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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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