Evangelical Missions in Search of a New Paradigm

Mikhail Cherenkov

How are we to determine the role of mission work within an extremely complicated world?

Previously, in a bipolar context the Western Christian world” stood up to the Communist “empire of evil.” But today we are undergoing tectonic changes in global affairs. Now it is more accurate to speak of the socio-culture divide between North and South, with the Third World resisting developed countries. Since the inequality in the distribution of world resources is only increasing, and the might of Pox Americana has been broken and is less and less able to control the outside world, the example of “developed” countries has lost its former authority and attractiveness for the Third World. In missions cartography this means that many in the Third World no longer accept what they consider to be imported Christianity as relevant in their context. Traditional missionary sending countries have become mission fields that must be reabsorbed into the Christian fold. Missions, the Protestant work ethic, and the spirit of capitalism have, through their inter-connectedness, enjoyed success at a certain stage of historical development, but today this connection is viewed negatively and hinders a renewal of missions.

The Impact of Economics and Politics on Missions

The global economic crisis and the instability of a multi-polar world negatively affect possibilities in missions. The financial depression in the United States has led to donors scaling back their investment in missions. This limits the opportunities for missions in the former Soviet Union. Interest in ministry in the region is catastrophically decreasing.

Unfortunately, a majority of missions and donors do not presently see ministry in Russia and the rest of  the former Soviet Union as strategically important. Politics is once again becoming a significant factor in the life and ministry of churches. Today thousands of Russian evangelicals, obeying orders from the Kremlin, see Georgians, Americans, and Ukrainians as their main enemies. Meanwhile, in such an aggressive environment, hundreds of Ukrainian missionaries working in Russia find it increasingly difficult to serve. In addition, dozens of American missions are under pressure from authorities; and while leaders of some Russian churches gloat, missionaries are being forced to scale back their activities.

Dissatisfaction with an American Approach

Irritation with the methods and principles Western missionaries (mostly American) is commonplace today. In fact, to many musicologists the inadequacy of an American approach has long been apparent. Consequently, J.E. Haggai created his institute for the preparation of leaders of evangelism on the basis of experience in missions in Third World countries. It turns out that instead of sending American missionaries to other countries, it is much more effective to prepare national leaders and help them develop their ministries.

The Need for Quality Theological Education

Even leaders of the old system admit that quality theological education is necessary. “Today everyone involved in ministry must have a spiritual education. This must be made a requirement,” announced Peter Konovalchik, former president of the Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Union. More and more of those involved in Christian ministry are now recognizing the necessity of higher education, professional skills, and expertise. It is clear that if the level of scholarship (and not just the level of diplomas) of church leaders increases, then new social groups will be attracted to the church, which will change the demographics and shift the emphasis in ministry and teaching.

Hindrances to Effective Cooperation

Effective international missionary cooperationist hindered by the collective irresponsibility of churches; a fear of standing out or taking a risk by doing something different; self-assured conservatism and combative separatism; rivalry over souls and money; orientation towards utopian, quantitative results; “project thinking”; incompetence of Western and Eastern leaders; the belief that one is an exception; and possessiveness. Leaders of national churches say, “These are our churches,” while leaders of international organizations say, “This isour money.”

The tendencies listed above testify not only to acrisis, but also to new opportunities for the churchin the world. The crisis of modern Christianity is turning out to be beneficial for it. Unlike other religions, Christians preach not Christianity, butChrist. The church is not an institution doomedto remain in the past, but a living community ofbelievers. Therefore, a people-oriented gospelremains extremely important. We must remember that evangelism is not passing on knowledge ofdoctrines, but telling a story of a wonderful meetigthat changes an individual’s life. Even conservative Baptist musicologists warn pastors that churches should not be islands, but must become border regions where there is a living connection with reality and a fight for people’s lives and society as awhile.

I share the bright vision of Father Alexander Men: “Christianity is just beginning.” We must believe that God is in control of history, and therefore crises are part of the historic path of the church and come before awakening and renewal. The mission of the church in the world should be constantly reforming. In this lies the secret of the church’s vitality and the guarantee of its success.

Edited excerpts published with the author’s permission from a presentation given at the International Evangelical Missions Forum, Ukraine, 24-25 October 2008.

Mikhail Cherenkov is vice-president of the Association for Spiritual Renewal, Kyiv, Ukraine.