Countercultural Brokenness: Theft and Transformation in Romania

They were rotten kids, the kind of hooligans who would volunteer to clean the church and then rob the mercy box. And among the rowdy teenage crew, Nikolai* was one of the worst. Most people said he would never change, never amount to anything. Even the Romanian believers who ran the kids club in Nikolai’s poor Brasov neighborhood, tirelessly discipling young Romanians, leading Bible studies and pouring into their lives struggled to believe he could ever be different.

Ministering with the youth alongside the Romanian church leaders was MTW missionary Derek Ebbers. Today, Derek is the veteran of a decade of missionary service in Brasov, Romania. But at that point, he was brand new—just a year’s field experience under his belt, and with only a tenuous grasp of the local language. For the next 10 years, Derek and the Romanian leaders led a youth Bible study at the church, and Nikolai would come.

“He was trouble,” Derek said of Nikolai, “but I could see change in this boy. He was acting a little bit differently.”

Shame and transformation
Then one day, about two years ago, the leadership finally caught Nikolai and others in the act of stealing from the mercy box.

“We had a sit down with them, and I could really see the Spirit at work [in Nikolai] because he really started to change,” said Derek. “He felt so guilty.”

Then one day Nikolai stood in front of the church during the community prayer time and spoke to the group: “I have to say something.” He openly confessed what he had done before the whole church and asked for forgiveness.

“That was so amazing to see,” Derek said. “I’ve never seen or experienced anything like it in the Western Church in my whole life.

“This is a shame culture,” Derek explained. “In this culture you just don’t ever admit that you’re wrong. And yet Nikolai stood in front of the church and confessed that he had stolen from everybody—not just that he had stolen from the box, because we had made clear that if you steal from the mercy box, you’re stealing from every member of the church. And right there his life really began to change.”

A countercultural church
Many Romanians, according to Derek, don’t believe that they are broken, let alone that they need a Redeemer. A worldview dominated by fatalism and materialism is common, and though people yearn for a spiritual experience, they want it to just happen to them.

The general belief is that, as long as one is baptized and married in the Orthodox Church, on the Orthodox train so to speak, they are headed in the right direction. Yet, once they are confronted with the reality of their own sin, once they are met with the prospect of a Savior who can wash their sins away, it is a reality-shifting worldview that is both impossible to escape and slow to take hold.

“We talk about the assurance of our salvation every Sunday. We have to,” Derek said. “Even for people who have been coming to church for years, it’s such a slow process to internalize—‘God loves me because of what Jesus did. I’m not trying to earn His favor by what I do.’”

“Our whole church community is different because, though failure is not an option in this culture, in our church it’s OK to fail,” he added. “We are broken and we talk about it all the time. We’re broken, but we’ve been redeemed, so it’s OK. And people need to hear that truth over and over again.”

It was that truth of brokenness and redemption, the witness of Derek and his Romanian brothers, and the work of the Spirit that transformed a troublemaking boy named Nikolai. This past June, after nearly 10 years of steady, faithful discipleship and relationship building, and two years after his first encounter with God and guilt and grace, Nikolai became a member of the MTW church plant in Brasov and was baptized.

“They said there was no chance with Nikolai, that this could never happen to somebody like that,” said Derek. “Only the gospel could do that. How we get there, how long it takes, that’s up to God.” 

* Name has been changed.

Andrew Shaughnessy, Brasov Romania Church planting Aug 15, 2017
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