(this artcile has been originally published in "Christian Renewal" 19th of July 2009)
The Polish port city of Gdansk (known as Danzig when under Germany) was once 90 percent Protestant, says Pawel Bartosik, the minister of a fledgling Reformed church in this European metropolis on the outer edge of a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. "One year after Luther's 95 theses, there were Lutheran churches in Gdansk," he said.
In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, Bartosik and members of his congregation reminded city residents of their town's heritage with a giant poster and enumerated historical events tied to the Reformation. The poster and accompanying book table, piled with Reformed theological and devotional literature translated into Polish – and some by Polish Reformers -- were more than well received, he said. The evangelism project lasted two weeks, and protestants from other churches in town came by with sandwiches and hot tea.
But one would expect that, since Bartosik, no wallflower, is already well known in town, and becoming better known in Poland. Although the church is not yet five years old, the Baltic seaport town's residents – and also more across the nation -- have come to know Pawel as a vigilant and tech savvy proponent and defender of Calvinism. At 32, Bartosik is an example of a younger generation's ease and comfort with the Web. When I interviewed him on Skype, he popped up visually as well as audibly on my desktop, asking, "Can you hear me?" when I still fumbled with the microphone, never mind a video camera.
Bartosik has not only a website for the church, but several blogs, several YouTube presentations (which he calls Reformacja TV), and with other Reformed ministers posts Reformacja w Polsce (Reformation in Poland), a journal of Reformed thought and opinion, all on the web for the world to consider. Many of these are available in English as well as Polish, but most are for his fellow countrymen, who hit Pawel's blogs, sites and video presentations thousands of times a month and often follow their viewings with questions.
The topics are publicly controversial and direct: grace vs. works, the Reformed faith vs. Roman Catholicism; creationism vs. evolution; free market economics under God's law vs. socialism; biblical views of political government; homeschooling and the importance of family nurture and education. "I am starting another one," he said, not yet definite about what to call the blog, but it's working title is Freedom, Justice and Conservatism.
Pawel's indefatigably generated web content, and the quality behind its thought – not to mention its culturally savvy presentation – has won him accolades. One blog has won first prize in a competition with some 1,200 entrants in the category, "Me and My Life." In the overall competition, which likely garnered tens of thousands of entrants, Pawel placed 38th. In the political category, Pawel placed sixth in another competition and had his blog commended and recommended by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a former parliamentarian and national political leader who'd worked side by side with Lech Walesa in the early days of Solidarnosc.
I originally met Pawel on the Internet years ago, and am one among several more capable than I who by answering his questions as best as possible and providing a systematic interpretation from the scriptures, helped convince him of the biblical nature of covenant theology. He's taken off like a rocket since then. A thoughtful Roman Catholic university student interested in philosophy and theology, Pawel, after his conversion, turned to the Polish Baptist Church, the largest evangelical confederation in the nation. He later came to an understanding of sovereign grace, but his questions about how his faith could intersect with the world (aside from evangelism) remained unanswered. To his delight – and that of many – he found that covenant theology held the key.
Active in Education
One of a handful of relatively newly minted confederated Reformed churches along Poland's western border, The Gdansk Reformed church co-sponsors events, summer camps, and conferences, both theological and topical. Recently, Pawel, who is working on his PhD in pedagogy at the University of Gdansk, had opportunity to present at a conference on education, whose speakers, organizers and attendees included Christian ministers, educators, and national government officials. He and his fellow ministers are cheered at a new law that permits homeschooling for families in Poland so long as there is a recommendation from a principal of any nearby private school – religious or non-.
"This is big progress for us," he said, especially since up until recently homeschooling in Poland was illegal and, as is still the case in other European nations, prosecutable. Pawel's doctoral dissertation will be on homeschooling, and he is hoping that when published, it will help clear barriers to this form of education in the minds of many. But Pawel is not a homeschooling fundamentalist; he is not only open to, but working with other evangelical churches in Gdansk to found a Christian school. "It is moving slowly, but there is interest besides our own congregation," said Pawel, a father of three whose wife, Jola, tutors English in the afternoons.
As a PhD candidate at the University of Gdansk, Pawel is also something of a man-about-town among college students. He and other Reformed ministers that come to visit from the other churches hold regular lectures and discussions at the university's pub on many of the topics Pawel already covers on his blog. "We have up to 40 students attending these lectures," he said. One of them, Lidia from Belarus, is about to become a member of the church. "We have a very good relationship with the pub owner," Pawel said, even though one of his lectures was on what the Bible teaches about moderation in alcohol consumption.
Small Dog, Big Bite
As is typical of many urban Reformed churches, the influence of the church in its community – and in Pawel's case nationally -- is larger than the church itself. Starting almost five years ago with only his wife and daughter and two others, Pawel's congregation in Gdansk has about two dozen worshipping on Sundays. The other churches in Poznan, Legnica and Wroclaw – all along the German border and hence also in the more historically Protestant part of Poland – are about the same size. Pawel is always looking for fresh opportunities in outreach. He has recently partnered with a Baptist church in town to bring over Paul Garner and Andy McIntosh, two Oxford University professors and believing scientists, to address the viability of creationism over evolutionism. And a member of the church, a former Jehovah's Witness, is about to start a study and discussion ministry to reach Jehovah's Witnesses and Arians, of which there are quite a few in Poland. Of course, a related blog is in the works: "On the Crossroad."
The church in Gdansk, as well as the others with which it has confederated, subscribes to the Three Forms of Unity, and in 2006 affiliated with the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC); in Poland it is its own national confederation. All the churches are on the budgets of two CRE churches, one in Oregon and another in British Columbia. The Church in Gdansk, in addition to sharing in these stipends, receives stipends from two CRE churches in New York. These are comparatively small, but Pawel is not complaining. "We are very grateful for their encouragement to us," he said.
Historically, the Reformation was all but stillborn in Poland. Seemingly off to a healthy start soon after Luther's breakaway and thanks to German printers in Krakow, it nonetheless dwindled under the reign of a weak king and the ardor of Jesuits. Known for its tolerance far before it ever became fashionable, Poland allowed not only Protestant groups – even during the 30 years war – but sects such as the non-Trinitarian Arians. Roman Catholicism nonetheless remained the predominant religion, with barely less than 10 percent of the country professing something other than the Roman Catholic faith today. This tolerance is both a blessing and a hindrance to Pawel's work, allowing him entrance into arenas where he likely wouldn't be able to enter in more "enlightened" European countries, yet he is often seen in this university town as offering yet another set of ideas on a supermarket shelf already well stacked with philosophies. There are those, nonetheless, one by one and family by family, who have ears to hear and are being reached. "The Lord blesses us," he says.