William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 27 November 2011
M o s c o w / I r p e n – At church conferences in Eastern Europe two decades ago, foreign guests and their interpreters did most of the speaking – locals listened. But the tables were turned at “Forum 20”, which convened in Irpen near Kiev on 18 and 19 November. All of the approximately 28 speakers were native to the former USSR; only of few of them were older than 40. “This is so exciting!” exclaimed Sergey Rakhuba, President of the hosting, US-based „Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries” and its field affiliate, the “Association for Spiritual Renewal” (Dukhovnoe Vozdrozhenie). “Young, bright, gifted leaders are now taking the leading role in planning and strategizing for the future. This is the main strategic focus of our ministry – to equip the next generation of Christian leaders.”
Leaving a stuffy subculture and launching into the mainstream of society – that was the Forum’s primary message. Most of the 170 theologians and church workers present believe that a “reformation” of this type is taking shape in the lands of the former Soviet Union. The generation of parents and grandparents will always be credited with persevering until the arrival of religious freedom. Yet the forced requirements of that time – existence on the fringe of society – had evolved into a virtue which believers were no longer willing to do without once religious liberty came. It was stated that coming generations will therefore be required to launch forth alone into the midst of secular society.
Rakhuba added: “It is the old subculture which is hindering church growth. When tradition means more to us than Biblical truth, we have a problem.” A lecturer at the conference added: “Tradition (clothes for women and styles of music, for ex.) means adding ingredients to the Gospel which do not belong there. Observers from ‘the outside’ cannot understand such practices.” Traditionalists tend to define their faith negatively: “Churches then know only what they are not, not, what they are.” In his entertaining lecture, the Evangelical Christian and Muscovite Pavel Begichev claimed: “I came to the faith in a very conservative Baptist congregation. They were confused when I informed them that I had not smoked even prior to conversion and asked: ‘How are we to determine whether you have truly been converted?’”
At the outset of the conference, Irpen’s Mikhail Cherenkov, Vice-President of the Association for Spiritual Renewal, gave cues on how to engage in meaningful conversation: “The more honest our questions and answers are, the more helpful and useful they will be.” Each person is to speak only for him/herself. Sergey Golovin, an Evangelical Christian from Simferopol, pointed to the broad-ranging consequences of financial dependency: “Tell me which doctrine you adhere to, and I’ll tell you which sponsor you have!” A participant admitted in private conversation that as many as 80% of the conference’s participants may still be receiving a portion of their salaries from the West.
Dialogue was celebrated as the motor of progress. Johann Matthies, a Russian-German guest from Korntal/Germany and mission spokesperson for the Mennonite-Brethren, claimed that “theology happens only through dialogue”. He added: “Without the right to take initiative, progress cannot occur.” An official lecturer stated that “cadre factories” need to be done away with. We instead need a kind of laboratory to test our theological findings.
The theologian and writer Ales Dubrovsky (Minsk) made one of the most daring claims: “The more different the other person is, the more I need him/her for theological discussion.” Church unity can only be expressed through diversity.
Mikhail Nevolin, a Baptist from St. Petersburg, called it a major step when evangelical circles “can analyse their own mistakes without fear of aiding and abetting the adversary”. Rakhuba spoke of the synergetic effect of dialogue and assured that a usable strategy for the future is impossible without a discussion of past failures.
Cherenkov noted at the end of the conference that human insights are only piecemeal: “There never was a golden age; there have always been crises. We never were perfect and our evangelical movement will never be perfect.”
More than a few criticisms were audible at this second Forum (Russian Ministries held its first Forum three years ago). It was asked more than once where the masses who had accepted the evangelical faith in the years immediately after 1990 had gone. Back then, a barely-educated church had jointly with foreign missionaries approached a searching but hardly uneducated national populace. It was asked whether someone is now ready and capable to gather anew the frustrated and disappointed.
Nevolin reported that the educational level of Protestant pastors remains lamentable – the number of reputable Protestant institutions of higher learning could be counted on one hand. In Russia, theological degrees are passed out in an inflationary manner without serious academic standards: “It is too early to call our institutions ‘universities’.”
The Baptist journalist Yelena Mokrenchuk (Kiev) made the rarely-heard claim that PR should never be mixed with or mistaken for journalism. Both forms are legitimate, yet only PR can expect financial support from churches. No topic should be off-limits for true journalism. Mikhail Nevolin noted that number of Christian websites far exceeds the amount of available Russian-language text. The same, usually free press releases appear on a wide variety of Christian websites.
According to Nevolin, church leadership structures remain highly inadequate. Partially for bureaucratic reasons, many initiatives – and real estate – are officially owned by private individuals. That makes leadership changes nearly impossible; structures remain essentially hierarchal and authoritarian. One conclusion stated: “Our media will only change once our churches also change.” Another person commented: “Without transformed thinking in our congregations, nothing will change.”
Someone added that even churches are placing much too much blame on homosexuals and Muslim immigrants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted for additional support: “Germany does not have too many Muslims – only too few Christians.”
But positive proposals also abounded. Christian deserve to get involved in politics, it was stated. And they need to be concerned about the common good – not just the specific needs of the small Protestant minority. Evangelical support for the religious liberty of non-Christian faiths should be a matter of course.
Not for the first time, Mikhail Nevolin criticised the Protestant preference for missionary work among the lowest social classes. According to him, 90% of converts from outside the Baptist fold are veterans of the drug or alcohol scene. He surmised that the reasons for this include the reticence of such persons to ask us believers embarrassing questions. Yet Nevolin does not intend to question the legitimacy of these successful mission efforts – they are questionable only if they exist at the expense of work among the middle class.
Alexander Negrov, Rector der „St. Petersburg Christian University”, answered his own question regarding the right of women to attain leadership roles in churches with the retort: “What kind of question is that? They are already in such positions!” Yet the fact that less than 10 women were registered for the Forum leaves a clear message. His statement indicates at least that Negrov is not opposed to such a development.
Speakers consistently spoke of Catholics and the Orthodox as legitimate and equal partners in the faith. Theologians such as Andrey Puzynin (Donetsk) spoke of ecumenical “unity in diversity”.
One could claim these young theologians are simply reiterating the views prevalent at the evangelical mainstream’s institutions of higher learning in the West. Rakhuba spoke of the need for contextualisation, of “global concepts that need to be adapted locally. Young people will then be transforming the church from within.”
Internal evangelical relations
Sergey Rakhuba stressed that all Protestant circles had been invited to attend the Forum – but not all chose to attend. Charismatic and independent churches were overrepresented; the Baptists unions and Lutherans were underrepresented. Yet the Belarusian Baptist Union was strongly-represented; Methodists also chose to attend. Irpen’s Baptist seminary, which functions as a branch of John MacArthur’s “Masters University” in California, was not represented. Yet the Forum refused to criticise persons or organisations by name; not even in private conversation was Rakhuba willing to comment on specific leaders. He explained: “There is a long history of troubled relationships. It is difficult for some leaders to cross over the line and seek unity.” He lamented that Moscow’s Lausanne conference on 6 and 7 December will need to be held primarily under the auspices of the Charismatic Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky and the Evangelical-Christian Bishop and businessman Alexander Semchenko. He admitted: “Official circles and hierarchies tend to protect their territories — that hampers cross-denominational debate. Lausanne is a global evangelical movement and prefers to work with those groups most active in promoting evangelism.”