The World's Biggest Candy Store--the West
In my travels I am constantly being confronted with the growing problem of pastors emigrating from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Or a group of key young people have left, only to leave a huge gap in the youth ministry. How has this problem developed so quickly? One answer is quite obvious. Food lines, cold houses, rationed goods, poor health care, etc. Suddenly borders and eyes are being opened to see the world's biggest toy and candy store--the West!
Believers from the West rush in and knowingly or unknowingly flaunt their cameras, clothes, and unlimited funds. They are the first in their church to take a picture of a live Russian to share with their missions committee. Then, in turn, Russian pastors and church leaders are invited to the West, all expenses paid, of course, to visit those who have been praying for them all these years. The shock is too much to bear. It literally is impossible for us to understand what it is like psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually for them to see us enjoying, fighting over, and flaunting all the toys which we call "blessings." They reason, "If you say it is God who has blessed you with so many things, why can't we have them too? After all, we have the same God! We have suffered so long. It's time for us to enjoy a little, too."
Prophecy and Baptism As Routes to Emigration
When I ask Christians left behind the rationale of those who have immigrated to the West, they answer: Many groups come from America and teach us that we can receive direct revelations from God and no one can question the content. For example, one pastor received a "word from God" that he was to move to the States. When he told his congregation, they were shocked, and so was his wife, for she had not received the same message from God. She wanted to stay and work among her own people. Then the pastor received another "message from God" that he had married the wrong woman. He divorced his wife and moved to the States in the guise of "spiritual obedience."
Just as troubling, many unbelievers are joining churches and being baptized so that they may be eligible for emigration status. It is easier for Christians and Jews to obtain this status. It is hard to know who is a real believer. Many Christians fill out all the documents and necessary papers and find the money somewhere and then say, "If the Lord wills, I will have a 'yes' answer from the authorities."
Some preachers and people who call themselves "prophets" are using Revelation 18:4--"And I heard another voice from heaven saying, Come out of her, my people, that you be not partakers of her sins, and that you receive none of her plagues." With little teaching on prophecy, many believers do not know how to answer these people. Others reason, "I want to give my children a free life and a better future. I don't want them to suffer as I have. We know this time of freedom will be short and we must leave while we can."
What Can Be Done to Stem the Tide?
In view of this situation, we in the West need to ask ourselves, "What can be done to stem the tide of believers exiting their own mission fields for 'greener grass'?" First and foremost, we need to exercise wisdom and sensitivity in developing our contacts within Eastern Europe. We must use extreme caution in not flaunting our material goods and calling our toys God's "blessings." There are pastors and churches who are crawling all over each other in order to be the first in their community to develop contacts with a Western church, knowing that it means instant money and resources. This situation creates jealousy and envy in the church and even hatred from the unbelieving community.
We must at all costs build up the local church in Eastern Europe through continued prayer and a deeper understanding and appreciation of what the local pastor faces Sunday after Sunday. I personally know pastors in the East who have not ministered to their own flock for weeks on end because they are busy entertaining groups and pastors from the States. They surrender their pulpits Sunday after Sunday to preachers they have never met before, not having the faintest idea what will be fed to their flock. This would never be allowed in any evangelical church in the States with which I am acquainted. No pastor would open his pulpit to guest speakers who are basically total strangers and give them total freedom to speak to his sheep! Yet this approach seems to be totally justified when we are the ones doing the ministering. Are we not guilty at times of an imperialistic missions approach?
Eastern believers are also quite concerned, and rightly so, that in certain situations souls are being reaped too quickly. Seeing that we have never had that problem in America, or in Sweden (where we live), it may be difficult to understand their reasoning. This approach may be termed "hit and run" evangelism. I'll be thrilled to bring the new baby into the world, but someone else can change the diapers!
East European believers are more than eager to evangelize their own people. Mission organizations are being founded almost daily in order to respond to the vision the Lord has given them. It is exciting to see them respond. One pastor told me, "Please give us time and breathing room to follow and develop the visions God is giving us for our own people." He was telling me kindly that too many outsiders were coming and telling him "how to do it."
There is a definite lack of discipleship and follow-up materials as well as churches in which these new believers can be nurtured. It is in these areas that we can be most effective in building the future church in Eastern Europe. This scarcity leaves many new believers ripe for "New Age" and other cults. In some cases, we have taught them how to say "God," only to have someone else put materials into their hands to lead them astray. In some ways it echoes the mistakes made by Western missions in Africa years ago.
We should exercise extreme caution before inviting East Europeans to our churches in the West. As mentioned earlier, it is a temptation beyond description for them to see the world in which we live. If possible, contact should be developed with an existing, proven mission organization already working within Eastern Europe. Invaluable advice and experience is available for the asking.
Above all, we should be open to learn from our brothers and sisters who have suffered so much. Their faithfulness in prayer and their dedication to the Lord under adverse conditions has driven their roots deep in Him. We must sit at their feet and learn. They have so much to teach us, if only they have the opportunity to do so in a context not threatening to their spiritual future."
Editor's Note: Sacramento, CA, may be the new Slavic Evangelical diaspora capital. See Susan Hardwick, Russian Refuge: Religion, Migration, and Settlement on the North American Pacific Rim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 11030 S. Langley Ave., Chicago, IL 60628, 1993). 238 pp. $41.50 hardback; $20 paper. Tel: 312-568-1550; fax: 312-702-9756.
Wally C. Schoon of the Evangelical Free Church is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Sweden 22 years. He is a missionary to the former Soviet Union and East Central Europe with Capernwray Missionary Fellowship of Torchbearers.
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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies