East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 1993, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

After the Glasnost Revolution: Soviet Evangelicals and Western Missions

by Walter Sawatsky
Editor's note:  Excerpted from International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16 (April 1992):  54-60, with permission.  The entire article is essential reading for ministries working in the former Soviet Union.  Walter Sawatsky, M.A. and Ph.D. in modern Russian history, University of Minnesota, has worked as a research scholar on religion in the Soviet Union since 1973, sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).  He is currently Associate Professor of Church History and chair of the department at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, 3003 Benham Ave., Elkhart, IN 46517, and part-time East/West consultant for MCC.

A fact not recognized by many new missions to Russia, Ukraine, and other members of the CIS is that evangelical mission to the Soviet peoples has a history.  The first part of that history consisted of a late blooming of the general Pietist missionary impulse, which contributed to the formation of "neo-Protestant" churches in eastern and central Europe.  Bible colporteurs traveled about, Bible schools were organized (even during the first years of the Soviet era), and the YMCA mobilized the university youth.  The second part of evangelical mission history occurred after World War II, with its major focus on finding ways to help Soviet Christians survive state-sponsored suppression and persecution....

[Today] we must ask which Western-initiated projects represent a response to a definite need and a broadly supported vision, and which are merely standard tools of the trade for Western missions.  It can be observed, for example, that even though Soviet evangelicals have a long tradition of ministry through traveling evangelists, there is a keen awareness that the one thing they really do not need now is evangelists from the West who neither speak the languages nor understand the cultures of the former Soviet Union....

[Citizens of the former Soviet Union] learned to use the verb "to last" as indicating a major value in assessing something.  So much of past workmanship and scholarship lacked integrity and quality.  To say something budet stoit-"it will last"-is the ultimate compliment.

Much of the missionary energy now being expended in the former Soviet Union is based on the theory that in the great cosmic war between God and Satan, there is a temporary respite.  Soon the door of opportunity may be closed again, hence we must get the minimal proclamation to as many as possible.  Such missionaries are too busy to wonder whether their style of work might be a precipitating factor in closing doors....

Since at least the time of Peter the Great, Russians have wrestled with the question of borrowing from the West over against the opposite extreme of stressing their Eastern uniqueness.  One obvious conclusion, applied to Marxism as an import from the West, is that what is imported will not last unless it can be adapted to fit the context.  Western missionary imports also will not last, unless appropriately contextualized....

Rev. Grigorii Komendant, president in Moscow of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, [has this comment] on the current situation....

I pondered those observations as I returned once more to the Izmailov Hotel complex, where twelve hundred young people in their mid-teens to mid-twenties had gathered for...preaching (American evangelists working through an interpreter) and Bible study, before returning to their homes across the vast reaches of the CIS.  Such meetings were happening monthly.  It seemed wonderful and astonishing-so many kids in jeans, with or without cigarettes, etc., carrying their Bibles without embarrassment.  Would they find their way to a church?  Would it last?

For background read:

Sawatsky, Walter.  Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II.  1981.  Herald Press, 616 Walnut Ave., Scottdale, PA  15683-1999.  $19.95.  Tel:  1-800-245-7894; Fax:  412-887-3111.

The definitive study of the recent history of protestants, other than Lutheran, in the Soviet Union, based on an impressive bibliographical foundation....At times the vast quantity of detail may prove formidable for the uninitiated, but the rewards are great:  for example, a careful treatment of the remarkable evangelistic activities of the 1920s and a thoughtful discussion of East European missions.

Reprinted with permission from Mark R. Elliott, Christianity and Marxism Worldwide:  An Annotated Bibliography (Wheaton, IL:  Institute for East-West Christian Studies, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187, 1988).  Cost:  $15 plus $2 U.S. postage and handling or $4 non-U.S. postage and handling.

Walter Sawatsky, "After the Glasnost Revolution: Soviet Evangelicals and Western Missions," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 1 (Spring 1993), 8.

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1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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