East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1994, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

The Church and Western Ministry: What Russian Christians Think

John McNeill, a Ph.D. candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL, formerly worked for Biblical Education by Extension in Soviet bloc countries.  Here he shares findings from recent interviews with indigenous Christians concerning five issues affecting church life and ministry in Russia today.

Issue One:  Authoritarian Leadership Style
The command style of leadership practiced in the former Soviet Union will surprise visitors to Russian churches and those unfamiliar with Russian culture.  Russian leaders inside and outside the church, traditionally exercise more authority than their counterparts in the West.  They are more directive, have more power, and are more prone to rule by fiat.  In addition, strong, authoritarian leadership usually is respected and expected in Russia.

While foreign workers adjust with difficulty to a top-down approach to church life, it can present problems for indigenous churchgoers as well.  One young Russian man interviewed described the leaders in his church as distant, stiff, and untouchable.  He said that the young people had no one to whom they could go to discuss issues that were important to them as they entered adulthood.

Issue Two:  Legalism and Isolation in the Church
To Western Evangelicals, their counterparts in Russia appear to be burdened by legalism in their approach to such things as clothing, and consequently, are isolated from the very culture in which they live.  Although this situation is improving, new converts attending Evangelical churches can still feel isolated and rejected unless they conform to a list of lifestyle rules for which they do not see the sense.  During the communist era church members were social outcasts because of their nonconformity to Marxism.  Their appearance was a kind of badge.  Now it is a hindrance, but one that many still insist upon as a sign of spirituality essential to the Christian life.

Given the situation as described, most interviewees spoke of the need to plant new types of churches in Russia.  A variety of churches would serve a more diverse range of people.  While seeing the need to assist in and train for the planting of new churches, all agreed that continued cooperation with the established denominations is desirable and necessary.

Issue Three:  Christian Literature--Expediency Over Quality
Foreign workers involved in preparing and translating literature need to be aware that Russians are a literate and intelligent people.  Workers fluent in the Russian language report that a large proportion of the evangelistic material available from the West is so poorly translated that workers cannot use much of it without almost insulting people's intelligence, or giving them the impression that the gospel is for simple-minded people.  Many translations and tracts prepared for use in Russia have been of an extremely poor quality.  Undoubtedly Western missions' sense of urgency, approaching a chaotic rush, has been a factor.  Sometimes the texts, even in their original language, were poorly conceived and written.  Unfortunately, many Russians in both business and the church report that many Westerners they work with tend to "have all the answers" and are unwilling to learn from or be corrected by their Russian partners.

Issue  Four:  Foreign and National Lifestyle Disparities
In many reported cases Western missionaries to the former Soviet Union have expected to be "served hand and foot," or to have the same type of accommodation they were used to in the West.  One missionary family reportedly required five helpers:  a chauffeur, a cook, a shopper, a teacher, and a baby-sitter.  Part of the help served to acclimatize the newcomers and prepare them for service.  But most of the Russians with whom I spoke protested that the majority of the help given to missionaries serves to make them comfortable and to "protect" them from stresses and strains that are normal to every Russian family.

Life in the former Soviet Union can seem difficult and chaotic.  With Western money a person can avoid most of the difficulties of daily life.  Speaking pragmatically, missionaries can save much time by making the most of Western funds, but the believers I interviewed prefer that missionaries live as Russians do.  The Western preoccupation with "time is money" is particularly foreign in Russia where time simply is, and people are usually much more willing to help one another and build relationships than are time-oriented Westerners.

Issue Five:  The Limitations of "Unlimited" Funding
Many Western evangelistic projects in the former Soviet Union have involved the use of large sums of money for publicity, transportation, media coverage, and the like.  Such spending does not model outreach that the Russian church, with its limited resources, can imitate.  Thus, Western ministries can give the impression that what they do is only possible with Western money, or that they have more faith in money than in God.  Western workers should adapt Western methods for use in Russia, by Russians, with available means.  A move is afoot to send Third World workers to Russia because they do not import with them the same problems that Western workers do; nor do they need the same expensive resources to accomplish their work.

Western workers who channel financial aid to Russia should practice great discernment and use local agencies to determine how money is distributed.  A governing board responsible for allocating funds should be very wary of benefiting directly from the use of donated money.  It is a very poor idea to support workers directly, without the mediation of a local church or indigenous mission.  This is especially questionable when done in Western funds.  Such an action smacks of the privileges previously enjoyed by Communist Party members and tends to separate recipients from their social context.

When Western missionaries live alongside, not above, the people to whom they minister, there is greater identification, a mutual experience of difficulties, and perhaps eventually growth on the part of the Westerners, to be able to help more effectively.  It is probably utopian to think that Westerners could make a complete lifestyle shift, but all foreign workers who make an honest attempt will end up closer to the hearts and burdens of the people they serve. 

John McNeill, "The Church and Western Ministry: What Russian Christians Think," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 2 (Summer 1994), 1.

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1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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