Protestant Church Growth in Russia
Andrei E. Blinkov
By God's grace, several hundred Protestant churches are open in the Moscow Region today. Unfortunately, most are small and grow rather slowly. Small churches average 20 to 50 members, while a church of 200 is considered large. Russia includes three registered Pentecostal unions, one led by Bishop Pavel Okara, one by Bishop Vladimir Ryahovsky, and a third by Rev. Alexander Purshaga. In the Moscow Region these three unions number about 110 registered churches. Only five have 500 or more members and some churches do not grow at all.
Slow Evangelical-Christian Baptist Growth . . .
At the end of 2000 the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (ECB) organized a conference, "Central Russia in the 21st Century," to consider church-growth strategies. Ruvim Voloshin, head of the Union's mission department, shared that the population of Central Russia is about 38 million, while total membership of Evangelical Christian-Baptist churches is 23,000. Very few new churches have been planted in recent years. The total number of ECB churches in the Union grew from 1,320 to a little over 1,400 in a ten-year period.
. . . And Few Practicing Orthodox
In spite of the fact that the majority of Russians consider themselves Orthodox, officials claim that only four to five percent of the population are practicing Orthodox. At the same time, the Internal Affairs Ministry reports that not more than 1.5 percent of the population attend the largest Orthodox celebrations--Christmas and Easter. Numerically speaking, God's army in Russia is not really victorious today, either Orthodox or Protestant.
Church Growth Factors
Still, some churches are growing; for example, the Charismatic church "Rosa," which grew from zero to some 800 members in 12 years. A survey of 20 Russian pastors and church leaders yielded over 100 factors influencing church growth in Russia. Pastors identified a majority of the same factors discussed in such church-growth literature as George G. Hunter III, Church for the Unchurched, and Harold L. Fickett, Hope for Your Church. This suggests that a certain set of factors influence church growth worldwide.
Factors contributing to Russian church growth can be reduced to 17 points:
Three Priority Factors
A second survey distributed to 50 Protestant pastors and church leaders across Russia found that a majority agreed that the paramount factor in church growth is openness to the work of the Holy Spirit and the exercise of all New Testament gifts. Respondents gave three factors the highest priority after the ministry of the Holy Spirit:
At the same time, the two least important factors dealt with material concerns: financial and humanitarian support from abroad and an adequate building.
According to the second survey, many pastors believe the factors influencing church growth worldwide are exactly the same as those needed in Russia. Pastors whom I contacted agree that the Holy Spirit's ministry is the supreme factor of church growth. Praise God that many churches in Russia (even those that are not Pentecostal) have a sincere openness to the work of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
The Cell-Church Model
The pastor, however, will limit church growth if he fails to delegate authority. It is impossible for one person to provide adequate pastoral care to more than 100. In the wilderness Moses was not responsible for the direct care of the whole nation. Instead, God instructed Moses to "provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. . . . So shall it be easier for thyself and they shall bear the burden with thee" (Exodus 18:19-22). This is the classic example of a cell-church model. The "New Generation" Church in Yaroslavl, for example, places a lay pastor over every five home groups and a zone pastor over every group of 25 home groups. Zone pastors work closely with both lay pastors and senior pastors.
Missions . . .
Growing churches, even if small, are mission-minded. For example, our church of only 45-50 people sent a missionary to Uzbekistan and partially paid for his ministry there. Larger churches can do much more. The Word of Life Church in Moscow has sent out more than 50 missionaries to the Moscow Region, to the Caucasus, and to the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.
. . . And Meeting Human Needs
The church needs a strategy to build relations with unchurched people. This is especially true in Russian circumstances, where many people consider every non-Orthodox church a cult. Still, there are keys to people's hearts. One very important key is meeting people's needs with Christian love and compassion. Jesus did the same: He healed the sick, cast out demons, and fed people. The better a church can find out society's needs and meet them, the more successful it will be. Today, Russian churches that understand this principle are growing. One example is a small Baptist church in a Russian village where authorities wanted nothing to do with Baptists, considering them members of a cult. Nevertheless, local Christians decided to do something good for the government. They painted a shabby old fence around the park directly in front of the mayor's office. That mayor was astonished and his attitude towards Baptists seriously changed.
Many Russian churches engage in outreach to people addicted to drugs and alcohol. The "Light of Jesus" Church in Zelenograd grew from some 80 to 120 people in two years after organizing a Christian rehabilitation center for drug addicts. Today about one half of church members are either former drug addicts or their family members!
One sister in our church saw a need in public schools where many young women suffered from early pregnancies and abortions. She answered a call to begin a pro-life ministry, including free programs consisting of lectures with basic information, a video, preaching of the Gospel, and distribution of Bibles and tracts. God has enabled us to preach the good news to more than 1,200 high school students in 14 different schools. Most of the students have been very receptive, some even asking us to return to tell them more. It is illegal to preach the Gospel in public schools, but through this ministry the doors were opened. Other churches regularly minister in hospitals, orphanages, and prisons while others are feeding homeless people.
The Homogenous Unit Principle: Pro and Con
At the outset of my study of church-growth principles, I did not anticipate the significance of factor seven for Russia: essentially, the classic homogenous growth principle focused on a single group such as youth or former drug addicts. The demographic segmentation of large Russian cities presents increasing opportunities for churches to focus on particular populations, according to education, wealth, employment, or ethnicity. In the last decade, Moscow, for example, has become home to many more minority populations.
The average Russian church member never considers these developments. Furthermore, many Russian evangelicals reject the focus on "homogenous units," seeing it as a violation of Christ's commandment to love all. Many simply see the homogeneous unit principle as wrong and believe the church should reject it. At the same time, we already can see that some churches are mostly composed of young people, while others primarily reach drug addicts and members of their families. There is a church of students on the campus of Moscow State University, an Armenian Pentecostal church in Moscow, and there are many other examples.
Is there a way for a church to reach people who are different from most members of the church? I think yes. And the easiest way is to start specialized home groups where people who are different can feel comfortable. A good example is the Word of Life Church in Moscow which won several Vietnamese for Christ. They formed a separate group within the church, with their own interpreter who translates sermons into Vietnamese. They have their own home group but they worship together with Russians on Sunday. Another example is special groups for the deaf. They would not stay in the church without the fellowship of others with the same needs.
Comparing the Russian Surveys with Western Church Growth Research
Russian pastors agree with church growth specialists C. Peter Wagner and Christian A. Schwarz that Christ is the foundation for the church and that the driving force in church growth is the Holy Spirit. They also affirm the special importance of inspiring worship, empowered leadership, and passionate spirituality. Unfortunately, according to survey results, Russian pastors do not emphasize gift-oriented ministry. Yet when a majority of church members are open to actively using their God-given gifts, church growth will follow. Russian pastors also gave low priority to the importance of functional structures. This is an indication of general organizational problems in Russian churches. Congregations and pastors should work hard to become much more disciplined and organized. Russian pastors also gave little emphasis to need-oriented evangelism, that is, meeting the needs of unchurched people in order to win them to Christ. I encourage our pastors to pray more about a variety of ministries that their members can undertake, using their God-given spiritual gifts. This is the great hidden potential of the Russian church. And let's never forget that the main church growth factor was, is, and will be the manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit and His spiritual gifts in the Church of Jesus Christ. To Him be all the glory!
Andrei E. Blinkov completed an M.Div. at the Moscow Seminary of Evangelical Christians in May 2002. He is pastor of the Russian Church of Evangelical Christian Faith, Moscow.
Edited excerpt published with permission from the author's M. Div. thesis: Osnovye faktory, vliyayushchie na rost tserkvi v usloviyakh sovremennoi Rossii [Basic Factors Influencing the Growth of Churches in Conditions of Contemporary Russia] (Moscow: Moscow Seminary of Evangelical Christians, 2002). Translated by Oleg P. Turlac.
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