East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer 2001, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

A Sobering Critique of Russian Protestant Church Growth

David C. Lewis

Anti-Orthodox Protestant
It is unfortunate that relationships between the Orthodox church and foreign missions have sometimes been soured by the anti-Orthodox stance of some Protestants. Even though such individuals are not typical of most foreign missions, from an Orthodox perspective it may be difficult to distinguish between the different kinds of Protestants. A few negative experiences can create stereotypes and motivate the Orthodox church to try to reduce foreign influence among Russian Protestants.

Anti-Protestant Orthodox
All Protestant churches together can claim a membership of no more than a few percent of the population, whereas somewhere between 45 and 75 percent of Russians identify themselves as in some sense Orthodox, although this no doubt includes many who are Orthodox according to their culture rather than their belief.

Despite its numerical advantage, parts of the Orthodox church have also felt increasingly threatened in the last few years by certain Protestant groups on account of Protestants' potential sponsorship from more affluent churches in the West. Russian Baptists, Pentecostals, and others have benefited from literature and finance for church buildings and the salaries of evangelists. The Orthodox church has also felt threatened by the mass evangelism of Protestant preachers who have held evangelistic campaigns in Moscow and some other cities. Western preachers have the financial resources to pay for advertisements on local television and radio, the printing of advertising posters and leaflets, and the provision of free scriptures and other literature handed out at the campaigns themselves. Superficially it appears that large numbers are responding at these campaigns, but in fact many of them fail to become integrated into Protestant churches.

A Case Study of Protestant Church Planting in Tatarstan
Six months after Vasily Yevchek began to plant a church in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, he had a congregation of about 500 people. In February 1993 his brother Peter started a church in the nearby town of Yelabuga, which after one month had a congregation of about 60 to 80 people. In Nizhnyekamsk, another city in that region of Eastern Tatarstan, their colleague Stepan Borisov had about 100 people in his church just three months after he had begun his missionary work there. During the same period another 100 people joined the church started by Stepan's brother, Vasili Borisov, in the nearby town of Zainsk. Another colleague, Nikolai Jubak, had a congregation of 50 people two months after he began to plant a church in the small town of Kamskiye Polyani.

On the surface this appears to be a phenomenal growth rate among these new Pentecostal churches in the valley of the Kama River in Eastern Tatarstan. Statistics like these could make some Orthodox clergy feel that Protestants are a threat, but this reaction is based on very superficial and limited observations. What tends to happen is that there is an initial period of apparent success and growth, but the rate of growth usually slows down after some months and the momentum is often lost. Rapid growth needs to be followed by a period of consolidation and a greater focus on the teaching and training of those who have come to faith. At the same time there is likely to be a certain amount of loss: as in Christ's parable of the sower, there will inevitably be those whose initial enthusiasm is strangled by the cares of this world, or whose roots were not put down deeply enough to withstand pressures or persecution.

Compared to the populations of these settlements, the number of Protestants is still insignificant. The 500 Pentecostals in Naberezhnye Chelny still constitute less than 0.1 percent of the population of 508,163 people. The same is true of the other cities: Pentecostals constitute about 0.5 percent of the population of Nizhnyekamsk (numbering 192,525), no more than 0.15 percent of the 54,360 population of Yelabuga, less than 0.3 percent of the 36,932 people in Zainsk, and about 0.3 percent of the approximately 15,000 in the settlement of Kamskiye Polyani. It might be argued that the figures for one denomination do not represent any kind of threat to the religious establishment, but collectively the different Protestant denominations together represent a substantial number. I do not have exact figures for Eastern Tatarstan, but to the best of my knowledge the Baptist and Charismatic churches are of a similar size, sometimes smaller, than the Pentecostal churches detailed above. However, while studying the Tatar language at the Academy of Sciences in Kazan in 1991 I also conducted some research on the overall situation in the city.

The major Christian denomination is of course the Orthodox church, but it is difficult to assess the number of "members" because many of those who regard themselves as Orthodox attend the church only for special festivals. Moreover, the style of service is such that people often come and go during the course of the service and can move around to some extent on account of the lack of seats; so there is a problem in assessing the number of regular attenders. This is easier for Protestant churches in which there is seating provided and in which people feel a greater sense of obligation to stay to the end of the service if possible (although in practice there is also considerable freedom in this). Father Pavel, who conducts services in Tatar for baptised Tatars, reckons the total community to be several dozens of thousands, but only about 150-200 come to his services held at times of special festivals. The regular, committed congregation is about 60 older people.

During the Communist period there had been a registered Baptist church in Kazan which I did not manage to visit, but I was told that its members, numbering about 100 or so, were mainly older people who were quite conservative. However, I did visit what for many years had been the unregistered Baptist church. It was meeting on the edge of the city in a building which was packed out with possibly up to 100 people. To a large extent the style of the service was quite traditional--the men in the front rows leading the service while women (all wearing headscarves) and children were relegated to sitting around the walls. Some of the more progressive elements in the church wanted to be less rigid in their attitudes and also to be more open to contacts with other churches (both within Russia and abroad), so a few years later the majority of the members split off to form a separate congregation. I estimate the attendance at the new congregation to have been around 200 in 1997--indicating an approximate doubling in size over five or six years.

Also in Kazan is the Nazareth Church, established in 1991 by Baptist missionaries from the Light of the Gospel Mission based in Rovno, Ukraine. On my first visit to the church in 1991, a 23-year-old man who led some of the meetings told us that when he first came in May 1991 he was the only one his age, but then a nucleus of younger people formed as he brought his friends. At first the congregation consisted mainly of older people, but the average age was becoming younger and some of the ideas of the younger Christians were also becoming more accepted. He reckoned that the regular attenders numbered about 70 to 80 people, but there were also casual visitors. I estimated the attendance six years later, in 1997, at about 200. This again indicated an approximate doubling during half a decade.

Pentecostals and Charismatics
Those present [during] my visit to the Pentecostal church numbered probably 200. However, in 1989 a flourishing Charismatic church had been founded by a young couple named Sergei and Julia Borisenkov, who had grown up in the Pentecostal church. On my first visit to this new church in 1991 there were 79 committed members, but the average attendance was between 100 and 200. Most of them were younger people; about 10 to 15 people were in the 30- to 40-age range, another 15 older than 40, and the rest were students or young people. Over the next few years the church grew rapidly, and by 1995 had already become the largest Protestant church in Tatarstan, having about 700 members, plus another 100 or more attenders who were not yet full members. They had also started church plants in Naberezhnye-Chelny and Novokuibyshevsk.

This Cornerstone Church--the name by which it had been registered--had by 1995 a salaried staff of six people. Sergei Borisenkov continued to be the founding pastor, but he was also training others to take on leadership roles. Many in the church seemed to appreciate the preaching skills of a young man named Roman, who later became the leading pastor. At first Sergei devoted himself to administrative matters, but after a while both Sergei and Julia became unhappy with some of the emphases in Roman's style of preaching. Finally the Borisenkovs felt that they had to leave the church they had founded and start again. By 1998 their new congregation had about 200 people in attendance.

Another Charismatic church was founded in the summer of 1991 by the Calvary Chapel denomination in the USA. Initially this new church called itself Mission Golgotha, but later, simply the Church of Christ. Pastor Alexander Polishchuk told me that at the beginning perhaps 100 or so became Christians when they came to hear an American evangelist, but only about 30 remained--although some went to other churches. After that the church grew to some extent: on my first visit in 1991 I estimated the congregation to be about 55 to 60 people. Since then there has been some growth, but the church then suffered from restrictions introduced in November 1993 by the mayor of Kazan regarding the use of public buildings for religious purposes. For a while the church was meeting mainly as house groups, rather than as a combined congregation. In Kazan there is also a Seventh-day Adventist church. Its pastor reported in 1991 that a small group of less than 30 people had grown to more than 50.

Tatarstan Protestants Well Under One Percent
In conclusion, it can be seen that the overall number of Protestants remains a tiny fraction of the population of the city. At the time of my survey in 1991 there were about 1,000 Protestants in the Baptist, Pentecostal, and Charismatic churches combined. However, the population of Kazan in 1989 was 1,087,584--therefore Protestants represented in the region of 0.1 percent of the city's inhabitants. Since then the Baptists have approximately doubled in numbers and attendance at Charismatic churches (especially the Cornerstone Church) has multiplied by a factor of perhaps four or five, but the overall number of Protestant Christians remains merely a fraction of one percent of the population. Therefore it appears that the Orthodox reaction to Protestantism seems to be out of all proportion to the real numbers involved. The small number of Protestants can hardly be seen as a threat, unless their numbers appear to be magnified in the eyes of the Orthodox establishment. If so, the most likely explanation for this reaction probably lies not in the actual growth figures of the Protestant churches themselves but in the impression conveyed by Western-style mass evangelism.

Evangelical Exaggeration
A problem for some Westerners is a felt need to show results--preferably spectacular ones--to those who have financially supported their missions. Glamorous success stories are often the best way of doing this. Too often mission strategy can be influenced, perhaps almost unconsciously, by what looks good to supporters. Hence there is a danger of stressing quantity at the expense of quality.

For instance, in 1994 there was a debate in the Christian Herald newspaper whereby an organization called Eurovangelism wished to disassociate itself from being confused with a mission called Eurovision, which was advertising an evangelistic campaign in terms that Eurovangelism considered to be exaggerations. For example, Eurovision's description of Siberia as a land with "No God, No Bible, No Hope" seemed incompatible with the fact that there were existing churches in many of the very cities and towns targeted by Eurovision's mission. I had not intended to let myself become involved in this debate, but I was drawn in when the editor of the Christian Herald asked me to try to give an objective appraisal of Eurovision's claims.

In fact, I had little or no quibble with the basic facts as presented by David Hathaway, the director of Eurovision, in his mission report in the Christian Herald. The problem lay more in his style of presentation:

Over 50,000 came forward to receive Christ, over 1,000 documented healings--just those prayed for by myself, not including those prayed for by team members--17 Crusades--17 different cities--55 separate meetings--several new churches planted--approximately 30,000 km traveled--all in 63 days. In every Crusade almost every unbeliever came forward to receive Christ....In Susuman 25 percent of the population came forward to make a decision in two days in the stadium.
David Hathaway's report illustrates the way in which it is possible to give an impression to one's sponsors that they had received value for their money. I have little doubt that the figures are generally accurate regarding some of these smaller Siberian towns where Westerners still have curiosity value. However, what does it mean in reality?

I tried to ascertain the opinions of local Christians in some of these Siberian towns. In Yakutsk they laughed when they read Hathaway's report--one of them commenting that the whole population of Russia must be Christian already if one adds together all the numbers of converts claimed by various Western missions in Russia! The fact is that very often Russians have gone forward in response to evangelistic messages because they feel that the evangelist expects them to do so, or else they feel that it is a "religious" thing to do--rather like the new Russian fashion for wearing a cross around one's neck. Even if they went forward, they have not necessarily become Christians, and in fact relatively few actually end up as church members.

Another Christian wondered why Hathaway should be so specific about the numbers of converts, crusades, and meetings, but so vague about the exact number of the "several" new churches that were said to have been planted. A possible reason for this vagueness was provided by a telephone interview I conducted in Russian with Iida Lukina, a Christian in the southern Siberian city of Neryungri. She said: "Many people repented in the meetings, but no one new has come along to our church as a result of this mission." She thought that some of those who responded might have started to attend the local Orthodox church, as most Russians are unfamiliar with Protestant churches. Even though Iida considered Hathaway's mission to have been "excellent" and "well-organized," her comments about the lack of incorporation of supposed converts into the local church (or at least the Protestant one) are consistent with the patterns reported by Russian pastors elsewhere after other evangelistic campaigns by Western missions in recent years. Indeed there have often been some lasting conversions, but these form a relatively small proportion of the apparently large numbers who respond at the public rallies. An informed estimate for Moscow reckons that a total of about 2.3 million people in the city are recorded as having made a response at large evangelistic rallies in recent years, but membership in Protestant churches has increased by only about 50 percent--from around 6,000 members to 9,000 or 10,000.

Orthodox Misreading of Protestant Gains
Publicity reports produced by evangelists can mislead observers from the Orthodox and Muslim faiths who have begun to regard Protestantism as a threat. In order to protect the integrity of their traditions and their symbols of ethnic identity, they have appealed to legislators for state protection. Protestants have reacted by viewing such restrictions as forms of persecution or infringements of human rights. Insofar as Hathaway's magazine Prophetic Vision often refers to prophecies that the time is short for evangelistic campaigns to be held, it would be an irony if to a certain extent such prophecies might be partially self-fulfilling.

Western Christian Witness at Its Best
These kinds of Western missions are the ones most likely to catch the eye of the general public and of the Orthodox hierarchy, who might be inclined to view Protestants as potentially "stealing their sheep." It is unfortunate that they do not notice the quiet work of various Western Christians living in Russia who have a desire to be servants of the church, whether Orthodox or Protestant. Some of them have deliberately decided to join in with their local Orthodox churches in order to help and encourage the local Orthodox priesthood. Others, motivated by a genuine desire to alleviate human suffering, have been involved in charitable activities such as helping children living on the streets of Moscow. These kinds of inconspicuous but very positive forms of help rarely catch the attention of the public, but at a local grassroots level they have been building forms of cooperation between Western Protestant and Russian Orthodox Christians based on practical deeds rather than discussions about theology. In other cases known to me, Western and Russian churches have entered into the religious equivalent of "twinning" between towns: that is, members from both sides have visited the other church and have each helped or encouraged the other in some way. Sometimes this has resulted in help with practical material needs, but probably more important has been the transnational cross-fertilization that comes from sharing experiences and insights with one another.

David C. Lewis is a social anthropologist who has done research and fieldwork in Russia and Central Asia. Since 1991 he has been a research associate at the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, University of Cambridge, England.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission of Palgrave (St. Martin's Press). Copyright © David C. Lewis, After Atheism: Religion and Ethnicity in Russia and Central Asia (Surrey, England: Curzon Press, 2000; New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000).

David C. Lewis, "A Sobering Critique of Russian Protestant Church Growth," East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Summer 2001), 5-8.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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