Reaching the Nations

Estonia

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

Return to Table of Contents

EstoniaGeography

Area: 45,228 square km.  Estonia is in Eastern Europe and borders Russia, Latvia, and the Baltic Sea.  More than 1,500 small islands in the Baltic Sea belong to Estonia; Hiiumaa and Saaremaa are the largest.  The maritime climate creates cool summers and moderate winters.  Terrain primarily consists of plains, marshes, and lowlands with some hills in the south.  There are some forested areas whereas grassland and farmland cover most the country.  Natural hazards include periodic spring flooding.  Air and water pollution are environmental issues.  Estonia is divided into 15 administrative counties. 

 

Population: 1,299,371 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: -0.632% (2009)

Fertility Rate: 1.42 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: 67.45 male, 78.53 female (2009)

 

Peoples

Estonian: 67.9%

Russian: 25.6%

Ukrainian: 2.1%

Belarusian: 1.3%

Finn: 0.9%

Other: 2.2%

 

Estonians form the largest ethnic group.  Russians tend to live in Tallinn, other large cities, or Ida-Viru County in the east bordering Russia. 

 

Languages: Estonian (67.3%), Russian (29.7%), other (2.3%), unknown (0.7%).  Estonian is the official language. 

Literacy: 99.8% (2000)

 

History

Various Baltic tribes and neighboring peoples populated Estonia in antiquity.  In the Middle Ages, the area was divided among several different political powers until integration into the Holy Roman Empire in the early 13th century.  Prior to independence in 1918, Estonia was controlled by several neighboring nations for centuries, including Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Russia.  In 1940, the USSR annexed Estonia.  Independence was regained in 1991 and the last Russian troops left in 1994.  In 2004, Estonia joined NATO and the European Union. 

 

Culture 

Estonia draws upon cultural influences from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and Scandinavia.  The Estonian language is closely related to Finnish.  Most consider Estonians to be quiet and to maintain distance from those around them.  Saunas have been in use for centuries.  There is a proud tradition of art, literature, and music.  Family is traditional in structure.[1]  Common cuisine consists of black bread, dairy products, potatoes, and pork.  Cigarette consumption rates are comparable to Western Europe and alcohol consumption rates are comparable to the United States.  Divorce rates are high and comparable to other Eastern European countries. 

 

Economy

GDP per capita: $18,700 (2009) [40.3% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.883

Corruption Index: 6.6

Estonia experienced consistent economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s as a result of market-based economic policy.  Telecommunications and electronics are strong industries.  GDP per capital is among the highest in Eastern Europe, yet 19.5% of the population lives below the poverty line.  The worldwide financial crisis in the late 2000s resulted in a 14% drop in GDP per capita during 2009.  Unemployment has also rapidly increased during this time period from 5.7% to 14.3%.  Services employ 75% of the workforce and produce 73% of the GDP, whereas industry accounts for 23% of the workforce and produces 24% of the GDP.  Lead industries include engineering, electronics, and wood products.  Potatoes, vegetables, livestock, and fish are agriculture products.  Primary export partners include Finland, Sweden, Germany, and nearby Eastern European nations. 

 

Estonia enjoys the lowest rate of corruption among former Soviet republics.  Corruption rates are comparable to some Western European nations like France and Spain. 

 

Faiths

Christian: 27.8%

Unaffiliated: 34.1%

Other/unspecified: 32%

None: 6.1%

 

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Evangelical Lutheran  180,000  165

Estonian Orthodox  200,000 30 

Estonian Apostolic  27,000  64

Catholic   6,000

Jehovah’s Witnesses  4,302  52

Seventh-Day Adventists   1,662  19

Latter-Day Saints  1,010  5

 

Religion

Christians are the largest religious group but account for less than a third of the population and many are not active in their faith.  Most Estonians have little involvement with religion.  A Gallup poll in February 2009 asked individuals whether religion was important to them in everyday life and only 14% responded in the affirmative.  There are small communities of Jews, Buddhists, and other religious groups.[2] 

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects religious freedom and government upholds this right.  Christian holidays are also national holidays.  Registered congregations must have at least 12 adult members and a management board.  Estonia exhibits strong tolerance for differing religious groups.[3] 

 

Largest Cities

Urban: 

Tallinn, Tartu, Narva, Kohtla-Jarve, Parnu, Viljandi, Rakvere, Sillamae, Maardu, Kuressaare.

Cities in bold do not have congregations.

 

Four of the 10 largest cities have a congregation.  57% of the population lives in the 10 largest cities. 

 

LDS History

The first Estonians joined the Church as early as 1951 outside their homeland.[4]  The first Estonian members living in Estonia joined the Church in 1989 and were baptized in Finland.  Valtteri Rotsa was baptized in July and returned to Estonia with Church literature and shared his newly found faith with friends and associates.  The first baptism in Estonia occurred in December 1989 and the first branch was organized in 1990 for Russian and Estonian speakers.  The Church gained formal recognition in June 1990.  The first missionary called from Estonia was at the time the first missionary called from the Soviet Union who began serving in January 1991.[5]  In 1990, there were approximately 50 members in Tallinn.[6]  By May 1991, there were two congregations in Tallinn – one for Estonian speakers and one for Russian speakers – which had a combined 130 members.  Missionary activity was supervised by the Finland Helsinki East Mission until the creation of the Russia St. Petersburg Mission in early 1992.[7]  Estonia joined the Latvia Riga Mission in 1993.  At the time there was a combined 150 members in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.[8]  The Latvia Riga Mission was renamed the Lithuania Vilnius Mission in 1996 and later renamed the Baltic Mission in 2002.  Estonia became part of the Europe East Area in 2000. 

 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 1,010 (2009)

During the mid-1990s membership stood around 200 and climbed to 551 by year-end 2000.  With the exception of 2003, membership has increased every year in the past decade by 40 to 100 a year.  By 2004, there were 689 members and by 2007 there were 927 members. 

 

In 2009, Estonia had the highest percentage of LDS members in Eastern Europe.  There was one LDS member per 1,286 people. 

 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 5 Groups: 1?

By the end of 1991, there were two Estonian-speaking branches and one Russian-speaking branch in Tallinn.  Tartu opened for missionary work in September 1991.  By 1997, only one Estonian branch functioned in Tallinn.[9]  The Tallinn Estonia District was organized in late 1997.  There were three branches by year-end 2000: Two in Tallinn and one in Tartu.

 

In March 2000, Narva was opened to missionary work.[10]  A branch was organized in 2001.  Estonian and Russian branches in Tallinn were combined in 2003 and separated in 2006.  In 2008, a branch was created in Parnu bringing the total of branches to five.  In late 2009, the city of Keila opened for missionary work.  Meetings may occur in the city as a group under the direction of one of the Tallinn branches or the Baltic Mission. 

 

 

Activity and Retention

In 1999, approximately 180 attended sacrament meeting in Estonia.  In 2000, 200 youth throughout the Baltic States traveled to Lithuania for a youth conference.[11]  In 2009, over 400 throughout the Baltic States attended a fireside with Elder L. Tom Perry in Latvia.[12]  65 young single adults from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania met in Riga, Latvia in March 2010 for a young single adult conference.  Between 2009 and 2010, the Tartu Branch had 40-50 attending Sunday meetings.  Attendance grew from less than 10 members to currently levels during a nine month period in the late 2000s.[13]  In 2009, the Narva Branch had less than 20 attending meetings.  In March 2010, the Parnu Branch had 35 attending Church weekly – nearly double Church attendance in January 2009 – whereas there were 87 members on the branch records.  One of the Tallinn Branches had 80-100 attending weekly in mid-2009.  42 were enrolled in seminary or institute during the 2008-2009 school year.  Active membership likely stands around 200-225, or 20-23% of total membership.

 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Estonian, Russian.

Translations of General Conference talks in Estonian began in 1996 and the first Estonian edition of the Liahona was published in 1999.  The Book of Mormon translation in Estonian became available in 2000.  All LDS scriptures are available in Russian whereas only the Book of Mormon is available in Estonian.  Many institute, music, missionary, primary, young women, Priesthood, Sunday School, Relief Society, and unit materials are translated in Estonian and Russian.  Only one Church video and stories from the Doctrine and Covenants are available in Estonian.  The Liahona magazine has two issues in Estonian and 12 in Russian a year. 

 

Meetinghouses

The first and only Church-built meetinghouse was completed in late 1999.  Congregations outside of Tallinn meet in renovated buildings or rented spaces.

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

Food was donated by the Church to needy members in Estonia and Russia in 1991.[14]  Food shipments continued from the Europe Area in 1992.[15]

 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

LDS missionaries may openly proselyte.  Government has not restricted Church activities.  The Church may face some obstacles in registering small congregations with fewer than 12 members.  

 

Cultural Issues

Secularism is the greatest barrier to mission outreach.  Most Estonians do not consider religion an important aspect of everyday life and have become increasingly more secular due to Soviet occupation during much of the 20th century and increasing materialism.  Moderate to high rates of cigarette and alcohol use present barriers for many prospective members and contribute to convert relapse when substance addictions have not been fully overcome.

 

The Church has benefited from the strong Estonian ties to Scandinavia and Central Europe as there is greater tolerance for other religious groups.  This has likely increased receptiveness to the Church as indicated by the relatively high percentage of nominal LDS members compared to the rest of Eastern Europe.  

 

National Outreach

The Church has established outreach centers in cities which account for 47% of the national population.  Missionaries serve in four of Estonian’s 15 administrative counties which are home to 72% of the national population.  Rural areas distant from the largest cities will be the most challenging for mission outreach due to their small populations and remote locations. 

 

Larger cities within counties possessing current outreach centers appear likely for future mission efforts.  The opening of Keila to missionary work in late 2009 was the first full-time missionary effort in a city with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.  There are nearly 80 cities with 1,000 to 10,000 inhabitants without congregations.  Large cities in unreached counties also appear likely candidates for active missionary efforts.  Additional cities will likely only open once active members living in these locations facilitate the development of the Church’s basic organization and infrastructure as well as reducing reliance of new converts on foreign missionaries for Church administration.

 

In recent years, the Church maintains an official website for Estonia in Estonian at http://www.jeesusekristusekirik.ee/.  The website allows for Estonians to investigate the Church in locations with and without mission outreach and to request additional information. 

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Member activity and convert retention has been poor over the past decade, evidenced by membership nearly doubling whereas sacrament attendance increased by less than 25%.  Low member participation led to the closure of the second Estonian-speaking branch in Tallinn in 1997 and the brief consolidation of the Russian and Estonian branches in Tallinn in the 2000s.  Missionaries have served in Narva for nearly a decade, yet active membership remains very small and unable to provide its own leadership.  tactics of missionaries baptizing investigators who have not made necessary life changes in firmly establishing positive gospel habits and fully overcoming negative behaviors, as well as language and cultural issues, appear the greatest contributors to member inactivity and convert retention problems. 

 

The Estonian-speaking Tallinn 1st Branch is regarded as one of the best functioning congregations in the Baltic States.  The branch has a full branch presidency and Estonian youth passing the sacrament, uncommon characteristics for much of Eastern Europe.  There are also several member families in the branch.  Close associations between active members may pose challenges for new converts to integrate into the congregation. 

 

Future growth and improved member activity will largely depend on Estonian members serving missions and participating in member-missionary work.  In 2009, a senior missionary couple from the United States served in Tartu and Parnu.  The wife was Estonian and fled to Sweden in 1944 and later immigrated to the United States where she married an American.  The senior couple greatly facilitated the growth in these two cities, especially by increasing sacrament attendance. [16]  Native Estonian couples and young local missionaries may outperform foreign missionaries in some ways.

 

Outreach among youth is challenging as adults account for the bulk of membership.  Missionaries report challenges in fellowshipping youth investigators as they often lose interestin the Church with few active members to associate with. 

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Estonians and Russians composing 93.5% of the population.  Integrating these two ethnic groups into the same congregation poses difficulties due to language barriers,historical conflict, and ongoing political tensions.  Some cultural differences with etiquette and social attitudes may hamper greater cooperation and understanding between these two ethnicities in an ecclesiastical and social setting. 

 

Language Issues

The large number of Russian speakers in the predominantly Estonian-speaking population challenges mission efforts for both language groups.  In Tallinn, membership is large enough to justify a Russian-speaking congregation whereas in other locations, congregations must accommodate speakers of both languages.  In Narva, the branch is predominantly Russian-speaking whereas in Parnu, Estonian is most spoken in Church although there are several Russian members.  Language use in smaller congregations may alternate based on whether Russian or Estonian speakers form the majority of active membership.  Shifts in language use in small congregations may pose difficulties for activity and convert retention.  In recent years, the Baltic Mission has reported challenges in simultaneously staffing Estonian and Russian-speaking missionaries as there is also demand for the limited number of Russian-speaking missionaries in Latvia and Lithuania. 

 

The Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price are in the process of translation into Estonian.  Once completed, these scriptures will provide additional gospel understanding and resources to members and investigators. 

 

Missionary Service

Two districts of full-time missionaries served in Estonia (one Estonian-speaking and one Russian-speaking) in mid-2009.  There are very few native Estonian missionaries.  Outreach among youth and involvement in regular member-missionary activities may help instill desire for more Estonians to serve missions and lessen reliance on foreign missionaries. Estonia is likely to remain highly dependent on foreign missionaries for many years because of the small number of youth members potentially eligible for missionary service.

 

Leadership

Estonia benefits from strong local leaders who have served in the Church for over a decade, but remain limited in numbers.  There were 50 men who held the Melchizedek Priesthood in the late 1990s.  In early 2010, native branch presidents lead both Tallinn branches and the Tartu Branch whereas missionaries lead branches in Parnu and Narva.  District conferences usually only have few male members announced to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood.  Developing local leadership in small congregations will promote greater stability and foster long-term growth.

 

Temple

Estonia belongs to the Finland Helsinki Temple district.  Prior to the completion of the temple in 2006, members traveled to the Stockholm Sweden Temple.  Temple trips occur regularly.  Members benefit from the close proximity of the temple despite the few members who live in Estonia.  Finland and Estonia’s membership in the European Union facilitates border crossing to attend the temple. 

 

Comparative Growth

Estonian has seen growth comparable to Latvia and Lithuania as all these nations have between 900 and 1,100 members.  Estonia has the highest percentage of LDS members among national population, with twice the percentage of Latvia and four times the percentage of Lithuania.  Member activity appears comparable to other Baltic States.  Membership and congregation growth remain low compared to many other nations. 

 

Other Christian groups report little growth.  The Seventh-day Adventist Church has seen very slow growth over the past decade.  Jehovah’s Witnesses comparable membership growth rates with the LDS Church but substantially higher total membership and ten times as many congregations.  Most Christian groups appear to have had better development of local leadership and member participation than the LDS Church, likely because these groups have been less reliant on foreign missionaries, have better mobilized member-missionary outreach, or have operated in Estonia longer than the LDS Church.

 

Future Prospects

The future outlook for growth in Estonia appears mildly positive as older members continue to stay active and more outlaying congregations experience increases in Church attendance.  The organization of a new branch in Parnu and the opening of Keila for missionary work in the past few years indicate that the Baltic Mission has interest in expanding national outreach if results in recently opened areas justify additional expansion.Due to its large population and proximity to Narva and Tallinn, Kohtla-Jarve appears a likely candidate for future mission outreach.  The vision of a future stake for Estonia appears unlikely to come to fruition within the next three decades as total and active membership numbers and present real growth rates are too low to support a stake.

 

Retention of converts remains a major challenge requiring substantial improvement. Small family size among existing members, the low number of active youth members, and small cohort of future missionaries pose challenges for the goal of the church becoming self-sustaining and self-perpetuating in Estonia.



[1]  “Estonia,” Countries and Their Cultures, retrieved 13 April 2010.  http://www.everyculture.com/Cr-Ga/Estonia.html

[2]  “Estonia,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127308.htm

[3] “Estonia,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127308.htm

[4]  “Returning home to her native Estonia,” LDS Church News, 5 September 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57848/Returning-home-to-her-native-Estonia.html

[5]  “‘Lots of opportunity to share gospel’,” LDS Church News, 28 December 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/21061/Lots-of-opportunity-to-share-gospel.html

[6]  “Growth of Church in ‘that vast empire’,” LDS Church News, 6 November 1993.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/23646/Growth-of-Church-in-that-vast-empire.html

[7]  “3 new missions established in Russia, Ukraine,” LDS Church News, 15 February 1992.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/22627/3-new-missions-established-in-Russia-Ukraine.html

[8]  “Eight new missions announced,” LDS Church News, 6 March 1993.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/23130/Eight-new-missions-announced.html

[9]  “Estonia,” Country Profiles, retrieved 12 April 2010.  http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/contact-us/estonia

[10]  “Faith taking hold in Narva,” LDS Church News, 10 February 2001.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/39311/Faith-taking-hold-in-Narva.html

[11]  “Baltic youth conference draws from four countries,” LDS Church News, 11 November 2000.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/38856/Baltic-youth-conference-draws-from-four-countries.html

[12]  Jegina, Inara; Klundt, Jo Ann.  “History visit to Latvian saints,” LDS Church News, 26 September 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57926/Historic-visit-to-Latvian-saints.html

[13] “Returning home to her native Estonia,” LDS Church News, 5 September 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57848/Returning-home-to-her-native-Estonia.html

[14]  “Food shipment eases Soviet hunger,” LDS Church News, 30 March 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/21004/Food-shipment-eases-Soviet-hunger.html

[15]  “Humanitarian relief in Europe,” LDS Church News, 29 February 1992.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/22332/Humanitarian-relief-in-Europe.html

[16] “Returning home to her native Estonia,” LDS Church News, 5 September 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57848/Returning-home-to-her-native-Estonia.html