Several families in Russia asked their church's blessing as they departed for America. The emigrants had tears in their eyes and feelings of guilt. Among those leaving were a pastor, a worship leader, and several musicians. Not a dry eye was to be seen in the church. A year later, this former pastor attended a Slavic immigrant church in the United States. Among its worshippers were more than 20 former pastors, now sitting in back pews during services. No wonder a couplet now circulates among Christians in Russia: "God opened the door for evangelization; Satan opened the door for emigration."
The same picture is seen in the field of theological education. Many students--nobody knows how many--from the former U.S.S.R. never return home after studying in North America. Others return temporarily, maintaining a permanent home in the West. They return to their homeland to teach, but as foreigners, despite their fluent Russian.
Recently I received a newspaper from relatives who had emigrated to the U.S. The Slavic newspaper Affishe plus, (Portland, OR, 19 September 1999) celebrated "10 Years of Slavic Immigration." Articles claimed that because of God's mercy and the good will of former presidents Reagan, Bush, and Gorbachev, the blessed doors of immigration had opened. Slavic pastors praised God for filling their churches with immigrants, just as he had peopled the Promised Land following the Exodus. Pastors Bondaruk and Pekun contended that Slavic immigrants were to do more than enjoy their new life; they were to assist those left behind in the former U.S.S.R. and to serve God in their new homes.
The situation is complicated. Churches in the former U.S.S.R. are losing leaders, church members, and future theological educators. At the same time, to discourage this movement to the West would suggest indifference to economic hardship and lack of freedom.
A Range of Motives
Many reasons exist for Russian emigration, including economics, crime and security, politics, socio-cultural factors, religious alienation, and apocalyptic theology. Low salaries, high prices, and dramatic unemployment rates especially among the intelligentsia contribute to flight abroad. It is common for people to work without receiving a salary for months on end. The fear is widespread that quitting would mean writing off back wages permanently. Corruption, bribery, and the Mafia are additional burdens Russians must bear. Increased crime and drug use make streets unsafe, especially at night. Living in such conditions is difficult for Christians and non-Christians alike. In addition, chaos in the Duma, struggles among politicians, political murders, and Mafia control dim hopes for a "Russian Revival." Some Russians dream of returning to the era of a strong U.S.S.R., while many, who hope the old system will be forgotten, believe it will take the passing of several generations. Only then, they think, will citizens be able to live in a democratic state that operates according to constitutional law. It is difficult to be "salt and light" against such a background.
Strangers in Their Own Land
Many Russian Evangelicals do not feel at home in their own country. Before perestroika all Christians in the U.S.S.R. suffered at the hands of a hostile state. Russian Evangelicals shared the image of "suffering witnesses of Christ in the Communist environment, aliens and strangers in society." Despite Evangelicals' exemplary moral standards, government officials showed us no respect. Since the advent of perestroika Russian society has maintained that all true Russians must be Orthodox Christians. In contrast, Russians typically regard Evangelicals as representatives of a "Western" faith. Russian Evangelicals are no longer suffering witnesses; instead, they have become "strangers" in their homeland--another motive for emigration.
One group of pastors from central Russia made numerous efforts to attract people to their churches, including building projects and various social ministries. All was in vain. Their conclusion: "Russians do not go to church. We are tired, our efforts are fruitless, and we will emigrate." This is a genuine reason for some, but for others it may be an excuse to leave.
Theology, Tradition, and Change
Opportunities for emigration are embraced as a gift from God. Increasingly, Bible prophecies have figured in motivations for Russian Evangelical emigration. Under persecution, Evangelicals speculated that Russia's future was foretold in the book of Revelation, in part due to one Western teaching that viewed Russia as the "beast" of chapter 13, and the Communist Party as the "prostitute" of chapter 17. As the leaders of the U.S.S.R. were in battle with the people of God, many images from the book of Revelation were interpreted in light of recent Russian history. When Gorbachev and Yeltsin overthrew Communist Party leadership, Christians feared this was only a temporary change. Evangelical apocalyptic sentiments were, and still are, widespread, especially among Pentecostals. Thus, new opportunities for emigration have been interpreted as the Exodus for God's people from Russia into the "Promised Land."
Troubling ethical dilemmas have been another factor behind emigration. Previously we viewed ourselves as morally pure compared to the Communist society in which we lived. Heaven was our real home and hymns celebrated our freedom from the vanities of this world. But with the fall of Communism, Christians realized that the people of God struggle with new freedoms and temptations in a corrupt society as do atheists. Having appeared "holy" when deprived of choices, our concept of holiness was sorely tested under the new circumstances. For some Evangelicals emigration appeared to be the solution. The West offered a new life in a democratic society relatively free of difficult daily ethical decisions.
Looking for Solutions
The only solution to Slavic Christian emigration is to strengthen national church structures and theological education, drawing not only the elderly and poor, but also the young, rich, and powerful. Well-educated ministers will produce strong churches. As qualified believers take positions of leadership in society, the situation will improve. Society members will be better qualified to perform their civic duties responsibly as Christians. Not the church itself, but individual members of the church, should become involved in politics and economics, following the patterns of countries such as the U.S. where the church influences members' lives, while as a body it remains separate from the state.
Efforts by outsiders to evangelize Russia will never succeed. We appreciate their assistance. In fact we need foreign assistance as we attempt to strengthen local churches and theological institutions. But long-term results have been minimal so far because foreign missionaries are strangers in our society and in our churches. Our need for strong churches that will influence Russian society can be answered by Western churches helping through genuine dialogue asking questions rather than making assumptions.
In the past, longstanding churches consisted of only a few families. Now that emigration has become a chain reaction, perhaps the majority of Evangelicals of the older generation will leave Russia. Our hope is in new churches with members from many families who lack the opportunity to emigrate. Thanks to Western missionary efforts, many new churches exist in Russia. Yet these churches are weak, despite large amounts of financial support. Foreign missionaries planted churches with local ministers, yet seldom gave them opportunities for full leadership. Allowing national leadership in these church plants is not easy, especially when finances are involved. Yet it is not only desirable, but necessary.
Another major issue is theological education in the former U.S.S.R. Again, due to the efforts of foreign missionaries we have many new Bible schools and colleges. Today Christians have opportunities to study in order to strengthen our churches. Yet success will come only as our national leaders and professors become dominant in these schools and Russian ownership develops. National leaders will have more authority and creativity within local conditions than do Western specialists. If this is an indigenous system, although developed with Western assistance, our people will not wish to leave. Emigration of Russian theological students is especially painful, since much money has been invested in them. The development of the Euro-Asian Accreditation Association (EAAA), fostering the development of national theological education, has been a step in the right direction. We have Bible schools and colleges; we now need to prepare national professors. Master's degree programs must be started in Russia so that students will not have to study overseas.
Strong national churches and theological institutions are the only hope for our Evangelical movement in Russia. To combat the damage of emigration we must develop enthusiastic and optimistic Russian churches. We appreciate the hard work and efforts of Western missions to strengthen our churches. However, success will come only as Russian Evangelicals are no longer Western-oriented.
Alexander Valuisky teaches at St. Petersburg Christian University, St. Petersburg, Russia.
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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report