East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 4, No. 4, Fall 1996, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Missionaries: In and Out of Fashion

Val Komissarov

The topic of missionaries in Russia is quite sensitive today. Before asking difficult questions about various aspects of missionary activities in Russia, consider the stage, the main characters, the scenery, and the key conflicts of the drama.

"Man cannot live by bread alone." But without bread he won't live either.  Often these words of Jesus are interpreted as a call for spiritual life only, but Jesus understood human nature like no one else.  That is why he said, "not by bread alone," meaning that bread, the material side of life, is an essential part of human existence.  One cannot mechanically juxtapose material and spiritual things.  Both must be present in our life in a healthy balance.  The majority of the population today is busy providing for daily bread--and bread alone.  More and more people are beginning to realize that nobody is going to help them.  The government cannot, or is unable; some even say, doesn't want to.  Russia is dying as a nation:  negative birthrate and immigration keep reducing the population.  During the 70 years of Socialism, we got used to the fact that someone up on top planned our future, provided us with jobs, defined our wages, and, generally speaking, led the nation unwaveringly to the "brighter future."  With glasnost we learned that all over the world the custom is to earn money and not have it given to you.  All of a sudden we saw that nobody needed useless work.  In terrifying clarity we realized that yesterday's builders of a "brighter future" were absolutely unable to rationally manage the economy of one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Now, yesterday's Communist and Komsomol (Young Communist League) leaders buy Mercedes-Benz automobiles and houses in Paris. The scandal around "Party Gold" was quickly hushed, but common people still feel that they have been cheated, that their country is being sacked and looted right before their very eyes, and that there is nothing they can do about it.  Universally the apathy of unbelief in Communist ideals is replaced with the apathy of realizing that one is helpless before the powers of this world.  Today's material needs demand full attention, leaving little time for things spiritual.  Frustration with the results of this struggle for survival aggravates the depression even more.  Of course, "man cannot live by bread alone"; but today this bread is very hard for Russians to earn.

Obviously chaos in the Russian economy means chaos in political life.  Democrats, liberals, radicals, reformers, and conservatives--all blame each other and the government insisting that only they understand the situation.  In power these very same people suddenly become amazingly helpless in the face of current problems.  Tragically, today's politicians are much more concerned with their own high salaries, apartments, and cars than with the nation's well-being.  According to the established Communist tradition they strive for power to be able to carve out for themselves at least something from the rich Russian pie.  I've always considered politics dirty business, but the insatiable appetites and lack of principles of the majority of Russia's leaders today make even the experienced observer shudder in disbelief.  Consequently, the low level of popular political involvement is not surprising.  Few believe in multiparty, democratic elections and almost no one believes elected leaders will change life in Russia for the better.  Surely, hope dies last, but today it exists in a critical state.

Russia, with its enormously rich, millennium-old Christian culture, turned out to be incapable of withstanding an invasion of cheap, international mass culture which in fact is symbolic of spiritual decline and emptiness.  Culture, a very delicate plant demanding close care, unfortunately, is neglected in the present economic crisis.  The acquisition of the same old daily bread becomes the purpose of life.  Very few of the country's leaders realize that without culture any nation, even plentifully provided by bread, can easily turn into a herd of swine.  Nowhere in the world are the intelligentsia (white-collar workers) treated as poorly as in Russia.  Scanty wages, crumbling educational institutions, fires and robberies in libraries--all these things signify gradual destruction of the national culture.  Real values are being replaced by advertisement heroes, computer culture, and the chewing gum of a spiritless life.

The Main Characters
Now that the stage is set, let us turn to the main characters of this drama.  Who are all these missionaries we hear so much about lately?  Over the years of Soviet rule we had somehow forgotten the word.  I don't know why, but it is a common view that missionaries in Russia are just wealthy Westerners who can't think of a better way to spend millions of dollars.  They can be helpful in a certain respect:  these aunts and uncles bring whole truckloads of humanitarian aid which have become a part of our life over the past decade, and there is always a chance to get something at one of their gatherings.  They hand out Bibles and other literature for free, and the demand for literature has always been high in Russia.  The first missionaries who came to Russia after the fall of the "Iron Curtain" were greeted with cheers.  An evidence of the changes begun in the country, they served to remind us that those changes really took place.  I remember well the first large scale mission event in Leningrad in 1989.  Neither before nor after have I seen such a number of people in our Sports and Concert Complex, as well as top musical stars, both local and Western.  The audience's response was overwhelming.  People repented, came forward, prayed, and cried.  And long after the program was over people lingered on, talked with church members, asked questions, and simply used the opportunity to discuss matters that previously were prohibited.  But all that has changed now.

Missionaries Out of Fashion
Now it's fashionable to write about "Western expansion," about the destruction of national, cultural, historic, and spiritual values, about the confrontation between Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy.  But what is really happening?  Who are these people who leave their homes, work, families, established social positions, and travel abroad to "burn people's hearts with the Word of God" in this distant, mysterious, and for many foreigners, rather somber country?  Explaining the word, missionary, Ozhegov's dictionary gives only one definition:  "In capitalist countries missionary is a person sent for religious propaganda among a non-Christian population."  From this definition it becomes clear that the dictionary was composed in Soviet times when missionary activities were far from being approved by the state.  It's interesting to note that the 19th century Explanatory Dictionary of the Great Russian Language by V. Dal doesn't mention the words mission or missionary at all.  Obviously the great linguist considered these words totally foreign and as such alien to the great Russian language. At the same time, missionary activities of the Russian Orthodox Church then surpassed all we have today.  Modern Russians unfamiliar with church life and knowing little about church history can hardly understand that in any church there are people who feel a call from God to "go and make disciples of all nations."

In Defense of Missionaries
Missionary churches dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel all over the world are not a rare thing in the West.  Such churches send their members to various parts of the world, support their missionary training and preparation, and regularly pray for their protection, success in ministry, as well as for the salvation of souls in other parts of the world.  It seems to me this is the most difficult thing to understand for my compatriots, when they ask, "why do they come here?"  The answer is they come to proclaim the Gospel just as they do in their own countries trying to wake people up from the lethargy of primitive atheism and materialism.  Perhaps among missionaries coming to Russia there are some who are interested only in their own benefits.  In fact such people cannot be called missionaries--they are businessmen of religion.  Does it mean that because of such people we should demand that all missionary activities in Russia should be stopped and all those who want to come and preach the Gospel should be denied permission to do so?  I don't think so.  Besides, it won't work.  Russia will never be what it used to be over the past 70 years.  It's impossible to win a spiritual war by political methods, i.e. posters, demonstrations, opposition, and petitions.  Who is bold enough to insist that Western Christians are not believers? Who can say that thousands and thousands of Western Christians lack love when they continue to collect resources for humanitarian aid, medications, treatments for the terminally ill, and help for educational institutions. We believe in one Christ, read one Bible, and pray to one God.  I hope that this article is only the beginning of a long, heartfelt, and sincere, if sometimes painful, discussion which is very much needed in Russian society today. 

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Christian Life, issue one, 1995.

Val Komissarov, "Missionaries: In and Out of Fashion," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 4 (Fall 1996), 6-7.

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1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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