Evangelical Missions in Russia: How They Are Misunderstood and the Opportunities That Remain
Mark J. Harris
Editor's Note: Readers may want to compare the findings of Mark J. Harris with similar points made in two articles published in the first volume of the East-West Church and Ministry Report: "Are Evangelicals Interlopers?" 1 (Summer 1993), 3-4; and "For Christian Understanding, Ignorance is Not Bliss," 1 (Summer 1993), 5-7. Both articles are accessible at the Report Web site: www.samford.edu/groups/global/ewcmreport.
Why Orthodox Reject Evangelicals
Evangelicals face many dangers ministering in Russia. Some are the result of contrasts between Russian Orthodox and Western Evangelical soteriology (how each understands salvation). The main danger is Orthodoxy's outright rejection of Evangelicals before they have had a fair chance to fully communicate their message. Some of the more common bases of rejection are outlined below.
1. Rejection as Ignorant People
Russians commonly view Americans as people who are spiritually shallow and overwhelmed by the pettiness of their "pop" culture. Too often Western missionaries witnessing in Russia support this contention by their ignorance of Russian culture, history, and religion--all of which is Orthodox to the core. A common response to Americans coming to Russia is: "What can they possibly have to tell us about spiritual matters?" If continued, this lack of proper preparation for communicating in the Russian context will mark Evangelicals as unworthy of a serious hearing.
2. Rejection as Vulgar Worshippers
Orthodox worship is majestic, solemn, and beautiful to the Russian ear. In contrast, the approach to worship preferred by Western Evangelicals frequently strikes Russians as too casual, too common, even vulgar, and is not considered a serious approach to our holy and mysterious God.
3. Rejection as Rationalists
The West tends to look at the East as being too mystical and too ready to abandon attempts to systematize doctrine. The East sees the West as being too logical and too ready to place faith in its ability to understand God who is a difficult reach for mortal man. Western Evangelicals tend to argue their case with reason, as opposed to letting their lives speak for the reality of Jesus Christ in them. Orthodox believers who value experience over doctrine will not respect this approach.
4. Rejection as Worldly
The Orthodox consider worship as a way to bring heaven to earth. This otherworldy perspective causes them to look with disfavor on the attempts of Evangelicals to behave and communicate in a way that makes sense of the world. Attempts to contextualize the gospel will thus often be interpreted as worldliness and Evangelicals will not be respected.
5. Rejection as Heretics
This is the most serious basis of rejection since it undermines the very heart of the message that Evangelicals bring--that the average person can receive the Word of God and become a true believer in Jesus Christ apart from the Orthodox Church--or any other religious institution. Orthodoxy claims to preserve the pure truth of God, which closes the door to outsiders who claim to bring Christianity to Russians. To accept Orthodoxy is to receive the complete package of faith, including all forms of expression that are considered to be authoritative traditions. The work of Evangelicals in Russia is thus considered a cancerous infiltration into the territory of the true church. Evangelicals are not and will not be considered partners with the Orthodox Church in the work of the evangelization of Russia. Evangelicals and their converts are considered heretics, detached from their Mother.
Factors Favoring Evangelical Work in Russia
Despite these misunderstandings, Evangelicals do have promising opportunities to share the gospel in Russia. The following are four factors that work in their favor.
1. Lack of Identity Among Russian Youth
A great many Russian youth do not look to the Orthodox Church to define what should be Russian religion or culture. Many feel Orthodoxy is out of date, or else pay it respect only from a distance. Seventy years of Communism effectively removed Orthodoxy from its place of power in defining Russian reality. Modern Russian youth are looking as much to the West for answers as they are to Russian history, and there is much cultural confusion as a result. The key opportunity is to show Russian youth how Jesus Christ answers their deepest needs within their own context.
2. Weakness of Spiritual Life Among Some Orthodox
Even at the peak of Orthodox power in Russia, it was often said that "the Russian masses were only superficially Christian." This situation continues today. "The lack of real piety and Christian theological understanding among Orthodox has not gone unnoticed by Orthodox clergy and theologians." For Evangelicals, this Orthodox weakness becomes an opportunity only if they can effectively model spiritual maturity as they labor in Russia. The evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of a witness is every bit as critical as a proper explanation of the gospel message. Those Russians who trust in sacraments and rituals but lack true spiritual life need to see that the lives of Evangelicals offer something they don't have.
3. Theological Differences Among Orthodox
One is able to discover varying degrees of theological leeway in today's Russian Orthodox setting, which present opportunities for perceptive Evangelicals. Recent movements in Russia have shown that a "number of individual Orthodox priests exhibit in their own life and thinking a large measure of ecumenicity and empathy toward Protestants, along with strong evangelical inclinations." Evangelicals are finding bridges of communication with such leaders, but must still be very wise and discerning, not assuming that more is held in common than is really the case. In addition, priests who exhibit such tolerance and acceptance face suspicion from Orthodox hierarchs.
4. Compatibility in Theology
Evangelicals need not stress differences in theology that they find as they examine Russian Orthodoxy. Many doctrines that appear to be strange and unbiblical, such as the doctrine of theosis, appear much more acceptable once studied carefully. Many misunderstandings can be cleared up with open-minded research and contemplation. Many Orthodox emphases can be embraced by Evangelicals who should demonstrate that they share the same spiritual values. Recognizing and building upon compatible teachings may present one of the best opportunities for Evangelicals to make headway in Russia.
Mark J. Harris earned the doctor of missiology degree at Western Seminary, Portland, OR, in 2000. He and his wife Delisa served as missionaries in Riazan, Russia, from 1993 to 2001, focusing on evangelism, pastoral training, and prison ministry.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from "Crisis of Soteriology: Danger and Opportunity for Western Evangelical Evangelism in Eastern Orthodox Russia," http://www.markharris.us.
Mark J. Harris, "Evangelical Missions in Russia: How They Are Misunderstood and the Opportunities That Remain," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Spring 2003), 10.
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© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report