East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 6, No. 4, Fall 1998, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

"Successful" Christian Ministry: Confusing the Appearance and the Substance

Olga Loukmanova

A Confession
While what I write is in no way an official opinion of a church or an organization, it has been on my mind--dare I say, spirit--for some time. It has to do with the way we, Russian Christian leaders, treat people in our ministry, our view of people and ministry--our whole worldview. Whether we realize it or not, every action and motive reflects our basic values and beliefs. Calling ourselves Christians, we must strive to let biblical truth transform our minds, and consequently our work and attitudes (John 8:32). Those of us who came to know Christ as adults (as have many Russian believers) carry an incredible amount of "baggage," dragging our previous philosophies and practices into our new Christian life. We are often unaware of this. But that makes it even more urgent to deal with these issues as soon as possible, before we hurt or wound more people.  I have in mind instances where we Christians treat each other as mere means to an end, as "pegs" to fill empty holes in ministry, as ego-boosters, or as threats. I write this because I myself have been both guilty of such attitudes and a victim of them. Let me give some examples.

Evangelism, Discipleship, and Ego
Several times in Russia I have witnessed street evangelism in which people were practically pushed to "pray a simple prayer," and, cringing, did so out of mere politeness to a foreign guest--so that later that day believers could praise God for yet another brother or sister and proudly declare that "today we had 52 divine appointments." I thank God that He brought some of these people into the church.  Yet it's no secret that these were very few.

Very often Russian Christian leaders seem more concerned with the appearance of things than with their essence. In my experience, the vision of one local pastor happened to include organizing believers into home groups for fellowship and discipleship. When several members of the congregation temporarily chose not to attend such meetings, church leaders--in a mild and friendly manner--insisted upon their attendance. However, after talking to the pastor, these church members were left depressed, feeling as if they had been "walked over." One was upset that no one asked her why she chose not to attend. She felt no one cared about her relationship with God. Rather, leaders were anxious that she comply with their vision of the church and not disrupt the status quo.

Other examples can be given. A pastor asked a member of his congregation why he never prayed aloud in public, the view of success in that congregation being that "a powerful church is at all times filled with the Spirit."  (In practice, this meant praying loudly and emotionally.)  Sadly, the question seemed to reflect the pastor's concern not so much for the believer, as for conformity in his congregation. Another pastor confessed to feeling insecure when his congregation was silent, needing to hear their amens during the sermon. Silence was perceived as a threat. I remember personally fuming inside, even breaking out in anger, when members of a local Christian student group failed to pray aloud at prayer meetings, to participate in evangelistic events, or to arrive on time and behave "properly" at various Christian functions. I myself was concerned with our group appearing successful, so that no one could peg us as "unhealthy," rather than with the true and real spiritual well-being and development of the members. It was a boost to my ego as a leader to "produce" good Christians. When young and immature believers "messed things up," I firmly believed that they were the guilty ones, and that, but for them, we would have had everything together.

A Desire to Look Good
I do not presume to analyze the causes of these attitudes that too often prevail in our churches and organizations. Some may be due to years of Communism, where we were pressed to produce results and give successful reports to authorities. Some of it is due to humanism, the dominant philosophy of the Communist society for so long. Some could simply be a desire to look good. Undoubtedly, we are fascinated with the worldly image of success--large numbers, a triumphant march towards victory, satisfaction with the rightness of our own unique approach. And perhaps it is in part due to our own sinful desire for control, and fear of change, which would threaten our security. While our spoken theology may appear flawless, our practice often reveals an assumption that individuals are not important in and of themselves, but are simply part of a larger structure designed for their own good.  If any belonging to this structure cause problems, they are seen as dangerous, rebellious, weak, or sinful (to name but a few options) and are best removed.

Diminishing Human Dignity/Diminishing God's Greatness
Francis Schaeffer, in How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and other books, points out that, since people were created in God's image, treating them as less than human is wrong and, in fact, insulting to the Creator. By diminishing the value of humanity as created by God, we diminish God's greatness, viewing Him as something less than divine. We dare not deny human beings their God-given personality, freedom, will, emotions, creativity, or uniqueness--for all of this reflects God's character.

Thinking about true spiritual priorities has had an incredible effect on my view of ministry, discipleship, and the Church. Repenting of my sinful views of people as alternately burdens or means of maintaining a successful image, I now experience far less tension. While formerly mourning decreasing numbers at gatherings, I now rejoice in genuine depth of growth demonstrated by some members. The pressure to appear successful is still very much felt in Christian circles. It has been hard to allow young Christians genuine freedom to grow, especially when this conflicts with strategic programs and long-planned events. We need to abandon sinful patterns in ministry that amount to targeting and manipulating people.  We need to say no to the worldly image of success, asking God to give us true freedom from other people's opinions. Progress may seem slow, but we continue at God's pace. Above all, we must not insult our Creator by treating His human beings, created in His image, with anything less than their rightful human dignity.

Olga Loukmanova, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, teaches English at Nizhny Novgorod State Linguistic University.  She serves on the board of Soobshchestvo Studentov Khristian (Fellowship of Christian Students), an independent Russian student movement with fraternal links with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Olga Loukmanova, "'Successful' Christian Ministry:  Confusing the Appearance
and the Substance," East-West Church & Ministry Report 6 (Fall 1998), 20, 19.

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© 1998 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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