Rapid change in Eastern Europe and South Africa brought with it major implications for the mission of the church.

Those who have maintained that history got sidetracked by such realities as communism and apartheid have long argued that the demise of both was inevitable and the only question was when. The past year left little doubt: that time is now.

The virtual collapse of Marxism-Leninism throughout Eastern Europe has been thoroughly documented. Christians, like everyone else, filled their lungs with the air of freedom. This year Billy Graham preached at the Berlin Wall, and Luis Palau conducted the first open-air crusade in Romania in more than half a century.

But the air of freedom was not without pollution, as a host of unorthodox groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, was unleashed on societies whose powers of discernment have not caught up with their newfound privileges.

The highly developed art of tacit, underground evangelism in Eastern Europe has faded into irrelevancy. Instead, Christian leaders are trying to keep their parishioners away from X-rated movies. And materialism is fast replacing communism as a major obstacle to church growth.

Into these new environments, well-meaning Western groups (along with some who are not so well meaning) have arrived as self-announced saviors. But in many cases, they have little or no knowledge about the people and cultures they are trying to help. The greatest need, some have argued, is to slow down, to take stock of resources and needs in order to prepare for a more thoughtful Christian impact on the new society.

The World Scene

Many have also called for a more deliberate approach to the Persian Gulf crisis. At press time, the U.S.’s dual objectives of removing the Iraqi presence from Kuwait and averting war seemed incompatible. Christian ministry in the region, including the work of military chaplains, is complicated by the fact that the practice of Christianity is essentially illegal in Saudi Arabia, where most U.S. troops are located. But according to firsthand reports, ministry to refugees from the region has resulted in many becoming followers of Christ.

The urge to slow down is less common in South Africa. The world celebrated the February release of jailed black political leader Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s freedom, after almost 26 years of confinement, represented both an effect and a catalyst for that country’s increasing will to end legal segregation. Last month, the largest gathering of white and black churches in the history of the country met to condemn apartheid, seek reconciliation, and plan for a segregation-free future (see “Church Leaders Condemn Apartheid,” p. 54).

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The Central American nation of Nicaragua also witnessed fundamental change in its political landscape, as a coalition of political groups normally at odds with one another joined to stun most observers by upsetting the Sandinista party, which had controlled the country since 1979. For many evangelicals who say they were treated unfairly under the Sandinistas, the new U.S.-supported government represents greater opportunity to advance the mission of the church.

But while there was plenty of change in some parts of the world, there was too little change in others. The year produced few signs of progress in the elimination of Third World suffering. Civil war continued to place thousands at risk of starvation in various African nations, including Mozambique and Sudan. Ministry continues to be complicated by the AIDS epidemic, which is at its worst in central Africa.

The North American Scene

On the domestic front, abortion dominated the headlines. The courts showed little mercy for participants in rescue-style protests, leading the group Operation Rescue to burn a court order publicly and go “underground.” Candidates for various levels of public office were required for the first time in a long while to articulate positions on abortion. Following last month’s national elections, it remains uncertain whether a prolife or prochoice position is the greater political asset (see “Voters Send Mixed Signals on Abortion,” p. 50).

Exactly where the newest Supreme Court justice, David Souter, stands on abortion is also unclear. He was confirmed despite opposition from both prochoice and prolife camps. Clearly the swing vote on attempts to reverse Roe v. Wade, Souter has given no indication which direction he will swing.

The high court itself in 1990 got mixed reviews from evangelical leaders, virtually all of whom were disturbed by its decision not to protect the use of the drug peyote in Native American Church worship. Fundamentally altering the First Amendment jurisprudence, the Court discarded the requirement of a state to establish a compelling interest before restricting bona fide religious practice. In contrast, most evangelicals approved the Court’s decision in June not to allow the the parents of a Missouri woman to remove food and water tubes from their comatose daughter.

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By and large, politically conservative evangelical leaders grew more and more suspicious of the man most of them supported in the 1988 presidential race. Some of these leaders met with George Bush in October to air their concerns (see Capital Currents, p. 48). Many interpreted the August firing of White House special assistant Doug Wead as a sign of the souring relations between Bush and evangelicals. Wead was widely regarded as evangelicals’ major link to the Oval Office. He chose not to discuss with CT the details of his departure. But it was widely reported that he fell from grace for opposing the presence of prohomosexual activists at two White House bill-signing ceremonies this year.


1990’s Top Ten

The following items were chosen by the CT news staff as the top stories of 1990.

1. The church in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Expanding political freedoms have launched a new era of issues and challenges for believers.

2. Abortion. As a political issue in an election year, it took center stage, while Operation Rescue was forced “underground.”

3. Persian Gulf crisis. The tense situation has the nation, indeed the world, holding its breath.

4. George Bush and evangelicals. Much to their dismay, evangelical leaders have come to realize that he is no Ronald Reagan.

5. Supreme Court. A new justice and a controversial landmark decision relating to the free exercise of religion have Court watchers wondering about the Court’s future direction.

6. Indecent art in the mainstream. The year featured an extensive debate on where to draw the line between freedom of expression and public morality.

7. Southern Baptist Convention turmoil. No longer is schism mere rhetoric; it is happening on various fronts.

8. South Africa. A postapartheid nation moved closer to reality, following the release of jailed black leader Nelson Mandela and an unprecedented meeting of church leaders.

9. Race relations. White evangelicals and their African-American brethren attempted to address their differences.

10. An evangelical in Canterbury. The selection of George Carey as head of the worldwide Anglican community was, for the most part, a pleasant surprise to the conservative religious community.

The Denominations

Homosexuality remains one of the major issues of debate within mainline denominational circles. The Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) and the United Methodist Church are awaiting major reports on the issue. The situation is particularly urgent in the PCUSA, as many congregations are running out of time to decide whether to stay or leave with their property, in accordance with a 1991 deadline set at the 1983 merger of Northern and Southern Presbyterian streams.

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The United Church of Canada this year reaffirmed its support for ordaining practicing homosexuals, leading some to predict widespread defection or schism. In the U.S., Episcopal bishops rejected homosexual ordination, but by a narrow vote.

The year’s biggest news from within the Anglican community, however, was the selection of George Carey to replace Robert Runcie as the new archbishop of Canterbury. For the most part, Anglican evangelicals regard Carey as a theological comrade.

Southern Baptists could well look back on 1990 as a turning point in their religious tradition. After conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) presidential candidate Morris Chapman won the presidency this summer in New Orleans, the defeated Daniel Vestal called for a major meeting to discuss a new direction for moderates. At that meeting, held a few months later in Atlanta, some 3,000 SBC moderates laid the groundwork for an alternative church association. Various efforts continued, however, to repair the damaged relationships within the SBC.

Black and white Christians in 1990 also worked on repairing their relationship. CT reported on the efforts of some predominantly white evangelical organizations to attract minorities. And representatives of the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Black Evangelical Association together drafted a statement on racism that has served as a catalyst for dialogue.

Where Are They Now?

A look back at some of the people and events covered in CT News produced the following updates:

Walt and Terry Rucker became the focus of considerable media attention earlier this year when they were asked not to attend Moody Church in Chicago with their five-year-old AIDS child. In September the couple added another foster child to their family, a seven-year-old boy who also has AIDS.

According to Terry Rucker, the children will always have the virus, but as of now, both have remained healthy. She added that the family is looking for another church. “I felt some support from some segments of the church,” she said. “Overall, they’ve come a long way, but very reluctantly. It was not a happy ending as far as I’m concerned.”

Coral Ridge Films, a for-profit filmmaking company launched under the auspices of D. James Kennedy’s Florida ministry, continues to make progress. A screenplay authorized by the company has received positive reactions from the Hollywood community, said Coral Ridge Films president Dan Scalf.

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According to Scalf, the projected budget for the film is about 10 percent higher than the funds raised through the presale of distribution rights. But he expressed confidence those figures will soon be brought in line with each other. The screenplay, called Gregory, tells the story of the unusual way in which a group of biologically related people living under the same roof come together as a family. If and when the film is produced, it will be done in Hollywood. Said Scalf, “Our intention has always been to show Hollywood that it can produce decent pictures from a Christian perspective that people will pay to see.”

Missionary Bruce Olson returned to Colombia in 1989 just a few months after being released by his kidnapers. Reports that Olson’s return violated the terms of his release are not accurate. Guerrilla kidnapers who were holding Olson at one point said they would release him if he promised not to return. But when he was actually released, there were no conditions.

Though dissident guerrillas have on occasion threatened Olson’s life, he has won the support of a majority in the guerrilla movement. Several of his kidnapers have become Christians. The movement has also come to affirm the autonomy of the Indian people among whom Olson has been ministering.

Mubarak Awad, who was deported from Israel because of his support for the Palestinian uprising, intifada, has increased his involvement in recent months with the National Youth Advocate Program, a foster-care network he founded in 1978. He continues working in the United States on behalf of Palestinian liberation through his new organization, Nonviolence International.

Joseph Tson in August returned to his native Romania. Tson had once thought of running for political office, but decided there were more urgent things to do. Tson was exiled from Romania in 1981 and became president of the Romanian Missionary Society, the Romanian branch of which he currently heads. In October, Tson helped coordinate the first national congress of the Romanian Evangelical Alliance, attended by over 3,000 delegates and visitors. He has also helped establish two Christian high schools and a Bible Institute.

Laszlo Tokes, who as pastor of a Hungarian Reformed Church in Timisoara, Romania, was the figure around whom the Romanian revolution began, became bishop of the Hungarian Church, with headquarters in Oradea. Tokes is in Hungary recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident a few months ago.

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1990’S Milestones

Among the noteworthy transitions of 1990 was the departure of long-time National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) executive director Ben Armstrong. Amid proclamations of a new era, E. Brandt Gustavson took the NRB reins. One of the few heavyweights remaining in the organization, Paul Crouch, with his Trinity Broadcasting Network, pulled out of the NRB after an NRB ethics committee passed up a chance to issue TBN a clean bill of health. Later in the year, CT reported on questions that have been raised about Crouch’s role in launching a new association of religious broadcasters headed by Armstrong.

Controversy also descended upon Covenant House, the widely known and highly regarded New York City-based runaway-youth shelter. Catholic priest and Covenant House founder Bruce Ritter resigned as president late in 1989. A four-month investigation concluded that evidence Ritter had been sexually active with Covenant House residents was credible.

Finally, the new year will begin without some of the people who have made a significant impact on the landscape of Christianity. Among those who died in 1990 were novelist Walker Percy; presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, J. O. Patterson; Anglican historian and scholar Philip Edgcumbe Hughes; civil-rights leader Ralph Abernathy; pioneering evangelical biblical scholar F. F. Bruce; British writer and critic Malcolm Muggeridge; and renowned missiologist Donald McGavran.

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