Protestant churches in Russia, many of them less than 10 years old, are confronting a different set of problems than the ones they faced after the Soviet Union's demise in 1991.
Alexei Bychkov, who served as general secretary of the Evangelical Baptist Union for 19 years during the Soviet period, explains how Russia's evangelicals see themselves differently today.
"Atheism helped us unite because all believers were persecuted. Freedom brought divisions because we could resume our own traditions," he says.
Bychkov is now president of the Moscow Evangelical Seminary and the Russian Bible Society. "Divisions do exist, but the younger generation is tired of divisions," Bychkov says. Through the 1990s, Protestants (mostly Baptist, Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventists, and Presbyterians) grew rapidly and now represent about 1.1 million of Russia's 145 million people.
As Russia's Protestant churches mature, they are developing different priorities.
In the early 1990s, American Christians significantly influenced the emergent Russian Protestant churches. Both Russians and Westerners focused on planting new congregations, crusade evangelism, and establishing better theological education.
But today both Russian Protestants and missionaries from overseas are asking themselves: Are Russia's newest churches mature enough to stand on their own feet without outside help?
Igor Nikitin, a St. Petersburg pastor, describes the evangelical church as being in adolescence: adult in appearance but lacking in experience. Nikitin is president of the St. Petersburg-based Association of Christian Churches of Russia (ACCR), which represents Protestant evangelical churches.
New Russian congregations and their leaders sometimes go astray ethically. For example, leaders of Word of Christ Church (Moscow) became concerned about the widespread use of unlicensed computer software in Russia, even within the church.
Convicted of this sin in their own midst, individual ministers and the church as a whole stopped all ministry activity that was using unlicensed software.
Church members started praying for the funds to purchase the needed software. Over time they have found the necessary resources.
The personal morality of leaders is another concern. As in Western countries, explicit images appear regularly in Russian advertising and television programs.
Nikolay Karchazhkin, one of the new generation of Russian Protestant pastors, struggled against temptation, but overcame it by understanding he had "victory in Christ."
Karchazhkin believes the church in Russia needs to hear the message of "victorious living in Christ."
"We need to repent of sin," he said. "The church won't be blessed by God if the work is done in an ungodly way."
Bychkov, Karchazhkin, and other experienced Christian leaders say there is too much emphasis on launching new churches and not enough on developing the leadership skills of laity and clergy.
Karchazhkin, pastor of the Church of the Word of Christ in Moscow, disagrees with "rapid church-planting" and assumptions of "the more the better and the faster the better" that he sees practiced by both Russian and Western leaders.
Karchazhkin believes that many of these church-planting efforts either die out or straggle along, barely surviving. Pastors cannot acknowledge failure.
As the world's largest country geographically, Russia still has dozens of ethnic groups that have yet to see their first Protestant missionary.
The Russian church still needs time before it starts to send its own foreign missionaries. "We have a desire [to send missionaries], and we are training," says Andrei Bolshakov, executive secretary for the ACCR. "But so far, missionaries are sent only in our own country." Yuri Apatov, executive secretary of the Evangelical Baptist Union's Eurasian Federation, says the missionary movement in Russia relocates church leaders within the country and from former Soviet countries into Siberia and the Far East. Some have relocated up to 750 miles to start new churches.
ACCR's Nikitin observes that an untapped opportunity for Russian evangelicals lies in pairing social ministry and gospel outreach. "We can really change the country through social work," Nikitin says, citing ACCR's work in overcrowded prisons as an example.
Russia's largest prison, known as the "Crosses," was built for 1,000 but now houses 15,500 inmates. Prisoners sleep in shifts. Some have asphyxiated in their cells because of extremely poor air quality.
ACCR and Sergei Morozov, head of the prison ministry and pastor of the Galilee Church in the city of Kommunar, have teamed up to provide 1,000 speakerphones in the Crosses, allowing daily communication with inmates.
Kommunar's mayor, S.S. Chernikov, was so impressed with these efforts that he offered an agreement with one Kommunar church for its input into all community activities. "We feel like the social work of the church," Nikitin says, "is bringing a new wave of understanding to the Russian people that the church is the answer."
Visit the Moscow Christian Evangelical Seminary homepage.
Read more about the Bible Society in Russia.
Read a speech by Igor Nikitin, President of the Association of Christian Churches in Russia, given before a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. last February.
Learn more about the U.S. Senate's hearings on "The Status of Religious Liberty in Russia Today."
Previous Christianity Today stories on Russia include:
Will Putin Protect Religious Liberty? | Freedoms may be in danger in the new Russia. (July 26, 2000)
China Should Improve on Religion to Gain Permanent Trade Status, Commission Says | Religious liberty in Sudan and Russia also criticized. (May 8, 2000)
A Precarious Step Forward | Loosened rules in Russia may mean better times for religious freedom. (Feb. 3, 2000)
A Russians Prepare to Elect New President, Putin Shows Interest in Religion | Russian Orthodox Church sees news church-state relationship. (Jan. 11, 2000)
Russia's Minority Churches Welcome Liberal Ruling on Religion Law | 1997 ruling against 'sects' upheld, but religious groups claim victory. (Dec. 30, 1999)
Moscow Meeting Eases Russia's Interchurch Tensions | First major interchurch meeting since 1997 religion law called 'highly important'. (Dec. 6, 1999)
Baroness Caroline Cox: Rescuing Russia's Orphans (Aug. 8, 1999)
Learning to Speak Russian | When the Communists fell, we discovered that we did not speak the same language as secular Russians. (Nov. 16, 1998)
A Fuller for Russia | A new home is dedicated for the nation's only graduate-level Protestant seminary. (Aug. 10, 1998)
Russia Steps Back from Freedom | New law restricting religion is part of Russia's struggle to redefine itself. (Nov. 17, 1997)
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