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Characteristics of Growing Churches in Russia: A Pentecostal Case Study

Andrei E. Blinkov

In Central Russia neither evangelical churches nor the Russian Orthodox Church are enjoying fast growth. Most evangelical congregations are very young, having been planted since 1992. But many younger as well as older congregations have plateaued and are no longer experiencing substantial growth. At the same time, Christian leaders have hope. Some churches do show evidence of health and solid numerical growth.

By the work of God’s grace within a 15-year period after the fall of the Communist regime, several hundred churches of various Protestant denominations were planted in Moscow and the Moscow Region. Unfortunately, most of them are small and grow rather slowly. The average size of these Protestant churches is between 20 and 50 members, with a church of 200 or more being considered rather large.

Three Pentecostal Denominations

Three main Pentecostal denominations exist in Russia: one led by Bishop Pavel Okara, another led by Bishop Vladimir Ryakhovsky, and the third led by Bishop Ivan Fedotov. These three denominations have approximately 110 churches in Moscow and the Moscow Region. Only a few Pentecostal churches have 500 or more members. The sad truth is that some churches in these denominations are not growing at all.

The church I pastor, the Revival Christian Center, is part of the Russian Church of Evangelical Christians (RCEC), a strong Pentecostal denomination with over 2,000 congregations throughout Russia led by Bishop Pavel Okara. According to RCEC Bishop Gregoriy Tropetz, responsible for Central Russia, the denomination has 130 congregations with a combined membership of only 7,600 in this heavily populated area. At the same time, some positive dynamics may be observed in other parts of Russia. For example, the RCEC Perm New Testament Church, which launched active missionary efforts in 1992, now has some 400 churches and fellowships in the Perm Region, Bashkiria, and Tatarstan. Other strong RCEC concentrations include the Association of Churches of the Republic of Karelia (more than 50 churches and fellowships), the Krasnodar Vifaniya Church (more than 50 churches), and the Murmansk Regional Association of Churches (more than 30 churches and fellowships).

A Church Growth Conference

At the end of 2000, Russian Protestant church leaders gathered for a conference focusing on church growth in Central Russia, organized by the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (UECB), one of the largest Protestant denominations in Russia. Ruvim Voloshin, head of the ECB mission department, reported that in Central Russia, with a population of some 38 million, the total membership of all Evangelical Christian-Baptist churches was 23,000. Although in general some growth is taking place, very few Baptist churches have been planted in recent years. The total number of UECB churches nationwide grew from 1,320 to a little over 1,400 over a ten-year period.

Russian Orthodox Statistics

The situation is better but very far from ideal in the largest religious institution in Russia—the Russian Orthodox Church. After the fall of the Communist regime, hundreds of thousands of adults received baptism in the Orthodox Church. For many, however, this public expression of religious observance was a sign of national affiliation rather than genuine faith. David Barrett, George Kurian, and Todd Johnson suggest that 76 million people identify themselves in some sense as Russian Orthodox, encompassing large numbers of nominal believers who, as mentioned, claim religious adherence simply as a means of cultural identification.1

In spite of the fact that a majority of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians, Moscow Patriarchate officials admit that only four to five percent of the population is practicing Orthodox. During the conference in 2000 Voloshin quoted Internal Affairs Ministry estimates of not more than 1.5 percent of the total population attending the largest Orthodox celebrations—Christmas and Easter.

A Pilot Study

A preliminary pilot study in 2001-2003 surveyed 150 church leaders from various evangelical denominations, including 30 pastors and 50 church planters and key church leaders from the Russian Church of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostal). Those surveyed included leaders in the church I pastor, leading bishops and pastors from the RCEC headquarters, some senior RCEC pastors from the Moscow area, and church planters from the RCEC missionary school. All but 13 of the 150 respondents became pastors after the fall of Communism.

The pilot survey of Russian church leaders identified 17 characteristics of a healthy, growing congregation. These data became the basis for a second, more detailed questionnaire on church health administered only to the 30 pastors and 50 church planters and leaders of the Russian Church of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostal). Questionnaires collected between 1 May 2006 and 30 November 2006 helped to identify what respondents considered to be the most critical factors influencing church growth.

Divine Intervention

The Book of Acts (2: 41-47) provides important evidence of the role of the Holy Spirit in church growth. Many authors, including Rick Harvey, C. Peter Wagner, Steven Macchia, and Jeff Patton, emphasize the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.2 I think Christ Himself and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the church should be called the foundational factor. If the Lord is not building the church, all the labor will be in vain. The Bible is clear: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127: 1).

Seven Characteristics of Church Health

My review of published literature on healthy churches included studies by Rick Warren, Christian Schwarz, Leith Anderson, Dale Galloway, Rick Harvey, and C. Peter Wagner.3 In addition, I received help in my research from pastors in a graduate student study group at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. From these sources I was able to identify seven major church health characteristics present in almost all of the above studies: inspiring worship, active evangelism, a genuine fellowship of love, maturing believers, dynamic lay ministry, strong leadership, and effective, functional structures.

The first five of these factors are identical to Rick Warren’s five purposes of the church. The last two (strong leadership and effective structures) are necessary to provide a balance for the church to be purpose driven. Schwarz adds another characteristic to the list—holistic home groups, a method used world-wide to incorporate new converts into the church family and to help them grow in Christ. Warren strongly encourages every church member to join a small group. “Small groups are the most effective way to closing the back door of your church. We never worry about losing people who are connected to a small group. We know that those people have been effectively assimilated.”4 The small groups championed by Schwarz and Warren may be identified with two of the seven characteristics of healthy, growing churches: a fellowship of love and maturing believers. The Asbury pastors’ study group suggested another characteristic: transforming discipleship defined as “a process of growth toward Christ-likeness.”5 These attributes of transforming discipleship and growing personal spirituality can be seen as part of the broader category of maturing believers.

Healthy Churches According to Russian Leaders

Based on the 2001-2003 pilot survey of Russian church leaders, healthy churches:

1. are Christ-centered;

2. are purpose-driven;

3. have a delegating and spiritual pastor;

4. have sound biblical teaching;

5. are disciplined in prayer;

6. have inspiring worship services;

7. are active in evangelism;

8. have a team of devoted leaders;

9. have a flexible structure;

10. develop lay ministries based on members’ gifts;

11. develop a system of home groups;

12. engage in social ministries to non-Christian people;

13. are culture sensitive;

14. have an adequate building;

15. have financial and humanitarian support from abroad;

16. have strong teaching on tithes and offerings;

17. cultivate love among members.

Table 1 matches the seven qualities of healthy, growing churches as identified in the literature review with the 17 characteristics of church health based on the results of the pilot survey of Russian church leaders.

Personal Questionnaire

A second questionnaire given to Russian church leaders measured personal spiritual health. Survey participants were asked questions regarding their average time for personal devotions, average prayer time, average time for Bible study, devotion to spiritual disciplines of ministry, sharing faith with others, fasting, accountability to a spiritual mentor on a regular basis, personal evaluation of current spiritual life, and personal evaluation of current health of their churches. One question asked whether church attendance during the previous year had grown, plateaued, or declined. Data from this second survey were analyzed to correlate leaders’ perceptions of church health with personal spiritual health and church growth.

 Respondent Demographics and Survey Findings

Eighty respondents completed two surveys each for a total of 160 surveys. Among pastors surveyed, 13 started their ministry more than 16 years ago, prior to the fall of the Communist regime (pre-fall), and 17 became ministers after the fall of Communism (post-fall). Most respondents had been members of underground churches all their lives. All pastors were male, which is the basic rule in the RCEC. Most of the surveyed leaders, including non-pastors (54 percent), were male. Overall personal spiritual health was perceived as growing fast (16 percent), growing to some degree (74 percent), or plateauing (10 percent).

 

 

 The data in Table 3 suggest the following:

An absolute majority of survey • participants (75 percent) were from growing churches.

Fewer participants were from • stagnating churches (21 percent) and only 4 percent were from declining churches.

Leaders paid the highest attention to Bible • reading and also were very active in other disciplines.

Pre-fall pastors were not as strong in • devotions as post-fall ministers, with the exception of fasting. (Teaching on fasting was very strong in underground churches prior to the fall of the Communist regime.)

 *Pastors who started their ministry before or after the fall of the Communist regime

The data on the spiritual disciplines of survey participants suggest the following:

Overall devotion to spiritual disciplines was • very high.

Post-fall pastors had the highest devotion • to every spiritual discipline except Bible reading.

Both post-fall pastors and leaders paid • equal attention to the importance of having a spiritual mentor. More than 50 percent of people from these groups were accountable to spiritual mentors.

Pre-fall pastors tended to be less • accountable. Probably they see themselves more as providing mentoring rather than needing mentoring.

 

Data comparing personal spiritual disciplines with the perceptions of survey participants from growing churches suggest the following:

• Those from fast-growing churches prayed on average 32 percent more than participants from churches that were growing to a lesser degree (15 minutes difference).

• Survey participants from fast-growing churches spent slightly more time reading the Bible, although the difference was not significant.

• Significantly, the number of respondents from fast-growing churches who had spiritual mentors was 33 percent higher than for respondents from churches that were growing to a lesser degree

Data on spiritual disciplines and perceptions of survey participants from fast-growing and stagnating churches suggest the following observation:

• The number of leaders from fast-growing churches who have spiritual mentors was more than twice as high as the number from stagnating churches. A significant correlation exists between church growth and the discipline of accountability and mentoring.

Summary of Findings

The study produced a number of significant findings: 1. The three most neglected church health characteristics from the point of view of Russian ministers were social ministries, cultural sensitivity, and flexible structures. 2. In the opinion of Russian ministers, spiritual disciplines that significantly relate to church health are ministry, fasting, and accountability to a spiritual mentor. 3. Compared to other spiritual diciplines, prayer had the strongest correlation with the perception of Russian pastors and leaders about their personal spiritual health.

Personal communion with the Lord in prayer seems to be the most important tool influencing the perception of personal spiritual well-being. 4. Russian ministers strongly correlated church growth and church health with personal spiritual health. Healthy people, they would contend, make healthy congregations. 5. In the opinion of Russian ministers, among all spiritual mentors as their colleagues from stagnating churches.

Personal Spiritual Disciplines

Reviewing the data, I was pleasantly surprised by participants’ ministry involvement and, in particular, primarily by their devotion to spiritual practices. Surveyed pastors spent on average an hour

 

and fifteen minutes daily in personal prayer and Bible study. The corresponding figure for church leaders was even higher − an hour and twenty-seven minutes. This positive finding means that either the sample of Russian ministers was not representative enough or they are very devoted to spiritual disciplines. Very likely ministers with deteriorating spiritual health simply were not willing to participate in the study. All Russian ministers surveyed agreed with church health authors on the first foundational factor, which was weighted as the most important − that churches must be Christ-centered and open to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Social Ministries

Today, the lack of attention to social ministries can seriously weaken the incorporation of new converts into Russian churches. This characteristic is especially important in the current situation in which the Russian population is so afraid of cults, which in practice are often defined as any group that is not Orthodox. One of the best ways to fight this fear is to minister to the needs of non-Christians. Through the ministry of love many Russians can be reached. The church I pastor has launched a rehabilitation ministry for drug addicts and alcoholics. In spite of the fact that this ministry is very new, it has already brought many converts into the church, both former addicts and members of their families. Many churches in Russia today are exploring the potential of social ministries to needy people. Nevertheless, this important area is still neglected by many church leaders.

Cultural Sensitivity

Evangelistic effectiveness can also be seriously hindered by a lack of sensitivity to the language, music, and culture of the people whom the church wants to reach. To some extent the underestimation of cultural sensitivity by surveyed Russian leaders can be explained by what may be called a super-spirituality complex. It occurs when ministers consider some areas of church life as “non-spiritual” and thus of no importance. Those areas usually include finances, church structures, planning, and cultural sensitivity.

A Church Growth-Spiritual Mentor Correlation

The most interesting finding of this study was the unexpectedly high correlation between church growth and the existence of a spiritual mentor. The average number of respondents from fast-growing churches who had spiritual mentors was 32 percent higher than the corresponding number of ministers from churches that were growing to some degree. The comparison of growing and stagnating churches is even more dramatic. The average number of respondents from fast-growing churches who had spiritual mentors was more than 100 percent higher than the corresponding number of respondents from stagnating churches. In order for church leaders to minister effectively, they must first be recipients of ministry. Pastors and church leaders who are under the supervision of a spiritual mentor are healthier and much more effective in their ministry than those who neglect this spiritual discipline.

In Conclusion

Church health can be improved. Apart from paying more attention to neglected church health characteristics, especially the value of social ministries, cultural sensitivity, and flexible structures, another simple but profound improvement in church health can be realized by focusing on spiritual disciplines. Consistent participation in spiritual practices leads to greater spiritual health in general and ministry success in particular. Perhaps the most significant finding of this study was the clear correlation between church growth and the existence of spiritual mentors. The potential for greater personal spiritual health and for church growth lies in the discipline of spiritual mentoring.

No one should think that human efforts or methods alone can grow a church. Just as a farmer cannot make his crop grow, so church leaders cannot make a church grow. At the same time, God is not building his church apart from the people, because it consists of people. Church growth is very much connected to church health, which in turn is related to the spiritual health of its ministers and members. Healthy people make healthy churches. Healthy churches consist of healthy members. Churches can become healthier. Pastors can and should take full responsibility for their personal spiritual health by being consistent in their spiritual disciplines. Special attention should be paid to the discipline of accountability before a spiritual mentor. Then pastors can and should help others in the same way. Developing spiritual disciplines can be a long and sometimes painful process, but doing so truly builds the church. F

Notes:

1 David Barrett, George Kurian, and Todd Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Sur­vey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 6.

2 Rick Harvey, “The Relationship between Church Health and Growth: A Study of Growing Churches in the Tennessee District Church of the Nazarene,” Ph.D. dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2002; C. Peter Wagner, Strategies for Church Growth: Tools for Effective Missions and Evangelism (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1987); Stephen A. Macchia, Becoming a Healthy Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999); and Jeff Patton, If It Could Happen Here (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002).

3 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995); Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Development (Carol Stream, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996); Leith Anderson, Leadership That Works (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1992); Dale Galloway, “Ten Characteristics of a Healthy Church,” Net Results (April 1998), 20-22; Harvey, “Nazarene”; and C. Peter Wagner, Strategies.

4 Warren, Purpose Driven Church, 327.

5 Scott McKee, “The Relationship between Church Health and Church Growth in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church,” Ph.D. dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2003, p. 60.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Andrei E. Blinkov, “Church Health and Church Growth in Congregations of the Russian Church of Evangelical Christians,” Doctor of Ministry dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2007.Editor’s note: Andrei E. Blinkov’s dissertation is an elaboration of his M. Div. thesis, “Osnovy faktory, vliyayushchie na rost tserkvi v usloviyakh sovremennoi Rossii [Basic Factors Influencing the Growth of Churches in Conditions of Contemporary Russia],” Moscow Seminary of Evangelical Christians, 2002. The present article, in turn, is an elaboration of Andrei E. Blinkov, “Protestant Church Growth in Russia,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 13 (Winter 2005), 10-12.

Andrei E. Blinkov is director of the Russian Church of Evangelical Christians missionary school and is pastor of the Revival Christian Center, an RCEC church in the Moscow Region. In 2006 the author published Sozidanie tserkov [The Development of a Church] (Moscow: Narnia) which includes some of the findings of the present Doctor of Ministry dissertation.