Moldovan Evangelicals: Struggling to Overcome a Fortress Mentality and Emigration
I serve in the context of Evangelical churches in Moldova in the former Soviet Union. One of the problems I encountered early in my ministry involved church members misunderstanding the relationship between the form and content of gospel proclamation. For the many years of Soviet domination, an atheistic government persecuted believers and prohibited almost all church activities. With the exception of worship, strictly controlled by the KGB (Committee of State Security), registered churches were not allowed to have Bible study, youth, or prayer groups.
Changes at a Furious Speed
Then, at the end of the 1980s with Gorbachev in power and "perestroika" underway, the church received significant freedoms that expanded dramatically after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991. These new opportunities excited Evangelicals, but they also posed problems for communities that found themselves totally unprepared to exercise new liberties. Would they be willing to change? Would Christians be able to use new strategies and methods in ministry? In a recent article on Ukrainian Evangelicals since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Mennonite Central Committee volunteer Mary Raber writes, "Where else in the world have changes in worship, education, and opportunities for ministry taken place with such furious speed? Where else have Evangelical believers been called from relative isolation to creative engagement with a society that used to actively persecute them?"1
A Church Not Ready to Reach Out
State prohibitions established in the 1960s became so ingrained in most congregations that they had come to consider some of them as divine commandments. Churches lost track of what the state prohibited versus what the Bible prohibited. Yet reaching young people for Christ demands new methods. When I returned to Moldova in 2000 after graduating from Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, I served as youth minister at Bethel Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church in Kishinev, Moldova. From the very beginning I realized that if our youth ministry were to grow, we had to employ new approaches to reaching lost teenagers and young adults. The church had to stop being just a club for formerly persecuted Christians. But many Christians refused to change, saying, "If people want salvation, they will come to the church even without invitations." That was true at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, but since 1995 many people have lost interest in Christianity. The church, however, was not ready to reach out. In 2002 Bethel Church did not have a single evangelistic event that targeted the lost and unchurched.
In ministering to young people I decided to employ different forms of proclamation of the biblical message in addition to preaching: praise and worship songs and drama. I decided to use these forms, especially drama and the visual arts, because they appeal to teenagers. They also seemed to attract non-Christians who attend our Wednesday night youth worship services. Because, for a long time, the sermon was the only form of gospel proclamation in the Soviet Union, the church where I serve is still quite hesitant to accept any other forms of outreach. Some people think that staging dramas based upon biblical stories is a disgrace to the house of the Lord.
The problem also involves an understanding of the church building as a place where God lives and is constantly present, similar to an Old Testament understanding of the Jerusalem Temple. Believers are hesitant to allow drama or any other church activities other than worship in the sanctuary.
In the last three years, through use of new forms of gospel proclamation, I have seen more than 30 young people surrender their lives to the Lord and become actively involved in youth ministry. Drama and contemporary worship music have attracted many young people from the neighboring high school, such that we often have eight to ten visitors every Wednesday night. Some now attend regularly and have joined the church.
Resistance to Change
My most difficult task is explaining to the congregation and its pastors that this change in form does not imply a change in the essence of the gospel message. On the one hand, people would like to keep all the good traditions that preserved the church through the crucible of persecution. On the other hand, I see a need for Bethel Church to become more involved in reaching out to people in the neighborhood. Part of the difficulty stems from the reluctance of the senior ministers to enter any kind of dialogue on this subject. Because of this attitude the church misses many opportunities to witness in the neighborhood and in the city. As Sergei Sannikov points out, "The contemporary church finds itself in new circumstances. Although it is obvious to all, many do not understand that we need to change forms and methods of ministry without changing underlining principles and foundations."2
How can a church preserve its identity, yet reach the world that surrounds it? How can it be separated from the world, yet not be closed to the world? A lot of parents in our church are concerned that visitors to our youth worship services will influence their children in a negative way. At the same time, many older believers who hold to a persecution mentality do not want the church to expand its ministry to the lost. How can this issue be addressed when the church leadership shows little concern for young people? Very little help comes from the church, yet it expects the youth ministry to grow and prosper.
Migration to the West
The identity of the church has changed over the last ten years. Due to Moldova's poor economy, in the last decade more than a thousand Bethel church members, including five pastors, have emigrated. Consequently, even though many new believers have joined the church, still membership is decreasing at an alarming rate. This is an issue that has touched hundreds of Evangelical churches in every republic of the former Soviet Union.3 As Alexander Valuisky notes, "Now that emigration has become a chain reaction, perhaps the majority of Evangelicals of the older generation will leave Russia. Our hope is in new churches with members from many families who lack the opportunity to emigrate."4
Ways to Welcome Youth
I have tried to communicate to the church and its leadership that unity does not mean uniformity, the latter being a concept that the Communist regime planted in the hearts and minds of the people. Unfortunately, insistence upon uniformity still is ingrained in the consciousness of many churches in the former USSR. By way of contrast, in the post-Soviet era I believe there should be a place for generational diversity within the church.
Young people choose to go to churches that are welcoming and that are open to new forms of worship. If we see our youth as the future of the church, they should be encouraged rather than discouraged. If the church does not support a vibrant youth program, the congregation will be dead in two decades, especially with the increasing immigration rate. Youth ministry and evangelism should be established as priorities in the life of the church. If not, we risk losing our young people who will go to other churches and will find something else to do with their time and resources. Christians are Christ's disciples who are to go into the world to preach the gospel (Matthew 28:16-20), instead of remaining a closed community in which there is no place for newcomers.
Oleg P. Turlac is dean of theology at the College of Theology and Education, Kishinev, Moldova, and a doctor of ministry candidate at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.
1. Mary Raber, "Discerning Joy From Sorrow: Reflecting on Changes Among Ukrainian Evangelicals Since Independence," East-West Church and Ministry Report 12 (Winter 2004), 1.
2. Sergei Sannikov, "Mozhno li poluchit' prilichnoe obrazovanie v khristianskom uchebnom zavedenii?" Pravo slavit' Boga (St. Petersburg: Biblia dlia vsekh, 2001), 28.
3. Vyacheslav Tsvirinko, "Russian Evangelical Emigration: For Better or Worse," East-West Church and Ministry Report 8 (Spring 2000), 11.
4. Alexander Valuisky, "A Calamity Cloaked in Silence: Russian Christian Emigration," East-West Church and Ministry Report 8 (Spring 2000), 10.
Oleg P. Turlac, "Moldovan Evangelicals: Struggling to Overcome a Fortress Mentality and Emigration," East-West Church & Ministry Report 12 (Spring 2004), 13-14.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report