Catherine Wanner, associate professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, first went to Ukraine in 1990 to research the nation-building process, and ended up seeing that Ukrainians' attention was turning not so much to politics as to spirituality. "There is no denying the simultaneity of the resurgence of religion and the demise of socialism," she writes in her newest book on Ukraine, Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelism. Since the early 1990s, Ukraine has become not just the "Bible Belt" of the region, but a hub of evangelical church life (such as Sunday Adelaja's Pentecostal megachurch), education, and missions.
How did evangelicalism become such a big deal in Ukraine?
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and a discrediting of an atheist policy and a realization that the secularization of Soviet society was perhaps a mistake, there was renewed interest in a variety of religious traditions.
Evangelicalism in particular garnered a lot of interest after the collapse of Communism, first because it was so anti-Soviet — in the former Soviet Union as well as elsewhere, such as in the United States — and secondly, because huge numbers of American and other Western missionaries came to the former Soviet Union. That assisted in the development of not just awareness of evangelicalism, but even of evangelical infrastructure like seminaries and printing of all kinds of religious literature.
The third reason I would say was the charitable outreach of both evangelical missionaries as well as of evangelical communities, and that charitable outreach was very much appreciated and urgently needed, given that after the collapse of Communism, the social service sector pretty much suffered a similar level of collapse.
Fourth, evangelical prescriptions on morality — what is right and what is wrong — arrived at a moment when the population was quite prepared to hear them.
There are more evangelicals now than there were then. Who are today's Ukrainian evangelicals?
The people who are filling evangelical churches these days are overwhelmingly new converts, and that's because after the collapse of Communism, it was possible to immigrate to the United States as a refugee, if one could prove a history of past persecution, which a great many evangelicals could. Which created something of a quandary back in the former Soviet Union. At precisely the moment when there was all this interest in religion and in particular in evangelicalism, experienced clergy and longstanding believers by and large immigrated.
What would American evangelicals find familiar in a Ukrainian church and what would be different?
Current churches in Ukraine still tend to be more conservative and traditional. Pentecostal churches tend to be much more traditional and practice a form of moral asceticism that's very strict.
So would women wear headscarves, for example?
And what about the music?
The level of musical talent and the really enormous numbers of members who participate in the musical life of the church is really, really impressive. A great many of these churches have a whole variety of choirs and a whole variety of musical programs, sometimes even orchestras and the like.
And what about individual members' level of involvement?
During the Soviet period it was routine for communities to insist that their members attend four services a week. And their services usually last at least two hours. They found under capitalism in a post-Soviet society that it's very difficult to make those kinds of demands on their members' time. Still, that number of services is generally offered, but the rigid expectation that one will attend all four services has been somewhat relaxed — reluctantly.
Did Communism influence the way churches deal with members?
During the Soviet period there was a very defined sense of who is a member and what are the responsibilities of members and that members must fulfill those responsibilities. During the Soviet period, they were very quick to exclude (or excommunicate) members who did not fulfill those responsibilities. There still is a very high level of expectation of participation.
Why is Ukraine an evangelical center?
The laws and the bureaucracy in Ukraine have created circumstances that are far more conducive to missionizing, and they're far more welcoming of the arrival of missionaries and religious leaders from elsewhere, as well as the arrival of humanitarian aid and allowing local religious organizations to distribute that aid. So, the legal and bureaucratic environment that's been created in Ukraine is far more welcoming to foreign religious organizations but also to the functioning of local religious organizations.
Is there still a feeling that evangelicals are very much on the fringe, that they are cultish?
Yes. I would say overall there's a fairly negative still impression of evangelical faith.
However this is really beginning to change. For example, the current mayor of Kiev is an openly practicing Pentecostal believer. And there are several members of parliament who are of a Baptist tradition, and for a while there the head of the KGB was an openly practicing Baptist. So it's important to note that it is beginning to change as people who are very open and upfront about their religious faith are actually choosing to acknowledge that they practice an evangelical faith.
That's even occurring among standard politicians, where it's become more accepted and maybe even expected that politicians will state their position on religion.
In what ways is the movement in Ukraine transnational?
It's uniquely transnational in this respect: Given that Ukraine was part of this three hundred million—strong country known as the Soviet Union, Ukrainians have a certain cultural and even linguistic commonality with other members of the former Soviet Union. In other words, they make better missionaries than people coming from the United States, because they know the language and they know the culture and the mentality of the people whom they're proselytizing. And as a result, they tend to have more success.
So in that sense, that's why Ukraine, as I argue in the book, has not only been a key site to which missionaries have come, but Ukraine has also become a key supplier of missionaries. And many of those missionaries go to Russia and to other parts of the former Soviet Union.
What influence will this have on the region?
Ukraine has sort of become a center of evangelical training, if you will. As other countries within the former Soviet Union, such as Russia or Kazakhstan, make it difficult certainly for formal religious organizations to establish things like seminaries and [religious] printing presses, Ukraine makes it comparatively easy.
So it has a very significant effect on the region. When Ukraine at once allows for people who are interested in becoming evangelical leaders to come to Ukraine, gain training and then perhaps go back. So it makes the efforts of the Russian government, which are ever more significant, as well as Belarus — we're not even speaking about that country — to thwart any kind of evangelical growth. They have to be that much more rigorous, and yet they're still likely to deliver less and less of a result.
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