Keys to Re-energizing Our Outreach
Alexei I. Melnichuk
God’s mercy cannot be overstated in bringing freedom to the former Soviet Union after 70 years of repression. This new-found freedom, in turn, brought about a huge inflow of missions work, and with it, many positives: widespread access to the Scriptures, new churches planted in cities where there were none before, Christian media, international contacts(former Soviet Union churches were able to learn from Koreans, Germans, Africans, Americans, and others), educational institutions, and hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives changed. However, we now see that the number of converts has stopped growing or has slowed down significantly. We must ask ourselves: did we do something wrong? Did we use our time and resources unwisely? I believe there are four categories of problems with our mission work.
In most churches a division exists between conservatives and innovators. In most cases, both sides can come up with a list of 100 doctrines that the other side can agree with, so the problem is not doctrinal. They do not disagree about the doctrines themselves, but differ in their priorities. It is what churches accent and consider most important that generates conflict. These ideological differences leave a big mark. On the one hand, traditional churches require new believers to accept certain customs of that church in addition to accepting salvation. Otherwise, new converts will not feel comfortable in that church, and people will not see them as normal believers. On the other hand, activist churches are those which think we need to change the world through politics or social action. But we should strive to be a confessing church which models God’s character through its Life. Its members and its actions reflect a loving, merciful, and patient God. This kind of church will address the needs of the world. It will call people to salvation. But it will also be concerned with the purpose for which God created the church – to be His body. And God expects no less than this in our mission work.
In the former Soviet Union there are almost no activist churches, but we do have a problem with tradition-minded churches. A danger of idolatry lies in trying to preserve the way our fathers worshipped God. The idea that old forms of worship express our faithfulness to God is slowing down our missions work. Jugoslav Pelikan said that “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Genuine faith is like Abraham’s– it means taking a risk. We must pass on the baton of living faith from generation to generation, but we must not think that by using yesterday’s forms of worship we will solve all the church’s problems.
When the doors opened to the Soviet Union, we saw how our brothers and sisters did things in the West and thought, “Why don’t we do the same things?” A lot of schools, organizations, and projects were copied directly from the West into our context. Not everything we copied worked. We working complicated circumstances here in the former Soviet Union, and one area in which we operate differently from the West involves professional Christian service. In the West a demand exists for Christian workers – they go to seminary, and jobs are waiting in churches and missions which will pay them a salary, support them, and take care of them.
The situation is different in the former Soviet Union. People here look with suspicion on a missionary without a job. We have come to realize that tentmakers would be the most effective types of missionaries here –they have a profession, and while they may not fully support themselves with their work, they can at least identify themselves as teachers, social workers, or doctors. Unfortunately, that idea remains mostly just words. People said, “Why do we need all that? We should just be preparing people for ministry.” But now we see declining enrollments in seminaries and Bible colleges because many students are unable to find work afterwards. Mixed programs that provide students with a profession as well as good Christian ministry training practically do not exist. We should also pay more attention to the needs of the missionaries we send out. We were very proud that our original missionaries drank tea without sugar. But I was ashamed because I returned home formwork one night and drank tea with sugar. Those who went out to do mission work, thinking that those who sent them would also provide for them financially, were wrong. Even tentmakers need support.
The time is coming when we will need to move from looking for resources to support our multitude of programs and projects, to searching for people who are moved by God. In I Timothy5:17, Paul tells Timothy that “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” Paul makes the goal of our strategy finding, supporting, and caring for people who are committed to searching out God’s will and implementing it in their lives, in order tube a convincing witness to others. The Holy Spirit seeks such people, calls such people, forms such
people. But will we work with the Holy Spirit to find such people, stand with them, and offer moral, organizational, spiritual and financial help to them, so that they do not tire, lose faith, and become disillusioned? Unfortunately, today churches seek far and wide to gather enough money to support their projects and build buildings, but do not invest in finding and supporting such people. We need to seek God’s face, and those who have been called and anointed by God must commit their energy to this. We should free them from the job of fund-raising and let someone else who is gifted in this area raise the necessary support.
We are part of one work of God on earth, though this work is expressed in different churches, different denominations. The time has come “together up the scattered stones” (Ecclesiastes 3:5).God is calling us to evaluate our resources. Maybe it is time for the leadership of our seminaries to come together and decide to combine two or three seminaries so as to have one strong arm instead of two or three weak ones. It is time to turn to God in prayer. A pastoring Uganda said that Christians in his homeland implemented a prayer strategy: daily prayer in families, weekly prayer in small groups, monthly prayer in churches (devoting a whole day to it), quarterly prayer at the city level (where all the churches of a city gather together and pray for renewal and revival), and yearly prayer at the national level (where people from all over the country gather together at a stadium to seek God’s face). Maybe we do not have to copy their exact schedule, but we do need to “gather stones” and seek God’s face. God has a lot He wants to change in our hearts, a lot He wants to say. Our analysis of the current situation will be fruitless if it does not include looking at the situation from a spiritual perspective
Edited excerpts published with the author’s permission from a presentation given at the International Evangelical Missions Forum, Irpen, Ukraine, 24-25 October 2008.
Alexei I. Melnichuk, a native of Donetsk, Ukraine, is president of Connect International, Sacramento, California.