Figures That Don't Compute
The size of the Christian community in Russia today eludes easy calculation. The new edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia edited by David Barrett, George Kurian, and Todd Johnson suggests that 76 million people in some sense identify themselves as Russian Orthodox, and that in Russia "Protestants," "Anglicans," "Evangelicals," and "Pentecostals/Charismatics" collectively number 8,668,300. (See chart on page 4.) But these figures, Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson themselves note, encompass large numbers of nominal believers who, in many cases, claim religious affiliation simply as a cultural or national marker.
This issue's articles by David Lewis, Hegumen Innokenty, and Kimmo Kääriäinen suggest as well that many Orthodox and Protestant estimates typically inflate the number of active Russian believers by a wide margin. Orthodox hierarchs may sometimes exaggerate the size of their flock in an attempt to augment their political influence. And Western and Russian Protestants may sometimes exaggerate the success of their church growth projects for the benefit of Western donors and grassroots constituencies.
The commonplace Orthodox presumption that Russian and Orthodox are synonyms hardly squares with ample public survey data documenting that Russians now live in a highly secularized society. At the same time, Perry Glanzer and David Lewis point out in this issue that dramatic evangelical reports of large numbers of new Russian converts in the 1990s do not compute with modest increases in evangelical church membership and attendance in the same period.
Second Thoughts on a Post-Soviet Evangelical Revival
In mid-May 2001 I sat in a pastry shop on Moscow's October Square with a longtime Russian friend who shared his opinion that in 1995 Moscow had some 300 Protestant churches, but today, only 100. If this startling decline is in fact the case, how much of the loss is due to 1) new restrictions in the 1997 law on religion that hamper Protestant life; 2) the growing anti-Western climate (with Protestants seen as a foreign element); 3) undiscipled new believers departing through the back doors of churches as others enter through the front; 4) Russian Protestant emigration to the West; 5) a possible fall off in recent years in Western mission efforts in the former Soviet Union; and 6) a percentage of converts from evangelical ministries making their way into Orthodox churches? And is modest Protestant growth in Moscow--and in Tatarstan according to David Lewis--a pattern across Russia, soaring church growth pronouncements notwithstanding? (See also Mark Elliott, "Hit and Run Evangelism Wrong Move in Former Communist World," News Network International, 28 February 1992.)
No Widespread Moral Transformation To Date
In June 2001 I had a phone conversation with a representative of a Western mission that has engaged in extensive evangelistic work in the former Soviet Union over the past decade. I was informed that many thousands of house churches were planted in the 1990s as a result of this ministry's outreach. The CEO of the mission, I was told, now reasons that as a result of the dramatic increase in the number of Russian believers since the fall of Communism, there must be various social indicators pointing toward a regeneration of Russian society. I had to play devil's advocate in this conversation in the interest of a realistic perspective on Russia today. It would appear that both the CEO's premise and his conclusion are wide of the mark. In this issue David Lewis contends that Protestants number one to three percent of the Russian population at most, and Russian society today is in the midst of a profound psychological and demographic crisis, with a wide array of social indicators sadly but clearly indicating the exact opposite of regeneration. In this issue Murray Feshbach's recitation of the causes of "Russia's Population Meltdown" unfortunately enumerates all manner of health problems exacerbated by millions of regrettable individual moral choices. As a consequence, Russia is experiencing alarming increases in rates of alcoholism, alcohol poisoning, drug abuse, promiscuity, prostitution, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Measuring Evangelistic Results by Quality as Well as Quantity
Part of the problem in measuring spiritual harvest may lie in the Western mission community's penchant for quantification of converts rather than disciples. I believe James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness are correct in arguing that reducing the spread of the gospel "to a measurable objective of maximizing numbers of converts and church members has emasculated Christ's imperative to make disciples of all nations" (Changing the Mind of Missions; Where Have We Gone Wrong? [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000], 88). These authors rightly insist, "If we must have a 'countdown,' let's look at the changes through the eyes of Jesus. There should, for example, be demonstrable declines in dishonesty, immorality, and oppression of the poor by the rich, accompanied by economic lift among the disadvantaged" (Ibid., 165).
Certainly, spiritual renewal can have a salutary effect on a society's health and moral climate, even its economy. Eighteenth century England revived in the wake of the ministry of John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield illustrates the point. But as much as we might wish otherwise, the critical mass of devout Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Russian believers is not sufficient--at least to date--to transform post-Soviet society as a whole for the good. Finally, while speaking of morality, it would be prudent in the spirit of Christ's teachings for Orthodox and Protestants, West and East, to avoid exaggerations of the number of Russian followers of Christ.
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report