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The following article appeared in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society.

For more articles from Missionalia, see the articles index.


by Johannes Reimer

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Reimer, Johannes. 1996. Mission in post-perestroika Russia, in Missionalia, Vol. 24(1) April. Page 16-39. Perestroika, which was designed to restructure and improve Soviet socialism, failed. Naive Western advisers advised Yeltsin to adopt a western-style free-market system as a shock therapy, which resulted in "big shock, little therapy". Most people in post-perestroika Russia experience emptiness and insecurity, and this has produced a massve increase in interest in religion. Many Western Protestant bodies entered Russia to conduct mass evangelism campaigns, but the Russian church did not have the infrastructure for follow-up, and the programmes were designed to please sponsors at home rather than to reach the hearts of post-Marxist Russians. Other western mission agencies established their own denominations, rather than cooperating with native Russian Christian groups. While western mission agencies could make a positive contribution, they have generally failed to do so.


The man and his concept

The Russian word perestroika, meaning restructuring, was intro- duced by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, in the course of the late 1980s. His book, Perestroika. New Thinking for Our Country and the World (1987), captured the minds of the West as well as the East. The fall of Communism and the end of the East-West conflict is largely due to this concept. Gorbachev (1987:17) himself believed that perestroika was an urgent necessity from the profound processes of development in the socialist society. And he talked about change in a holistic way, changes to be made literally in all strata of society. His concept, however, presumed not just a socio-political change in the socialist countries it rather included the whole world. Gorbachev (1987:131) said,

The success of perestroika will lay bare the class narrow- mindedness and egoism of the forces that are ruling the West today, the forces which are hooked on militarism and the arms race, and which are looking for enemies all over the globe. The success of perestroika will help the developing countries find ways to achieve economic and social modernization without having to make concessions to neocolonialism or throwing themselves into the cauldron of capitalism.The success of perestroika will be the final argument in the historical dispute as to which system is more consistent with the interest of the people.

He quotes a Western politician commenting on the concept: If you do what you've conceived, this will have fantastic, truly global consequences (Gorbachev 1987:131).

Why Has Perestroika Failed?

Today, however, the majority of analysts, both Russian and foreign, tend to believe that perestroika has failed (Boettke 1993). The economic and political reality in the Newly Independent States (NIS)1 seems to prove them right. Was perestroika just another illusion, another utopia, another road to nowhere, as Peter J.Boettke phrases it (1993:12f)?

I am convinced that the answer to this question depends on the kind of definition we attach to this Gorbachev term so often used and misused, as the Japanese Dr N.Shiokawa rightly states. Different people use the word perestroika in different ways. It might not be all-inclusive to use the term exactly as Gorbachev introduced it (Wada 1992:92-95), but in order to measure success or failure of the concept we first of all have to stick to the original idea. As such, then, perestroika failed! Gorbachev's career of perestroika, the unique formation the Union of Socialist Nations (Gorbachev 1987:118) and Real Socialism ceased to exist. Instead, the people of the former Marxist countries face an unknown socio-political disaster.

The most sought-after new release on the Russian rock music scene during 1994 was the album Titanic of a group called Nautilus. The musicians stated openly that for them the sinking ship was Yeltsin's Russia (Kagarlitsky 1995:159). Perestroika has become a catastroika, a sign of a complete catastrophe (MR 1995:27).

In economic terms, the post-Marxist societies are facing the postsocialist great depression, as Bernard Chavance (1994:201) describes it. Boris Kagarlitsky (1995:75) paints a proper picture when he writes:

After dismantling the Soviet Union and doing away the command economy, the reformers promised to open a new page in the history of Russia. Changes took place rapidly, but they did not amount to renewal. Millions of people asked themselves: Who are we, why are we being treated like this, and when is all this going to end? Some regarded the things that were happening a nightmare. Others felt that they and those around them were going mad, or that they were at least under extreme nervous pressure. This was the case not just with particular people, but also with the state itself.

Despite some differences in intensity or timing, the patterns are common to all post-Marxist countries. The overall production has dropped by about one third and more. Industrial production and investment have fallen to an even greater extent. An inflation rate unknown to this part of the world is galloping, leaving the population with a terribly deteriorated standard of living. Unemployment has become the great plague of the nineties in most of these countries; thus disorientation took the place of an individual's fixed role in the previous system. The initial optimism about the transition to a market economy has almost completely turned into feelings of disappointment, bitterness, and insecurity.

What has happened? Why did perestroika fail? There is no easy answer to this question. But there are some propositions which point towards a possible answer. Let me discuss some of them.

Soviet economic strength was an illusion

Perestroika, as envisioned by Gorbachev, presupposed an economic system which surely needed restructuring, but was by no means doomed to fail. Today we can clearly see how little, if at all, the leadership of the Soviet Union saw the true, bad condition of their economy:

The illusion of the soviet economic growth and progress was due to the failings of aggregate economics, in general, and an odd combination of ideas and interests in academic discussions which did not allow dissenting voices to be heard, in particular. In fact, the whole peculiar art of soviet economic management amounted to the production and distribution of this illusion (Boettke 1993:4).

Truth in soviet times was always hidden in jokes and anecdotes. Let me give you a sample. They say that at one of the glorious Communist Party congresses, the chairperson allowed some time for free discussion. Many delegates got up and praised the Party leadership for the glorious achievements of the past. Finally, a director of a collective farm wanted to ask a question and got up: We are one of the largest farming complexes just three hundred kilometres east of Moscow, he said. I was promised a car ten years ago, but I°m still riding a horse. I would just like to ask you to help me to obtain a car, if at all possible. This would really be glorious. The chairperson promised to help. After the tea break, the man who had been sitting next to the farmer asked for permission to ask a public question. He was allowed to speak. I have no real questions, he said hesitantly. I just want to know what has happened to my neighbour.

Socialism as originally conceived was an economic impossibility

Gorbachev built his perestroika ideas upon the Real Socialism, even promising to prove the historic advantage of socialism over capitalism. But a Soviet-style socialism, as it was originally drafted by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, simply was a utopian dream, impossible to be realised by normal human beings. Com- munism required a new human who would be absolutely collective- minded, stripped of self-centred and egoistic desires. In order to create a new socio-psychological species, the homo sovieticus (Novak 1962:197f), the soviet regime literally erased more than fifty millions of its own people, by this act destroy- ing most of the traditional institutions of the past, among which the religious sector was just one. But instead of an emancipation from the oppressive bonds of the old nature, homo sovieticus became the proper term for an irresponsible being with very low self-esteem and without knowing his purpose. Having been brought up in this regime, I know exactly what I am talking about. The obvious failure of socialism to create an agent of communism may quite well have been the rationale behind Gorbachev's turn towards a new religion policy, as we shall see later on.

Some people argue that the economic conditions under the soviet regime were not all that bad. The people of the Soviet Union did not know poverty. They were not rich, but not poor either. Their basic economic needs were served. They could find plenty opportunity for both cultural and social development, at least those who conformed to the ruling ideology. But we do not want to forget what price the people and society in general paid for their basic social well-being. Millions of people, accused of antisocialist propaganda, were imprisoned in Stalinist labour camps. They were the real, cheap labour force behind the relative success of soviet-style socialism. We may still enjoy the beauty of the Moscow Metro, for example, and rightly so, but let us be aware that more than two million people from Soviet labour camps died in the underground of Moscow just because a Soviet maniac by the name of Kaganovich wanted to prove the glorious achievements of socialism to the rest of the world. And this is by no means a singular example. Other centennial projects such as the Volga-Don Canal, the Dnepro GES, the Baikal-Amur Railroad would never have been realised without the beaten army of camp labourers. Socialist progress has always been paid for with the lives of innocent people.

Mature soviet-style socialism, since it could not have conformed to the textbook model of socialism, is best understood as a rent- seeking society with its main goal of yielding prerequisites to those in position of power

The defining characteristic of soviet socialism was the political and economic monopoly of the nomenklatura, a caste of bureaucrats who benefited directly from maintaining the system. Bureaucratic competition substituted for economic competition, and resources were allocated according to political rationales rather than economic ones with the corresponding waste that would be expected (Novak 1962:6). Perestroika with its economic reform demanded a change in this way of doing things. Obviously, the nomenklatura put up resistance, afraid of losing their privileged position in society.

The basic organisational logic of politics conflicted with the logic of economic reforms

We all know that the political economy of a particular country is governed by a complex interaction of ideas and interests, creat- ing special interest groups among the people, which long for con- trol and power. While a democratic society pursues a competition of special interest groups, the sole point of the soviet system was to concentrate benefits on those in power and disperse the cost on the citizens (Boettke 1993:8). Perestroika presupposed the shift of power from the dominant interest group to a new cluster of socio-economic realities. It was irrational for this group of beneficiaries to give up on their privileges. And they did not do it that easily for a better purpose. Perestroika had to fail.

Yeltsin's Westernisation, And What Then?

Let us not forget, though, that Perestroika designed to empower socialism became the graveyard for the soviet ideology. In Russia, perestroika opened doors for radical reformers like the current president Yeltsin. Yeltsin and his people looked for Western assistance. Western-style democracy and free market econ- omy offered magic concepts to restructure and recover the Russian society. Does it work in the NIS, too? I doubt it.

The načve belief of Western advisers to the governments of post- Marxist countries (PMCs), and Russia in particular, that the only path to follow during the transition was the introduction of a free market according to the old capitalist formula proved to be wrong. The great depression is not just a result of the collapse of COMECON2 and the Soviet market. It is also the result of short-term shock therapies which the Western and Western- trained Russian economists had suggested. The Western shock therapy did not only miss the point in assuming rapid adjustment of the private sector to the rules of a free market. It totally failed to include the social and institutional behaviour of the people educated in decades of a prescribed economy, which will change only slowly. It produced, in the words of Jonathan Steel (1994:291f), a Big Shock with Little Therapy. Likewise, Kagar- litsky (1995:156) has observed that capitalist modernisation had ended in collapse. Some Western analysts are beginning to under- stand the futility of this approach, which is still widely used in the PMCs. Chavance (1994:209) rightly comments:

Even though an old economic system can be dismantled quickly, the creation and stabilisation of a new one take a long time. A realistic strategy of transformation should take into account that this kind of systemic change entails an evolutionary process and gradual learning (individual, organisational, social).

What is needed instead is a mixed transitional postsocialist economy (Chavance 1994:210). A third way, neither capitalist nor socialist, must be found.3 It seems to me that this is precisely what is slowly emerging in the more advanced PMCs such as Hungary or Chekhia. There we find a kind of Eastern European market socialism, which could also be called a social capitalism. If the transition the PMCs are going through is a transition from hypothetical to real history (Heller 1991:250), then the advo- cates of economic change must be realistic about it.

And any realism will have to see the disillusionment of the post- perestroika people. Today, almost a decade after the first signs of perestroika initiated the change, Marxist societies have to a great extent left the Marxist frame of life, becoming more and more post-Marxist. Gorbachev's socialist Perestroika, the reconstruction of society, has failed and has instead produced in the words of Julian Cooper (1991:161) a process of deconstruction. Gorbachev himself, a Hero abroad, a failure at Home (Goldman 1992:15), lost all his political power and influence. New leaders have emerged, with a range of different perspectives. But the whole process, once started, finally dis- mantled the old regime.

People without hope

What does all this mean for the Russian people? Let me make four preliminary observations.

For most of the people the Marxist ideology has become irrelevant, and it has not yet been replaced by another ideology or philosophy of life. This leaves a deep existential emptiness and insecurity in most people's lives. Life becomes meaningless and without purpose. Obvious measurable results of this are mass alcoholism, sectarianism and a widespread preoccupation with the occult. People seem to try to get a hold on everything available, to fill the emptiness of their hearts. The last thing they are presently interested in is a transformation of society. Russians are as apolitical as they have never been before. The question asked most often nowadays is: How can I emigrate to the US, Canada, or Germany? Millions have already left the country. In politically dark times like these, radical voices from both the far right and far left wing find open ears.

On the other hand, the collapse of the Marxist ideology with its atheistic substitute-religion has produced a massive interest in religion. Any religious system seems to be acceptable. The intellectuals, however, seek truth in the pre-Marxist beliefs of their forefathers. And again the occult is on the top of the wave.

With the fall of communism the socialist economic system has col- lapsed. Most of the people now live under the poverty line, some- thing never seen in communist times. Economics is a very dif- ficult endeavour. The whole industry and the transport system have to be remodelled, and regarding the latter we are talking about distances of ten thousand kilometres plus new borders and administrations. The new situation has deepened the workers mistrust of any political or economic administration, creating a set of tensions often resolved by force.

With the fall of communism the often praised unity of the soviet people has died. Nationalism is at work everywhere and creates a lot of tension in some places even war as we can see in Bosnia, Nagorny Karabagh, Tadshikistan, or Chechenya.

How do you do mission in a society where people are left without a philosophy of life, longing to know their purpose and seeking an ethnic identity at the same time? Their ways of economic well- being have been destroyed and none of the new ideas seems to work. People are desperate for help, asking real existential questions. It's the answers to those questions that will have to determine our mission involvement.


The Unexpected Invitation

It is interesting to see that even Gorbachev, in his attempt to transform the socialist system, very soon recognised the neces- sity to involve the church in the process of perestroika. As Gen- eral Secretary, he met the leaders of the Orthodox Church on 29 April, 1988 in the Kremlin and addressed them with these words:

Believers are soviet people, workers, patriots, and they have the full right to express their convictions with dig- nity. Perestroika, democratisation and openness concerns them as well in full measure and without restrictions. This is especially true of ethics and morals, a domain where universal norms and customs are so helpful for our common cause (in Bourdeaux 1991:44).

Our common cause never before had a communist leader spoken such words to religious people, strongly inviting the church to participate in the perestroika. And he really meant it. Soon a new law on religious freedom was on its way. Individual republics, the Russian Federation for instance, passed their own laws, some of which turned out to be even more liberal than, for example, their US counterpart.

The Christian churches were entering a time of unlimited freedom for religious action. That historic meeting in 1988 took place just six weeks before the Russian Orthodox Church started celebrating its millennium, marking one thousand years since the baptism of Duke Vladimir in the Dnepro at Kiev. That year of celebration and festivities changed the face of the country. Religion was suddenly lifted from the bottom sphere of society and allowed to express itself. The churches, especially the Protestants, understood the crucial importance of that historical moment. They engaged in evangelism in public and started small social projects for needy people. But did they respond to Gor- bachev's plea to make perestroika their own cause? No, not really. Why? In order to understand this we need to have a closer look at the situation the church was in when Gorbachev changed his policy towards religion and allowed more religious freedom.

Unprepared for the Task

This article is not meant to give an overview of the church situation in all the post-Marxist countries. Things vary from country to country.4 While communism never became a real threat to Roman Catholics in Poland, it almost destroyed the same church in Lithuania. The Protestants in East Germany faced minor dif- ficulties in comparison with the massive persecution of Chris- tians in the USSR or Albania, just to mention some of the dif- ferences. But in all the PMCs, Christians were excluded from societal life (Sundgren 1978:41-96; Berberinin 1977:32-33) and had to live between concession and repression (Stricker 1986:63), were counted as third-class, old fashioned, often simply as stupid, unlearned people. They were given no space whatsoever to develop a healthy relationship with the basically atheist culture of their own people. As a result, believing Christians created a subculture, with all the pitfalls of an exclusive mindset (Reimer 1995:20). That is the main reason why native Christians in PMCs often appear legalistic, anti-social, and inferior. For a generation of Christians who grew up in the absolute cellar of society, the sudden transition to an open, democratic society full of challenges was not easy.

The Western churches have also had their share in shaping this basement mentality of Christian churches in communist countries. The West viewed the church under communist regimes as a church on the edge of death. Always presented to the public as a weak church, longing for the help of Christians in the West, the Eastern churches slowly but surely started to believe in what I call their underdog role in Christian history.

Added to the limitations already mentioned comes the fact that evangelical churches in a country like Russia are rather small in size. Statistics of the past are by no means accurate. One can get an idea of what the situation of the churches have been from recent data gathered by the prominent Institute of Social Statistics at the Russian Academy of Science. According to this data, not even one third of the population regarded themselves as religious. Only ten percent of the religious people identified themselves as non-orthodox (Borsenko 1994:231). Ninety percent of Russian believers still identify themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church, which does not really mean that they belong to that church. Only ten percent of the people claiming to believe in God attend church services (Borsenko 1994:232). The rest of the Russians, according to the polls, are incredibly ignorant in religious matters. One study done in 1993 showed that 45% of the so-called believers had never attended church in their life (1994:232). The study of Borsenko shows that 25% of the believers did not know the nationality of the apostles Andrew and Peter. They thought that they had been Russians (1994:232).

The largest evangelical group in the country, the Evangelical- Christian Baptists, have a following of about 71 000 members in all of Russia, which has a total population of 135 million people. There are perhaps 60 000 Pentecostals, about 40 000 Charismatics and not more than 50 000 members of different West- ern dependencies.5 The number of evangelical Christians therefore does not exceed 300 000, which is only 0,4% of the total popula- tion. There are perhaps some 100 000 evangelically-minded believers in the Orthodox and Catholic churches. And if you con- sider that these Christians actually represent more than forty different people groups, the number becomes really small. This relatively small church faces the challenge to evangelise 135 million people who speak 185 different languages and offer not just religion but also a transformed social frame of reference to a society in transition. That's a big task for a small church facing all the post-Marxist problems of her social environment. There is no question, then, that help was needed from the univer- sal church.

The West "Gave Its Best"

And the West gave its best. Let me quote Michael Bourdeaux of Keston College, one of the leading religious experts in the West on the former USSR:

It is astonishing to observe how, after the world had by and large ignored or misrepresented the religious needs of the Soviet Union over several decades, suddenly these needs became a fash- ionable cause. Embedded in this was the goodwill of innumerable people who humbly and genuinely wanted to help Russia reestablish the roots of its faith. Their quiet dedication was often swamped by the insensitivity of others. Cohorts of disparate foreign preachers were to be found roaming the streets of the major cities, employing brash evangelistic methods and backed by what to Russians seemed limitless reserves of capital. Religion was now permitted on the airways; however, not satisfied with the resulting opportunities, foreign agencies bought not just airtime, but sometimes even whole radio stations. Foreigners who had never learned a word of Russian, who did not know the his- tory, the classics of literature, or the particular richness of the Russian Orthodox tradition, suddenly launched themselves at an unsuspected public genuinely eager for something spiritual to fill the void left by communism but totally unable to distinguish between witchcraft, Eastern philosophy, and the Christian Gospel. This made life especially difficult for those who had been men- tally, spiritually, and linguistically prepared for just such an opportunity for decades (Bourdeaux 1995:117).

Russian churches were, of course, overwhelmed by the millions of brothers and sisters worldwide who wanted to help, teach, and spend their money on them as soon as the access restrictions were lifted. In some of the Russian churches, for instance, local pastors would be confronted with three to ten preachers from the West per Sunday, all coming to preach the gospel and teach the weak church. Most of them came as educated pastors, bombarding the natives with their business cards. For the first time in their life, Russian Christians kept hearing about B.A.s, M.A.s, M.Div.s and even Ph.D.s., whereas they never had the opportunity to go beyond primary or secondary school themselves. The old inferiority complex nourished by the Soviets was suddenly moved to a different, unexpected level: They, from the West, just know we do not know anything. For the past five years I have heard statements like this throughout Russia and Eastern Europe.

As a result of this, some churches started to settle back into their basement, this time withdrawing from the Western agencies. A group of native mission agencies based in Kiev, Ukraine even called for a moratorium on Western missions at a meeting held at Alma-Aty, Kasakhstan on 23 March 1993. They asked Western agen- cies not to send any foreign missionaries before a critical evaluation of their theology and methods has been made by native leaders (HS 1993).

These critical voices from the East did not, of course, stop the Western mission enterprises. On the contrary! An era of Western Christian expansion into Russia had begun. Hundreds of Western agencies flooded Russia as soon as the soviet government lifted the iron curtain. They seemed to know what job there was to do. In their thinking, the Soviet Union was just another European country that rightly belonged to the common European home (Gor- bachev 1991:266). Thus they did not realise how colonial their attitude was towards the Eastern countries and churches.

Today there are more than 500 Western agencies working in the NIS, most of which concentrate on major cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk or Kiev. Just a few of these agencies work alongside the native churches. There are four major approaches Western agencies have followed: mass evangelism, sup- port for the evangelistic and church planting activities of the local churches, the establishment of Western denominational dependencies, and humanitarian aid. None of these approaches even considered joining in the perestroika efforts of the government. Let's briefly examine these Western approaches.

Mass Evangelism

Literally all major evangelistic agencies in the world have started some kind of work in the NIS. In Kiev or St. Petersburg, for instance, you will probably not find a single weekend in the year without a mass evangelism event. Millions of Bibles and Bible tracts have been distributed, running into billions of dol- lars. Radio and television programmes have been launched nation- wide and millions of converts have been reported. For example, the evangelistic television programme of CBN6 report about two million converts annually, and Every Home for Christ reported up to a thousand conversions per day in 1995. The reality is, how- ever, that only a very small percentage of these reported con- verts can be found in churches today, actively following Christ. Mass evangelism has clearly failed to reach these post-Marxist societies.

I believe there are a number of reasons for this, which are typi- cal of this genre of evangelism:

Mass evangelism conveyed a very shallow message which did not really provide people with answers to their deepest desires of reorientation; it did not present a valid philosophy of life. As one of the Orthodox observers of the Billy Graham Crusade in Moscow commented: The message of the Protestants is very super- ficial. It cannot substitute the loss of the Marxist worldview. Too many questions are left without an answer. The Four Spiritual Laws did not seem to satisfy the post-Marxist mind. So the prominent Ukrainian Baptist leader Franz Shumeiko rightly called this Western-type evangelism in the NIS an industry of evangelism (Shumeiko 1991:9ff), that was primarily concerned with methods of propaganda and immediate results of mass euphoria, creating heroes of evangelism, a score of Russian Billy Grahams rather than a healthy church.

It has become a truism: mass evangelism requires proper follow- up. This was impossible in the PMCs, since the discipler- believers were too few in number, unprepared to shoulder the responsibility and overwhelmed by almost daily crusades. No church in the world in a situation like that would manage so much work at once (Shumeiko 1991:14) and evangelistic agencies couldn't care less about solving this problem. The best they did was to train counsellors for the first meeting with the convert. A case in point is the evangelistic crusade of Billy Graham in Moscow. Much was said and done to assure proper follow-up. The Billy Graham Association trained more than 4 000 counsellors, but as they were unable to find so many devoted evangelical Chris- tians in Moscow, they invited people from all over the NIS to do the job. The Association spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get them all to Moscow . But most of these counsellors stayed in Moscow only until a day or two after the crusade and then went home, leaving behind a so-called convert without any further help in his/her walk with Christ. No wonder there are very few dis- ciples to be found after that crusade. Out of the tens of thou- sands of converts claimed, not even 100 stayed behind in evangelical churches. And no question, the Billy Graham Crusade was by far the best-organised and well-planned ministry of a Western evangelist since perestroika started. Shumeiko (1991:15) says: We are deeply concerned with the kind of evangelism going on here, evangelism without a proper spiritual preparation and foundation.

Mass evangelism was conducted largely according to a pattern designed to please the sponsors at home rather than to reach the heart of a post-Marxist Russian. Very little contextualisation, if at all, was applied. All evangelists, for example, made an altar call, failing to understand that for Orthodox Russians to come forward means nothing more than to receive the blessing of the priest; something they do every Sunday. Some of the crusades were more like shows, at least in the view of the Russian audience (Shumeiko 1991:15). It was Hollywood evangelism at its best. Such evangelism cannot produce spiritual fruit.

Mass evangelism mouthed big promises of a happy life, but failed to address burning social issues. Hungry people cannot constantly hear the gospel without being helped to find food and solve their social problems. Western humanitarian aid came in large quantities, but always as a substitute to the proclamation pro- gram. Sometimes social help even became a caricature of what the Bible commands Christians to do. For example, a well-known Amer- ican evangelist rented the great Kremlin Hall in Moscow for a series of evangelistic meetings, each of which focussed on a specific topic. The night we attended the theme was Jesus as the Bread of the world. The evangelist preached a mediocre sermon full of jokes that nobody really understood, since none of them knew everyday life in the Midwest of the United States. He then called the Russians to give their lives to Christ, asking them to come to the stage and receive a nice package of American bread and chocolates. Don't ask me how many people walked to the front in order to receive that holistically packaged American Christ or was it just the bargain they were interested in, free foreign chocolates?

Support for the Evangelistic and Church Planting Activities of the Local Churches

Other Western agencies have opted to support native churches to do evangelism rather than doing it themselves. Some such agencies support up to 100 native church planters and evangelists. This kind of work is very promising, but the main problem here is the lack of trained and sufficiently prepared personnel. Most of the native missionaries are poorly trained. Some of them have just recently accepted Christ themselves. There is an urgent need for leadership training.

Programmes have been developed to respond to this need. At the moment there are more than 100 Western initiatives for Bible training centres, most of which operate as short-term seminars, even though they are called Bible schools or even Universities. Such high profile names seem to be designed to please the sponsors at home. Again we see the same pattern in operation: schools are started to raise money at home and not in the first place to educate the natives.

But there are positive examples, too. Some schools really do a good job. The Euroasian Evangelical-Christian Baptist Federation has established a school in Odessa where primarily Baptists are trained; Denver Theological Seminary supports a Bible College in Donezk, Ukraine; LOGOS International runs the Christian College of St. Petersburg, Russia, to mention just a few. Similar schools operate in Poland, Chekhia, Croatia, Romania, and other coun- tries. A group of leading schools have just formed The Eastern European School of Theology.

This type of supporting mission has a future. Based on Biblical teaching, it will allow natives to take on the task of evangelism and plant churches in every corner of their respective countries. And the churches thus planted will be indigenous, operating without Western hang-ups.

Establishing Western Dependencies

A third group of mission agencies have established their own churches without cooperating with any native churches. At present there are more than 130 Protestant denominations officially reg- istered in Moscow alone. Names such as Russian American Baptist, Russian Korean Presbyterian or United Methodist Church of Russia reveal clearly which purpose is implied and where the sponsors come from.

While some of these missionaries have shown great appreciation for the native people and were able to establish functioning churches, others fish in the pond of the old, established chur- ches by paying some pastors and ordinary members a good transfer salary. As a matter of fact, such a transfer of the saints, which in my view is a typical North American phenomenon, has become a major threat to the small native churches.

Humanitarian Aid as a Response to the Needs of the Have-Nots

Some Western agencies have specialised in bringing humanitarian aid to Russia, thus responding to the people's felt needs. There is no doubt that Russia would fall even deeper into social despair without these millions of tons of food and clothing sent over by thousands of sincere Christians. But the aid, as much as it is needed, creates a dangerous dependency on the West and fosters a low national self-esteem. For some agencies, humanitarian aid has also become an instrument of control: only those people receive aid who follow the instructions and/or the doctrines of the Western sponsor.

The population is seldom asked what they need the West in its attempt to Go East just gives them its best. In some instances, churches have like in colonial times received sophisticated gifts (such as computer technology), without having any idea of how use it, while a great many church members live under the poverty line. A small-scale bakery would have done more good than all those computers put together. Unfortunately the agenda is often determined not by the requests of the needy but by the gracious gifts of Western sponsor.

It is clear that none of these Western approaches responded to Gorbachev's request to support the restructuring of the country. The main reason for this is what I call the fund-raising myth."

The Fund-raising Myth as Main Obstacle

"We must do it now, because soon the doors will close again. This has become one of the main motivating statements for fund raising in Euroamerica. Missions establish a sense of urgency and push their programmes through while getting bigger and faster. Whole armies of missionaries have been motivated to enter the PMCs, in most cases poorly equipped for their task. A case in point is the CoMission Project. Promising the Russian people to teach their children sound Judeo-Christian ethics, CoMission workers were granted permission to enter the country to an unimaginable extent. More than 61 000 schools were opened for Christian ethic teachers to enter Russia and teach ethics from a biblical perspective. What a challenge!

And what came of it? We created a very superficial 11-lesson course, taught this in a couple of weeks to thousands of mostly young people ready to go and teach the Russians, and sent them over. Time is short they will not allow us to stay for more than five years anyway. We can't spend our time on training real ethics teachers, one of the leaders told me.

Today CoMission is no longer working in many areas of Russia and will soon face total eviction from the country, not because their motives were impure, but because they cheated a whole nation by promising ethics and actually doing simple evangelism. What kind of Christian ethics is this? And CoMission is just one of many similar programmes.

Yes, there should always be an urgency in missions, but the speed and method we use cannot be determined by our sponsors or boards. Is it not the LORD, and only Him who should set our timetables? And didn't He teach us differently? The myth of ungodly urgency must be destroyed!


Signs of Hope

How do you do mission in a world of tension, with an unprepared church on the one hand and a Hollywood-minded church on the other? Is there any hope? Surely there is, but for Eastern Euro- pean traditional churches, the Russian ones in particular, it will require a whole new generation to overcome the fear and pain of the past and to move into an active societal life. For most of them such a move into active, community-oriented mission means crossing major barriers, comparable to going overseas.

The Church in the PMCs has obvious limitations to do active mis- sion work. And, of course, in most cases no experience. Most of the churches were busy enough to stay alive during the persecu- tion. Maintenance was the common rule for church life in soviet times.

But despite all this, the native churches are in their starting- blocks and ready to move into missions. In Russia today there are about 150 local mission agencies sending missionaries to other parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union. An additional 200 organisations are located in other parts of the NIS. Most of them operate more or less independently. Some of them even reject all help from the West, since they have observed numerous examples of fellow Russian Christians being spoilt by Western salaries and an American lifestyle. Similar dedicated, but independent, develop- ments can be found in Romania, Hungary, Poland, Chekhia, Slovakia, Croatia and Mozambique.

So there is some good news, but not enough of it. The church of Russia, as the churches in other post-Marxist Countries, needs help from the global church meaningful help!

How must we go about it?

If Christian mission is going to succeed in Russia, the following deliberations should be taken into account. The opportunity to support perestroika by offering Gorbachev the missing part in his program the new, Christ-transformed human, is gone. But the challenges remain, both spiritually and socially. Let me briefly spell out some basic requests from a Russian Christian to a West- ern church wanting to support the mission of the church in post- perestroika Russia.

Incarnational rather than Organisational

In this respect I want to identify four basic attitudes which, I believe, a good missionary to my country would need: Become one of us and we will listen to you. There is no need for me to prove to you the importance of acculturation for missions. Strangely enough, the best books on this subject were written in the US, and the poorest-prepared missionaries in this matter come from the US, too. It is not that we do not know better, but we find it difficult to follow through.

Live as we live, but without sin, and we will copy you. It is by no means easy to proclaim the gospel among people in poverty from the position of a well-to-do Western missionary. People will start listening and believing as soon as we prove to them that their unique situation is no dead-end street. The answer is not to talk about solutions, but to live them out. The answer is not the Christ of the Text, but Christ incarnate.

Be a Christian first, then a Russian, then maybe Reformed or Methodist or Lutheran, and we will love you. Missionaries are usually sent by mission boards, denominations, or churches. They give the money and all the support needed. And they expect, all too often, that the missionary should represent them, copy their ideas and implement their methods. This leads automatically to a neocolonial approach in missions. You cannot expect anything good to come out of such an approach after centuries of failure of colonial missions in Asia and Africa. Indigenisation is a must!

Let God control your life, your worship, your way of expressing your love to us, and we will follow you. The post-Marxist, post- perestroika people are fed up with words and ideas. They long for models, examples, icons of a truly transformed life. Missionaries without a personal, experienced, spiritual relationship to God expressed in their daily life should better stay home.

Partnership rather than Confessionalism

By this I mean the following:

Accept the fact that the Holy Spirit was already there long before you came. God did not start saving the world on the day your particular theological system or denomination was born. God did not start changing Russia on the day you crossed the yellow line at the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. God was there for at least one thousand years before you came. And God is a God of history. So be sure He has his own history with Russia and the Russian people.

Discover God's agents and enter into partnership with them! You are, no doubt, God's missionary agent to Russia, since the Lord has called you to go. But, please, understand you are not the only one. God has had and will continue to have his carriers of mission and renewal in post-perestroika Russia. They might not always be as educated as you are. But is education really the only proper measurement of spirituality? Of course not! They might understand much less of theology than you do. But does good theology automatically lead a society to become better and to overcome evil? I doubt it. They might not even be as Christian as you are yet. But did God never use strange people to achieve His salvific goal in history? Just read the Gospel of Matthew, chap- ter 1. He did! Be sure He has his people in Russia, too.

Establish the native rather than yourself! Missionaries never go overseas just for fun or simply to satisfy personal needs of appreciation. Why then the establishment of all these Western dependencies? Why all the branches of our Western agencies in Russia, just like in the business world? Do we really think they need Russian American Baptist or Russian Korean Churches, or Every Home for Christ American-style"? Let us check our own motives and see what is the real force behind some of our mission enterprises. You want to do mission in Russia? Please let the Russian be a Russian. Build missionary structures for Russians and not for yourself. What difference does it make whether you understand everything the Russians consider to be important for them? Just go ahead. You will most probably leave the country one day. They have to understand Christ, though.

Commit yourself to three basic missiological principles: Pray together, Proclaim together, Pay together. Togetherness is what most of the Russians miss in Western missionaries. But this is one of the most important values of the Orthodox-minded Russian society. Togetherness, or sobornost in Russian, is the key to the Russian heart.

Power Encounter A modus operandi for Missions in Russia

Western mission agencies are preoccupied with strategy and long- term planning. No mission work in Russia without a 5-year plan, seems to be the motto in operation. And although long-term plan- ning is generally needed, it also creates too rigid a frame for action. In a rapidly changing world like post-Marxist Russia such plans hinder more than they really help. Designed according to Western mission policies, most of the existing plans are missing out on the real issues involved. The most neglected issue today is the ongoing spiritual struggle in Russia. My advice to Western missionaries would be threefold:

Realise what the real power struggle is. One thousand years of Orthodox mission history in Russia teaches us the basic lesson of evangelism to this part of the world. Since Ilarion, the first Russian Metropolitan in Kiev (1054-), mission has meant first of all a power struggle between the God-sent Christian and demonic forces (Reimer 1994:207-210). Orthodoxy never really lost the vision of the real power encounter going on in this world (Eph. 6,12-17). Russian-Orthodox culture is deeply rooted in such a view of powers attacking the faithful daily. Superstition and the preoccupation with the occult is also a symptom of the Russian religious mind. As a result, feelings of fear and inferiority towards a greater power and a never-ending dependency on all kinds of witch-specialists have flooded the country. After 70 years the attempt of militant atheism to change the religious soul of Russia ended without any real success. Instead, they pro- duced a spiritual vacuum which simply invites even more interest in the occult.

Missionaries coming to evangelise Russia will have to prepare themselves to face a spiritual power encounter in the same manner as the first missionaries to the Russian people did. The great 14th-century missionary to the Zyryan, the Russian bishop Stephen of Perm (Reimer 1994:182-194) may be a model of the proper type of a messenger that Russia needs today. Protestant missionaries with a purely rationalistic mindset will only become agents of a new wave of reformation in Russia if they enter the world of bib- lical spirituality and learn the art of a Spirit-led power encounter. This does not just presuppose the spiritual deliverance and growth of the individual missionary. Spiritual warfare implies active involvement in structural transformation of the given society. Structures often build evil strongholds in society. In order to transform society those strongholds have to be removed.

Learn from the natives. This, however, implies a humble heart, confessing our own inabilities, and understanding the pitfalls of our Western theological developments of the past three centuries. Rationalism has impoverished the Western church by taking away the heart of biblical Christianity true spirituality. The Orthodox way of thinking could teach us a lot in this regard. And when going to Russia, a post-orthodox country, we will have to learn in order to succeed; learn from the Orthodox past and learn from the people we are involved with.

First: pray, secondly: wait, thirdly: obey. The mediaeval Russian monastic missionaries also defined mission in terms of a Gebetskampf, i.e. prayer warfare (Reimer 1994:216). Western mis- sionaries in Russia today are known as actionists. They do, and they do a whole lot. The Russians, however, seldom admire doers and go-getters. Their culture is more poetic, contemplative, meditative. Western missionaries would do much better if they organised less programmes and spent more time in prayer. The Rus- sian normally looks for a holy, much rather than for a successful human. To prepare themselves for their life mission, Russian mis- sionaries of the Middle Ages would spend years in a cave in prayer and fasting. Stephen of Perm, for example, spent fourteen years before the LORD before he went on to reach out to the wild Zyryans (Reimer 1994:183). And he surely was successful!

Church planting rather than Mass Evangelism

Mass evangelism has definitely failed in Russia. This is obviously true at least for Western evangelistic outreaches, the evangelism industry as Shumeiko (1991:9) has called it. The last thing post-Marxist Russia needs is more talking. People are look- ing for live models. The real need lies in a fully transformed and community-oriented church. Church Planting, therefore, receives absolute priority in Russia. But what does this great task imply in such a situation? The following could serve as guidelines.

Let the natives determine what type of congregation needs to be established. Plant a church for the people, and while planting, stay with the people.

Try your best not to copy your home congregation. This will always be your biggest challenge. Even if you believe your home church has developed the best model ever. Don't think this can ever be universal as it may not apply to your Russian community at all.

Establish a community- and need-oriented church. Mission must aim at the transformation of society as whole. This is what Orthodox theology in Russia has been teaching for centuries (Reimer 1994:211). And this is what communism was promising the Russians for 70 years... Russians will almost automatically measure your missionary work holistically. Pure evangelism which neglects your social responsibility will sooner or later fail in this country.


Is mission needed in post-perestroika Russia? Yes, indeed! There is even a certain urgency to it. Not because of the so-called communist danger, as most evangelical mission agencies try to suggest. Communism as ideology will never return to Russia. But what else may? Christianity has a real alternative to offer. The biblical truth could not only fill the ideological emptiness of the Russian soul, but also offer models of societal life still unknown to both socialism and capitalism. To define those in clear and practical terms is our challenge for missions tomorrow.

This article was originally published in Missionalia the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS)

[ Other articles from Missionalia | Back to SAMS home page | An Orthodox view ]


1 Also called the Community of Independent States (CIS).

2 COMECON is an abbreviation of Common Economic structures, the market set up by the countries formerly joined together by the Warsaw Treaty.

3 See the most inspiring documentation of the international Symposion on alternatives for the societal development of Russia, held in Moscow from 17-19 Dec., 1993 (Saslavskaja 1994).

4 A well-defined overview is presented in the documentation edited by Giovanni Barberini, Martin St hr and Erich Weing rtner (Barberini 1977).

5 See statistics in Bourdeaux 1990: 128ff; Elliot 1992:3f. 6 The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) is a North American TV channel.


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