Reflections on Twenty Years of Ministry: From Odessa to Prague

Greg Nichols

Those of us who have spent the better part of two decades in Soviet and post-Soviet space have seen myriad changes. To be sure, globalization explains some of them, yet others have been unique to the region, as newly independent countries have come into their own after lengthy isolation from the world. I have experienced the upheavals personally; I have talked with my East European students; and I have written to and heard from colleagues ministering in the region. Based on these sources, I propose to highlight changes that could affect future mission strategies, as well as explain why some post-Soviet citizens find themselves feeling like outsiders in their own countries.

From Communism to Materialism

The older generation still remembers the Soviet era with nostalgia. Men and women, middle-aged and older, desire the stability of the old economy and government services, but the younger generation has no such experience. They were not members of a persecuted congregation or isolated from the mainstream because they did not join the Communist Party. Young and old still honor World War II veterans and enjoy a good Soviet movie, especially the comedies. However, any genuine understanding of the past escapes the young. As I have taught the new generation their church’s history, I have found myself having to explain points in more detail than I did 15 years ago with students who had lived through persecution and understood its effects on the church.

Materialism now prevails, and the Communist idea that money is a dirty word is long gone. Some observers would say that aversion to materialism is not only a Marxist idea but also a strong idea in Orthodox and Slavic evangelical thought. In the past, Christians were not able to receive advanced education and therefore were limited in career choices. Additionally, many believers had large families and lived in poverty. Thus, Christians stood against materialism and wealth in keeping with Communist teaching, but for entirely different reasons.

Globalization has helped feed the desire of East Europeans for possessions. Overall, the standard of living for many has increased, but as in much of the world the gap between rich and poor is widening. To satisfy consumers, malls and department stores are replacing open markets. Many people now choose to buy their goods nicely packaged in the aisles of well-lit stores. The most common question today is not “Where can I buy that?” but “Did you see how much that cost?” The availability of goods in Eastern Europe is overwhelming to anyone who in the past had flown out with an empty suitcase and a list of essential items to fill it.

Improved living standards are making multi-generational apartments less and less common. Fifteen years ago, it was common in cities like Odessa, Ukraine, to find three generations living in one apartment, with grandparents and children taking the bedrooms, and the parents sleeping on a pullout sofa in the living room. Today, many families are building their own homes in the developing suburbs of the larger cities. The homes that are being built often have space for the multi-generational family, but now provide a larger floor plan with separate bedrooms for family members. Couples are now finding it possible to buy separate apartments for their aging parents near their own dwelling and to help their independent children establish their own home or apartment.

Spiritual Hunger—Short-Lived

The collapse of Communism initially opened a window of tremendous spiritual hunger. Twenty years ago, it was easy to fill a hall for evangelistic campaigns, and churches were packed with seekers. People eagerly accepted tracts. That hunger began to taper off 15 years ago. Yet even then, a majority of people still sought some alternative to atheism. Today, that interest has been replaced with materialism. Young people fully expect to have more than their parents had. They know they have to work hard for what they want and are willing to sacrifice to obtain it. As a result, they are not as willing to divert energy toward spiritual concerns unless they expect some financial benefit. In many areas, church attendance has leveled off and mid-week services have ended. Evangelistic efforts are now met with coolness.

Attitudes toward Westerners

The attitude toward the West tends to change with politics. When I first arrived in Ukraine 20 years ago, a cab driver asked me what Ukraine had to do to become the next state of the United States of America. I was the first native English-speaker who had taught in the local university’s English department. My opinion carried weight. People were eager to hear about the West even if it was largely incomprehensible. They could not understand how an ATM or credit card functioned or how one could drive across Europe and not be stopped every 30 minutes for a document check or that many Americans were in debt for 40 years paying for their houses and their education.

Today, English is the international trade language. Young people in post-Soviet states need to be able to communicate in English to compete for new jobs. Others need English to keep their jobs or move up in their career. Globalization, through the internet, television, and film, has had a huge impact. This familiarity with the West can be confused with an approval of Western culture, which it is not. Many individuals in the former Soviet Union would be quick to blame the current economic global crisis on America. Sympathy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington changed to an anti-American attitude, especially during the later years of the Bush administration.

In most cases, after the fall of Communism, Americans were the first outsiders to enter the region in significant numbers. They were exotic, foreign missionaries and entrepreneurs who were considered to be the champions of Christianity, democracy, and capitalism in a region that had been atheistic, totalitarian, and Communist. Today, Americans are no longer exotic. Today, post-Soviet citizens are savvier at determining which foreigners are actually capable of creating needed change and providing needed services. They also are more sensitive now when entering into partnerships with Western agencies because of their past experiences with broken promises, unrealized funding, or worst of all, their stories used to generate compassion that filled the pockets of Western organizations before meeting local needs.

Western missionaries have become less significant over the past 15 years. When they first arrived in the region, they were motivated by the stories of the persecuted and committed church. That persecution caused a certain amount of cohesiveness among those who were persecuted. When the persecution ended, simultaneously, Western missionaries appeared. A current missionary in Ukraine told me that the timing of these two events has caused some Christian leaders to conclude that “all of our church problems come from the West.” Western missionaries are still viewed as useful partners, but are no longer seen as the key ingredient in a successful ministry.

Difficulties in Ukraine and Russia

Generally, the lack of a clearly recognized state church in Ukraine has produced a climate which grants more freedom to non-Orthodox organizations than in Russia, which favors the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate over all non-Orthodox expressions of faith. However, today non-Orthodox churches in both Ukraine and Russia have difficulty securing space for worship, especially in rural areas. One missionary in Ukraine related to me that when he was looking for space, a town councilman told him that he had received a memo from Kyiv stating that all local officials were to do what they could to support the Orthodox Church, and they were not to offer assistance to other religious groups. This missionary’s ongoing experience has been that many government workers are afraid to offer any assistance to non-Orthodox religious groups. This prohibition includes renting meeting rooms or officially acknowledging evangelical assistance provided to state institutions such as orphanages or retirement homes. I will not attempt to clarify the visa situation for religious workers in Ukraine and Russia other than to say that it has become increasingly difficult to remain in residential ministry for extended periods of time.

Difficulties in Central Asia

In Central Asia, Islam is resurgent. Mosques and infrastructure are being built in many of these former Soviet republics with funding from Arab countries. Many Russians are leaving Central Asia, which in many cases has been their home for generations. In a recent trip to Uzbekistan, I was staying in the home of a Russian family when an Uzbek came to the door offering to buy the house. The Uzbek threatened the Russian family, stating that if they would not sell, he would eventually take their house. Sadly, the majority of Christians in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are Russians. Despite being residents for decades, Russian believers did not work effectively among non-Russians. With their departure, many churches cease to exist.

Countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for a variety of reasons, have not followed this trend. I have been told by some travelers there that a vibrant expression of Christianity exists among the indigenous population. Additionally, a number of Slavic and non-Slavic missionaries established church fellowships among the populations of Central Asia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. With the growing influence of Islam these movements are now being forced underground. However, not all ethnic Slavs are leaving the region. Some are choosing to support these underground churches, moving in and out less conspicuously than Western missionaries.

Missions Refocused on the Muslim World

For those of us who rode the missionary wave that brought us to the shores of the Soviet Union, it is clear that the direction of the wave has reversed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West focused its attention on new opportunities presented by newly opened doors. Today, in the post-September 11 world, similar attention is now focused on the Muslim world. This change has caused a tapering off of missionaries bound for Eastern Europe. At the same time, other missionaries have focused on mobilizing evangelically minded East Europeans for service in Central Asia. In addition, some East European congregations have acquired a burden for the Muslim world and are sending short-term teams and self-funded missionaries to the Middle East. Those mission agencies that have managed to become more indigenous and have truly partnered with their local counterparts are reaping the benefits as they seek to motivate nationals to become cross-cultural workers. Some areas of the former Soviet Union, such as Moldova, are now staging points for ministry focused on Muslims, hosting training events and conferences.

Evangelical Churches in the Throes of Change

Fifteen years ago the evangelical church in post-Soviet regions was confined to a single sub-culture which could be described as closed, traditional, and isolated from the world. This isolation meant that seekers who wanted to become Christians had to learn the songs which were sung during the 1930s, dress in the style of the 1960s, and reject many aspects of modern civilization. In contrast, today, in terms of worship styles, the same trend that is found across the globe can be found in Eastern Europe. Comtemporary worship, with all its string and percussion accompaniments, has come into the region. I lived in Ukraine during much of the 1990s and attended Baptist churches, and I cannot remember a worship service that included drums. I do remember the difficulty of finding a hymnal because most of the hymns were sung from memory. On a recent trip to Belarus I attended four worship services in which, in every case, full praise bands with guitars and drums had replaced traditional choirs.

It is a similar story in Ukraine among new congregations. Fifteen years ago, the choir was the heart of the church, filling the role of the youth group or adult Sunday school class in the West. It was not only a singing group but one that discipled young believers, taught the meaning of the scriptures, and provided a close social network. This same role is still true today in older churches, but it is becoming more difficult to keep choirs together. Even in older churches youth are using and writing contemporary music, and many members know that what the youth group is singing today will be sung when they become the elders and deacons.

The influence of the West can be perceived not only in a change of worship styles but also in a change in sermons. In the past, preaching consisted mostly in retelling biblical narratives and relating them to contemporary life. The message was often an individual exposition of scripture which did not invite a theological critique because it was a personal expression of faith. By way of contrast, increasingly today pastors are expected to demonstrate expository skills used in other cultures which require commentaries, an understanding of Greek and Hebrew, and systematic theology.

In many of the Slavic countries of the former Soviet Union, strong authoritative leadership by a single pastor is still the norm. However, in the Baltic countries, leadership in many evangelical churches has changed since independence. Many Baltic churches are currently seeing the development of a team of pastors or elders who share leadership responsibilities. Some of these teams oversee multiple congregations. Latvia often used this model, even in Soviet days, because of a lack of trained leaders.

Changes in Evangelical Mores

Standards of behavior and lifestyles are also changing in many evangelical churches. One missionary wrote that “the church actually is more sinful today than ten years ago.” He went on to explain that “more sinful” were words used by an older pastor who was referring to the lifestyle of new believers unaccustomed to the traditional moral requirements of his parishioners. Many whom he had preached to 15 years ago were raised in Christian homes. They grew up close to a congregation which set clear standards of moral behavior. As new families replaced the old (many of whom emigrated to the U.S. and Canada where they maintain the “old ways”), they brought to the church a fresh perspective. They had not been brought up in families that practiced the old ways, and they ignore or challenge commonly held views regarding women’s head coverings, holy kisses and authoritarian leadership. The result could be perceived as a “more sinful” congregation, or it could be perceived as a fresh, new start for a community moving away from legalism.

Funding Local Churches

In the past, it was difficult to gain support for ministry in the former Soviet Union from large, Russian-speaking congregations of the West. Today, that is not true. Western Slavic churches are mobilizing, either on their own or with the help of existing missions, to fund and minister in various endeavors in Eastern Europe. Some members of local congregations view this ministry as interference while others view it as welcome help in ministry. Regardless, Russian-speaking emigrants are a developing force in the region.

While legalism is on the wane in some instances, low to non-existent salaries continue to be the case for full-time Christian workers. Valid reasons may be marshalled for and against voluntary church leadership. Nevertheless, in general, congregations do not support their churches to any significant degree. I never heard a sermon on tithing while living in the region, and my East European students continue to tell me that they as well have never heard sermons on this subject. Tithing is not a common practice. The result is felt in the church as well as in training institutions. Pastors and seminarians face extraordinary difficulties when they must secure employment to survive. It is also very difficult to bring the next generation of leadership into the church or into training institutions when so little economic security awaits pastors. In the past, rural churches could call someone who already had a job or a farm in their village.

One solution being explored by evangelical denominations in Central Europe is to use European Union money to supplement pastoral salaries. Thus, for example, the Czech Republic is using state funds for pastors’ salaries. This practice may place clergy in a difficult position because accepting state money may someday imply that they will also accept state policy. Presently, six European countries recognize same-sex marriages by law. In 12 others (including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia) cohabiting same-sex couples are recognized through civil unions. As same-sex partnerships gain firmer legal footing, pressure undoubtly will be applied to those receiving state funds to perform weddings for same-sex couples and accept them as church members.

Published Resources Better Contextualized

One positive change in recent years has been an increase in theological and historical works by indigenous authors. Some of these studies are based on research in newly open archives which have shed much light on the past and have provided new perspectives on church life. In years past, new Bible schools and seminaries in the former Soviet Union used Russian translations of English-language textbooks. Most were translated without regard to the history of Eastern Europe or its Orthodox and Catholic context. Today, schools have more choices for textbooks and libraries are able to add more titles written by indigenous authors and by Westerners who have cross-cultural sensitivity.


I fully acknowledge that some of my generalizations may not apply to all of Central and Eastern Europe and all regions of the former Soviet Union. My intent has been simply to provide firsthand observations from ministry experiences in the hope that they will be of assistance to missionaries serving in the region. In brief, some opportunities are at an end while new circumstances suggest new, open doors for the gospel.

As I look back, I am struck with both a sense of joy for the new and nostalgia for the old. I am thankful to have witnessed the rapid changes that have resulted in new freedoms for the peoples of the region. Freedom to travel and to exchange ideas has increased opportunities for Christian mission exponentially, but the days of the “wild, wild East,” both for the good and the bad are now gone. I recall the first time I took my family to the newly opened American fast food restaurant in Odessa, Ukraine. We were enthralled by the shiny menu board and the workers’ matching uniforms, remembering some of the bleak and rude dining experiences of the past. I felt as if our city finally had emerged from its Soviet past. As I sat there, I knew that the notion of customer service, which I relished, could change the city for the good. Still, in the back of my mind, I experienced a twinge of guilt as I embraced the lifestyle of my birth culture here in the heart of my adopted culture. I had worked so hard to adopt the new culture and thought that I was content. Still, I left the restaurant thinking that on a busy day, this new style was going to be convenient. Some of the changes are unfortunate and short-sighted, as computers replace cups of tea with friends and as impersonal malls replace neighborhood markets. Still, we recognize the loss, but we are busy and time is precious. F

Greg Nichols is a missionary with Greater Europe Mission who teaches at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, Czech Republic