Perry L. Glanzer
After speaking about the state of Christianity in Russia in a recent American Sunday school class, I was asked a common question. I had just cited a range of studies detailing the social and moral health of Russia and the level of religious observance in the country. Apparently the picture I painted did not correspond with the impression of Russia this person had received from evangelical mission groups. With a puzzled expression on his face he asked me, "I thought the early mission efforts in Russia were incredibly successful. Weren't they?"
Sorting Out Survey Data
Has Russia's spiritual condition changed significantly the past ten years? If one is to believe some reports of short-term missionaries returning from Russia, and even some sociological surveys, the religious changes have been tremendous. Andrew Greeley, a University of Chicago sociologist, claims that Russia has experienced a phenomenal religious revival. In his 1991 study, 22 percent of Russians claimed at the time of the survey that, although they did not previously believe in God, they now did. Along with the 25 percent who said they had always believed, a total of 47 percent of Russians surveyed claimed to believe in God. By 1998 this number had jumped to 60 percent. "In a remarkably brief period of time, Russia has become one of the most God-believing countries in Europe," claimed Greeley.1
Of course, believing in God does not equate to Christian conversion. Nevertheless, mission groups have certainly claimed some success for these changes. For example, the International School Project (a branch of Campus Crusade for Christ) has asserted that up to 50 percent of the 40,000 people attending its events, most of which have been held in Russia, have come to Christ (www.isp.org).
Converts Without Church Homes
However, Orthodox scholar Dimitry Pospielovsky is not so sure Protestant and Catholic missionaries should celebrate their accomplishments. He argues that Protestant and Catholic missionaries have actually been a dismal failure. He notes that in a recent survey only two percent of Russians claimed to be Protestant or Catholic.2
Based on my own quantitative and qualitative survey research I propose a hypothesis that does not dismiss Protestant mission efforts but does raise a fundamental question about their results in light of Pospielovsky's comments. I would suggest that Western missionaries have probably produced a significant number of individual converts, but the problem is that these individuals do not have a church home. Pospielovsky's own observations about recent survey data provide one basis for this claim. While the number of Russians claiming affiliation with Protestantism or Catholicism appears low, he also notes that the population of Russian Christians claiming to be Orthodox has also dropped. As a result, he writes, "about 58 percent of people belonging to Christ have no particular confession."3
Who are these people? I suggest that many of these Russians are similar to a group of 212 Russians I surveyed quantitatively and another 75 I extensively interviewed who, as a result of Western mission efforts, were either recent Christian converts or considered themselves "on the road to Christianity." I found that the vast majority of these individuals did not regularly attend either a Protestant or Orthodox church. They could not find a church home that satisfied them.4
Dissatisfaction with Russian Orthodoxy
What exactly were the reasons behind these converts' dissatisfaction with Orthodox or Protestant churches? With the Orthodox Church, the most common complaint was its failure to teach the Bible or Christianity in an understandable manner. For example, a teacher from Rybinsk doubted whether she would continue to attend the Orthodox Church because she "didn't understand anything....There were some songs [and] some words which I didn't understand." A woman named Helen from Ryazan was perhaps the most articulate in summarizing the feelings expressed by a variety of Russians:
I can't believe blindly without thinking, without seeing, and there are a lot of such people in our country. If I go to our [Russian Orthodox] Church, I understand nothing. That's why it does nothing for me. What they are talking about is in their old Slavonic language....There are a lot of people who don't understand those services at the church and they are searching their own way.Since Orthodox prayers and liturgy in Old Church Slavonic were difficult to understand, the Russians I interviewed appreciated the simple, straightforward approach of Western Protestants. One Russian stated:
I even do not understand the words of our prayers because it is a very ancient language. I first heard the way Americans prayed and I liked it very much because the words were very simple and understandable and we prayed for things very important for us personally.In an odd quirk, foreign missionaries explained Christianity in ways that were much more understandable to Russians and Ukrainians than was instruction from the Orthodox Church. One Muscovite gave a common explanation for this appeal:
Christian Americans I met made me come to know God. It was mainly their influence. I think services in our churches don't help draw people closer to God if they're nonbelievers. If people just go to church, they will not understand it. And the way Americans work is very important--reading, explaining, and studying the Bible. It was important for someone to discuss my doubts. Otherwise, I would still have them. Who would explain them to me? You cannot just come up to the priest at the Orthodox Church and ask him why this or that is done. He'll just say he's too busy.These comments are consistent with the observations of Kent Hill and Mark Elliott who claim that Orthodoxy's failure to deal with the "creative tension between faith and reason" has led increasing numbers of highly educated Russians to embrace Protestantism and Catholicism.5
A small but significant number of Russians, especially those who had experience attending Protestant churches, expressed two other reasons for their disillusionment with Eastern Orthodoxy. One secondary reason concerned its emphasis on suffering. That Christians should be sorrowful, suffering people is apparently deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche. One former United Nations translator who interpreted for Western missionaries spoke disparagingly about "This emphasis on suffering, only suffering" and how it permeated the Orthodox tradition, even down to standing for its liturgy: "People are expected to stand for hours and hours on end in the services. No chairs are up. It's the same thing--you must suffer in order to become closer to God."
Another secondary issue concerned the quality of community. One Russian found her experiences at Orthodox churches isolating:
I thought that church should be like your family, God's family. In the Orthodox Church, when you enter, the first thing you see is old people standing and moving. Nobody knows who you are, what's your name, nobody asks where you live, where do you work, what's up with your life. Just like separate people standing in the same building.In contrast, Russians found the American Protestant churches remarkably personable. One noted:
The leader of their [Protestant] church knows everybody by name and knows all the problems. It's different in our [Orthodox] church. When I come to our church I feel a stranger there, because I don't know people.... I can't think about them as my friends. I don't know them.On the Protestant side, they found a new and unique intimacy--something they had not experienced in their own tradition. Helen related:
I listened to a service from the American church ... but I was crying. Why? First of all, all the people who come to this church know each other. They know their lives and they pray for each other. And in our church we don't know anybody. And when I heard this service from your church, they know the problems of each other. It makes me so comfortable, so nice, and so warm. They're praying not only to God, but they're praying for me. They're praying for my family. Perhaps that's why I was crying when Heidi prayed for me for the first time. I felt [it]--personally for me, for my family, for my children.Helen and other Russians found that a church service that focused on the personal needs of the community was a unique and touching experience.
And Dissatisfaction with Protestantism as Well
Still, new converts were not quite ready to embrace contemporary American Protestantism either. Mary, an interpreter from Ryazan, said of the American church plant, "I couldn't go there alone--I went with [American missionaries], but I think that when they leave I won't go." Helen, the teacher mentioned above, described a similar reaction.
I went to the Full Gospel Church three times. I went there with my American friends, and almost every time I left the church I was depressed. I cried a lot after that. I don't want to go to that church anymore. I like the church--I am very glad for them because they meet each other with such joy--but I can't go there. I don't know why.As in this case, Russians often found it hard to describe the reasons. They often would mention that American Protestant church plants did not touch their Russian soul.6 This characteristic appeared tied to the fact that American services were "too loud," so that they "couldn't even concentrate."
Russian Christians Without Church Homes
Russian educators often shared how they felt caught between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. They wanted something that combined the two traditions. As one teacher expressed, "I just wish I could find something in between Orthodox Christianity and Protestantism." Some attended services at both Protestant and Orthodox churches. As one educator said, "I listen to the teachings in Pastor Mark's church [the American Protestant church]. When I want to pray, sometimes I go to the Orthodox Church." It appears that he found the Bible teaching he wanted in the Protestant church, but for rituals invoking reverence and awe, he went to the Orthodox Church.
Of course, historical factors play a role for some. One teacher who had been very critical of the Orthodox Church in our interview still attended an Orthodox Church because of her respect for tradition: "I respect my grandfathers.... I want to prolong this continuation by generation. But I'm definitely sure that the Russian Orthodox Church needs to change." At the Protestant church, they found teaching they could understand, community, and an emphasis upon the joy of the Christian life that they longed to have in their Orthodox Church. Yet most still feel tied to Orthodoxy for a variety of spiritual, historical, and cultural reasons. They are torn in two.
Sadly, if these converts are any indication, the successful evangelical work of Western missionaries has produced a population of Russian Christians without church homes. If further research proves this hypothesis to be true,7 evangelicals may need to reevaluate their recent mission work in Russia. While Western missionaries cannot bear the sole blame for this problem, they may have contributed to it by giving improper attention to church planting or by planting churches that have clearly not appealed to Russian sensibilities. This failure of Western mission converts to identify with a church will also mean that the church will continue to be considered irrelevant not only to their own spiritual well-being, but also to their society's moral and social well-being. Overall, these results provide evidence supporting Walter Sawatsky's concern, expressed almost a decade ago, that initial approaches to missions in the former Soviet Union failed to consider critical ecclesiastical issues.8 Are we seeing the results of failing to follow that advice in Russia?
Perry Glanzer is a professor at the Russian-American Christian University, Moscow.
Edited excerpt published with permission from Perry L. Glanzer, The Quest for Russia's Souls: Evangelicals' Experiment with Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, forthcoming, 2002).
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report