Winter 2009

Vol. 17, No. 1

Estonia’s Finno-Ugric Mission: Developing a God-given Niche

Mark Nelson

Family Ties

Some months ago I was in Russia visiting a small village church among the ethnic Mordva people, 400 miles southeast of Moscow. Knowing I was born in Canada, the local Lutheran pastor introduced me with, “Have you ever seen a real live American?” (This generalization I grudgingly tolerate.) With Russians in the nearest city, Saransk, this introduction had brought smiles of curiosity since I was the first North American they had met. But in an ethnic Mordva village, the response written across their faces was complete disinterest. I replied by saying that while I was born in Canada, I moved to Estonia more than a decade ago, my wife and children are Estonian, and my home now is Estonia. At this, Mordva faces lit up: “Estonia! We’re related!”  Stories like this can be multiplied by any Estonian who travels among numerous ethnic groups inside Russia. In Udmurtia, 700 miles east of Moscow, an elderly Udmurt lady hugged me, saying, “We’re family. We just haven’t seen each other for 10,000 years.” At that point I did not want to disappoint her by saying that actually it is my wife who is Estonian, not me.  These fraternal sentiments are very real and form the basis of an exceptional opportunity for missions. But to understand these feelings and the mission work that has sprung from them, a better understanding of the history of Finno-Ugric peoples is required.

 The reason Estonians are welcomed as longlost relatives among these people groups is that they are exactly that. Russian, Swedish, German, English, and Spanish are all part of the Indo- European family of languages. They are all related, however distantly. Estonian, however, together with Finnish, Hungarian, Mordva, Udmurt, and about  ten additional language groups inside the Russian Federation are Finno-Ugric, a totally different family of languages. It is no exaggeration to say that Estonian and Udmurt have no more similarity with Russian than Cherokee has with English. That is to say, no connection whatsoever exists. Finno-Ugric is a family of languages all its own. This sense of being fundamentally different from large surrounding nations creates a strong sense of connection with anyone whose language is even remotely connected.

 The result is that Estonians are excited to meet Udmurts, and Udmurts are excited to meet Estonians. With the exception of Estonia, Finland, and Hungary, most Finno-Ugric nations are indigenous minorities inside the Russian Federation. Sadly, as with native Americans and the aborigines of  Australia, indigenous ethnic minorities in Russia suffer from a wide range of problems that culminate in a sense of hopelessness. In a recent visit to the Mari people, 500 miles east of Moscow, I witnessed a young lady crying during a  Pentecostal cell group because “no one cares about us Maris. No one even knows we exist. We are dying, and no one cares.” It was a privilege for me to share

with this cell group that even if no one else has everheard of the Mari, Estonians know them, and they care. I did something very simple in that cell group.I asked the Maris to count to ten in their language. When they said one, ik, I said it in Estonian, üks. 2: kok, I said kaks, 3: kum, I said kolm. 4: nel, and I said neli, and so on up to ten. The similarities between thelanguages speak a loud and powerful message: “We are not alone.” We believe that God has given Estonia a special niche in missions, a niche 10,000 years in the making, that creates open doors to small ethnic groups that are unknown to the rest of the world. Estonian Christians, as members of a small ethnic group themselves, come with understanding, sympathy, and love to show their distant cousins that they are in fact the precious creation of God.

 An Estonian Missions Movement

Our work from Estonia started in 2000 with summer mission teams from the Baltic Methodist Theological  eminary. But what started as a seminary training program quickly grew as students returned with a passion and the rallying cry, “We have to get the churches involved.” In 2004 we officially formed the Evangelism and Missions Workgroup under the umbrella of the Estonian Evangelical Alliance, with a goal of having Estonian Christians of all  enominations involved in missions to their Finno-Ugric cousins. To date, we have sent 31 teams totaling 139 people from Estonia on short-term missions.  Our primary work concentrates on three Finno-Ugric groups, the Khanty, Udmurt, and Komi peoples. We cooperate with local Protestant Christians, providing encouragement and help in their evangelistic work to their own people. Our role is to support local Christians, often in the form of evangelistic music concerts, friendship evangelism in villages, and assisting in children’s programs.  Praise God that new church and cell groups are being formed, and people are turning to Jesus. Still, we believe the major responsibility for this is in the hands of local Christians.

Beleaguered Minorities

Official Russian government numbers count the total Finno-Ugric population in Russia at 2.6 million. Specialists, however, estimate that the true number could be closer to five million. They inhabit the northwestern region of Russia, from the eastern foothills of the Ural Mountains, where the Khanty and Mansi peoples live, to Russia’s extreme west: St. Petersburg and the border of Finland, traditional homes of the Veps and Karelians. However, even in their home regions they make up at most 30 percent of the population and, as a result, are a small and completely powerless minority. Several of these nationalities, specifically in the St. Petersburg region, the Votes and Izhorians, have dwindled to a few hundred and are listed by the United Nations as facing inevitable extinction.

The Last Pagan Nations in Europe

Finno-Ugric peoples have been, to varying degrees, influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church. The relationship, however, has been ambiguous. The pendulum has swung from positive missionary work, even translating parts of the Bible into their languages, to extreme Russian nationalism with the very Bible translations done by some  Orthodox priests being burned by other Orthodox priests. As a result, Orthodoxy has had limited overall impact and the traditional pagan religion has never disappeared. While today some are Orthodox, others remain staunchly pagan. Among the Mari and Khanty, for example, traditional paganism remains the dominant religious force, with the shaman or pagan priest being not only more influential than the Orthodox priest, but actually able to limit Orthodox activities within villages. As a result, the Mari and Khanty have been called the last pagan nations in Europe.

Protestant Initiatives

After the fall of Communism, Protestants undertook missionary activity among all these peoples. Pentecostal, Lutheran, Baptist, and other Protestant churches were established. However, in almost all cases their Russian and Ukrainian pastors do not have knowledge of the unique language or sensitivity to the culture and social problems facing these indigenous peoples. Evangelism is focused on the dominant Russian culture without a conscious attempt to reach out to the ethnic minorities. In fact, in most churches the use of the indigenous language or culture is actively restricted due to a perception that it is tainted by paganism. In terms of percentages, the number of Protestant Christians varies from 0.02 percent among the Mordva to a high of 0.2 percent among the Udmurts, compared to an estimated 1.5 percent among Russians. Thus,Finno-Ugric peoples have been more than 15 times slower than ethnic Russians to respond to the Protestant message. At most, perhaps 20 native  Finno-Ugric pastors inside Russia serve nearly five million people scattered over an area half the size of the continental United States. This shows that evangelistic methods used for the Russian majority are not nearly as effective among the indigenous peoples.

 Despite the overall bleak picture, positive work is being done. The Institute for Bible Translation in Finland coordinates translation teams; and in the last ten years Udmurts, Komis, Maris, Veps, and Erzya-Mordva have become the first to receive the New Testament in their languages. The Finnish Lutheran Church has helped to establish Lutheran congregations with a specific aim of using the local language and culture in worship and outreach. The Swedish organization Light for the Peoples provides support for local Finno-Ugric Christians who serve as missionaries to their own people.

Cultural Affirmation

From Estonia our primary approach may be called a cultural witness. On my first trip to Udmurtia we wore traditional Estonian folkcostumes, explaining the symbolism and simply trying to show something beautiful in Estonianculture. The response was tremendous. The Udmurts, who suffer from terribly low self-esteemand a sense of shame over their heritage, suddenly realized that maybe their own culture possesses its own beauty. It certainly helped that my Estonian folk sweater has the exact pattern as found on the Udmurt flag. We focus on Bible passages like Acts 17:26- 28, where Paul refers to all nations as the special creation of God and the children of God. In this way we show people groups who are constantly made to feel inferior that they are precious to God, and that they are loved. Our work is very consciously and deliberately an “ethnic mission.” We speak to these  peoples as one small ethnic group to another, feeling their concern and even fear for the survival of their culture and the language they love. Believing that  they are the special creation of God, we try to help them see the beauty that God has created in their culture, while not avoiding the reality of sin and the need for redemption.

Increasing Estonian Cooperation

Perhaps the most exciting development in Finno-Ugric missions is the growing cooperation among various Christian churches and organizationsin reaching our common goal. In Estonia we have started the Time for Kindred Nations joint project of the Estonian Evangelical Alliance, the Estonian Bible Society, and the Missions Center of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the largest denomination in Estonia. We publish a magazine and develop opportunities for encouraging Estonian Christians of all denominations to be involved in missions to the Finno-Ugric peoples. Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, and Free Churches are all actively involved, making this a truly Protestant-wide mission project. Current projects include developing a Sunday school curriculum to introduce this mission to Estonian children. Plans are also underway for a permanent exhibit that will travel to libraries and cultural centers across Estonia to raise awareness of the importance of Bible translation in preserving the languages of the Finno-Ugric peoples

Increasing International Cooperation

Internationally Estonia has also been instrumental in developing strategic cooperation with Finnish and Swedish mission organizations. We have co-organized a number of conferences to bring Finno-Ugric Christians together for encouragement and teaching. We launched an evangelistic Internet page ( with Christians in six Finno-Ugric groups, developing material both in Russian and native languages to reach the spiritual, social, and cultural needs of indigenous peoples. Another major international project is a mission Bible school program. From 2008 through 2010, we are organizing eight two-week study sessions for 25 potential Finno-Ugric Christian leaders. In our classes Finno-Ugric students have the freedom to ask questions and discuss issues of particular relevance to their cultural situation. During my Bible survey class we had long discussions on Old Testament sacrifices. Neither American nor Russian students would have seen much relevance in our discussion. But since animal sacrifices are still practiced in their pagan religions, Leviticus has great importance in explaining Christian theology to Finno-Ugric peoples.

Taking Full Responsibility

When our work in Estonia was first developing, we had the inevitable discussion of how to find the necessary funding. As we started in the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary, which is heavily dependent upon American support, we questioned whether or not we would look to our American friends. The unanimous decision of our team was no. We believe that a country will never become long-term missionary sending nation if it waits until funds arrive from somewhere else. If we want the Estonian church to develop a sense of responsibility for missions, then that must include financial responsibility. While our international joint projects, like the Internet site and the mission Bible school, are primarily funded by our Finnish and Swedish partners, active fund-raising is going on in Estonia, and we do contribute to the operating expenses. Smaller, purely Estonian projects, such as the summer mission teams, are funded by Estonian Christians, with each team member having responsibility to speak in churches to raise half the needed support, while we as an organization raise the other half.

 In fall 2008 we arranged for a pastor from the Komi nation (800 miles northeast of Moscow) to come speak in Estonia. He shared how important it was for their ministry that sermons and worship were in the Komi language, how it opened hearts in a way that a foreign language never could. He then shared his church’s plan for a weekly Komi-language Christian radio program. Permission had been given by a local radio station, and everything was arranged except the money. He asked the congregation to pray. Unknown to him, that service was carried live on Estonian Christian radio. Within a few weeks funds came in for the first six months of programs. The Estonian Church responded beyond our wildest imaginations because Estonians know what it means to be a small language group at the mercy of powerful and unsympathetic neighbors. They know what it is to fear for their very national survival. This, more than anything, motivates the Estonian Church to take responsibility to develop the special niche in world missions that God has given them. F

Mark Nelson is missions director of the Evangelism and Missions Workshop of the Estonian Evangelical Alliance. He has taught at the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary, Tallinn, Estonia, since 1996.