East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 2005, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Protestant Missions in Russia Today

Edited by Mark R. Elliott

Editor’s Note: Lawrence A. Uzzell, president of International Religious Freedom Watch, asked this editor on 20 July 2005 for impressions of Protestant missions in Russia today. As I was in the midst of a move to Southern Wesleyan University, Central, South Carolina, my response was necessarily abbreviated and impressionistic. I decided to share my comments, brief as they were, with a small group of missionaries and educators knowledgeable about church life in Russia, requesting their comments on the subject. One missionary, in turn, kindly solicited comments from several Russian and Ukrainian church workers. The following is a compilation of excerpts from this correspondence, dating primarily from August– September, 2005. Most of the comments on the especially hot topic of theological education have been grouped together at the end.

Readers familiar with Protestant missions in post-Soviet states are encouraged to share their own responses with the editor at melliott@swu.edu. For additional analysis, see Lawrence A. Uzzell, “Politics, Propriety, and Proselytism in Russia,” The Review of Faith and International Affairs 3 (Fall 2005): 11-18; www.cfia.org.

How Much (If at All) Has the Situation Improved?
Lawrence A. Uzzell to the Editor, 20 July 2005

Let me trouble you if I may for some of your insights. I’d like to get an update on your sense of western Protestant missionaries in Russia. How much (if at all) has the situation improved since the 1990s, when it was common for foreign missionaries to be ignorant of the Russian language? How widespread is the use of charitable aid to “bribe” people into attending religious gatherings? How often does one hear of displays of religious provincialism such as U.S.-style “prayer breakfasts” which ignore the particular styles and traditions of Russian Protestantism? Might one still say, as one particularly knowledgeable American missionary said in the mid-1990s, that it would be better for one-tenth as many foreign missionaries to be in Russia and for them to be ten times better prepared? Any further observations, reflections, anecdotes would also be welcome.

A Mixed Picture
The Editor to Lawrence A. Uzzell, 26 July 2005

Here are a few impressions.

  1. Many missionaries are moving to Ukraine or other former Soviet republics either because it is easier to work outside Russia or they see great needs to share the gospel in other areas that are still Russian speaking.
  2. While there still is a disproportionate number of missionaries in Moscow and St. Petersburg, my sense is that the provinces are receiving more attention than they did proportionately 10 years ago.
  3. Missionaries may be somewhat less visible now than 10 years ago in part because many Russians have been trained well and now are taking the lead more.
  4. Less visibility of missionaries today does not necessarily mean there are fewer because it is prudent to keep a low profile with the increased criticism and visa actions against them.
  5. I think the picture is still quite mixed in terms of cross-cultural sensitivity: Many missionaries are very concerned at this point and still many others are totally clueless, making the former cringe.
  6. Not relating so much to missionaries, but still worth noting: I suspect a crisis is looming in Protestant theological education for two reasons: a) there are way too many schools for the number of applicants, leading to a lowering of standards; and b) many, maybe most, Protestant pastors, are still profoundly wary of seminary graduates, either because of the social/educational distance that this schooling puts between the older and the younger clergy (a continuation of longstanding Protestant anti-intellectualism), or jealousy, or seminary graduates picking up Western liberalism and/or Calvinism, which are both abhorrent to the older pastors. Western missionaries are partly at fault for not emphasizing self-sustaining educational enterprises, which means the schools are less well connected with their own churches than with Western funders. Also, most Western missionary educators, consciously or unconsciously, have taught from a Calvinist perspective, which has led to divisiveness in Russian Protestant churches.
  7. I personally believe what missionaries need to reason, to move them to a different location or stress in tandem with the basic gospel message is ministry without even consulting the partner church microenterprise development projects.

The Advantage of a Low Profile
Lawrence A. Uzzell to the Editor, 27 July 2005

This is most helpful; many, many thanks! The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the lower profile of American Protestant missionaries in Russia is going to be remembered as a classic instance of the law of unintended consequences. The effect is a greater leadership role for indigenous Russian Protestants, which makes their congregations more attractive to a broad range of Russians and more likely to win converts. Thus it would seem that one result of Russia’s crackdown on American Protestant missionaries is to enhance the Protestant cause’s marketability in Russia.

Bivocational Pastors in House Churches
Matt Miller, Evangelical Free Church of America International Mission, Moscow, to the Editor, 3 August 2005

Your impressions match what I have seen. I would be very interested to see more examples of microenterprise development. I know of a few programs, but they seem stretched too thin. For the larger cities, bivocational pastors in house churches may be a growing trend.

All in All, A Positive Read on Missionaries
Peter Penner, International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, to the Editor, 2 August 2005

I think that I can easily agree with your comments responding to Larry [Uzzell]. I feel that we have a different group of Western missionaries today in Russia and the former Soviet Union [compared to] the 90s when each mission agency needed to have someone in the region. That means that especially the long-term missionaries are much more contextually sensitive. I also think that the relation between nationals and expatriates has changed to more positive understanding on both sides. I can sense that even short-term missionaries are now more valued by the national churches and institutions than five years ago. But the ones who stayed in Russia and the former Soviet Union (FSU) as missionaries have also changed. In the early years we had more of the quite fundamentalist groups, taking the opportunity both in the positive and negative sense. Dispensationalism and Calvinism were going hand-in-hand with this kind of group. It seems that we now have some more balanced people who would not necessarily push their theological issues as much as serve first the churches in Russia and the FSU.

I am hearing from my colleagues that, in fact, there is a bit of withdrawal of missionaries from the region and that national institutions are sorry to see that. Then there is still this very specific way of mission agencies working in the region, when missionaries are taken out of a good partnership work and mission agencies decide, for whatever or institution. This often hurts and brings again a lot of questions from the national side toward some partnerships and joint projects. There are still some problems and I will not be able to name all. But overall, things have improved quite a bit in the areas that Larry refers to.

Few Western Missionaries Observed in the Provinces
Sharyl Corrado, doctoral candidate, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, to the Editor, 2 August 2005

Thanks for forwarding the note to Larry Uzzell. For what it’s worth, here are my impressions based on the past year in both European Russia and the Russian Far East. From my experience in the provinces, I am surprised that you say they are getting more attention from Western Evangelicals now than ten years ago – although perhaps proportionately they are. In the six provincial cities I spend time in – Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (population 160,000), Aleksandrovsk-Sakhalinskii (population 14,000), Vladivostok, Ekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Lukoyanov (population 17,000) – I found very few Western Evangelical missionaries. Several of the cities have Western (and Asian) Catholics, and the larger cities have Lutheran parishes with funding from Europe (Vladivostok even has a pastor from Germany). But I didn’t find Western Evangelicals. Korean Evangelicals were working in the Far Eastern cities. But while ten years ago Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Vladivostok, and Ekaterinburg all had a Western Evangelical presence, I found none this trip. Of course, if they were keeping a low profile, I could have missed them. I did find, however, Evangelicals from Ukraine, primarily Penetecostals, in all six cities, even the smallest (Aleksandrovsk-Sakhalinskii). Nizhny Novgorod, which as the third-largest city in Russia, can hardly be called provincial, was the only one of the six cities in which I found Western Evangelicials. In this case, all were American Charismatics affiliated with the Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, and the Foursquare Gospel.

Overall – not particular to the provinces – I noticed significantly more Russian-speaking Westerners than ten years ago, including a number of Westerners who preach in Russian now. All the Western Catholic priests whom I met preach in Russian (Americans in Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk; Polish and Spanish in St. Petersburg).

Missionary Funding:The Low-Budget “Ukrainian” Model
Sharyl Corrado, Continued

I’d be interested in hearing more about your ideas for microenterprise development. I found it really exciting to see how much better the financial situation is in Russia now. So many people are going on vacations to Turkey or Vietnam, eating at cafes and restaurants, remodeling their apartments (or buying/building private homes), paying for their children’s educations, buying cars. There was so little of that ten years ago. Now there seems to be very little unemployment. Those who aren’t working seem to be unemployed because they aren’t happy with the salaries offered or the type of work available. But for those who simply need work, and are willing to do almost anything, there’s plenty available. It’s amazing how many guest workers there are from Central Asia, Turkey, North Korea, and China who come to Russia temporarily, since they can earn so much more than at home. True, salaries are still low, and a lot of people have to work more than one job to make ends meet. But where the churches and Christian ministries have financial problems, it appears to me to be more a mindset problem than poverty in the congregation. They want to do things the expensive way, as they’ve seen Westerners do. They want sponsors from the West. And they want to get paid for what they’re doing. I can’t help but return to what I would dub the “Ukrainian model,” where Ukrainians come to Russia, get jobs (construction work pays really well in Russia right now), start churches that meet in their own homes or rented accommodations, give generously, and see their congregations naturally do the same.

From “Blitz” to Career Missionaries
Western Missionary in Ukraine to the Editor, 3 August 2005

I feel you answered Larry [Uzzell] exceptionally well and moreover, you were objective about it. Larry’s query demonstrated a somewhat anti-Western missionary bias. I have raised this subject with several key Russian indigenous missionaries, and I hope they can respond. Meanwhile, I send you my comments:

  1. The excesses Larry described were true in the early 1990s and even then were not universal. Over the years the “blitz” missionary has been replaced by the career missionary. Today there are fewer missionaries overall, and they have invested their lives into this field: learned the language, married Russian spouses (or married their children to Russians), bought local residences, etc. Perhaps we now have five times less and they are five times better than 15 years ago.
  2. More agencies, e.g., the Southern Baptists, have relinquished original plans to create “Southern Baptist” churches and are now partnering with indigenous churches in a support capacity. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, which always took a subordinate role, is now partnering with indigenous groups in addition to the Evangelical Christian Missionary Union, which it helped create.
  3. The anticipated exodus of missionaries from Russia to Ukraine has not materialized. It always was only a trickle. It is more common to have missionaries leave after their two or three terms of service and not be replaced. In 2004 two agencies in Kyiv closed down their operations because they had accomplished their mission — a wise decision, in my opinion.
  4. There is still a great need for indigenous church planters. The Bible schools continue to prepare and graduate people, but there are few local sponsors to pay for the start-up costs of sending and supporting an indigenous missionary.
  5. Russia has used its immigration laws to inhibit the activity of “indigenous” workers from the “near abroad,” not just those from the West. Nevertheless, most of the missionaries in Russia are either Ukrainians who have become Russian citizens or locally trained Russians.
  6. Mission agencies are making their Russian staff raise funds from local sources. Pastors balk because of limited resources. Tentmaking is a difficult option because most seminary graduates end up being academics with no marketable skills.
  7. Although some groups continue to distribute humanitarian aid, Russian customs has made shipments prohibitive and so there is much less than ten years ago. Bribing is too strong a word; there will always be those who take advantage of the “free lunch.” Nevertheless, the aid meets real needs, as when volunteer doctors and dentists provide medical care. On the other hand, there still are a few ministries that exist solely on the largess of the Western sponsor, and if the expatriate missionary were to leave, the whole ministry would collapse.
  8. Right now the most effective ministries include work with children, youth work, and rehabilitation centers — areas in which only indigenous workers have proved capable.
  9. Prayer breakfasts are extremely rare. They occur once or twice a year in Moscow, but I have not heard of them anywhere else. In reaching government officials at the local level, Protestants prefer to go to an official’s office, present him/her with a Christian book, and pray for the official privately in his/her office.
  10. Unfortunately, economics play a great part in the mission world. The indigenous players have the dedication and the talent but not the resources. The expatriates have the resources, but they are very expensive to support in this part of the world. The $5,000 a month it takes to support a missionary family from America could support 20 missionaries in Russia, but the latter do not have the church contacts, nor the language to generate support for themselves. How could Christian charity bridge the gap?

East-West Mission Partnerships:What Works and What Doesn’t
Response from Alexander Malov, Chairman of the Board, “Light of Resurrection” Mission, Donetsk, Ukraine, 8 August, 2005. Translated by Sharyl Corrado.

In considering the role of Western missionaries in ministry in the former Soviet Union, I would like to shift the emphasis somewhat. Currently a negative, critical attitude toward Western missionaries prevails among local Protestants, yet little or nothing is said about the responsibility of local leaders for what is taking place.

  1. We need to understand that Western missionaries did not appear out of nowhere. All of them, without exception, have arrived at the invitation of local believers. In other words, we ourselves invite Westerners and then complain that they don’t understand our culture and bring us “liberal” theology, foreign to our churches. The problem is in the lack of honesty and openness in inviting Western missionaries. It has become prestigious to cooperate with the West. We invite missionaries in the hope that we can use them as a source of financial support. And if financial assistance indeed arrives with the help of Western missionaries, we are willing to “put up with it,” and condescend to the fact that their ministry contradicts our cultural norms. If the expected financial assistance does not materialize, conflict often develops.

    The way out is in honestly discussing all aspects of cooperation before the missionary arrives. There must be discussion of principles, including theological principles, upon which cooperation will be based. Financial difficulties of local believers at times hinder such honest discussion, as believers fear that honesty could lead to withdrawal of desired financial assistance. Recently I faced a situation in which a young pastor from rural Ukraine met an American missionary and spontaneously invited him to come partner with him in his village. To his horror, the American accepted his invitation. Now the young pastor calls me regularly with questions about what ministry to give to the American.

    Believers in Western Ukraine, in a region with a large population of devout Catholics and Orthodox, were more honest and open. The believers were planning a large evangelistic effort, in which they would visit each village in the region over the course of 78 days. Such a campaign, undoubtedly, costs a lot of money, much of which they had raised themselves. Nonetheless, a deficit remained in their budget. In discussions with Western donors, these believers clearly stated their conditions: The presence of Americans during the campaign could have a negative effect on its results, alienating conservative villagers. This position was stated clearly and led to the respect of the Western partner organization, which nonetheless covered the budget deficit. With this in mind, my advice to Western missionaries would be to find out what is really expected of your presence and not to provide false hope, especially concerning financial assistance.

  2. It is important to remember that the circle of evangelical leaders in the countries of the FSU is tight knit and that there is constant exchange of information at unofficial levels. One of the biggest frustrations that surfaces repeatedly in our discussions is the fact that Western missionaries often choose their closest assistants from among young believers who know English and make it into a career. These young people become leaders in ministry based not on their spiritual qualities but on their knowledge of the English language and American culture. Such leaders, cut off from the real needs of their people, are viewed by local believers as “slaves” of the Americans. Recently I met with a young man in charge of youth ministry in one of the regions of Ukraine. In talking to me, he spoke Russian with a strong American accent and was happy about it. I asked him where he got such an accent. He answered that he worked a lot with Americans and could no longer speak pure Russian. It’s a small thing - but unpleasant.

  3. In my opinion, we need to be careful not to exaggerate the role of Western missionaries in what is taking place in the FSU. I can say with certainty that the majority of churches and ministries were started by national believers alone. The huge number of American believers arriving has no significant influence on evangelism in the FSU. One often overhears national leaders superficially evaluating the situation: “If we had the financial resources that they spend on sending American missionaries to us, we would be much more effective.” This, as I noted, is a superficial judgment, and there is nothing worse than counting the money in someone else’s pocket. But at the same time, it would be wrong to ignore such criticism.

  4. It is my deep conviction that the most promising role for Western believers in the FSU is in sending specialists in areas in which we truly have a need. The needs may differ by region.

  5. I also feel that a promising area for cooperation could be assistance in starting small businesses, which would serve as means of evangelism. Many goals could be served by such methods with minimal expense.

Missionaries: Useful in Certain Specialized Roles
Response from Evgeni Bakhmutsy, Director, National Youth/Student Ministry, Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, 6 September 2005

On the missionary shift from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the provinces: “It’s really true — much cheaper, more effective, better people.”

On the shift from missionary to indigenous leadership: “From one side it’s true. From another, Russian people are not so interested in Western missionaries now as before. But Western missionaries would be effective and useful among Russian youth because of the global youth culture that has reached Russia now.”

On the role of foreign missionaries: “Become partners in the Gospel — not big brothers or bosses but co-workers. Many things that we face here [foreign missionaries] have already faced. They can share from their experience to help avoid mistakes and be more effective. Foreign missionaries can also teach — we still need good training — and can become part of evangelistic groups here in Russia. Some Russians still like foreigners very much.”

Western Missionaries in Russia: Not Whether, But How
Response from Insur Shamgunov, Director, Eurasian Missionary College, Kazan, Russia, 6 September 2005

In general, I agree with the comments, especially the evaluation of current Protestant theological education. Let me summarize a few points, which are strictly my current (it could change in the future) and subjective opinion. I must admit in the past I used to be generally quite negative towards Western missionaries for their lack of sensitivity, etc. However, recently, my attitude has softened much. Russia is an extremely difficult place to live and to understand. It also has a history of xenophobia and is often hostile towards foreigners (especially missionaries). So, a certain amount of their insensitivity, perhaps, is only natural. However, it is always good to grow and learn.

First of all, I think that there is a place for foreign missionaries in Russia. It is based on a simple theological conviction that the Church is universal and international in scope; those members who have something to share with others must do so. Therefore, the key issue to me is not whether Western missionaries are needed in Russia but how they could be more effective. Along these lines I would suggest that they:

  1. not work independently but always work alongside local churches, prioritizing building relationships with national leaders;
  2. be willing to support missionary projects of national churches more than their own;
  3. work in a genuine partnership with the local church — on the organizational decision-making level, budgeting, etc. — so that the national church would be truly included;
  4. help with the development of counseling (a huge need in Russia), recovery groups, etc.; and
  5. help to develop the national church economically by training lay people in various business activities.

Finally, the importance of wise financial support of the growing national church must not be underemphasized. Both extremes (creating dependency or not giving at all) could be avoided, in my opinion, by establishing genuine partnership with local indigenous leaders, including their voice in financial planning.

Protestant Seminary Woes: Difficulties with Recruitment and Placement
From a Western Missionary in Ukraine, 8 September 2005

I have learned through my channels that the “crisis” (the word used here) among the residential Bible schools in the FSU continues.

Fortunately, the extension school programs are still holding their own.

From Evgeni Bakhmutsky, Director, Youth/Student Ministry, Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, 6 September 2005

I think I can write a big article about this problem. Shortly speaking, this guy is right — too many schools, plus so-called liberalism, plus differences in theology, plus jealousy. But I see there are two much bigger problems than he has mentioned. First, most of these schools are not really church-oriented. They show themselves as teachers of theology, but the teaching doesn’t reflect the reality that Russian churches face day by day. And second, pastors and churches don’t see the advantage of education. They see many difficulties and divisions that are caused by graduates. But they don’t see graduates’ commitment and passion for the Lord, the Gospel, and sacrificial ministry. It’s possible to change.

From Sharyl Corrado, doctoral candidate, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, 2 August 2005

I agree with what you said about theological education – that the standards are being lowered since there are not many applicants. But no one seems to be considering the idea of closing or cutting back on programs. Instead, they are trying to raise enrollment. They seem caught in a cycle – they have to keep their programs going because otherwise they’d lose their sponsors, but their programs aren’t meeting the needs so applications continue to decline. In a couple of places, where they seem to be attempting financial self-sufficiency (which I applaud), they still look to the West. For example, they try to recruit American study-abroad students who pay Western tuition rates or rent out rooms to Western organizations at higher rates. I’m not sure these as long-term solutions.

Mark Elliott, editor, "Protestant Missions in Russia Today," East-West Church & Ministry Report 13 (Fall 2005), 1-5.

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2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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