In the race between Rome and Constantinople to convert the continent, Lithuania was the last nation standing.
The smallish country, tucked above Poland along the Baltic Sea, wavered back and forth during the decades of the 12th century, promising conversion to each side in order to keep their own power.
Though she died when she was 26, the young queen left a lasting legacy; 600 years later, three-quarters of Lithuanians (77 percent) call themselves Catholic, according to the 2011 census. Though the Evangelical Reformed Church is nearly as old—established about 170 years later in 1557—it never gained real traction. Even before the German and Soviet invasions of the 20th century, its members numbered somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 in a country that was then about 2 million.
During the 50-year Soviet occupation after World War II, stiff persecution of all religion caused more than half of Reformed Lithuanians to head to the relative safety in numbers offered by Catholicism.
“Our church is old, but weak,” said Holger Lahayne, a Reformed missionary from Germany who lectures at the Evangelical Bible Institute in Lithuania and chairs the board of the Lithuanian Christian student community (LKSB). Today, a mere “6,000 Lithuanians would consider themselves Reformed.”
Only 2,000 are members of the denomination’s roughly 10 congregations, and regular church attendance is lower yet, he said.
But in the last 10 years, the Reformed church has moved toward a renewed emphasis on confessions, including The New City Catechism (NCC) from Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Excited about NCC, one Reformed leader shared it with friends and students in the charismatic Word of Faith movement, which had been moving away from its prosperity gospel roots. Their response?
An offer to partner in translating the catechism into Lithuanian, and eventually, to sign identical faith statements.
Turning the Ship
Lahayne calls it a “conservative resurgence.”
“Solid Reformed theology is starting to make inroads,” he said. The Second Helvetic Confession was published for the first time in Lithuania in 2012, followed by a republishing of the Heidelberg Catechism in 2014.
Meant to revive the nearly lost practice of studying the deeper principles of faith, Redeemer released the 52-question catechism online with The Gospel Coalition in 2012, with print materials now available.
Drawn from the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Catechism, and Calvin’s Geneva Catechism, the NCC’s questions and answers are designed to be discussed by families and churches and to be memorized by both children and adults.
“When I went through it, I was excited—the old stuff, but with a new approach and language,” Lahayne said. “I instantly thought that this might be interesting for non-traditional, younger churches in Lithuania.”
He told his theology students, many of whom belong to the charismatic Word of Faith movement.
From Prosperity Gospel to Reformed Theology
First organized in the capitol of Vilnius in the fall of 1988, Lithuania’s Word of Faith church originally was influenced by the health-and-wealth gospel preached by Kenneth Hagin and the Word of Life church in Sweden. Other popular Word of Faith teachers include Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and Joyce Meyer.
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in the 1990s, Word of Faith membership exploded. But after the first few years, the growth slowed, and the denomination began to move away from prosperity theology.
With 30 churches, the Word of Faith Fellowship is one of the largest Protestant denominations in Lithuania, second only to the Lutheran church’s 54 congregations.
“They are in the process of becoming a more confessional evangelical church, looking for deeper roots,” Lahayne said. “Some ministers are clearly drifting toward Calvinism. They are in the process of changing their governance, away from one man and leader to a more Reformed/Presbyterian kind of system.”
At the same time the Word of Faith denomination was moving away from the prosperity gospel, the Evangelical Reformed denomination was working to recover from bruises left by Soviet atheism and secularism, Lahayne said.
“Our traditional partner, the Lutherans, quite often stress their allegiance with the dominating Catholic church,” he said. “So our church is looking for new partners, especially among the younger churches.”
All they needed was a reason to cooperate.
Catalyst for Cooperation
Lahayne showed the NCC to his friend Darius Širvys, who pastors the 300-member Vilnius Word of Faith church and serves as a dean at the Evangelical Bible Institute.
“This catechism represents the summary of the main evangelical doctrines that correspond to the teaching truths of the Christian Word of Faith Fellowship,” Širvys said. “And when reading the original documents, one can even better understand the fountainhead of the evangelical faith and Reformed traditions that our [Word of Faith] Fellowship pastors and I appreciate.”
Excited about the teaching and evangelistic possibilities, the two denominations decided to work together to translate the catechism into Lithuanian.
“The publishing house of Word of Faith was in charge of translation, and I edited the text,” Lahayne said. He also added references to the older confessions Keller and Sam Shammas leaned on to make it “easier for traditional Christians to see the continuity with our heritage and to go deeper into all this.”
They invited City Church, a nondenominational evangelical church in Klaipeda with a church plant in Vilnius, to join. City Church has been steadily growing since it was planted 20 years ago; about 300 attend in Klaipeda, with another 50 to 70 in Vilnius.
“[Keller] is one of my favorite preachers, and I followed what Redeemer was doing,” City Church pastor Saulius Karosas said. “I thought [the NCC] would be a wonderful, easy-to-understand teaching tool for children and adults alike. We struggled with our theological identity and were in need of a document like the catechism to help especially new believers get a good foundation.”
Word of Faith Fellowship printed hardcover copies, and hands them out to every family in the church. Lahayne passes them out to Catholics and nonbelievers; both he and Širvys use it in the theology classes they teach. Each student at LKSB receives one. And Karosas incorporates it into Sunday worship services and encourages his church members use it with their families around their dinner tables.
Working on the NCC helped the two denominations see how much they had in common. Last summer they made it official, voting at their synods to affirm common theological convictions. At the same time, they published another Reformed document together—the Westminster Confession of Faith.
For both the Word of Faith Fellowship and City Church, the NCC provides much-needed footing.
“It is worth noticing that Lithuanian Evangelical Reformed Church has a long history of confessions of faith and catechisms, but the Word of Faith Christian Fellowship has just recently discovered this side of the evangelical faith,” Širvys said. “The very word ‘catechism’ in our churches was long identified with religious stagnation. However, when maturing as a church, we started to get more and more interested in the legacy of the early church fathers and Reformation.”
Word of Faith Fellowship began to dig into Christian history and started to appreciate theological studies, he said. “Witnesses of the Christian teaching and living faith, well thought-out and diligently based on the Holy Scripture, have always been needed for the church. The [NCC] is an expression of that living faith.”
Karosas agreed. “By using the catechism, our church has defined its theological stance, which is important when we present our beliefs to the wider society in which we are marginalized and sometimes stigmatized as a cult.”
Just as important is the theological unity the churches have found.
“The common translation and publication has quite a public relevance because it is, after centuries perhaps, the first theological document [adopted by] three different churches together in a predominantly Catholic country,” Lahayne said. “Evangelical unity is underdeveloped here—there’s no Evangelical Alliance (the largest body representing evangelicals in the UK)—so doing something on this level together has an enormous impact as a signal.”
Both denominations asked City Church to attend their synods; as a result, “a new level of trust formed,” Karosas said. The three churches are also planning events this year to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. One of them was a book fair in Vilnius.
Lahayne was able to highlight the NCC there, since one of the public events included honoring the first book printed in Lithuania in 1547: a Lutheran catechism for children.