Against the backdrop of a just-enacted law banning Soviet government restriction of religion, more than 1,000 evangelical delegates from all 15 of the sprawling republics of the Soviet Union and 24 other countries around the world gathered in Moscow for the USSR’s first-ever interdenominational Congress on Evangelization. The five-day event at the end of October was pulled together with shoestring finances, a skeleton staff, and a short-notice change in conference dates.

Yet the congress, which turned away many applicants for lack of space and funds, was a sign that Soviet believers are ready to commit themselves to recovering the spiritual ground lost during 70 years of state-imposed atheism. At the same time, there is also strong evidence, from the Baltic States to the Black Sea and from Ukraine to the Siberian hinterland, that evangelism is already taking on new vitality. Soviet Christians are grabbing new opportunities to proclaim the gospel openly, hold youth rallies, publish literature, form university groups, preach on the streets, reach out to Muslims, and minister in prisons, hospitals, and retirement homes.

For example, the Light of the Gospel mission in the Ukrainian city of Rovno has new status as a “public organization,” and plans to build a new office, training center, and hotel on a plot of land the city has given the group. Next year, according to president Sergei Tupchik, Light of the Gospel will open the first independent evangelical educational institution in the Soviet Union. In the fertile Maikop region, run-down buildings rented from a state collective farm are being spruced up by Logos Bible Institute for a 100-student residential Bible college.

On the coast of the Black Sea, in Odessa, several hundred eager students are already attending Bible-college seminars several days a month, training to be preachers and Sunday-school teachers. Farther south, a recent evangelism crusade in Krasnodar Stadium saw a capacity crowd of 10,000 come forward to receive Christ. Seekers literally ran onto the field to receive copies of the Gospels. Prized copies of Christian magazines were in such short supply that individual pages were handed out, one to a person.

Missions teams have trekked across Siberia recently; house churches are multiplying in Leningrad and other major cities; and several teachers reported that they freely teach the Bible in the primary grades of state schools. Meanwhile, the JESUS film (complete with follow-up evangelism) has drawn capacity crowds in commercial theaters.

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All Peoples, Almost

The Moscow Congress on Evangelism, patterned after the original Lausanne World Congress in Switzerland in 1974, was called for by 68 Soviet delegates who attended a similar meeting in Manila last year. Goals at Moscow were to devise evangelism strategy for the Soviet church and foster unity among believers, according to Tom Houston, international director of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, and Kathy Giske of Issachar Frontier Missions Strategies. Those two groups, plus Leighton Ford Ministries, provided staff, funds, and technical help for the congress. The theme was “The Gospel for All Peoples.”

“It was a miracle of God that the congress came about at all,” said Giske. Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Adventist delegates attended from registered, unregistered, and autonomous groups. Russian Orthodox participation, however, was minimal, though that church represents all but a tiny minority of Soviet Christians.

Nevertheless, newly elected Patriarch Aleksi II sent his official blessing to the congress. Half the Soviet participants came from Russia, 30 percent from Ukraine, 5 percent from the Baltics, and the remaining 15 percent from the other republics. “For the first time,” noted Giske, “they are coming together cautiously, sheepishly, to work together.”

Still, lack of trust, and doctrinal as well as cultural differences, lingered and sometimes hampered progress toward the congress’s goals. Some groups believe churches that register with the government compromise the faith. Some churches insist that women must wear head coverings in every worship setting and sit separately from the men. And a “territorial spirit” exists in some cities, where leaders planting new churches are resented by pastors of long-established congregations.

“Soviet Christians have been good at the ‘holding out’ phase of the faith,” noted World Vision leader Sam Kamaleson, who spoke on the topic of the evangelist’s culture. “It’s difficult now for them to get into the ‘moving within’ phase.”

At the closing session, the delegates, who included 150 non-Soviets, agreed to a two-page Moscow Declaration that expressed thanks that the church had survived “through the dark red night of atheistic rule in the USSR.” Participants pledged “to stay true to Christ in freedom and prosperity as we endeavored to do in restriction and poverty.” They also committed “to stay together and show the wholeness of the body of Christ by our love and understanding and practical cooperation.…”

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Although there was no official count of women delegates, one observer estimated there were between 75 and 100. Official opportunities for women in Soviet churches remain limited. For example, the Baptist (Protestant) churches of the USSR do not ordain women. But several of the congress workshops (98 were offered in all) modeled greater church-leadership roles for Soviet women. And informally, several women told how organized women’s groups are doing charity work, Bible teaching, and some preaching and evangelizing.

American In Moscow

In spite of strict limits on Western involvement, several key Soviet leaders criticized the congress for being “too Western” in style, based on American structures and standards and top-heavy with English-speaking platform leaders. One Russian Orthodox churchman said that while it “showed us possibilities of witness,” the congress assumed church growth and evangelism from a congregational or Baptist perspective, rather than the hierarchical structure through which the Orthodox must work.

Still, the mere chance to fellowship, pray, and sing resoundingly such universally recognized hymns as “How Great Thou Art” was a tonic to the far-flung Soviet church workers. Many alternately cried with joy at the unprecedented prospects for evangelism and wept in passion for the millions in their countries lost without Christ.

The congress itself became a vehicle for evangelism. One night, the “Good Evening, Moscow” program, with a prime-time audience of 20 million, featured a 20-minute interview with Houston, Ford, and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ. Ford, asked by the interviewer, “How does one repent?” gave a clear gospel presentation.

Peter Samoilich, a Pentecostal pastor from Riga, Latvia, at the request of hotel management at the huge congress site, spoke to the assembled hotel workers between their work shifts. More than 100 responded to his invitation to receive Christ. And in a workshop on family relationships, the Russian interpreter revealed that she was reading the Bible for the first time.

“They are trying to convert me,” she said with a smile as several in the audience began explaining the gospel, noting that even Communist party leaders were coming to faith. “I’m not a Christian,” she exclaimed. “Is it too late?”

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