Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

The East West Church &  Ministry Report has issued a special theme edition examining the impact of the current Ukrainian crisis on the church and ministries in Ukraine and Russia.

This theme issue is now available in pdf format in English,  Russian, and Ukrainian.

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New, Western-Oriented Evangelicals in Ukraine

Esther Grace Long

Transnationalism – those cultural, economic, and demographic processes working across territorial boundaries – can take the form of neocolonialism. In such cases, the heavy weight of transnational capital tramples and destroys local social and economic structures. Some critics may wish to apply this label to the relationship between wealthy Western churches and poorer Ukrainian ones. However, while the effects of Western churches sending large amounts of money to Ukrainian churches are significant, Ukrainian Protestants are not unwilling recipients. In some instances they are the initiators. At other times they act as gatekeepers, controlling the nature of their relationships with Western partners.

A Background of Religious Diversity

Of special importance for processes of religious transformation in Ukraine is its background of religious diversity, in contrast to the predominance of one faith in many other post-Soviet republics. While Belarus and Russia are both dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church, in Ukraine three distinct Orthodox jurisdictions have not been able to agree upon a merger. As a result, no one church has state support. Complicating matters, Ukraine also has a substantial Catholic minority. Thus, the country has been called a “model of religious pluralism among formerly socialist societies.”1 A history of religious diversity has set the stage for a degree of religious freedom that, more than a decade after independence, has led to the growth of all religious faiths represented in Ukraine. These include three main divisions of Orthodox Christianity, two forms of Catholicism, and historical Protestant churches. Moreover, the diversity of organized religious expression in Ukraine continues to grow.

The Expansion of Religious Ties Abroad

The arrival of religious freedom led directly to the development of transnational linkages between religious organizations in Ukraine and religious organizations in other countries. This has happened in virtually all faith communities, from Orthodox to Protestant to Jewish to Muslim. Although Ukrainian Baptist churches have a history of interaction with the West that dates back to the nineteenth century and that continued, albeit in a limited way, during the decades of the Soviet Union, transnational networking has flourished at a new level since the era of glasnost and Ukraine’s independence in 1991. This transnational access has fundamentally influenced Ukrainian religious life. For people involved in religious organizations in Ukraine, transnational affiliations do not remain in the purely religious arena, but can affect all areas of life. Examples of this include education, as more people study at religious colleges and seminaries funded by international partners; economic, as jobs are created in church construction, humanitarian aid, and religious publishers; social, as Ukrainians develop

 

Sources: Reports of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, as published in Ludina i Svit, 1994-2003; Religious Information Service of Ukraine, posted on Portal-credo.ru, 10 August 2007. Totals include places of regular worship, administrative centers of registered and unregistered religious organizations, monasteries, missions, and theological educational institutions

friendships and even establish families with foreign visitors; and medical, through the work of visiting medical teams or through humanitarian projects to send needy Ukrainians overseas for complicated surgical procedures.

A common thread that ties the disparate collection of Ukrainian Protestant churches together is their pronounced transnationalism. That is, even relatively longstanding Ukrainian Baptist churches (not to mention newer churches founded by Western missionaries) are highly integrated within transnational networks of people, ideas, finance, and theological training.

A New Missionary Presence

When the Soviet parliament declared freedom of religion on 9 October 1990, a new era of church life began. The 1990 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations gave legal standing to religious groups, allowing them to be involved in religious education, publishing, and charity. This freedom brought many changes to established Protestant churches and opened Ukraine to missionaries from abroad. Missionaries came from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, including some sent by denominationally based churches (like the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America), those sent by non- or inter-denominational mission boards (like SEND International), and those who came independently or were sent by one or two home congregations. Some missionaries partnered with existing Ukrainian congregations, while others formed new independent churches. Churches begun by missionaries included such diverse traditions as Charismatic, Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Methodist, and independent evangelical. These new post-Soviet Protestant churches have some commonalities with Ukraine’s older Evangelical Christians-Baptists, and at times even collaborate with them on specific projects. But, by and large, the younger churches are quite different from the more traditional ones.

Ukrainian evangelicals fondly recall the early years of independence as the most fruitful era for their churches, when large numbers of people attended evangelistic meetings that were only minimally advertised. Churches could invite an American evangelist and on short notice fill a large hall with seekers. All evangelistic activities were well-attended; churches were full and were multiplying.

Protestant Growth

Although the percentage of Ukrainians who identify as Protestants remains small, especially compared to traditional Orthodox churches and the Greek Catholic Church, the 1990s saw real growth. According to sociological surveys, while in 1994 only 0.6 percent of Ukraine’s population identified itself as Protestant, by 2001 that figure had risen to 2.5 percent.2 From 1994 to 2003 the number of Protestant communities more than doubled, growing faster than most other groups.

Only the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church grew faster (by 74 percent). The number of registered Protestant communities grew 53 percent; the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (both Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchates) by 40 percent, the Roman Catholic Church by 30 percent, and the Greek Catholic Church by 11 percent.3 Today, Protestant churches make up about one quarter of all registered religious communities in Ukraine.

Missionary Support for Ukrainian Baptists

Most Evangelical Christian-Baptist (ECB) churches work with American groups in a variety of evangelistic, humanitarian, educational, and building projects. It is not uncommon for large urban ECB churches to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from Western supporters, primarily for church building projects. Most Ukrainian cities, and many small towns, now boast new Baptist church buildings constructed primarily with Western funds and Ukrainian labor. Western short-term teams have worked alongside Ukrainian Baptists in children’s camps, evangelistic projects, English classes, medical ministries, and construction projects. Some missionaries have worked with ECB churches for longer periods, helping establish Bible colleges and seminaries (such as Tavriskiy Christian Institute in Kherson) and other ministries.

Charismatic Megachurches

In line with recent patterns of church growth around the world in which Charismatic churches have tended to grow faster than other forms of Christianity, one of Ukraine’s largest and fastest-growing congregations is a Charismatic mega-church in Kyiv, the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations. Its Nigerian-born pastor, Sunday Adelaja, started the church in the early 1990s, soon after graduating with a journalism degree from the Belorussian State University. He moved to Kyiv to work for a television station and began the church in early 1994. The church website (www.godembassy.org) claims 25,000 worshippers in Kyiv, 40 weekly services in Kyiv, between one and two thousand people fed daily in soup kitchens, 600 churches planted in 45 countries, and status as Europe’s largest evangelical charismatic church. Victory Christian Church is another large Charismatic congregation in Kyiv, also with an African pastor who studied in the Soviet Union. Henry Madava, from Zimbabwe, who started Victory Church in 1992 with five supporters, now ministers to several thousand worshippers, advertising more than 40 ministries, 700 small groups, plus a vision of establishing churches “in every city and village of Ukraine as well as in large cities abroad” (www.victorychurch.org.ua/en). Other Ukrainian cities also have at least one sizable Charismatic congregation established since independence. For example, a large Charismatic church with an African pastor meets every Sunday at a sports arena in Vinnytsia. Kherson has a Charismatic

church, Great Commission Church, whose pastor is a former Ukrainian Pentecostal. The church began in 1992 and now, according to its website has more than 2,000 members, making it the largest evangelical church in the city (www.gcc.kherson.ua). It is a member of the Independent Charismatic Christian Churches Union of Ukraine.

Independent Missionary Church Plants

A second category of new churches consists of relatively small, independent, often Baptist, congregations started by foreign missionaries. These are what Mark Elliott has called “unaffiliated” churches.4 L’viv, for example, is home to at least four independent evangelical churches. One church started by Americans meets in the center of L’viv in a rented hall, is led by a Ukrainian pastor, and typically has 80 worshippers in attendance. The second, New Life Church, with an all-Ukrainian pastoral staff, has purchased and is in the process of renovating property in a former factory. Some American missionaries attend the church, but do not work there per se. New Life, with attendance around 50, is involved in prison ministry and the building is being remodeled so that it can be a halfway house. Two additional independent churches in L’viv include Gethsemane, with about 100 members, their own building, and an all-Ukrainian pastoral staff, and Christ’s Living Word, a congregation led by an American missionary and attended by about 30 people.

The Nazarene Church

Finally, new churches have been started through the efforts of missionaries representing other established denominations from abroad. Many of these efforts are relatively small scale, with just one or a handful of churches started by each mission to date. The Nazarene Church in Vinnytsia would be an example. This mission-minded, holiness church traces its roots to the Wesleyan revival of the 18th century and to the 19th and 20th century holiness movement. According to the website of this American-born denomination, the church has two Western missionary families working in Ukraine (www.nazarene.org). No American missionaries are working at the Nazarene church in Vinnytsia, but one U.S. Nazarene missionary in Kyiv recruited a Ukrainian to lead a church planting team for that city. The new Ukrainian pastor, a former prison inmate and drug addict, his wife, also a former addict, and another Ukrainian couple moved to Vinnytsia in 2001 to begin work there. Within one year the congregation numbered about 100 members and was continuing to grow. The church bought its own property and is constructing a worship center and drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. (See the website for Nazarene churches in Ukraine: www.destinationukraine/index.html.) The first time I visited this Nazarene church, I was accompanied by Vika, a young woman of about 20 who had been raised in the Baptist church. She recently had come through several years of hard

living, with a husband in prison, no job, and a child to support. Vika and her five-year-old son had been attending the Nazarene church faithfully since her conversion and had spent time at the church nearly every day of the week for Bible study, prayer, worship, or some other event. She never suggested that she received any financial or humanitarian aid from the church – it seemed to be spiritual and social reasons that drew her to the group.

The worship style and physical appearance of the congregation at the Nazarene church were quite different from the ECB church in the same city. The Nazarenes had adopted a worship style commonly called “contemporary” in Western churches, as opposed to “traditional.” They had no choir, they replaced the piano with an electric band, and they sang new songs and choruses instead of the 19th- and 20th- century hymns favored by the Baptists. This kind of worship is increasingly practiced by young Protestants of various Ukrainian denominations, but is not yet widespread among Ukraine’s Evangelical Christians-Baptists, who see it as Western and not “holy.” The physical appearance of the Nazarene worshippers also differs from that of the ECB congregation. Most of the women wear pants, makeup, and jewelry, all of which are forbidden in the Baptist church. Some men dress in blue jeans – worship attire frowned upon by Baptists. Nazarene worship has a joyous, festive atmosphere, in strong contrast to the somber tone of the Baptist church. F

The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Esther Grace Long, “Identity in Evangelical Ukraine: Negotiating Regionalism, Nationalism, and Transnationalism,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2005.

Esther Grace Long is assistant professor of geography, Morehead State University, Morehead, Kentucky.

Notes:

1 Catherine Wanner, “Missionaries of Faith and Culture: Evangelical Encounters in Ukraine,” Slavic Review 63 (no.4, 2004), 736.

2 Alexei D. Krindatch, “Religion in Post-Soviet Ukraine as a Factor in Regional, Ethno-Cultural and Political Diversity,” Religion, State and Society 31 (no.1, 2003), 42.

3 State Committee for Religious Affairs, as published in Ludina i Svit, 1994-2003.

4 Mark Elliott and Robert Richardson, “Growing Protestant Diversity in the Former Soviet Union” in Russian Pluralism; Now Irreversible?, ed. by Uri Ra’anan et al. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 19.