Baptist Church Planting in Odessa, Ukraine
Dale Alan Ledbetter
Within the city of Odessa, Ukraine, several areas feature high-rise apartments in close proximity. In one specific area, more than 300,000 people live within a one-kilometer radius. This section of the city, Taierova, is home to only one small Baptist church. In the late 1990s, this church experienced internal leadership problems and, as a result, more than 50 members departed. Church members have done very little to evangelize the area.
For over a decade prior to 2001, the pastor of Odessa’s Central Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church (ECB) oversaw all evangelistic and church planting endeavors within the city limits of Odessa. In those years, in a city of 1.1 million, only two ECB churches were organized, and the Central Church pastor was not directly involved in either. His church of more than 2,000 members had the highest level of education of any of the denomination’s churches in the region, yet in all those years no one emerged as a church planter for urban areas.
A genuine psychological barrier existed among the leadership of the ECB in targeting urbanites. It was simply easier to start churches using an established small-town and village model. In addition, a geographically oriented philosophy dominated the strategy of the local ECB leadership. One church in a given area was seen as enough, regardless of how many people lived there.
For a number of years, several men were assigned to church planting in the Odessa Region. Not one of them, however, was specifically assigned to any of the urban areas of Odessa, but rather, to various small villages and towns throughout the region. Most of these church planters, who lived within the city limits of Odessa, traveled four or five hours in one direction to carry the Gospel to villages of a few hundred people. These few hundred people needed to hear the Gospel, but so did the 300,000 in Taierova. What is most remarkable is that many of these church planters had never been to Taierova, even though it is less than an hour away by public transportation from any location in Odessa. As an American Southern Baptist missionary working in Ukraine, church leaders frequently approached me asking for help in finding funds for travel expenses for these church planters since they could not afford to travel to these villages. Yet, fares for public transportation to Taierova cost a very affordable 28 cents.
In these same years many short-term mission teams from the West were coming to Odessa. During the year 2000 alone, more than 25 groups of volunteers visited the Odessa Region. With this in mind, it was necessary to address their involvement in any new approach to church planting. Although most volunteers had good intentions, often their efforts were not very effective. Ignorance of the culture and religious worldview and the giving of financial help that led to dependency limited their effectiveness and, in some cases, actually hurt existing ministries. When Western volunteers came and saw the extreme poverty in Ukraine, they naturally wanted to help. The easiest way to make a quick contribution and to ease the conscience was to give money. But many times what was meant as a “shot in the arm” contributed to dependency and stifled initiative.
On many occasions I observed money given with good intentions leading to disastrous results. Buildings have been built with the use of outside financial help, only to discover that the congregations could not afford to pay utilities. Enormous building projects were started with plans to seat four or five times the current membership of churches, simply because leaders thought the supply of foreign financial aid was limitless. One church began a huge construction project, knowing that its resident membership had decreased by eight percent the previous year. In the Odessa Region specifically, at various points prior to completion, 16 buildings came to a halt because anticipated funds never materialized.
Financial help from outside sources has had a major negative impact on the rate of church growth in Odessa. Contributions from the West have limited potential growth and stifled incentive. This type of financial aid is in direct contradiction to the counsel of church-planting advocate Donald A. McGavran: “It is generally agreed that the less physical and financial support the missionary gives the indigenous Christians and congregations the better.”1
An interesting example of the debilitating effects of dependency occurred in the area of Taierova during our evangelistic outreach in 2000. Western Christians gave Calvary Baptist, the district’s only existing Baptist church, $150,000 to purchase a building that would be renovated for its use. The church had been meeting in a rented movie theater for several years. After obtaining the new building, however, the congregation quickly ended its agreement with the theater and began meeting in the new facility. Moods were joyous and activity was lively – as long as the weather remained warm.
As fall approached, however, church leaders began to approach all the Westerners they knew have a furnace, nor a natural gas connection. The estimate for such an endeavor was an additional $5,000. The mind-set which would consider the purchase of a building without heat in the first place perfectly illustrates the issue of dependency and the stifling of incentive. The church knew about the problem but fully expected a Western sponsor to bail it out when the need arose. Very little thought was given to living within one’s means.
Therefore, in structuring a new model for church planting in Odessa, I sought to find ways both to reach the unreached in the city itself while, at the same time, not contributing to dependence on outside financing. In 1999 and 2000 I arranged for American short-term teams to collaborate with Ukrainian church planters in reaching urban Odessa, including a group of seven from Brandon, Mississippi, led by Dr. Lannie Wilbourne, and a team of 14 from First Baptist Church, Springdale, Arkansas, led by Rev. Doug Sarver.
Densely-Populated Districts Without Witness
After several visits to the Taierova section of Odessa, it became clear that God intended for one “micro-region” to be the top priority area in the project. Physically, the area along Alexander Hevskovo Street is no more than 300 meters square, bordered on two sides by streets and on two sides by private homes. Local authorities stated that more than 30,000 people lived in this small area, which included approximately 25 high-rise apartment buildings, ranging from nine to 16 stories each. A person can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes.
A second district chosen for focused outreach was in the vicinity of Marshall Zjukovo Street. Here, approximately 30 high-rise apartment buildings housed an estimated 40,000 people. This area of no more than 400 meters square is bordered on three sides by private homes.
A third district chosen was adjacent to Koralova Street, the principal meeting place and shopping bazaar for the 300,000 people in the Taierova region. Several thousand people shop there daily. Our focus was a compact area directly across the street from this bazaar containing more than 40 high-rise apartment buildings with an estimated 50,000 residents.
Finally, we also included Glueshko Street in our church planting efforts. Located directly behind the Koralova Street bazaar, it is the most densely populated of the four areas chosen, with over 60 high-rise apartments and an estimated 72,000 residents in an area of approximately one-half-square kilometer.
Orientation and Evangelistic Resources
Two resources that proved invaluable in the orientation of volunteers were Guidebook for Volunteer Missionaries in Ukraine and a brochure I prepared on Orthodoxy entitled Rabbit’s Foot Religion. These were forwarded to American group leaders who in turn shared them with their team members prior to their departure for Odessa. The guidebook had been previously produced by a joint effort of several missionaries in Ukraine. It helped answer many logistical and cultural questions and stressed the need for flexibility and for a people-oriented rather than task-oriented approach to witness. It also contained helpful information on the subject of giving financial aid in such a way that it does not hurt the mission effort. In addition to various evangelistic tracts, American and Ukrainian team members distributed the Russian translation of Charles Brock, Good News for You (Neosha, MO: Church Growth International, n.d.) and I Have Been Born Again: What Next?
Our evangelistic outreach in the Taierova district of Odessa involved collaboration between American short-term missionaries and selected Ukrainians with a heart for spreading the Gospel. At the outset of the urban outreach in Taierova, translators and Ukrainian national workers escorted American team members to the four assigned locations. Evangelistic efforts included street witnessing, preaching, distribution of tracts, and use of the Campus Crusade Jesus film. “Prayer-walking, praying on site with insight,” also played an integral part in this process.2
On numerous occasions, members of our American short-term teams shared the Gospel directly with individuals or small groups. These special times proved to be most fulfilling for the participants personally. As instructed, team members did not pressure people for a decision. While only three or four persons actually prayed the sinner’s prayer during street witnessing, these few appeared to be genuine and, in each case, the individuals were introduced to one of the Ukrainian church planters for future follow-up.
The Jesus Film
The Jesus film played an important role in this evangelistic effort. The Evangelical Christian-Baptist district office loaned the outreach team a small generator, a portable sound system, and a video player, while the group brought a portable video projector from the states. The teams used word-of-mouth as the only method of advertising the event, making a special effort to invite people they had met during the week. As the site for the event they chose the courtyard outside the centrally located neighborhood administrative offices, obtaining permission from local police and administrators to show the film on the outside wall of the administration building. Shortly before dark, team members set up their equipment and showed a children’s Bible cartoon film as a means of gathering a crowd. Team member Sergei Reyus then briefly introduced the Jesus film, based on Luke’s Gospel
Launching Bible Studies
As the film progressed, children and youth crowded near the front while adults tended to observe from a distance. This separation allowed older viewers to watch the film without appearing to be involved. As a result, team members had ample opportunities to witness to onlookers as they showed interest during the film. When the film concluded, Sergei Reyus spoke briefly on the meaning of repentance, thanked everyone for coming, and invited those interested to attend the Bible study to be held the following night in the same courtyard. He instructed those who wanted to speak with someone about spiritual matters to remain afterwards, and then closed the event with a brief prayer. Of the roughly 200 people who watched the film, approximately 10 adults remained afterwards. Team members spoke with these individuals and distributed New Testaments and Bible study materials to them. These interested persons were encouraged to attend the Bible study the next night.
In addition to children, approximately 10 older teenagers and young adults attended the first Bible study. While the children were provided with a program of their own, Sergei Reyus conducted the Bible study with the older attendees. Although he began with the Good News for You study, in just a few minutes the inquisitive nature of the young people led to a revised format of questions and answers. Even when the meeting was brought to a close after more than an hour, some young people remained with more questions. The figures for the combined teams for the week were impressive. General contacts numbered over 1,000, with lengthier interchanges numbering 172. The Gospel was shared in a serious manner 15 times with ten professions of faith. As a whole, the groups averaged 146 people in attendance at various events each night.
As for follow-up, indigenous believers continued to work in these areas with no means of support or payment for expenses. They had happily agreed to do so and gave no indication that money was an issue in their decision whether or not to continue. However, though unspoken, it was known that this was a financial burden to them. The strategy of not using outside funding for this project presented a dilemma. Although indigenous workers probably could not perform their duties for long without funding, the desire was to avoid setting a precedent, creating dependence, or stifling initiative. After much prayer and seeking advice from a number of sources, the decision was made to give each worker a monthly stipend of $100.00. This would be taken from a gift of $5,000 that had been donated by Doug Sarver’s group from Arkansas. The team agreed to the standard of working a minimum of twice per week in their respective areas.
In reference to the subject of outside funding for indigenous workers, church- planting specialist David Garrison argues that it is acceptable in cases where the Gospel is being introduced from the outside for the first time. He writes: Money is not inherently evil. It has a vital role to play in the support of missionaries and promotion of things lost people or new believers cannot do for themselves. Any time the Gospel is introduced to a new people group, external support is required.3 With this in mind, Ukrainian workers were told that this stipend would be limited and would only be used for evangelizing the unreached urban population of Taierova. This was to be an outreach stipend only for the purpose of introducing the Gospel, and once achieved, it would cease.
Judging the Effort
Starting a church within the scope of this project was probably not possible. The goal, instead, was to establish ongoing small-group Bible studies that could one day mature into churches. This was accomplished in two of the four selected districts, Alexander Hevskovo Street, with its 25 high-rise apartment buildings, and Koralova Street, with its more-than-40 high-rise apartment buildings. Was the project a success? The simple answer is yes. The stated goal of starting small-group Bible studies using indigenous and reproducible methods was achieved. At the conclusion of the project, two vibrant Bible studies were being conducted on a weekly basis. F
Edited excerpts published with permission from Dale Alan Ledbetter, “An Urban Evangelism and Church Planting Project for Odessa, Ukraine,” Doctor of Ministry dissertation, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 2001.
Dale Alan Ledbetter is director of missions, Maury Baptist Association, Columbia, Tennessee.
1 The Bridges of God (London: World Dominion Press, 1955), 79-80.
2 Steve Hawthorne and Graham Kendrick, Prayerwalking: Praying on Site with Insight (Orlando, FL: Creation House, 1993), 10.
3 David Garrison, Church Planting Movements (Richmon