East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter 2000, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Guidelines for Contextualizing the Gospel for Russian Youth

Mark. J. Harris

The Need for Contextualization
To contextualize in evangelism is to communicate the truths of the gospel in such a way that hearers understand the message.  People in every culture are raised with a set of values, beliefs, and attitudes.  Some are held deeply, and in many cases, they have never been questioned.  Others may be negotiable or debatable.  But all affect how a person receives a new message.  A cross-cultural worker must ask, "What core values are my listeners assuming as they hear my presentation of the gospel?  What do they already believe that will affect their attitude toward the message?"  Jumping right into a "standard gospel presentation" ignores the preconceived grid that already exists in hearers' minds--and the result will often be misunderstanding.

A common problem of those doing cross-cultural ministry is the assumption that their own cultural expression of Christianity is in fact part of the gospel, which results in attempts to convert people not only to Jesus Christ, but to a foreign culture as well.  This is a common complaint against Americans, who tend to be very ethnocentric.  Thus, evangelists must not only contextualize the message, but must decontextualize it as well, that is, remove their own cultural biases.

An Orthodox Foundation
The Orthodox Church has been the predominant faith of Russia for just over a thousand years.  It believes its forms, sacraments, and traditions derive uninterrupted from the apostles themselves.1  The Church does not alter these forms in order to fit into a new context. These traditions are considered to be as authoritative as the Bible,2 and thus cannot be changed arbitrarily. When a typical Russian youth thinks about "church," the images of Orthodoxy exert a strong influence.

Perhaps the most important issue is the Orthodox claim to be the one true church of Jesus Christ on earth,3 while all others calling themselves followers of Christ are heretics. Those who seek to "cooperate" with Orthodoxy in evangelizing Russian youth are seeking in vain. This issue of the nature of the church must be dealt with directly by Evangelical believers, because Orthodox leaders are very forthright in making their exclusive claims publicly (though, perhaps, not so frankly when speaking to Westerners).

A Culture in Disarray
The fall of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union left many Russians in various states of disillusionment, discouragement, and despair. At the same time, others expressed a new hopefulness and enjoyment of freedom.  Suddenly all the rules had changed.  Many older people have been plunged into poverty.  On the other end of the spectrum, youth are growing up in an entirely different Russia.

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of change in Russia is the presence of heavy influences from other cultures, most particularly American. This is most clearly seen among youth, who commonly listen to Western music, follow Western fashions, and gravitate to clothing and accessories that bear English lettering. The influences go beyond material ones. Many Russian young people are assimilating alternate beliefs, values, and attitudes from abroad.  Youth seem to be making up for lost time in their avid consumption of Western culture.

Yet not all respond in the same way to cultural changes. Russian youth subculture is far from monolithic.  Two opposite positions seem to be developing, partially traceable to the longstanding debate between "Slavophiles" and "Westernizers."  Slavophiles believed that Russia held the key to the regeneration of Europe through ideals found uniquely in traditional Slavic culture and Orthodox Christianity. Westernizers favored leaving behind these ideals to move toward more rational ways that they believed were found in Western thought.4  The entrance of Communism into Russia complicated the issue even more, but did not eliminate the underlying controversy. Now the debate is heating up again, with some youth more traditional and patriotic, and others more contemporary and less proud of Russia. To contextualize the gospel for a Russian youth, one must learn where the young person stands along this cultural continuum.

Barriers to the Gospel
Although Russian ideas about God and spiritual life come primarily from Orthodoxy, the practices of common people display a mix of Orthodoxy, paganism, and folk superstitions. To understand this influence, familiarity with official church doctrines is not enough.  Russian youth observe what is practiced by those around them, and this is often unattractive to them.  On the other hand, the relative lack of personal demands in popular religion may seem comfortable compared to the gospel call to radical life change.

Secularism has been a central feature of the Russian cultural scene since the Revolution. Soviet public institutions and art assumed a life without God. Despite the revival of Orthodoxy, mass culture today operates very much in a secular mode.  In spite of some reports to the contrary, there has been no mass movement of youth into churches.  Only a small percentage of young people are involved in religion in any way.  Thus the peer context for the average Russian youth is not spiritual. For young people to be "like everybody else," a strong drive among youth the world over, they should remain unreligious.

Along with every other Western influence have come religious cults of all kinds. Destructive cults have separated children from their families, frightening parents, who are all the more concerned by warnings from Orthodox priests. However, there is little discernment among parents concerning non-Orthodox faiths, the assumption being that they are all cults.  When youth begin attending church, Evangelical leaders may receive calls from anxious mothers asking, "What is going to happen to my daughter?!" Some parents forbid their children to attend a non-Orthodox church. If a religious belief involves joining a particular group and entering into its practices, suspicion will arise.  Some youth, however, feel that they can discern the difference between cults and legitimate religions, and are not overly cautious. Even with them, however, building trust is no easy matter.

Following the flood of Western Evangelicalism into Russia, many young Russians were trained with superficial methods of evangelism which tended to ignore Russian culture and promote a "cold turkey" approach without building trust. Many Russian youth have been "accosted" by such people, and tend to have a negative attitude toward anyone who approaches them with a "presentation."

Superficial methods also have resulted in young people believing that praying a prayer resolves the issue of salvation, with no further need for teaching or exhortation.  Such young people become very difficult to reach with the gospel of a transformed life, which they may find threatening. To believe in God, wear a cross, be baptized, or pray a prayer is relatively harmless and will not raise eyebrows. But to love, worship, and serve Jesus Christ openly is to stand out very sharply within modern Russian youth culture.

Among young Russians attracted to the West, who see increased opportunities in a Russia that is moving toward Western freedoms, optimism about life and prospects can work at cross-purposes with the gospel. These youth are seldom open to a radical lifestyle change that will pull them away from the very things that hold for them such promise.  They do not yet know that these promises are empty.

The Problem of Identification for Westerners
Russians commonly believe that American and other Western visitors are wealthy.  In comparison to the vast majority of Russians, Americans are indeed prosperous.  This Russian perception creates various kinds of barriers to reception of the gospel. Russians wonder how wealthy visitors can understand the difficulties of their lives, and how their message can be relevant. They might say, "Well, it is easy to have faith in America, where you have everything you want."

Russians commonly mention that Americans are very friendly, but only to a point. At first they greatly enjoy the American habit of smiling, but their experience makes them wonder what is behind the smiles. Are they sincere?  Russians expect friendship to be deeper and more interdependent than they see in American relationships. Americans in Russia often tend to isolate themselves from Russians except in religious settings. Then, since their knowledge of the people is not deep, their religious messages tend to be simplistic.  For an American to truly connect with and impact a young Russian for the gospel, he or she will need to invest more time listening and observing than speaking.

Russians see both American and German culture as being too structured, with everything "cut and dried." Russians feel nervous in highly structured environments, always afraid of breaking the rules.  Western influence has caused Moscow to become much more orderly than the average Russian city or village.  Young people are more flexible in adapting to a highly structured environment, but still tend to react unfavorably at first. Westerners must put aside their urge to fit Russians into their systems and structures, and reach them within their own cultural approach to managing life.

The Problem of Motivation
In the early days after the fall of Communism, Westerners in Russia were a great novelty. Many Russians had never seen foreigners in person and would have been frightened to speak to them. Early visits by Evangelicals drew large crowds, curious to hear what foreigners had to say. This curiosity was the main driving force behind Russian young people, and a great many of them attended evangelistic meetings in the early 1990s.  They wanted to find out all that they could, as information about Western culture had been largely withheld from them.  A common response was, "Well, the Americans came, and we had lots of fun. They gave out Bibles and talked about God.  But we don't really know what they wanted. They stayed a few days and then they left.  Funny Americans."

Soft-hearted foreigners frequently gave away large sums of money in attempts to provide assistance. As this became common knowledge, many young people were present whenever an American group arrived.  English-speaking Russians were also eager to practice their language skills with native speakers.  Fluent English was a prime factor in finding work.  Many Evangelical organizations and individual visitors invited Russians for a trip to America, and this also became a dramatic attraction. The desire of Russians to travel abroad has been commonly underestimated, and ulterior motives related to this desire were often not well discerned by those providing opportunities.

For many young people who did respond to the gospel message, it was often to a one-sided, misunderstood call. They wanted God's help in their lives, but did not hear the call to a changed life. They wanted instant results with no personal effort, and thus many became disillusioned. They did not want to hear about restrictions on an immoral lifestyle. The gospel of easy belief may have brought many to say the right words, but it brought relatively few to Jesus Christ.

Many American Evangelicals commonly assume that they are able to write the gospel message on a "blank slate" when ministering to Russian youth. They assume that atheism left a vacuum that allows for rapid acceptance of the gospel. This simply is not true, and fruitful ministry demands that this illusion be broken. The combined influences of Orthodoxy, secularism, hedonism, superstition, fear of cults, and other factors have quickly made the soil resistant to simple seed planting among Russian youth. The ground must be broken and watered by wise Christian workers.

Those desiring to reach Russian youth need to become educated regarding the cultural and religious contexts that shape how their audience thinks and feels. Russian youth are not unreachable.  Alongside fruitless efforts that have discouraged so many workers, one can observe as well encouraging, fruitful ministry underway.  May God grant us the desire to proceed in our labors with wisdom and discernment, that a new generation will hear and see an effective, contextualized communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Excerpted with permission from Mark J. Harris, "Suggested Guidelines For Contextualizing The Gospel For Modern Russian Youth."  For a copy of the complete 20-page paper, contact the author at mark@cmc.ryazan.ru.

Mark J. Harris is a candidate for the doctor of missiology degree at Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon.  He has been involved in evangelism and pastoral training in Russia since 1993.  His wife Delisa ministers in a prison for teenage girls near Riazan.


  1. John Karmaris, "Concerning the Sacraments" in Daniel B. Clendenin, ed., Eastern Orthodox Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 30.
  2. Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 109.
  3. George Florovsky, "The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church" in Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Theology,  112.
  4. James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 320-21.

Mark. J. Harris, "Guidelines for Contextualizing the Gospel for Russian Youth," East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Winter 2000), 3-6.

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