How Small Groups Are Growing the Church in Bulgaria

How Small Groups Are Growing the Church in Bulgaria

In a culture that’s hostile to Protestant churches, small groups are the answer.

For most of us, 1989 is a distant memory. But for Tihomir Tenev, 1989—when Communism fell in Bulgaria—still affects his ministry every day.

Tenev grew up in a Christian family in Bulgaria. His father was a pastor, but when the church started growing rapidly, he was fired by the government. Tenev’s faith has been marked by Bible smuggling, underground faith, and various forms of persecution.

Religion and Government

After the Iron Curtain fell at the end 1989, revival swept through Bulgaria from 1990 to the middle of 1992. Tenev and his wife went away to England to study at a Bible college. When they returned, they quickly formed a team to spread the gospel in their homeland. He remembers holding crusades at open air squares and stadiums with crowds of up to 40,000. People streamed forward to accept Jesus, and they witnessed many miraculous healings.

The religious freedom of Bulgaria, though, also allowed an influx of false religions and cults. The dangers of these cults were heavily covered by the media. Warnings were broadcast to stay away from any religious activity except that of the official Orthodox Church in Bulgaria. After 45 years of Communism, people had little knowledge of how to discern truth from false religions, and many became skeptical of religion in general. It was more than clear that the time for mass evangelism in Bulgaria was over.

Bulgaria technically has a separation of church and state, but throughout history, the government has had a close relationship with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. In the most recent census, more than 75 percent of Bulgarians noted their religion as Eastern Orthodox. Protestants are definitely in the minority. In fact, Sliven, where Tenev planted a church in 1993, is roughly 1 percent Protestant.

Small Groups: The Answer

The process of growing the church in Sliven was slow. Rather than speak to the masses, Tihomir was now speaking to as few as 20 people. He knew they needed to approach church differently if they were going to reach the people there. After much research, they decided that the cell church model could work in their context. In cell churches, most of the ministry is done in small groups during the week. On Sundays, the groups come together for a worship service. Tenev had a feeling that people would be much more receptive to visiting a small group where they knew people than attending a mass meeting at a church.

His hunch was right. Today, the church in Sliven has 20 small groups, and Tenev has helped plant two more churches in Bulgaria, one of which is starting to plant new churches itself. The churches are collectively known as DOVE Bulgaria.

Groups that Equip Disciples

The groups are where all the pastoring of the church is done, and they’re creating real disciples. When the groups meet each week, they work through the four Ws: Welcome, Worship, Word, and Works. During the welcome, the group spends a few minutes enjoying tea and biscuits, catching up, and answering an icebreaker question. Then they move on to the worship time which might include singing, praying, or asking for a word from God.

The next two sections—Word and Works—are the main substance of the meetings. Tenev explains that the purpose of groups is twofold: “It’s like if we make a circle, holding hands, and facing each other. We pray for each other, encourage each other, and work through problems. But we also need to make a circle, holdhands, and face outward—to reach out. If we only enjoy the table of God, it’s very selfish.”

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