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.

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New, Western-Oriented Evangelicals in Ukraine

Esther Grace Long

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 16 (Winter 2008), 4-6.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church

Another example of a Western denomination actively starting new churches in Ukraine is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a conservative denomination that left the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1973. Through its mission agency, Mission to the World (MTW), the PCA has been working in Ukraine since 1994 and now has 10 churches in that country. Two of these are now officially independent, while the other eight are at various stages of development, from small Bible studies to a mission church with a Ukrainian pastor and board. These churches have formed a new Ukrainian denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ukraine (EPCU), which is led by Ukrainian pastors and elders. Its churches are concentrated in southern Ukraine (Izmail, Bilhorod-Dnestrovskiy, Nikolaev, Kherson, and two in Odessa), with an additional three in Kyiv, one in Kharkiv, and plans for more underway, such as in L’viv. Several EPCU congregations began as Bible studies led by CoMission workers in 1994, including the two Presbyterian churches in Bilhorod-Dnestrovskiy and Kherson. At the time of the fieldwork for this project, the Bilhorod congregation did not have an American church planter in residence, but the Kherson church had four full-time American missionaries in addition to a Ukrainian pastor. Several young men who attended seminary also worked part-time at the Kherson church.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ukraine is an example of a small evangelical denomination (fewer than 1,500 members in all churches combined) whose size cannot compare to the much larger Baptist or charismatic movements. Nevertheless, it contributes to the complex, growing mosaic of Protestant churches in Ukraine. The flagship EPCU congregation in Odessa meets in a restored church building originally constructed at the end of the nineteenth century by a Reformed congregation with French, German, and Swiss members. French and German language services were held there until at least 1914, but the Soviet government confiscated the property and used it for, among other things, a puppet theater. In the mid-1990s, after MTW had begun work in Odessa and a small congregation had been formed, some of the new Ukrainian Presbyterians made contact with an elderly Reformed pastor still living in western Ukraine. He wrote a letter on behalf of the Reformed denomination declaring the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Odessa to be the physical and moral heirs of the Reformed church in that city. Odessa Presbyterians were able to use this letter in a court case. In turn, the city gave the Presbyterians the Reformed Church/puppet theater building with the expectation that the new owners would renovate the property. MTW missionaries were able to raise considerable funds in the United States, with renovations now completed.

The Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine

The EPCU has opened a theological seminary in Kyiv in partnership with the Ukrainian Evangelical Reformed Church (UERC). This other small denomination existed in Ukraine before the Bolshevik Revolution, with remnants surviving in several Ukrainian villages and towns during the Soviet era, mostly in the western part of the country. Despite a long history in Ukraine, by the time of Ukraine’s independence, only a handful of Reformed churches existed outside Transcarpathia (a largely ethnic Hungarian region of Ukraine that had been strongly influenced by the Protestant Reformation). The Reformed Church’s closest foreign partner is a Dutch denomination, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, which has been sending missionaries and financial resources to support Ukrainian Reformed churches and the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine. The seminary, registered with the Ukrainian government in 2003, relies on professors from the Netherlands and the United States to teach modular classes several times a year for men and women seminarians who also work part-time in their home churches. The EPCU has also opened a Bible college to prepare Ukrainians who do not have a university education for eventual admission to the seminary.

Greater Grace Church

One case study, Greater Grace Church in L’viv, falls outside the large charismatic, smaller independent, or denominational parameters. It was started by missionaries affiliated with Greater Grace Church, Baltimore, Maryland, a large independent congregation that has established over 100 churches in 54 countries. The team that started Greater Grace Church in L’viv included Americans and Poles who arrived in the early 1990s. By the time I arrived in L’viv in 2003, the Americans had all left, the church owned its own building, and it was more or less financially independent from its American home base. A businessman in the congregation had helped the church purchase a three-story storefront building within walking distance of the opera house.

The church paid its utility bills with profits from its English school, a business catering mostly to Ukrainians preparing to emigrate to the West. The church also had recently opened a Christian day school for children, although it was not yet financially independent and consisted only of kindergartners and first graders. Of the four new churches I have profiled in my research, Greater Grace was seemingly the most independent and mature. The church operated a wide variety of ministries, including an adult evening Bible school, a crisis pregnancy center, and an evangelistic mime team, and continued to grow. Attendance was about 150 people in early 2003, filling the worship hall to capacity. The church since has moved its worship services to a larger rented facility.

Lifestyle Contrasts Between New and Traditional Evangelicals

The broad spectrum of evangelical churches in Ukraine encompasses most Protestant ideologies and practices. Some churches speak in tongues, while others forbid it. Some groups permit moderate alcohol consumption, dancing, and card playing, while others prohibit these practices. Most churches in Ukraine believe in salvation by free will and teach that salvation can be lost; others (such as Presbyterian and Reformed churches) adhere to predestination and the doctrine of eternal security.

While some of these social and theological differences apply as well to more traditional Ukrainian churches and do not necessarily mark the divide between more indigenous congregations and Western church plants, one clearly distinguishing mark of churches begun by foreign missionaries is their willingness to move away from traditional outward signs of religious submission, particularly regarding clothing styles and cosmetics for women. In most Ukrainian Protestant churches, for example, women are required to wear skirts or dresses to worship services, while married women must cover their heads with scarves or hats. Women should have long hair and minimal makeup and jewelry. Men must wear pants, not shorts, to worship and must have short hair.

These differences came to the forefront in 1994 when the CoMission Bible study in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskiy was deciding whether to join the local Baptist church or to form its own Presbyterian church. I asked the Presbyterian pastor and his wife, both of whom were converted during that initial Bible study, why they chose to form their own church rather than join a more established denomination. Dmitri and Lena shied away from the well-known behavioral restrictions in Baptist churches. Like the Nazarenes in Vinnytsia, they wanted to be able to wear any kind of clothes, dance, and take part in other activities forbidden by Baptists.

The church of the American missionaries symbolized freedom: freedom from social rules of dress and behavior, spiritual freedom (what Dmitri called “freedom in Christ”), and freedom to organize their own church from the ground up. These new Ukrainian Protestants chose to model their lives on American CoMission workers who lived with them for one year. Dmitri said repeatedly, “We wanted to be like the people from the Presbyterian Church,” to “look like them,” to “be such people.” Because of this choice, this small group of new believers founded an Evangelical Presbyterian congregation in Bilhorod. They maintain a friendly relationship with the Baptist church in town and treat many Baptists at their Christian Medical Clinic, but they decided not to join that church.

Conclusion

Most new Protestants who were converted to their churches by Western missionaries came out of atheistic or nominal Orthodox backgrounds. These new churches are in the process of indigenization, as Ukrainian church members assume leadership positions and Americans begin reducing financial support and leadership involvement. The EPCU, for example, became a free-standing denomination (no longer mission-status) in April 2008.

“The West” has no firm definition, but it is a place of freedom, wealth, sin, and opportunity. As used by Ukrainian evangelicals, it refers to a place outside Ukraine that includes Western Europe, Anglophone countries like Australia and Canada, and, of course and especially, the United States. The West has become an integral part of evangelical church life in post-Soviet Ukraine. It is a source of money, missionaries, and other resources, and a destination for Ukrainian church members permanently moving out of the country. Finally, the West is both loved and hated; it is credited both with helping Ukraine and with causing problems in Ukrainian churches and in the country more generally.F

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.