Estonia, formerly part of the USSR, is located on the east end of the Baltic Sea, with a population of 1.3 million. Christianity here dates back to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s but was squelched during the Soviet rule from 1944 to 1991.
“Estonia is one of the most secular countries in Europe,” says Festival vice chair Taavi Hollman, who grew up going to an underground Sunday school during the years of Communist rule. “Only 16 percent of the people profess to believe in God, and not all of those believe in a Christian God. This is why we need the Festival of Hope.”
Nationwide, only about 12,000 attend church on Sundays, officials say.
The country has all of the typical symptoms of a secular society, including alcoholism and drug abuse. And in the last 10 years, the number of people being treated for mental health problems has skyrocketed.
The economic downturn may be the final blow.
“Many people are losing their jobs,” Hollman says. “As in other countries, some children are not being properly taken care of in the family, and we also have a number of homeless people.”
In the midst of such despair, the number of people turning to the church has gone up by 12 percent in the last month alone, says Festival Director Viktor Hamm.
Discussions for the Festival began around eight years ago. It was initially set for 2010, but the event is happening in God’s perfect timing, Hamm says.
“Everybody sees the desperation in this country. They see that it is the providence of God that has brought the Festival here at this time, not eight years ago and not next year, as was originally planned. The Lord knew this was the time the Festival was needed.”
Christians are wrapping up the final months and weeks of preparation with growing anticipation. They have been praying for the Festival every night at 10 o’clock, in addition to participating in various Days of Prayer and Days of Fasting. Pastors have been meeting for a prayer breakfast once a month. One hundred people signed up to teach the Christian Life and Witness Course to their friends and neighbors throughout the nation. A 550-member choir has been assembled. Women’s groups have been mobilized. Churches have coordinated with BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse Canada to organize a soup kitchen, which fed 100 residents when it launched March 5, and will continue to function after the Festival. The kitchen will also provide spiritual counseling.
Throughout the country, 348 churches are participating–308 are Estonian and 40 are Russian. And people are talking about God more than usual, including politicians and television actors, Hamm says.
“The local soap operas have scenes of families praying before a meal. That has never happened. Some of the well-known writers in the newspapers are talking about how the country needs to turn to God for help. So I think there is a general understanding that the involvement of the supernatural is required to fix the problems in Estonia.”
People have a hole in their heart that only God can fill, Hamm says.
“People have tried secularism as the answer for all their problems. And obviously secularism hasn’t worked, so they have to go back to the One who created them. I think there is a realization that the history of faith that they had in this country is something that they should go back to.”
BGEA has participated in ministry efforts in Estonia for a number of years. In 1984, the Grahams visited Tallinn as part of their wider Soviet Union tour.
“In those days you couldn’t have a public Christian meeting,” Hamm says. “It was a visit to four cities within the Soviet Union, and Tallinn was one of them. Mr. Graham preached in the Orthodox Cathedral and a historic Baptist church, and Franklin also spoke here.”
Hamm, an associate evangelist with BGEA, has held a number of Festivals in this part of Europe, including meetings in 1988 and in 2001. BGEA has also ministered through films, The Hour of Decision radio program and a Baltic School of Evangelism in neighboring Latvia.
The move back to Christianity will be slow, but Christians are hopeful that it will happen.
“It will probably take years before society turns back to its roots,” Hamm says, “but I think this Festival will certainly help in turning the people back to God.”
Article was published in the April 2009 issue of Decision magazine. Click here to subscribe to Decision or to give someone a gift subscription.