by Adam Coker
Being effective in ministry in cultures such as Russia, where Russian Orthodoxy and suspicion of Americans are commonplace, includes a return to the simplicity of Bible study and scripture reading.
The message of God’s offer of redemption to sinful humanity is universal. The claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ are true everywhere. Our task is essentially the same anywhere in the world: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Different cultural settings do, however, present unique practical challenges to this ministry of reconciliation. Following are some of the specific obstacles we face as missionaries in Russia, and practical lessons we have learned.
Russian Orthodox View of Protestant Christianity in General
Russia’s predominant religion is Orthodoxy. Over a thousand years ago the leader of the infant Russian government, Prince Vladimir, sought a state religion to unify the Slavic peoples. He chose Orthodox Christianity, and had the people baptized en masse in the Dneiper river in 988 A.D. Russia has been Orthodox ever since. The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches officially went their separate ways in the “Great Schism” of 1054 A.D. From the Orthodox point of view the Roman Catholic Church split off of the True Church in 1054. The Russian Church was part of the overall Orthodox hierarchy, but eventually took on its own sense of identity and even, dare we say, superiority. As the Byzantine Empire was declining, Russia was growing stronger. The church in Moscow was eventually in a more secure position than the mother church in Constantinople. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and as early as 1523 a Russian monk would be developing the idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome.” The white headdress still worn by the Patriarch in Moscow represents the pure faith that was first with St. Peter in Rome and then passed on to the Orthodox Church in Constantinople (the “Second Rome”). Finally, Constantinople proved to be unworthy, and the true faith was transferred to Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church became officially autocephalous in 1589, when Metropolitan Job became the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’. By this time, the “Third Rome” notion was almost a century old and the Russian Church enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the government that continues to this day.
So Russia came onto the scene of church history just before the Great Schism. By the time the Protestant Reformation began, the Eastern Church had already been separate from Rome for nearly five hundred years. While the Reformation was happening (over in that distant land), the Russian Orthodox Church was already in the process of being even further removed by asserting its primacy in the Orthodox world. I once visited a remote monastery outside of Volgograd with a group of students who were visiting from the States. Our Russian tour guide was obviously a devotee, so we asked her to share something about the Orthodox faith. “The head of the Roman Catholic Church,” she said “is the Pope. But the head of the Orthodox Church is Jesus Christ. Oh, and Protestantism,” she added matter-of-factly, “is really just a lot of different little sects. The only thing they have in common is the Bible.”
So, historically, our faith is one of many disagreeing sects which, taken together, represent a splinter from a splinter off of a Western Church that left the true faith almost one thousand years ago. Add to this the fear factor. Russian Orthodoxy teaches that there is no salvation outside of the Church (which means, by implication, the Russian Orthodox Church). To leave the Church is to betray your motherland and risk the damnation of your eternal soul.
Suspicion of Evangelical Christians (Especially Baptists)
Many people may not realize that Protestant Christians have been in Russia since before the Soviet Union. Under the Tsars, Russia was Orthodox; however, in the 1800s a small number of evangelical Christians appeared. The largest group of these, the Baptists, was still an infinitesimal minority. Even before the 1917 revolution that brought communists to power, Baptists were despised and even persecuted. This attitude carried over into Soviet times. The Communist government persecuted all Christian churches, Orthodox and Protestant alike. Still, small Protestant groups met underground. (Because Baptists were the largest of the small, any sects were thereafter referred to as “Baptists.” This misnomer continues to this day.) Evangelicals faced an official policy of government persecution, as well as the continuing negative grassroots opinion. Rumors about that strange cult called “the Baptists” have become part of national folklore. Urban legends of Baptist orgies and human sacrifices can still be heard from time to time. The government played on this fear and misinformation. Below is a picture from a Russian magazine in 1928.
The two signs read “Community of evangelical Christians” and “Baptist meeting taking place.” The caption (not shown) reads: “Protect children from the tenacious clutches of Baptists and the evangelical scoundrels!” The two children in the center of the ad (obviously members of the Young Pioneers, complete with neck scarves and drum) are portrayed in patriotic red. The scary old Baptist ladies with outstretched claws are drawn in a pale color around the edges. The depiction of Baptists is intentional. Churches in Russia are about eighty percent women, many elderly. In the more traditional congregations, married ladies cover their head with a scarf or shawl in obedience to Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11. If you were to peek in the window during a Baptist worship service after seeing this caricature, imagine the psychological effect it would have. Granted, this is a sample from eighty years ago. But rumors, legends, fears, and prejudices have a long shelf-life. To this day, if I tell a Russian that I attend a Baptist church, I can almost see the color drain from his or her face. There is genuine repulsion and even fear.
Suspicion of Foreigners, Especially Americans
I like to go to the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, a rich collection of Russian art. One of the paintings I find fascinating is not one of the more famous. I’ve looked for a copy of it, but can’t find it anywhere. I wasn’t able to photograph it, so I’ll try to describe it. The focal point of this oil painting is a close up of some Russian peasants in the 1400s or 1500s (before Tsar Peter I opened the “door to Europe”). They are in a little huddle talking among themselves with slit, suspicious eyes. Their cautious facial expressions indicate that they are discussing something of strange importance. The artist has captured one of them shooting a glance toward the hillside behind them. There, on top of the hill, you can just make out a party of European travelers passing by. Their clothes look like a Shakespearean play, while the Russian peasants are dressed like, well, Russian peasants. To the Western eye, this traveling court is typical for the period. But in this setting (particularly after viewing multiple rooms of Russian portraiture) they look somehow exotic. Those European travelers on top of the hill don’t seem to notice the questioning eyes and hushed tones of the locals below. “Look how different they are! Why are they here? What do they want?” The title of the painting is: “The Foreigners.” I love it! After several years of being the stranger on top of the hill, I could relate immediately. I was probably the only visitor in the museum who laughed out loud.
For centuries, Russians have been fighting off invaders from foreign lands. First, there were the Vikings, later the Poles and Pechenegs, later still the Mongol Tatars, Napoleon’s French troops, Hitler’s Nazi army, and finally the invasion of American culture following the collapse of the Soviet Union. When foreigners come, they come to take something. Americans don’t come without their own agenda. You come to offer a free program? What’s in it for you? If there isn’t an obvious benefit, there must be a hidden agenda. As the Russian saying goes, “The only thing that’s free is the cheese in a mousetrap.” What we see as presenting hope to the masses, they may see as trying to ensnare the simple. They’ve all heard horror stories about people who got involved with a cult and were tricked into signing over all their property or worse. The last thing they want is to be drawn into some foreign religion.
Imagine if I said something like this: “Hello, my name is Adam. I’m from America. I’d like to talk to you about what it means to follow Christ.” This seems like a very appropriate, non-threatening, open approach. If someone turns it down, it is clearly because they are not interested in following Jesus, right?
Let’s analyze another propaganda poster.
This is another very old propaganda piece (1920), but still very revealing. These older artifacts show graphically something that is entrenched in the cultural fabric and folklore of Russia. Printed shortly after the 1917 revolution that brought communists to power, it speaks volumes about core values. It is important to realize how old the urban legends about evangelicals really are. When a misconception is passed from generation to generation like this one is, it begins to take on a “legend-like” quality that is more ingrained than a new-fad stereotype. Once again, everything is intentional and effective. Notice that Christ is the only figure who isn’t drawn in caricature. A mysterious figure ahead in the distance, the Lord is carefully depicted so as not to provoke the righteous indignation of those who would cry “sacrilege!” He is given a halo and looks almost icon-like. But look at the black-and-white characters who are struggling beneath the weight of the cross. They are clearly burdened and their protruding ribs show obvious signs of deprivation and suffering. What is the source of their hardship? A thread is attached to each figure as if they are being harnessed or driven in this oppressive task. But who holds the reigns? In stark contrast to the emaciated laborers who slave beneath the burden, a well-fed puppet-master sits at ease on their backs. And who is this cruel taskmaster who uses the image of Christ to manipulate the naïve into being his oxen? This is perhaps the easiest question of all. Throughout the annals of Soviet propaganda and political caricature, an obese man in a top hat has always symbolized the “capitalist pig” from the West.
And the caption reads, “Christ endured the cross and commands you to follow.” Look at the picture again and consider my original phrase: “Hello, my name is Adam. I’m from America. I’d like to talk to you about what it means to follow Christ.” What sort of response might I expect from the nation that produced this poster? “Invite me to follow Christ, will you? You’d like to ride on my back, wouldn’t you! Well, I’m too smart for that. You’ll not have me at the end of your leash. What makes you think we need YOU to tell US about God? I’m not interested.” Was it Christ who they rejected? Or did they simply not trust the messenger?
We cannot afford to take words at face value when the person we’re talking to comes from a vastly different background. We are all, to some degree, the products of centuries of social influences and historical events that have shaped the way our culture sees the world and the words and concepts that we use to describe it. We simply can’t get away from it. Humanism, the Reformation, Evangelical Awakenings, Free-market capitalism, individual freedoms and rights, consumerism, individualism—good, bad, and ugly—these are all part of our basic American culture. I’m not saying that these things necessarily go together philosophically, but they have all been part of our experience. Humanism and the “inalienable rights” of the individual never made it to Russia during the Renaissance, nor did the doctrine of salvation by grace during the Reformation. While we had free-market capitalism, they had totalitarian communism. Things simply look different to us, and it takes time to “un-pack” the words that we take for granted.
What would we think about the notion of a small Bible study home group if we didn’t have in our “cultural suitcase” the cottage prayer meetings of John Wesley, Martin Luther’s claim that everyone should be allowed to read the scriptures, or fifty years of Sunday school church-growth traditions? We might think the same thing that they think: that’s the way a sect gathers.
What would we think about making a personal appeal to another individual regarding his or her religious faith were it not for the Great Awakenings, pioneer evangelists, summer revival meetings, and Billy Graham? What would we think about persuasive philosophical discussions in general were it not for presidential debates and the elevation of “critical thinking” in our education system (versus the Asian tendency toward rote memorization)? We might find personal spiritual questions invasive. (One’s faith is a private matter and the things of God are mysterious. Conversational discussion of the divine is somehow presumptuous, particularly if you claim to “know” something.)
When I think that I am inviting someone to consider the claims of the gospel, he or she may receive it as pressure to join my American religion and turn his or her back on his or her own culture. An evangelical meeting that reminds us of a church service might look to that person like a Communist Party meeting. One man in a suit stands up front and talks persuasively and passionately about core ideals to an auditorium of respectful listeners. Occasionally, they all sing together. This is exactly what a communist meeting looked like. From his or her perspective, church is supposed to be a holy place with a holy man who does holy things. I go there and I feel God. I don’t go there to understand something. I go there to feel something. I don’t go there to be with people. I go there to get away from people. I don’t go there because of my relationship with God. I go there because that’s where God might visit. I go to have my sins forgiven. I go there to pray. But mostly, I don’t go at all.
The Bible Is Key
In spite of all this, there is hope. Russian Orthodox believers have some mixed-up ideas of salvation and the church, and they do have nationalistic tendencies and negative opinions about Protestants. But they still believe that the Bible is a holy book. They may not read it, but you don’t have to prove to them that it is authoritative. Sadly, they may not elevate it above icons or church tradition, but it is revered. It was, after all, the Russian Orthodox Church that had the Bible translated into Russian. Tracts and extra-biblical literature they may reject, but not the Bible. If they can ever be in a situation where the Bible speaks for itself, the results are powerful.
Getting there? Not so easy. We’ve tried different approaches: advertisements posted on apartment buildings, flyers distributed through the mail, announcements at public events. The results have been about the same: a tiny percentage of curious folks will come for a while and then quickly fade out. We’ve had better results with people we already know. This is why we do community development programs. These projects, not necessarily religious in nature, allow us to meet people. As we get to know them and listen to their stories, we pray for the Lord to create opportunities to extend the hope of the gospel. At some point, we hope to go from the neutral program or event to an ongoing relationship apart from the community program, regularly reading the Bible together. Getting there is a challenge, but it is worth it when we do. It has been a joy to see at least a few people transformed by the Holy Spirit as God’s power is unleashed into their lives one verse at a time.
More Universal Implications
Jehovah’s Witnesses are infamous around the world for their peddling of booklets. When you offer someone in Russia a gospel tract, their knee-jerk reaction may be to associate you with them. Likewise, Mormons are noticeable from a distance as offering a distinctly “American religion.” Historically, Christian traditions throughout Europe cause people to associate their religion with a sense of national identity. To be Polish is to be Catholic, to be Greek is to be Orthodox, and so forth. By simplifying our approach and returning to the basic text of scripture, we can cut through some cultural barriers before they ever become an issue. Many people who object to “Western Christianity” already have the Bible in their own language. Appealing to the Bible, without pre-printed Bible helps, is like injecting God’s power into a centuries-old “tap-root” of their cultural identity. The alternative may be a vain attempt to climb the trunk of the tree, unintentionally digging-in our Western claws. The practical solution is simple, but profound: do Bible study without any other pre-printed materials, and separate the “American events” (non-religious in nature) from the spiritual journey of studying God’s word in their own mother tongue. The pure gospel itself is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.
Adam Coker is a missionary with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, currently serving in Volgograd, Russia, with his wife and children.
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