Post-Soviet Churches Struggle to Identify their Strategic Missiology

A stable decline has gradually replaced the explosion of mission activity and church growth among evangelical churches in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The impact of even the largest evangelistic crusades has faded away. It is like belated shock therapy—huge evangelistic events in stadiums or transcontinental evangelistic expeditions can no longer return life and enthusiasm to missions.

What is going on? Where are the expected results? Why is it that, despite all of the energy spent by churches and enormous international investments, goals remain unaccomplished? It seems that this question should be asked at all national missions conferences and through all Christian media outlets in the former Soviet Union. However, since the Berlin Wall fell and the door of unlimited opportunities suddenly opened twenty years ago this year, many national leaders are purposely ignoring this question for fear of acknowledging mistakes, failed projects, wasted resources, abandoned, unrealistic projects and empty, multi-million dollar seminary buildings. But, all the same, this needs to be talked about—not to criticize, but to analyze and to learn from our mistakes.

We missed our chance to start everything off right—with the strategic development of a national missiology. We started with “missions”—however each person understood this term. In other words, we started with rousing, motivational slogans and grassroots work. But the projects turned out to be utopian, and the efforts of truly committed and faithful missionaries were wasted. Now, since the ineffectiveness of the missions effort has become apparent, we have a second chance to start off right—with a missiology, which formulates a vision, strategy, values, and mission principles for the national evangelical church. Only that which is built on a firm foundation will be able to withstand current and future crises.

So what about our post-Soviet missiology? There are still very few national specialists, and no thorough analyses or publications—despite the fact that there is now access to an abundant wealth of literature and Western missiologists. I remember when missiology students at the school where I used to teach admitted that they couldn’t even make it through a translated version of David Bosch’s classic book, Transforming Mission—it was just too difficult for them. Even the national teachers had not read the whole book, just a few chapters here and there.

For almost two centuries now, Russian Baptists and, of course, fellow believers in neighboring countries of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union (now the former Soviet Union), have been proudly saying that, “For us, every Baptist is a missionary.” Why, then, are none of them in any hurry to read good books on missiology? Lesslie Newbigin’s wonderful books are gathering dust on bookstore shelves in Baptist bookstores. However, anti-Calvinist writings (essays) are being ordered in bulk by national pastors, who want to learn how to fight Calvinism—a subject they, themselves, encouraged Western theology professors to teach in their new seminaries during the last twenty years!

Bosch and Newbigin’s books are already classics. Right now, missiology is undergoing radical global transformations: a new understanding of “the missional church” is being discovered; traditional ecclesiology is being rethought; and new approaches to contextualize ministry principles in a global, postmodern, post-Christian world are being formulated.

No doubt, thousands of Christian leaders from former Soviet countries travel the world in search of finances to support the “mission” activity of their local churches. They gladly use new technology to raise funds and purchase new equipment and fashionable clothing for their families during their travels, but they are not ready to purchase or accept new ideas. Take a look in the suitcases of those returning from the United States or other countries—you will find everything there but good missiology books. Our “poor” leaders buy expensive new iPhones, laptops, and cameras, but they won’t even glance in a bookstore or spend time with a missiology professor at any good college or seminary—places where real ministry riches can be found, which would help equip them to expand effective ministries in their local churches and stop its steady decline.

It is disappointing that, during the past twenty years of open borders for nationals and almost unlimited opportunities for ministries, our churches have learned how to “milk” Westerners for money, but have not enriched themselves with their progressive ideas or ministry experience.

To be fair, I must admit that many travelers do visit churches like Saddleback (pastor Rick Warren), Willow Creek (pastor Bill Hybels), and Grace Community (pastor John MacArthur). However, they do not draw any strategic conclusions or analyses about their own ministries in their troubled homeland as a result of these visits. It seems as though these visitors do not spend any time considering serious questions. Instead, they come, they see…and on the way back home they either forget or decide that their congregations and denominations are not ready for any of these progressive approaches for church growth or missions. At seminars, which these successful Western leaders offer and conduct in former Soviet countries, I do not see any real engagement on behalf of national pastors with regard to the strategic concepts offered during the training, and do not hear any questions or responses. Bill Hybels’ leadership summits continue to draw fewer and fewer participants in Russia and Ukraine. Nationals don’t seem to be attracted to strategic and progressive content, but to free lodging and transportation. Moreover, the “guardians” of local traditions declare, “This is a threat to our churches on par with the charismatic or emerging church movement.” With regard to Rick Warren, founder and pastor of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in California, some national leaders have said, “We have been around for 140 years. We have nothing to learn from Rick. We, on the contrary, can teach him something.” It turns out (and this is very sad) that their interest in other countries and in their church heritage is really only Christian tourism. With their falsely inflated sense of self-sufficiency and claims for fulfilling a world messianic role, they would not have a need to travel anywhere, if their churches didn’t have the unfortunate need for funds to support less than strategic local missions projects.

This year I have had the wonderful opportunity to conduct research at the Wheaton College library in Wheaton, IL, which has one of the best missiology collections anywhere, making it a paradise for any researcher, missionary, pastor or teacher. I gained access to this wealth of information through a program that has been offered to Christian leaders from Eastern European countries during the past ten years, but there are few results in any of those countries. Amidst this wealth of information, I discovered a large volume of missiological research and writings—including periodicals, special monographs, and long-term studies—on missiology in Australia, Africa, Japan, India, China, Madagascar and Papua, New Guinea, but almost nothing on the church in the former Soviet Union. There is only a limited number of publications by a few enthusiasts on the post-Soviet sphere.

The mission world is steadily losing interest in the evangelical church within the post-Soviet sphere. There are a number of reasons for this. These include, of course, political changes, but also mission projects, which have been ineffective despite massive costs, ongoing inter-church conflicts, extreme legalism and conservatism in traditional churches, and their marginalization in contemporary society.

I am speaking out about these problems in order to explain their causes to our Western partners and find a way out of this crisis. Dialogue with our brothers in the West will teach us how to analyze our failures, learn from our mistakes, revive and re-energize international partnerships, and feel part of global Christianity—the large, unified Christian family, in which personal inadequacies are offset and overcome.

More and more often, I hear the opinions of those, who call us to reject attempts to change anything, and to concentrate on preserving our traditions. Wheaton College graciously and hospitably opens its library and auditoriums to leaders from a variety of countries, who come to seek things they can apply to ministry in their countries. These days, however, I hear something different from my friends and colleagues from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union: they don’t need anything, they don’t have any problems, American experience isn’t worth anything to them, their culture is better, and so on. American missiology, like any other, isn’t perfect, but despite its mistakes, it offers much from which we can learn. However, it seems that we are too lazy to learn from others. Even our Russian national fairytales teach children that the character of Ivanushka, the fool, can get everything he wants without even trying!

So, unfortunately, in-depth analyses and strategic missiology don’t interest us. Our leaders say it is because we love practice. But what is actual practice? A missionary working somewhere with people? Missionary work requires a basic knowledge of disciplines including anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, history, etc. That kind of practice requires theory and thorough studies. Therefore my missiology adviser at Wheaton College, Dr. Robert Gallagher, is not only a missionary with years of experience, but also a professor and well-known expert. That is true practice—practice that gave birth to articles and great books, and leading missiological concepts now used globally. I am wondering…what has grown out of our practice?

Of course, by practice we mean something else—everyday life without difficult questions or, put simply, the practice of the every day. In this way it becomes clear why the eyes of people from the former Soviet Union at Wheaton College light up when they get the chance to go shopping. What happened to our legendary Slavic spirituality and exalted missionary passion, however, remains unclear.