Introduction / History
Ethnic Bulgarians trace their history to the late 7th century, when the Bulgars, a central Asian Turkic people, and the Slavs, a central European people, merged to form the first Bulgarian kingdom in what is now northeastern Bulgaria. In the following centuries, they struggled with the Byzantine Empire for control of the Balkans, only to be overrun by Ottoman Turks towards the end of the 14th century. Northern Bulgaria attained autonomy in 1878 and the entire country of Bulgaria became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1908.
After fighting on the losing side of both World Wars, Bulgaria fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and became a People's Republic in 1946. Communism fell in 1990, and Bulgaria began moving towards political democracy and a market economy while combating inflation, unemployment, corruption and crime. Bulgaria joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004 and the European Union (EU) in 2007.
Where are they located?
Just over 6 million ethnic Bulgarians live in the Eastern European country of Bulgaria, representing the great majority of the population. Bulgaria is a mountainous country, which is bordered by Romania to the north, the Black Sea to the east, Turkey and Greece to the south, and North Macedonia and Serbia to the west. Because of this, Bulgaria controls significant land routes between the rest of Europe and the Middle East and Asia.
Over 1.2 million ethnic Bulgarians live outside of the country of Bulgaria, a significant percentage of which are recent emigrants to Western Europe and North America. Part of this diaspora consists of ethnic Bulgarians who permanently emigrated in the early 1990s after the fall of communism, while more recent emigration may be more temporary in nature. Nonetheless, Bulgaria has a negative net migration rate.
What are their lives like?
Ethnic Bulgarians living in Bulgaria are experiencing a number of significant changes. An aging population, declining birth rates, emigration and a growing focus on consumerism is stretching, stressing and redefining Bulgarian families. At the same time, urbanization is merging rural and urban cultures in major cities – nearly one in four Bulgarians now live in the capital city Sofia – making cities more congested, less green and more complicated than before. There is also significant societal tension between men and women (as seen in domestic violence, human trafficking and workplace inequalities), and between the super rich and other Bulgarians. Furthermore, orphans and physically and mentally disabled people tend to be marginalized.
Economically, a new middle class is being bombarded by advertising and discovering consumer credit, choice and the novelty of shopping for fun rather than necessity. In the major cities, teenagers and young adults congregate at shopping malls, creating and reinforcing a prominent role for consumerism in Bulgaria's future generations. Nonetheless, overbuilding, emigration and long-standing corruption stand between most ethnic Bulgarians and economic stability.
Politically, the European Union is by and far the strongest external influence, and the Bulgarian government's difficulties in complying with new EU regulations are used as a scapegoat for many internal problems. Beyond that, the rule of law is still a work in progress, as seen in unequal application of the law, limits on freedom of the press, and corruption. This in turn contributes to a lack of trust in institutions and leaders, which in turn undermines Bulgarian society. Finally, the shadow and mindset of communism remains in Bulgaria, impacting social and economic trends.
What are their beliefs?
The Bulgarian people have been Orthodox Christians since 865 A.D. However, the political and cultural dimensions Bulgaria's Orthodox Christianity have typically been more prominent than the spiritual ones. This was true from the beginning, as the Bulgarian king's decree of mass conversion to Christianity was motivated by favorable trading and international relationships. During the almost 500 years under the Ottoman Empire, the Orthodox Church continued to be a primary means by which Bulgarians maintained their cultural identity. Even under communism, the Orthodox Church remained a strong cultural anchor for ethnic Bulgarians.
Today, most ethnic Bulgarians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, even to the degree that Orthodoxy is seen as an indivisible part of their cultural identity. However, while religious holidays and saint-days are prominent aspects of the culture, regular church attendance is extremely low. Religious syncretism is common, drawing together aspects of Christianity, animism, and the occult. Non-Orthodox ethnic Bulgarians include Catholics and Protestants, each representing a slight percentage of the population.
What are their needs?
Ethnic Bulgarians' biggest felt need is for economic security. This is fueling both urbanization and emigration, as people increasingly relocate to larger cities inside and outside of the country in search of work. While some find it, however, many ethnic Bulgarians remain chronically un- or under-employed. This compounds other stresses, especially for families raising children and caring for grandparents.
The even greater need, however, is for people to know and follow God through His Son Jesus Christ. Very few of ethnic Bulgarians are active in the life of a church, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. This spiritual vacuum is being filled with consumerism, folk religion and other barriers to the Gospel. Meeting this need will have a positive visible impact on Bulgarian culture in the present, and saving value into eternity.
God is at work among ethnic Bulgarians, and He continues to do so through His Church. However, many ethnic Bulgarians have been unimpressed – if not alienated – by evangelistic methods that appear foreign and overly aggressive. Therefore, please pray that:
Every Bulgarian regularly witness Christians living in joyful obedience to Jesus Christ, and that these changed-life testimonies would communicate the Gospel with a greater and more compelling clarity than various evangelistic methods have so far achieved;
Bulgarian Christians develop culturally relevant church and church-planting models to reach the "new Bulgarians" - the middle class, families, and middle-aged and younger adults; and
Bulgarian Christians better understand the significant societal changes that are already occurring, and that they would anticipate and participate in these changes in order to more effectively carry out the Church's mission.
Text source: Kirk Anderson