East-West Church  Ministry Report
Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Post-Soviet and Third World Contextualization

Trevor R. H. Warner

Third World Lessons--Lacking
There has often been a lack of good missiology and a failure of those working in Russia to draw on the experiences of the contextualization debate that arose in the Third World.  Mission administrator Samuel Metcalf notes, "Unfortunately, missiological thinking and practice have been largely ignored in much of the former Soviet Union.  Under the false labels of 'new paradigms' and 'new strategies' old mistakes simply are being repeated."1However, he does not go far enough, as old mistakes were often repeated, not because new paradigms and new strategies were claimed, but simply because good missiological practice and thinking were completely ignored.

Part of the problem has been the isolation of Protestant churches and missions in the former Soviet Union from developments in the rest of the world.  While 70 participants from the USSR attended the 1989 Lausanne II meeting in Manila and a followup evangelization conference in Moscow in 1990,2 in general, Protestant churches in Russia have had little contact with the church worldwide.  Most of the missionaries working in Russia come from the First World, have never worked as missionaries in other parts of the world, and have had limited contact with the Two-Thirds World.  The result has been the separation of missionary work in former Communist countries from the church worldwide.

Missionary-Indigenious Church Tensions
The very conservative nature of traditional Baptist and Pentecostal churches has made it difficult for new believers not brought up in their traditions to adapt to their church culture.  As a result recent converts often find it easier to fit into churches planted by foreigners. Such criticism should not be taken to mean that more conservative groups lack good traditions.  And some attributes, such as an open time of sharing for all believers during the service, have been adopted by new groups.

The effect of this split in the church is that older, more mature believers are often not able to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to the new generation. One such example in Siberia involved Lloyd Porter, an Operation Mobilization colleague of this author.  While leading a Bible study on suffering for one's faith, he pointed out that many believers had been imprisoned and martyred in the Soviet Union. Young believers argued that there had been no such persecution.  Tragically, new Christians do not always realize how Christians of all confessions were persecuted by the Communists. Older churches suffer as more young people go to the newer churches and nonbelievers view them as less relevant.  Discipleship, which many foreign missions stress, would be greatly helped if mature Christians from Baptist and Pentecostal churches could have input into the lives of these new converts.  Foreign missions should help facilitate this.  They need to value traditional churches and, while serving alongside them, work within their rules. Foreign missionaries can encourage traditional churches as they seek to recontextualize the gospel, but such encouragement is unlikely to be given a hearing if missionaries immediately offend the church by criticizing its traditions or by refusing to submit to them.

One of the best examples of a missionary submitting to living within this church culture involves Cindi Runyon, an American colleague of this author.  Working in a Baptist church in Novosibirsk, she agreed to conform to the church's practice of women wearing skirts all the time, not just in services.  She discussed the matter with the head pastor and told him that, although she did not believe it was sinful for women to wear pants, she would respect his leadership and the church's rules.  "I'd rather Christ change their heart through revealing the freedom they can have through him," she concluded, "rather than have a church split because 'A missionary wears pants so why can't we?'"  Insisting on wearing pants would have tainted all the ministries she undertook and could possibly have caused a church split.  Instead, because of her respect for local custom, she was able to minister effectively.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Trevor R. H. Warner, "An Assessment of the Impact of Foreign Missions on the Russian Federation and the Existing Russian Church Since the Fall of Communism," M.Th., Queen's University of Belfast, 2001.  The thesis on disc may be obtained from the author for $13 plus mailing costs.  Contact: warnerthesis@yahoo.co.uk.


  1. "Topsy-Turvy Missiology," East-West Church & Ministry Report 2 (Fall 1994), 6-8.
  2. Keston News Service, no. 363, 8 November 1990, p. 15; Keston News Service, no. 365, 9 August 1990, p. 5.

Trevor R. H. Warner, "Post-Soviet and Third World Contextualization," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Winter 2002), 16.

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© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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