Developing a Strategic Missiology for Post-Soviet Churches

Mikhail Cherenkov

For evangelical churches in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, decline has gradually replaced explosion. The impact of even the largest evangelistic crusades has faded away. Huge evangelistic events in stadiums and transcontinental evangelistic expeditions no longer give life and enthusiasm to missions.

What is going on? Where are the expected results? Why is it that, despite all of the energy spent by churches and enormous international investments, goals remain unaccomplished? It seems that this question should be asked at all national mission conferences and in all Christian media outlets in the former Soviet Union. However, since the Berlin Wall fell and the door of unlimited opportunities suddenly opened 20 years ago this year, many national leaders are ignoring this question for fear of acknowledging mistakes, failed projects, wasted resources, and empty, multi-million dollar seminary buildings. Even so, this problem needs to be discussed—not to criticize, but to analyze and to learn from our mistakes.

We missed our chance to start right—with the strategic development of a national missiology. We started with “missions,” however each person understood this term. In other words, we started with rousing, motivational slogans and grassroots work. Unfortunately, many of the projects turned out to be utopian, and much of the effort of truly committed and faithful missionaries was wasted. Now, since the ineffectiveness of many mission efforts has become apparent, we have a second chance to start right—with a Slavic evangelical missiology that identifies appropriate vision, strategy, values, and mission principles. So what about our post-Soviet missiology? We still can count very few national mission specialists and no thorough analyses or publications—despite the fact that we now have access to an abundant wealth of literature and Western missiologists.

No doubt, thousands of Christian leaders from former Soviet-bloc countries travel the world in search of finances to support the mission activity of their local churches. They gladly use new technology to raise funds and purchase new equipment and fashionable clothing for their families during their travels, but they are not ready to purchase or accept new ideas. Take a look in the suitcases of those returning from the United States or other countries—you will find everything there but good missiology books. Our “poor” leaders buy expensive new iPhones, laptops, and cameras, but they will not even glance in a bookstore or spend time with a missiology professor at any good college or seminary—places where real ministry riches can be found, which would help equip them to expand effective ministries in their local churches and stop their steady decline. It is disappointing that during the past 20 years of open borders and almost unlimited opportunities for ministry, our churches have learned how to milk Westerners for money, but they have not enriched themselves with progressive ideas or ministry experience from the rest of the world.

At seminars offered by successful Western leaders in former Soviet-bloc countries, I do not see national pastors really engaging with the strategic concepts offered. Nationals do not seem to be attracted to strategic and progressive content as much as to free lodging and transportation. It turns out, sadly, that their interest in other countries is really only Christian tourism. With their falsely inflated sense of self-sufficiency and claims of fulfilling a world messianic role, they would not need to travel anywhere if their churches did not have the unfortunate shortage of funds to support less than strategic local mission projects.

In 2009, I had the wonderful opportunity to conduct research at the Wheaton College Library, Wheaton, Illinois, which has one of the best missiology collections anywhere. I gained access to this wealth of information through a program that has been offered to Christian leaders from East European countries during the past ten years, but there are few results in any of those countries. Amid this wealth of information, I discovered a large volume of missiological research and writings—including periodicals, special monographs, and long-term studies—on missiology in Australia, Africa, Japan, India, China, Madagascar, and Papua New Guinea, but almost nothing on the church in the former Soviet Union. Only a limited number of publications have been written by a few post-Soviet enthusiasts.

The mission world is steadily losing interest in the evangelical church in the post-Soviet sphere. Reasons, of course, include political changes, but also mission projects which have been ineffective despite massive costs, ongoing inter-church conflicts, extreme legalism and conservatism in traditional evangelical churches, and the marginalization of Protestant churches in contemporary society.

I am speaking out about these problems in order to explain their causes to our Western partners and to find a way out of this crisis. Dialogue with our brothers in the West will teach us how to analyze our failures, learn from our mistakes, revive and reenergize international partnerships, and feel a part of global Christianity.

In formulating a new Slavic Protestant missiology, I believe we Evangelicals need to rethink our relationship with Orthodox Christians, with our own tragic national history, and with past and present worldwide mission efforts. First, we need to rethink our relationship with Eastern Orthodoxy. This will include appropriate contextualization of the gospel in an Orthodox culture, a subject that, to date, is little studied. The evangelical current within Orthodoxy must be valued and affirmed. If the majority of a country’s population is Orthodox, then we must think about how to help more Orthodox become evangelical, instead of arguing with Orthodox that their faith is un-Christian. Protestants and evangelical Orthodox need to recognize that as representatives of different churches their commitment to the gospel and the Great Commission is more important than their commitment to a particular Christian confession.

Second, we need to come to terms with our own troubled history. The past four generations of my family have been evangelical Christians, but some of them, before coming to Christ, were Communists, and before 1917, were Orthodox priests. Unfortunately, our national history, like my personal history, has been torn to pieces by circumstances. In countries recovering from the yoke of Communism, what Christians of all traditions need is healing of the memories, in order to gather together the broken pieces of our history.

Finally, it is important to see our mission work in a wider context and to overcome ethnocentric and narrow denominationalism. We need not only contextualization of the authentic gospel for people of local cultures, but we also need the lessons of world-wide, missiological experience in order to contextualize the gospel for post-Soviet societies. We cannot demand of God special revelation in missiology for Slavic churches, rejecting the truths that have already been revealed to missionaries in other countries. God’s plan is that nations be given different gifts, and we should not dismiss God’s gifts to other nations as unneeded by us. If we believe that the Christian God is Lord of history, then we must see this history as an indivisible whole. This should be a refreshing revelation for missional churches in the former USSR to feel themselves a part of global Christianity, and to find their special place in the general history of the Church and its mission.

More and more often, I hear calls to reject any change and to concentrate on preserving our evangelical traditions. I hear from my friends and colleagues from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that we do not need anything, that we have no problems, and that American mission experience is not worth anything. American missiology, like any other, is not perfect. But despite its mistakes, it does offer much from which we can learn.

Unfortunately, in-depth analyses and strategic missiology do not interest us. Our leaders say it is because we love practice. But what is our actual practice? By practice we mean something else—everyday life without difficult questions. As a result, it becomes clear why the eyes of people from the former Soviet Union visiting the West light up when they get the chance to go shopping. What has happened to our legendary Slavic spirituality and exalted missionary passion? F

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