The Role of Evangelicals in Spiritual Reformation in Russia
It is becoming evident that Protestant believers will not be able to bring large sectors of the Russian populace to faith in Christ. Russia’s long history of distrust of the West underscores the improbability of a massive shift of the Russian people toward Protestantism. Conversely, attempts to reform Eastern Orthodoxy by enriching it with certain progressive ideas and approaches borrowed from the West have especially borne good fruit. The following points are illustrative examples:
• Evangelical Christians initiated and have been actively developing Christian summer camp ministries. Now Orthodox sponsor a significant number of summer camps. For example, Kursk area authorities have given the Kursk Orthodox Eparchy (for free) well-developed summer camp facilities. The Kursk area Government Social Fund covers most camp expenses.
• Following the example of Evangelicals, some Orthodox churches now arrange a few pews for those parishioners who cannot stand through the whole worship service. Even Korrennaya Pustyn’, one of the most venerated ancient Orthodox monasteries, has such pews in its main church.
• Upon the request of congregation members, some Orthodox ministers now spend more time preaching, explaining Scripture, and teaching about Christian life and church structure. The Moscow Patriarchate and its Missionary Department pay close attention to increasing preaching and evangelism. Using a number of TV programs broadcast nationwide, they introduce new ways of sharing the Gospel via contemporary music concerts and youth congresses followed by well-prepared preaching.
• Since the 1990s Evangelical Christians have been employing mass media – radio, television, printed literature, and the Internet. The Orthodox are now utilizing mass media more extensively, at times even forcing Protestants out of the market. For example, in 1998 an Orthodox radio program took the place of a weekly Evangelical program, which had been broadcast on a Kursk area government station since 1990. Moreover, Orthodox believers have largely adopted the format of Protestant radio and television programs and design.
• Reflecting the model of evangelically produced television programs, nowadays Orthodox television programs not only offer worship services, but also interesting sermons, topical programs, and discussions produced by Orthodox believers. These programs tend to focus more on Christ and salvation by His grace and less on Orthodox traditions. The present head of the Kursk Orthodox Eparchy Mission Department is a former charismatic believer. During his five years in a fiery charismatic church he learned many good things. Now his preaching and weekly Sunday morning TV programs are focused on Christ, salvation by grace, genuine faith, and true Christian life.
• Additional ideas originating with Protestants, but now often borrowed by Orthodox, include Sunday schools, adult small groups, and youth ministry. The Moscow Patriarchate strongly encourages all parishes to establish and develop a Sunday school in each church and to cultivate community life within each church. A number of Orthodox youth organizations and youth groups were established. Their format, and even music, clearly resemble Evangelical youth work practices.
• Orthodox readers and schools now have access to an increasing number of books and educational materials. It is not uncommon to find Protestant resources revised and rewritten by Orthodox writers, then published under an Orthodox “cover.” For example, the Orthodox biology school textbook, developed for Orthodox schools as well as for state schools, utilizes many materials borrowed from Western Christianity. Orthodox priest Sergiy Rasskazovsky developed systematic theology for use in 36 Orthodox seminaries and many colleges in Russia. This is notable because for almost 20 centuries Orthodoxy did not produce such work, because developing systematic theology was felt to be an improper approach to the “mystery of God.”
• Since the beginning of perestroika, Evangelical believers have focused their greatest evangelistic efforts on schools, army bases, prisons, public transportation, and other public places, and producing evangelistic literature. Such practices are gaining wider popularity among Orthodox.
They have launched special programs in secondary schools, opened new departments in universities and colleges, and arranged army, prison, and highway travelers’ chapels. Orthodox have also developed and broadened literature distribution.
• Orthodox believers employ Protestant methodology in ministering to drug addicts, alcoholics (Twelve Step programs), and women considering abortion. They tend to be more effective than Protestants because of the culturally ingrained trust Russians place in the Orthodox Church. Orthodox are no strangers to the Russian people, while Protestants are perceived as foreign and therefore untrustworthy.
Despite their small numbers, Evangelical Christians play an important role in Russia’s spiritual life. Therefore, Evangelical churches and ministries must be viewed as more than a place where people hear the Good News of Jesus, receive salvation, and grow spiritually. Of greater significance is their function as a channel for new ideas, experiences, methods, and forms of ministry originating in Western Christianity. This is a gift and blessing which Russian Orthodoxy may find beneficial as it seeks to develop and further expand the Kingdom of God in Russia. ♦
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Igor Petrov, “Spiritual Reformation in Russia: The Roles of Domestic and Foreign Evangelicals,” Common Ground Journal 4 (Fall 2006): 28-36; www.commongroundjournal.org.
Igor Petrov, a Ph.D. candidate at Trinity International University, Deerfield, Illinois, teaches at Kursk Trinity Bible College, Kursk, Russia.