By Harry R. Osborne
On April 29th of this year, Steve Wallace, Kieran Murphy and I flew into Vilnius, Lithuania to begin a six weeks stay in that city to preach the gospel. Kieran came for two weeks before returning to Ireland. I was able to stay for one month, but Derek Chambers came the same day to join Steve for the remainder of the stay. During our third week, Mary Wallace (Steve’s wife) and Liz Smith brought more material to replenish our stock and help in any way possible.
Steve and Derek had been to Vilnius last November and were impressed with the openness of the people to hearing the truth. We found that spirit still very much present in our journey. We had scores of studies with very good contacts who seemed genuinely interested in the word of God. One soul was baptized into Christ during the stay, but later returned to Catholicism. Though we were saddened by this departure, we are hopeful that an effort being planned for this Fall may be successful in turning her heart back to the Lord and in converting others who seemed on the verge of obedience at the end of our first stay. All of us believe there is a great door open for the gospel in Vilnius and that the field is white unto harvest!
Lithuania is one of the Baltic States that was a part of the old Soviet Union. The country came under domination by the Soviet Union in about 1940. Vilnius, the capitol city, is inhabited by about an equal number of ethnic Russians and Lithuanians. A small minority of Polish people also live in the city. The Russian language is spoken by almost everyone – the exception being a small number of very old Lithuanians. However, the Lithuanian language is very much preferred by the proud and independently minded Lithuanians who sometimes resist the use of Russian.
During the first part of our stay, there were several disconcerting occasions when it was feared by many that the Russian army might try to reestablish control over Lithuania. During that time, the government was in a constant flux with one coup after another. However, none of us was ever in danger by any of these events and we continued studies with those on various sides of the conflicts. We refused to get involved or even comment on political matters in that country or any other. We made it clear that our purpose was solely to preach the gospel. The political unrest did divert many people’s attention to civil matters on two or three occasions and made it difficult to focus attention on spiritual things for a short time. For example, the attendance at our Bible lectures one Lord’s Day was drastically reduced due to a nationwide rally at the parliament building. However, this was the exception to the rule. Most of the time we were busy with as many Bible studies as we could handle.
After doing a great deal of work in Eastern European cities over the past few years, Steve and Derek have discovered that mass handouts of Bibles are not very effective. Almost everyone wants a free Bible, but not always for the purpose of reading it. On the black market, a Bible can be sold for a good sum of money. Hence, many of the free Bibles handed out are pawned on the black market for other items wanted by the recipient. We bought a number of Bibles to use in studies with people and then gave them to individuals when we found that they were sincerely interested in Bible study. We hope that this was a more effective way in getting Bibles to people who will actually use them to search for the truth.
A word of warning about one Russian Bible being published by our liberal brethren may be helpful to those considering its use. It was translated by the World Bible Translation Center out of Fort Worth, Texas. The Bible has a 1989 copyright date and is published in Vienna. It is done in very modern Russian and has some very serious errors! I am preparing an article for future publication which documents and details these errors in various passages. If anyone desires a reliable modern Russian translation, the Slavic Gospel Association in Wheaton, Illinois, publishes the best one available. However, we found the old Synodal translation more in use among Russian speakers and very understandable in most cases.
We did offer free study material at a table we set up every day, Monday through Saturday, for several hours on the central square. Most of the buses and trolleys stopped at the square which made it ideal to get maximum exposure. The lunch time was especially busy as people took a midday break and were very willing to examine Bible material and often come back to discuss it. The weather cooperated amazingly, allowing us to set up each day while there without a single rain-out. Anyone familiar with European weather realizes the rarity of such a string of good weather.
Whenever anyone took some material, we handed him an announcement of our Bible lectures on Sunday afternoons. We also tried to arrange private studies with those taking literature. This was not always possible due to the language barrier and our failure to have an interpreter with us at all times on the square. Towards the end of the stay, arrangements were made to have at least one interpreter present at all times while set up on the square. This greatly facilitated immediate studies and the ability to communicate with the crowd around our table.
In making preparations for this trip, we knew of no tracts available in Lithuanian. Therefore, Steve got two tracts translated into Lithuanian by a man he and Derek met last November. I got both of them printed here in the USA and shipped them to Germany, from whence we carried them into Lithuania. One of those tracts turned out to have several translation errors and we had to discontinue its use. The other, “What Must I Do To Be Saved?” by Robert Farrish, was very useful. About 3000 of those tracts were taken by interested people. While in Vilnius, we were able to get another tract, “What Is Wrong With Denominational Baptism?” by Cecil Willis, translated into Lithuanian with some changes which customized its use in that culture by dealing with the specific denominations found there. About 2000 of these tracts were printed and given out. Much good teaching will continue to be done through these sources as they are passed to others to read.
Securing acceptable material in Russian also proved to be difficult. Before our trip, we knew of only two small tracts written by conservative brethren which had been translated into Russian. We got in touch with some among the liberal brethren who had several tracts published in Russian, but only a minority turned out to be usable. Several had been translated very badly. A few contained some teaching which compromised with denominationalism and other errors. Out of the ten to twelve tracts we found, we ultimately used only three. One on the origin of the material universe was very helpful in teaching about Evidences. We also gave out the first lesson to a Russian correspondence course, “Can The Thinking Man Believe In God?” In all, about 10,000 to 12,000 copies of Bible study material in Russian were taken by interested people.
While in Vilnius, we took advantage of several excellent translators we contacted and had six tracts translated into Russian. In this country, each tract would have cost several hundred dollars to translate. We paid only $25 for translating each tract. The tracts include “Why I Oppose Instrumental Music In Worship” by Mike Willis, “The Papacy” by Jimmy Thomas, “Scriptural Worship” by Tom Roberts, “What Is Conversion?” by James Cooper, “Why I Believe That Jesus Lived” by Colly Caldwell, and “Why I Believe Jesus Is The Son Of God” by Dan King. Several others are in the process of being translated which we hope to have by the end of the year.
We are now in the process of getting the first six tracts into print so that they can be used by brethren who desire to use them in Russian speaking areas. I bought a computer program which I am using to typeset material in Russian and Lithuanian. David Shaw, a fluent Russian speaker who is a deacon at the Kleinwood congregation in Houston, is presently helping me get the material ready for print. When ready for reproduction, these tracts will be extremely helpful in efforts to preach the truth in this area of the world.
We found it much cheaper and easier to have the printing done in Vilnius. What cost me in excess of $2000 here to print and ship could have been done for less than $200 there. That price would have also included collating, folding and stapling which took the members here in Alvin a full day to do. Printing the material in Vilnius would also have saved the back-breaking work of carrying the material into the country. However, we had no contacts at that time to do this work and have it ready upon our arrival.
Religious Error Faced
The most prevalent religious error faced was Roman Catholicism. Most of the ethnic Lithuanians are Catholic, at least in name. One of the many cathedrals is visible from almost any point in the city. We were asked many questions regarding Catholicism both by individuals and the media. We were interviewed by journalists for national television and radio as well as by several newspapers. Each asked about our views on such subjects as the papacy, veneration to Mary and miracles attributed to Mary. It was very helpful to have both Kieran and Steve present since both were formerly Catholics.
To the average Lithuanian, being Catholic is a part of his national identity and patriotism. Many Lithuanians believe that it was a return to Catholicism by the people which made their independence possible. Our struggle was to get this segment of people to open a Bible and see what it says. When they did so, they would see the difference between God’s word and Catholic teaching. Thus, our efforts with them centered on establishing the authority of the word and getting them to study it with us.
Studies with Catholic contacts were complicated by the fact that the Catholic translation into Lithuanian in many passages serves as a commentary rather than a translation. For instance, the word used to translate “church” means “a church building.” In their thinking, the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings must be correct because they came from the cathedral which is a holy place. Teaching about the nature of the one true church had to begin by defining the word “church” correctly and proving such from the Scripture itself. From Acts 8:1-3, we repeatedly showed that the church was made up of men and women, not bricks and mortar. It could be “persecuted” and “made havoc of” by persecuting the Christians who comprised it. Similar problems were experienced with other words as well. Overall, we found the “Protestant” Bible a more accurate translation into the Lithuanian.
The Pentecostal movement was also very strong in Vilnius. Most of the Pentecostals and Charismatics with whom we talked were young people in their twenties or younger. For the first two weeks of our stay, we made contact with numerous people on the square from a group called “The Word of Faith Church,” a charismatic group. This church has several thousand at their services. Their biggest attraction seems to be the rock band which now plays at their services, but which was formerly the most popular rock group in the Vilnius bars. Like Pentecostals and Charismatics in this country, these people were ruled by emotion and very little Bible. As is the case in this country, they believed their so-called “tongue speaking” was proof that God was with them. We concentrated on getting them to see that New Testament “tongues” were identifiable human languages, not ecstatic gibberish as they were practicing (Acts 2:4,6,8,11). We also pressed them regarding the regulation of the use of tongues given by Paul:
If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret (1 Cor. 14:27).
Upon further discussion, they were amazed and somewhat shaken to find out that what they called “tongue speaking” was a common practice among those worshiping idols in ancient times.
Many of the discussions with these Charismatics took place on the square. Often, they would try to take over by “witnessing,” as they called it, and we would have to engage them at that point or allow error to be taught to those gathered where we were set up. Many of these Charismatics spoke broken English which made a discussion a little easier.
(I wonder why they could not speak perfect English if they had the gift of tongues and the Holy Spirit was helping them!) When we pressed them with Bible teaching and handed them a Bible asking them to produce book, chapter and verse to justify their practice, they became very agitated. Though some of the people around did not understand English, it was amazing how they caught the gist of the conversation. Afterwards they would comment on the fact that the Charismatics did not turn to the Bible. The onlookers understood that the Charismatics were doing things which the Bible did not approve. We got several studies with people observing and with our interpreters because they saw the power of God’s truth to refute human error.
Other religious errors faced included Russian Orthodoxy, “Jehovah’s Witness” doctrine, Evangelical teaching done mostly by the “Campus Crusade for Christ Ministries,” the Hare Krishna cult, various Eastern religious philosophies (especially Hinduism), and the Reformed Church with the teachings of John Calvin. The delusion that we would be going in to teach on the blank slate to those untouched by much denominational error was quickly dashed. Though the errors may be less instilled (with the exception of Catholicism), there is a great deal of “unteaching” to be done before one can effectively teach the truth. We believe a good start in this process was made in our visit and hope that future efforts will be able to build upon that work.
Besides all of this, a vast number of people (especially ethnic Russians) show the results of several generations taught the official line of atheism. Many came to us saying they wanted to believe in a God, but they had never heard about Him. One man even asked me, “What do you mean by this word God?” It was somewhat difficult to go back and explain concepts so fundamental that we often take them for granted. When working through an interpreter, it also takes a great deal of time to get from such elementary points to teaching about the whole plan of God for man’s salvation. For a large number of people with whom we studied, the Bible they read with us was the first Bible they had seen.
In studying with people so influenced by atheism, we recognized the great need for some extensive material regarding evidences to be translated into Russian. Under communism, every young person going through school since 1940 was taught that there is no God. They were taught the general theory of evolution as fact rather than a theory. They have been told that the geological record proves this theory beyond any doubt. They have been told that the Bible is a product of second and third century writers rather than first century as it claims. They have been told that the Bible rests on spurious manuscript evidence and that the Dead Sea scrolls have been kept from publication because they show that the Bible is a fraud.
Showing the truth on all of these subjects is made easier in this country by the abundance of material on the subjects, but that material is not available in Russian. We desperately need clear and extensive material from competent, faithful brethren translated on these subjects. The Evangelicals are getting some of Josh McDowell’s material translated with its premillennial slant, but that is the only extensive material available at present.
In dealing with the various errors, we found the people very willing to listen to the truth. They were especially receptive when we stated the conflict between their belief and the Bible in clear and forceful terms. Direct confrontation did not turn the people off, but caused a greater interest. They wanted to know about the differences between their beliefs and the Bible teaching. The questions asked were direct and to the point. We answered their questions with a passage of Scripture and then made the application pointedly. When this was done, the people expressed their thanks to us rather than outrage.
It might be added that the vast majority of the people wanted us to talk with them extensively about such matters. Our Bible lectures on Sunday afternoons lasted for four hours and sometimes went beyond that limit. How is it that some brethren who are supposed to love the Lord and his truth above all gripe and whine about a service lasting over an hour when alien sinners searching for the truth are ready to listen for four hours or more? Those people put many brethren to shame in their desire to hear the truth.
An Open Door
The opportunity available in Lithuania is hard to overstate. As already noted, people want to hear the gospel. While in Vilnius, we were invited to study with an amazing variety of people. There was much interest among both Lithuanians and Russians. We had numerous studies with a total of 16 Russian soldiers who were attending the Military Academy which was the old Soviet counterpart to West Point in this country. At the same time, we had studies with some actively involved in efforts to expel the Russian army from Lithuanian soil. Both older and younger people invited us to study with them. People from various religious backgrounds were genuinely interested in our plea to return to New Testament Christianity with the Bible as our only guide. We even got one opportunity to speak at a Baptist -Pentecostal Union Church. Such doors are not often open to us in this country, but they are open in Lithuania at this time.
Other factors make this a prime time to concentrate further efforts in Lithuania. The political situation is now even more stable than it was during our journey. This should help to remove some distractions that were there earlier this year. Lodging and food, though not very good by our standards, are available at very inexpensive prices. Interpreters are readily available at the cost of $1 an hour. Meeting places in excellent locations may be rented at extremely low rates. Contacts for printing, advertising and other logistical needs have already been worked out. Those interested in getting to work can go right to teaching from the first day in Vilnius.
A return trip to Vilnius is now being planned for this Fall. All of us would like to see a continuing presence established there through at least the end of the year. We believe this should provide enough time to begin a local work in that city. It was hoped that our six weeks stay might have the results of establishing a local congregation. In New Testament times, the visit of Paul to Thessalonica lasted three sabbath days allowing a strong church to be started in that city (Acts 17:1-4). However, it became obvious very quickly that more time was going to be needed in Vilnius. We also hope that someone who comes over for a month or so may see the need and move to Vilnius for a few years. If you have an interest in helping in this work, please call Harry Osborne at 713-331-9305 or 331-4953 for more information. He can also help in getting the material in Russian and Lithuanian if you need it.
We need only look at the cases where open doors have presented themselves in the past to see how quickly the opportunities may close. For instance, in the Summer of 1978, a two part series on the opportunities for spreading the gospel in Iran written by James Needham appeared in Vanguard. A year later the Islamic revolution closed the doors on such efforts. Brethren, we do not know how long this door may be open either. Though the situation may be stable at the present, the situation in Iran also appeared stable until shortly before its fall. Lithuania is a logical first step for further efforts at evangelism in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Faithful men are needed who are willing to sacrifice some of the luxuries of home. It will not be a Scottish golf vacation. If this work is to be done, faithful churches will also need to make a priority of supporting gospel preachers to do such work over building extravagant buildings and paving the parking lot. Derek Chambers has committed to stay for the long term in the East European work and is now preaching in Leipzig, Germany (formerly East Germany) without adequate support. If any church or individual could help him, I would be glad to inform you further of his good work and his address. He is a strong and faithful man who is deserving of your support. Please remember the efforts to preach the gospel going on in this and other parts of the world in your prayers daily.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 17, pp. 518-521
September 3, 1992