Editor's note: This article is edited from an English translation of a presentation at the Christian Publishing Consultation held in Orlando, Florida, 27 February--4 March 1995. The Foundation for Reformation and Reformed Theological Seminary hosted the consultation, which brought together Western Christian workers and a cross-section of Evangelical church leadership from the former Soviet Union.
My task is a very difficult one--to express the most pressing needs of the churches of the former Soviet Union. Churches in Odessa may have different needs from people in Moscow and churches in Siberia. But there are strategic developments and directions and some of the most pressing needs are common to most of our churches.
Today we see the results of the turbulent changes of the last five years. On the one hand, society is very unstable and unpredictable. Democracy and freedom are not as popular as they were a few years ago. The same holds true for freedom of religion. Many people are still very fond of democracy and freedom of religion, but most of the people lost their taste for such freedom?or maybe they never had that taste to begin with. Also, the system of moral values is almost totally destroyed now. The Communists had their own system, which was not a good one, but it was a system. Now people have nothing to rely on and they lose the purpose and meaning in life. As we consider the needs of our churches, we must not forget about these problems.
Materialism and Changing Church Dynamics
Along with widespread growth of many religious organizations and denominations have come some negative consequences. One of the minuses is the visible loss of enthusiasm we saw a few years ago. We would love to keep the euphoria and enthusiasm of the first period of change, but we cannot. Because of the difficult economic situation, we have lost the notion of volunteers. People cannot volunteer their time. Materialism is growing, but I don't blame everyone for not offering themselves as volunteers. People have genuine needs, and they need to use their time. On the other hand, a part of the value system is gone and so I see very grave consequences because of the lack of volunteers. If you need people to do something, you need to pay them.
I would also like to touch upon the growth of our churches and, as a result, new theological influences. Before perestroika, our churches were replenished from Christian families by the fact that the children would grow, and they would be familiar with the Baptist tradition from childhood. Today it is totally different. Outsiders come to our church from secular society. These people do not always have spiritual understanding. They need to have the legacy of Baptist tradition transported to the new generations. People don't know the issues of the church. Sometimes this is very good because not every one of our traditions is all that good. But in general, I see this as a negative tendency. I respect and treasure our Baptist legacy and strive to maintain it and pass it on to the youth. One of the most pressing needs and general challenges of our Christian community is to preserve and develop our national Russian theology, our approach to the Bible, and the legacy that we received from our fathers.
Cooperation and Long-term Planning
The main problem is that we lack coordination. We are totally separate. We need to learn how to cooperate again because the Lord gives us certain resources and we need to use them much more wisely than we do now. We will have more money if we pool our goals and share information. I understand how difficult this task is, and I know that no one meeting or consultation will solve it. We need to realize that only by working together in mutual cooperation will we be most fruitful for the Lord. Again, I realistically don't think this can be resolved overnight, but I still think this is a great pressing need.
We need long-term plans for evangelism for the country as a whole. So far, we don't have these plans. Each church acts as if it is the only church on the face of the earth. Every mission works as if there is no other mission present in the area. There is no coordination. For example, most of the people in our area are housewives. They will never hear the gospel because we don't tell them. Some groups of the population that are not very visible will not hear the gospel. They are not being reached. Nobody does any research. Which method of evangelism is not effective for a given group? We need research and planning and thinking.
One of the greatest needs is for our Western counterparts to realize that things have changed and so there is a need for a change in strategy. Western missions as a rule simply send missionaries to our country and they preach the gospel at all kinds of churches. This is good, but I do not think this is the most effective way of doing things today. It would be much more fruitful and helpful if a missionary from the West would come not to preach but to coordinate local preachers--help them, troubleshoot--use the talent that is available locally. It will be much cheaper and more cost-effective in the spiritual sense.
Changes for Organizations from the West
Some organizations are interested in financing only local ministries. I think this is another extreme. When Western missions give money with no control over where the money goes, then local Russians do not always have the necessary skills to organize the process. They are not being trained. Some of them lack responsibility. They don't know accounting methods. They have very vague ideas about accountability. If this situation continues, we will lose effectiveness in our work. Sometimes we judge by papers, by reports. Sad as it is, if you don't know how to keep books, then whatever you do will not be reflected in reports. There is great potential for Westerners to teach us church administration, church management, and accounting. That is where I believe Russian Christians need help. Western missionaries can provide that help.
The time of mass rallies is gone. We need now to emphasize long-term planning and the very hard day-to-day work of reaching people soul by soul, person by person. It may not be as effective for fund-raising, but this should be much more serious and labor-intensive work. All missionary organizations need now to emphasize educational programs as a means of reaching people for Christ. I must admit that people are not very fond of education in our churches and there are several reasons for that. One is that we simply don't know how to put together an educational program, how to establish a class of instruction for non-Christians. On the other hand, we don't have high-quality materials. We are flooded with American programs and materials appropriate for Americans, but translated into Russian. Besides being poorly translated, this literature disregards the cultural differences between our societies, reflects a totally different tradition and, as a result, cannot be effective. While acceptable on theological and biblical points, Western-translated literature, in terms of cultural relevancy, is hopeless. So one of the greatest needs today is to develop our own programs, to write them from scratch so they can be used for evangelism among nonbelievers. We need authors. We need money to pay them. We need effort, time, finances, and personnel in order to get results in the near future. But I think it is worthwhile to spend effort and resources in this area.
Evangelism is only one of the areas of our church life. Another very important aspect is raising the flock, educating Christians. Again, the most pressing need in this area is for materials. We cannot rely solely on translated materials--poorly translated for that matter. Rather, Russian theologians who understand the mindset and circumstances of people in our country need to write what is needed.
Another area of need is the training of ministers, pastors and professors for Christian schools from elementary to university level. Trained Christian translators are needed, too. Likewise, another great need in our churches today is educational strategy. Not only do we lack materials and teachers, we lack direction. So what is the strategy? How do we develop it? How do we coordinate our efforts? The old structures which we had before perestroika are gone. We need new structures and new strategies.
Finally, we must create long-term programs of aid and cooperation between churches within Russia and between Russian churches and the West. The instability of the situation is threatening to close the doors for evangelism, so it is important to have something already established within the country. If we have church buildings and buildings for our Christian centers, that will guarantee to some extent that our work will continue and nobody will force us out. If we rent, there is no guarantee that we will be able to rent the next year. This is why construction of church, university, and educational buildings is a strategic need assuring our future.
Sergei Sannikov is the president of the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Odessa Bible Institute and Odessa Biblical Seminary, Odessa, Ukraine. He holds a degree in sociology from the University of Odessa.
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© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies