The Commonwealth Challenge:
Tips for Surviving and Thriving
In this interview, Kent Hill stresses knowing the culture and networking for best results
What are the greatest obstacles you faced in your time in Moscow? How did you overcome them?
Compared to the good life in the West, there are many things about living in Moscow that are more difficult. It just takes longer to do some things, to get food. But really Westerners have a privileged situation because in the foreign currency stores you can get just about anything you really need. We used the Russian markets for vegetables, fruits, meat, and got just about everything we needed on the Russian economy. But even there, we had the rubles we needed and we could pay what the market required.
We lived in two and a half rooms in Moscow. We didn't have a kitchen, which made things more difficult. These were small matters that were more than made up for by the good experiences we had. The advantages far outweighed the difficulties.
In your opinion, what is the most common mistake of Western Christian workers in Moscow?
Christian organizations seriously underestimate how difficult the mission field is logistically. They set worthwhile objectives and don't realize how difficult it would be to accomplish them in an environment that is immensely inefficient. They underestimate the need to have people on the ground from their own organization, as well as contacts from the Russian world to prepare the way. So there's a lot of frustration because they don't feel it's going as quickly as they expected.
Most don't have the linguistic background to really function very well there yet and it's hard to find really competent translators and interpreters. A lot of people and denominations are learning the hard way that it's going to take two to three years or more before they really have people who know the situation well enough to minister effectively. The mission field is open but it's very difficult for people who don't know that culture.
How do people go about finding translators?
It's really through some contact they've made. People are always full of promises about what they can provide. Sometimes they come through with the promises, but a lot of people haven't established the relationships of trust and knowledge about who they're dealing with, so things do not always turn out the way the parties expect.
Let me give you an example. A translator needs a special vocabulary to know and understand theological and Christian discussion. Secular translators might be very good, but it will take some time for them to get up to speed as to what these terms mean. And Protestants who are capable of translating are in short supply.
What do national Christians think of Christian workers visiting or living there?
Generally the attitude has been positive, but it is very mixed. There are tremendous burdens placed on the more known churches and individuals. Visitors are coming constantly from the West and do not realize the incredible burdens they place on indigenous pastors and churches by showing up expecting to be shown around, and found a place to stay. You get a sense of this problem when you visit a church and there might be ten other visitors there. The Russians feel the obligation to let the visitors preach. You don't even hear the Russian pastors anymore because there are so many traveling evangelists. It's ironic that we go to help the church and then if we monopolize the church's time in hosting us, we create a problem rather than a support.
What do Western Christians or missions have to offer that would most benefit the church?
I think what they're offering the church is insight and information from the experience of the Western church in terms of evangelizing, lay training, training of clergy, youth work. All the many things that the Western churches are involved with are often things that the church in the CIS has not had opportunity to develop. And so, to the extent that we communicate some of what has worked, that's helpful. Also there are many things that the Russian church needs--materials, money, building supplies, and we can help provide these.
How can Western Christians help society at large?
That is maybe even more important. The number of churches that we can help is relatively small; there aren't that many. We should help them, but the needs are so massive. Parachurch groups, denominations, and Christian professional groups have many opportunities outside existing churches. Lawyers, doctors, nurses, politicians, and other professional segments of society are open to what Christians have to say about their Christian beliefs and how they relate to those professions.
I think it's very important for Christians to understand that positive involvement in this former Communist world goes way beyond traditional evangelism.
How can we interpret the state of Russia based on reports coming out of Moscow? Just how representative is Moscow?
It's like Paris to France or New York to the United States. It in part represents the other areas but in many ways it doesn't. I think Christian groups need to increasingly fan out from the bigger cities like St. Petersburg or Kiev or Moscow and get into the cities of a million or less.
Evangelicals are not at all a novelty in Moscow or St. Petersburg. It's getting harder and harder to fill the stadiums and the theaters when they are rented for Christian purposes because the novelty has worn off. But many other parts of the former Soviet Union haven't had those contacts yet.
You can say that theoretically, but again you have to know how to make the contacts in those cities. You have to have somebody on the ground and they probably have to begin in some place like Moscow, get their feet wet, and start to set up contacts.
In smaller cities, would the Western currency be as helpful in living as in Moscow?
Foreign currency will be helpful, but it will be harder to live in those cities because the foreign currency stores do not exist there. So in that sense, it would involve more material sacrifice to go to these places.
How do people know what the laws are? How do you find out what's against the law without getting arrested?
Again, once you get there, you have to network with the Christian groups that exist. There are some good newspapers that talk about law and living there: The Moscow Times and Moscow Guardian. They are a wealth of information.
Even if you find out what is against the law, the truth of the matter is you probably won't be arrested. Because right now no one is sure what is enforceable and what's not. A lot of things are changing in practice before they are changing in the legal code.
How are existing churches changing?
Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics are having to struggle materially with how to support themselves. The Orthodox in particular suffered from receiving churches back that are in terrible shape and they don't have the funds to renovate them. Baptists and Pentecostals have not had good church facilities. As they expand and grow, they need to work on those facilities. Yet in that economy it's very hard to get the building materials.
They all struggle with how they relate to each other. This is a very difficult issue. There is real tension there as they try to figure out how they impact society and get along with other Christians and people of other religions and those who are not religious. They often have not worked out theologically or practically how that is to be done.
What advice would you give Christians considering a move to Moscow, or to missions planning to establish work there?
They need to read as many of the materials available and talk to as many people who could be of some assistance. At some point there's no substitute for just going over and starting the language training. People who want to do long-term missions should spend 70-80 percent of their time initially getting used to the culture and studying the language. I think that would be a tremendous investment for a long-term missionary. If they go over and feel that they've got to spend 80 percent of their time in evangelism initially, it's going to undermine their effectiveness down the road tremendously.
Also, denominations and Christian groups need to be much more forward looking. They need to provide funds for young people to do language work or even work in college and university to prepare them in terms of history and culture for this environment. We need to encourage people to seek scholarships that a mission agency or a denomination would provide to learn these languages. We're not doing that kind of thing yet. When we get excited, we try to send someone on the first plane over. That is not the best way to approach this mission field.
There's been much in the press here about the rising crime rates in the CIS. What do Christians need to know about that situation?
It is increasingly dangerous to be a foreigner in the CIS. And it's going to get worse before it gets better. Sometimes the police are even corrupt. A lot of things go on in foreign hotels involving drugs and prostitution and clearly the authorities are aware but are paid off. Some militiamen stop motorists, foreigners in particular, just to fine them and make a few bucks or try to get them to give them things.
On the other hand, I think people can overblow the threat. I don't feel more endangered in Moscow than I do in Washington, D.C., or New York City. I am probably safer in Moscow still than in either of those cities. You just have to learn to be careful and prudent and not be in certain places at certain times. There are going to be dangers in this society where there is a breakdown in authority.
Do you have any forecasts for the future of the church in Russia?
I don't think they've hit bottom politically or socially. The atmosphere is going to be increasingly open to demagogues who could pull the society back to a more authoritarian record. I don't think this will include a return to Communism, but there is the possibility of a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime. I don't think that necessarily means that the activities of the church will be affected in a major way. Unless this is linked up with Russian nationalism and a very aggressive pro-Orthodox position that causes some disadvantages. But I would caution the Protestant and Roman Catholic community not to be paranoid about this. It will stay open for a number of years in the sense that people are open to hearing about the gospel and religious thinking.
The first blushes of evangelism, the easy successes, are passing now. It's going to be harder to get an audience. It's going to be the long-term missionaries who have the impact. There's going to be slower, less visible work that needs to take place now. There needs to be more church planting. My prediction is that 70 percent of the people willing to go over for a short-term trip and be involved won't be willing to do the hard long-term work like learning the language. The photo opportunities will be less, although some will continue to try to have them and exploit them. What's needed is the long-term commitment. We quit very easily.
Kent Hill, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and author of The Soviet Union on the Brink, An Inside Look at Christianity and Glasnost, lived with his family in Moscow from January to July 1992. He taught at Moscow State University and served as a consultant to Western ministries working in the former Soviet Union. He was appointed president of Eastern Nazarene College, Quincy, MA, October 1992.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report