Secondly, the culture of control, especially within churches, was in part set up and perpetuated by the workers that have gone ahead of us. That is, we’ve inherited a legacy of missions that was characterised by control.
Let me explain. I believe that all cultures should be viewed through the lens of the Bible and critiqued appropriately. After the changes (late 80’s), it was imperative that the church was given the skills to evaluate how they have been impacted by communism. They needed to be able to evaluate themselves in light of the gospel. They needed to become something from the start that was characterised by biblical principles rather than something that was characterised by assumed communist ones. Once the changes had happen and the tsunami of ‘missionaries’ flooded in, it was their duty to set up proper working relationships with whatever existing churches there were and the ones that subsequently sprung up. It appears that these missionaries set up autocratic church structures and relationships, and served within them as such.
Our experience has been that there is a general tendency for churches to treat ‘missionaries’ (forgive the use of the horrible term!) as a commodity. When I look at the recent past this is not an uncommon story for most workers. They’ve been subjected to church/denomination control in no uncertain terms. If they haven’t performed as they ‘should have’ then they were given the royal boot. This treatment seems to me to be the mere out working of a certain mission legacy that was implemented by the post-fall workers, perpetuated by certain missiological practices since, that is now turning around and biting us newbies on the behind!
Question: Why have we been subject to such a culture of control?
Answer: Bulgaria’s communist past and mission legacy.
I’m not so sure that I’ve nailed this, but I think that I am getting close. I’d really appreciate my Bulgarian friends to give some input into this. Being on the inside you would have a much different perspective than me, which I am really interested to hear.