Eyebrows were raised when it was reported that the Moscow director of the United States Agency for International Development refurbished a seven-room apartment at an estimated cost of at least $200,000.1 In a country where many people would rejoice at any prospect of living in a simple two-room apartment of their very own, the story about the expensive renovation of what had once been a communal flat (probably housing dozens of Russians) sticks out like a diplomatic sore thumb. That it was the home of an official representing an aid organization makes the thumb all the more ugly and swollen.
The underlying warning for missionaries to Russia is that affluence may hinder influence. What may be a normal standard of living to an American may seem outrageous to a Russian. The fact that for some 70 years Soviet propaganda castigated materialism as bourgeois, and the fact that most Russians have an instinctive awareness that Christianity identifies more with the poor than with the rich, should serve as a warning to would-be missionaries.
Missiologist Jonathan Bonk has identified four justifications given by missionaries for living in comparative affluence: 1) economic, 2) domestic, 3) social, and 4) strategic.2 In a Russian context such arguments would sound something like this:
The crux of the matter is that lifestyle must be taken into consideration if the gospel is ever to fit the context. Western Christians are not being all things to all people if they live in relative luxury while those they hope to reach are steeped in poverty. The heart of contextualization is identification.3 When Russians see affluence they more often than not imagine the source to be the mafia, the present symbol of national evil.
In St. Petersburg I once helped unload a container of humanitarian aid that was sent from a church in America. Included in the cargo were mattresses and box springs for missionaries. The bemused reactions of the Russian men assisting in the unloading suggested, "Americans think they are too good to sleep on our Russian beds." My defense at the time was, "These are not my beds." But I suspect that all foreign missionaries that day were guilty by association.
Commenting on the USAID director's flat, a journalist for Izvestia noted, "There are a lot of discussions in the press about how much money these organizations spend on themselves....They do useful things here but they have a bad reputation when it comes to how they spend their money--$200,000 is much too high a sum for a remont (repair)."4 Undoubtedly, at least some Russians must think similarly, that foreign evangelicals do some useful things, but they have to be pampered. We can be certain that no missionary is spending $200,000 to refurbish an apartment in Russia, but even considerably lesser amounts may seem just as outrageous to Russians whom missionaries hope to serve.
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© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies