The people who live there call it Sakartvelo, but most of us know it by the name the Greeks gave it centuries before the birth of Christ: Georgia.
This is Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, leader of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. He is an Old Testament scholar, a Bible translator, and a fan of C. S. Lewis, having translated The Chronicles of Narnia into Georgian! He was a featured guest at this past weekend’s CBF of (the other) Georgia meeting. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at First Baptist last night and I wanted to share some of his story.
The Republic of Georgia was part of the Soviet Union for 75 years. During that time, they and every other religious organization faced severe persecution from the atheist regime in Moscow. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of an independent Georgia, the EBCG discerned that they had to make a momentous decision. As Bishop Malkhaz described it, they could either remain a church for Baptists or they could work to become a church for Georgians. The former would be in many ways the safer route; the latter would involve engaging with Georgian culture in such a way as to present the gospel in terms that were relevant to their mission context.
They chose the latter. Since Georgia had been evangelized in the fourth century and had a culture and heritage steeped in Orthodox Christianity, becoming “seeker-sensitive” in their context involved adopting such non-Baptist customs as vestments and iconography! Apparently, Georgian Baptists have even begun forming ascetic communities. Bishop Malkhaz told the story of the time two KGB agents came by to assess whether his church was really Christian or something else. He lectured them for two hours on Baptist beliefs. Then, when he ushered them out through the sanctuary, they saw the cross and the icons on the walls and one said to the other, “They must be Christians, just look at the icons.” The bishop was pleased that the KGB agents finally “got it,” although he was of course disappointed that his two-hour lecture had failed to do the job! I wonder about the implications of this episode for my own increasingly image-driven culture. Do we rely on words alone to convey the gospel?
The transformation of the Georgian church also involved a re-introduction of the reading and interpretation of the Bible into their worship, not just through preaching but also drama, dance, litanies, etc. Where before there might be four or five sermons in a single service (since the Soviets did not permit Sunday schools or other forms of religious instruction), now there would be only one, but everything else in the service would reinforce the same message.
The EBCG adopted a three-pronged approach to ministry that involved
- worship: a “new Christian liturgy” that engaged all five senses. As Bishop Malkhaz explained, “In our culture, symbols mean more than words.”
- witness: evangelization, proclaiming the message of Christ.
- social ministries: in particular, the Baptists of Georgia have made a concerted effort to take in (Muslim) Chechen refugees.
They seek to balance preaching and serving. My first impression is that they are doing an amazing job.
Under Bishop Malkhaz, the EBCG has worked to make the gospel meaningful and understandable to the Georgian mindset. To that end, clergy wear special garments of the sort that is expected. Baptist clerical garb is distinct from that of the majority Orthodox, but it is still understandable and rich in symbolism. The symbol of the EBCG, for example, is an arrangement of five crosses: four small crosses joined to form the fifth one. The five crosses represent the five wounds of Christ. They point in four directions to indicate the Great Commission mandate to preach the gospel to the four corners of the earth. The crosses are inside a rosette: a traditional symbol of the resurrection. The purple color is a Georgian “Baptist distinctive.”
This symbol was adopted shortly after Georgian independence. Previously, the Baptists took the open book as their symbol. What they realized, however, was that in Georgia the open book would be more likely interpreted to be the Qur’an!
Georgian Baptists have a strong sense of mission. They have been the cradle of the Baptist movement in their part of the world.
There have also been dark times for Georgian Baptists. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they faced persecution from the Orthodox Christian majority for several years. The troubles reached fever pitch a few years ago when, at the instigation of the state, outraged Orthodox actually burned hundreds of Bibles that belonged to Baptists.
The unrest led to a revolution in Georgia and the arrest of those responsible for the religious atrocities. When called to testify at their trial, Bishop Malkhaz expressed forgiveness and reconciliation for those who had wronged him. You can read more about this story at the United Bible Societies website.
I just want to know how I can join the EBCG! They use very old liturgical forms in new, creative ways. They ordain women. They balance proclamation with needs-meeting ministries, and they are peacemakers‚ both with their Orthodox brothers and sisters and with the Muslims of the Caucasus.
I wish last night I had been brave enough to ask what the little boy in the courtroom—the grandson of the man who instigated the violence against him—had asked. “Bishop, will you bless me?” But there was no need. It was a blessing to share the same room and breathe the same air as this remarkable person of God.