Moscow: Missions in Context of Urban Need
by Buck Burch
Many evangelicals are beginning to engage a
cultural strategy (A-E-I-O-U) that touches five
cultural issues in Moscow.
Photo courtesy Buck Burch
Holistic contextualization should strive to model the principles behind the message, namely that the gospel transforms lives. A case in point is the mission activity of the Russian evangelical Church. At work in Moscow since the mid-nineteenth century, modern Russian Baptists have come to lay an urban missiological foundation that contextualizes the gospel message for the Russian city dweller.
This foundation is an urban reformation to reflect Christ’s expected coming kingdom as it will be one day in the new Holy City. Taking a holistic approach in a dynamic urban sphere, innovative missionaries, along with their Russian national counterparts, are forming evangelism strategies informed by a theology of the kingdom. This urban mission approach could be a model for similar contexts as well.
The kingdom approach is primarily based on the model of the eschatological New Jerusalem, where a redeemed citizenship exercises justice, holiness, and ministry as an expression of worship to God as Creator and Redeemer. To pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” (Matt 6:10) necessitates a locale for Russian cities, hence in Moscow as it is in heaven. While not physically possible from a human standpoint to know every sociological dynamic of each subgroup, Russian evangelicals are hopeful for a greater proximity to holistic contextualization or life transformation within the larger cultural context.
Kingdom-centered missiology mandates this intentionally holistic strategy to reaching the urban mind. This intentionality finds expression in multiple venues: meeting physical needs, presenting a contextualized gospel message, and modeling the symbol of a kingdom city. What makes the gospel message meaningful and attractive to one culture may not hold the same drawing power for another. Therefore, these proactive initiatives must be managed correctly through a plan for diverse mental models, something evangelical churches are only beginning to develop.
An Historic Urban Strategy
The modern highway for urban missiology in Russia was paved over a road of changing mentality within the Russian psyche. Historically, Moscow has always had an urban strategy of sorts. Russian Baptist work began in the mid-nineteenth century as two independent movements of evangelicalism spread in the north and south of European Russia.
German Mennonites went to southern Russia to advance the gospel among Russian peasant towns, while wealthy Lord Radstock began to reach the upper class, who consequently reached the common people of the northern Russian capital. Nonetheless, Kenneth Scott Latourette notes that “in Russia, where the state gave determined support to Orthodox missions, only a relatively few thousands of converts were made” (1941, 143).
Perhaps the greatest era of evangelical expansion was realized immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. While Czarist Russian Orthodoxy sought to convert the masses and with evangelicalism forced to be marginalized to rural areas, materialistic Communism sought to urbanize the masses. Joel Kotkin notes, “The Communists embraced Czar Peter’s dream of creating a highly urbanized Russia” (2005, 105). However, this dream of an urbanized Communism failed utterly:
As the Communist regime slouched toward its inglorious denouement in the late 1980s, conditions worsened. The vast complex of high-rise apartments around Moscow and other major cities became increasingly dilapidated. Two-thirds of heavily urbanized European Russia’s water supply no longer met minimal standards; air pollution levels in most large Soviet cities were many times worse than those in any city in the West. Born to remedy the failures of the industrial city, Communist urbanism failed in virtually every respect to meet its promise, and nowhere more than in the moral sphere. (Kotkin 2005, 108)
With a potential to impact this moral sphere, the evangelical Church once again turned its help to urban centers, even though the Church was persecuted and driven underground. Consequently, the prolonged years of persecution fed an ideology of separation from the world.
As with several Western evangelical partners, initial Southern Baptist work with the Russian evangelical Church began almost immediately after the walls of communism collapsed in 1991. In those early years of perestroika, or rebuilding, many new churches were started throughout European Russia, but few were urban church plants. Much of the work revolved around financing construction projects in rural locations. What remained at the end of the twentieth century was an urbanized infrastructure poised for evangelical re-engagement. Annual missiological reports showed a significant growth of evangelicalism and, in turn, a shift toward greater kingdom expansion.
After the International Mission Board (IMB) made an internal paradigm shift in 2000, there were some disagreements between Southern Baptist missionaries and national Baptist partners regarding urban directions. More recently, IMB missionaries have begun to interact with local urban churches through joint initiatives for organizational change and ongoing theological dialogue.
Despite some Russian Protestant churches’ focus on survival, more have become intentional about becoming missional. There has been a strong resurgence of local ecclesiology which informs discipleship and missions. With a total Moscow evangelical presence at .19% (IMB 2011, 1), the average Moscow Baptist is still wary of foreign influence in Russian church planting, but this is changing as westerners and Russians collaborate for joint urban work.
Theological Basis for Missiological Contextualization
Paul Hiebert speaks of self-theologizing as a tenet for healthy contextualization (1994, 96-97). Each Baptist church in Moscow is now being encouraged to reflect a systematic theology within the framework of intercultural dialogue. More traditional critics of cultural transformation may argue that cultural engagement is not only futile, but anti-Christian. Moscow churches sometimes consider it sinful to handcuff scriptural interpretation to cultural pre-understanding. Perhaps this is what continues to feed an ideology of societal separation.
For thirteen years, I enjoyed long conversations with Russian Baptist friends about the differences between American and Russian culture. Sometimes, we would turn to the sticky subject of subcultures within Russia. My friends often saw themselves as those called out of the larger culture to be separated and purged from any sinful stain within Russian society. They pointed to their grandfathers, who died in Siberian prisons, for their religious stand against cultural norms. They derided cultural discourse as friendship with the world and enmity against God, and anything less was considered liberal or sinful. Thus, a refocused missiology with an urban contextualized strategy has become a controversial, yet very real conversation for Russian evangelical practitioners and their mission partners.
Bruce Nicholls believes that “a dynamic theology of gospel and culture is the necessary foundation for the fulfillment of the Great Commission,” positing that any tension between the cultural dynamics of various people groups and the supracultural universal truth of God’s word can be relieved by a contextualized cross-cultural presentation (1979, 69).
The very nature of Moscow’s urban mission work among contemporary evangelicals therefore is a consortium of contextualizers attempting to be faithful to the essence of a comprehensive gospel message. Good missiological praxis in Moscow requires a contextualized gospel message that meets real urban needs and reveals the transformational character of the coming Kingdom of Christ. So as to reflect the glory of the City that will be, mission teams are seeking to emulate elements of missiological activity that exemplify those attributes in our present temporal cities.
As the last twenty years in Moscow have brought a radical shift in government, business, science, art, sports, and education, Russians have struggled to move their ideologies from a Soviet mindset to a more globalized mentality. The evangelical Church has also reacted to these changes, although it has sometimes leaned toward platonic dualism.
In its attempt to deal with syncretism and liberalism, some have chosen to avoid or reject the culture altogether. However, there are many evangelicals who are beginning to engage a cultural strategy based on a kingdom model. This approach is being actualized on methodological levels that touch five cultural issues in Moscow (A-E-I-O-U): alcoholism, ethnicity, Islam, Orthodoxy, and urbanism.
Missiology that looks to the coming kingdom sees alcoholism, arguably the largest urban problem of Moscow, as a societal blight the gospel can truly heal. Russian evangelicals have always been opposed to drinking and its negative effects on the family. Over the last decade, they have chosen to offer a very tangible remedy by founding rehabilitation centers focused on the transformational power of God’s word, thereby filling a void where most Russian government clinics have failed (UPI 2011).
One Moscow-based missionary states that “a lot of people are getting saved out of drug addiction and alcoholism and are being assimilated into the local church, creating an influx of ex-addicts into membership rolls and a potential leadership pool for future Russian Baptist Union churches” (IMB 2011, 10). According to church-planting reports in some locations, there are as many baptisms in rehab centers in Russia as within traditional Baptist churches. Moreover, the concept of being changed from a drunken society into a Christ-like kingdom fits within the contextualized message of the transformational power of the gospel in all areas of life.
#2: Ethnic Diversity
From a statistical standpoint, the more populated Moscow is, the more likely there will be gradated cultural strata. From a missiological perspective, this is good news in that there is a larger base of lost people and more opportunity to minister cross-culturally. However, there are also tensions associated with different cultures dwelling so closely together.
Moscow-based missiologists have been quick to point to ethnic divisions and racism as major issues for Moscow evangelicalism. December 2010 marked the largest racial clash in Moscow history. The “Black Widow” suicide bombing that claimed thirty-eight lives in March 2010 in the Moscow subway was linked to a female terrorist from the Caucasus region. These, along with other domestic attacks, have only added fuel to the ethnic tension and political lobbying for greater nationalism—a “Moscow for Muscovites” mentality (Ioffe 2010).
Urbanization is creating a shift in methodology informed by an urban ecclesiology. Russian Baptists have recently begun formal research into the demographic makeup of Moscow and are asking what the ecclesiological response should be.
As I walked down a side path to the Moscow IMB office recently, I met a young man. His skin tone betrayed his foreignness. Although I did not know him, he was smiling (something unusual between strangers in Moscow). A single missionary from Kyrgyzstan, he explained that he had answered God’s call to come to Moscow to reach the working migrant populations. He beamed when he told me that he knew this was God’s hand, because he could evangelize freely in Moscow where the migrant populations were more responsive.
Within just a few months, this young man had already started one Kyrgyzi church with new converts, and they were preparing to send them back home as missionaries. He was glad the Russian evangelical Church was open to his ministry. Furthermore, his ministry was representative of a more holistic evangelical approach to the changing face of Moscow. The evangelical Church in Moscow is meeting this urban need through a church-planting strategy that includes all people groups.
Perhaps some choose to avoid evangelistic contact with Muslims because these groups might pose “the most dangerous threat to the future of modern cities” (Kotkin 2005, 156). Islamic terrorism has led to an increase in Islamaphobia and typical avoidance of all darker skin tones. Even mission strategy reports point to signs that there are emerging confrontations between Orthodox nationalists and Muslims in Moscow.
Fortunately, most Russian evangelical leaders recognize growing religious differences as a missiological opportunity and are discussing ways to engage it within the urban situation. Recently, an entire Russian Baptist Union department became devoted to reaching all of the varying cultures and religions throughout Russia. One department leader is now responsible for the evangelization strategy of engaging Muslims in Moscow. Moscow has historically been the dominant city of European Russia; therefore, from an historical perspective, the more Moscow reflects the Kingdom of God, the more kingdom influence should be evident throughout all of European Russia.
Russians accepted Christianity as a national religion in the tenth century, but there are evidences of Christian missionary influence in that territory as early as the first century. Orthodox Christianity is deeply ingrained in the Russian culture. Statistically, one out of three European Russians is likely to adhere to Russian Orthodoxy. A growing number will likely confess devotion to other religions.
Because the gospel in Russia was first introduced as an official governmental adoption of the Eastern Orthodox Church—and because adherence to that adopted religion was enforced—it could be argued that there has been very little room given for contextualization of the gospel to Russian culture. To be Russian is to be Russian Orthodox as it is defined by the Church and state. As such, the evangelical Church and its message have remained somewhat marginalized within a separate subculture.
Because Orthodox spirituality is now so closely tied to the urban spirit of Moscow, it is amazing that so little has been written about it in Western publications. Joel Kotkin calls this urban Orthodox influence a “sacred role” and laments that it “has been too often ignored in contemporary discussions of the urban condition” (2005, 158). This also is beginning to shift.
The evangelical Church understands its urban role as conversation partner with Russian Orthodox leaders. In Moscow, I have attended seminars designed to foster dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Evangelical Church. Some evangelical congregations have even invited Russian Orthodox priests into their Bible studies to interact on theological subjects and to gain a greater understanding of Orthodox praxis—anything to overcome the propaganda circulated about evangelicalism over the years.
IMB missiologists have noted that in Russia “anything other than Orthodoxy will continue to be regarded as ‘unchristian’ and be met with persecution” (IMB 2011, 10). Theological dialogue with Russian Orthodoxy will continue to evolve as new urban missiological strategies emerge.
Whereas urbanization speaks to the demographics and architecture of a city, urbanism speaks to the mindset behind city life and the lifestyle changes made to accommodate city living. With a population of up to fifteen million, Moscow only has roughly thirty Russian Baptist Union churches and fifty other evangelical Christian groups. About one-third of the groups have low attendance and are relatively weak in resources. Some are sharing the same meeting spaces. Historically, there has been little to no participation on the part of the Church in society, because the majority of evangelical churches have only embraced an urbanism based on architectural or economic structures.
Missional churches in Moscow that frame their outreach within a mindset of kingdom urbanism look outside the traditional routes for starting new churches. This is part of the reason why an evangelical alliance has recently been formed between the Russian Baptist Union and several other likeminded unions to pray for 144 new pastors and 144 new churches to be started in Moscow in nontraditional ways.
The Russian Baptist Union is intentionally giving attention to key segments of the populace which are most receptive to the gospel. A recent Russian evangelical consortium in Moscow observed the social and ethnic makeup of Moscow’s demographics as a valid basis for formulating a segmented missiological approach. And yet these observations still must speak to an urban theology of the kingdom expressed in transformational terms.
The ultimate way that the transformational power of the kingdom is expressed in Moscow is yet to be seen. Some reports note that “healthy disagreement exists among well-seasoned personnel regarding this issue” (IMB 2011, 5). Some still base their strategies and church-planting goals on design, location, or expedience. There are others who sense a move of God to change urban church planting altogether by transforming homes and apartments into local churches with ministries that reach neighbors and serve communities, thereby facilitating authentic contextualization.
Only the Beginning
Urban centers like Moscow have experienced population explosions and demographic shifts. These shifts have brought many new cultures to the missiological roundtable. A robust theology of urban missions is no longer an elective.
Modern Russian evangelicals have come to lay an urban missiological foundation that contextualizes the gospel message for a greater Moscow. Humanitarian aid and traditional verbal witness play integral parts to this mission. However, missiologists and practitioners in Moscow are only beginning to discover the transformational aspects of an urban system that reflects Christ’s expected coming kingdom. The world’s greatest opportunity with unparalleled potential for missiological urban advance may lie somewhere in these master plans.
Whereas there may be many more sociological areas that could be addressed, the Moscow evangelical team has chosen to meet temporal human needs in the city as the medium for a contextualized gospel message. Alcoholism will likely maintain its status as the largest urban problem and its potential as the largest urban opportunity in Moscow.
In like manner, to directly address the growing diversity in ethnicity will require new directions for the urban evangelical Church. As the Muslim population continues to grow, so grows the pool for potential evangelical converts. Orthodoxy should become a greater conversation partner in this urban endeavor. Beyond a doubt, the very nature of urbanism will lead mission practitioners to continue to look to meeting human needs as a vehicle for sharing the gospel in the city.
Hiebert, Paul. 1994. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
IMB. 2011. “Gap Analysis: Moscow 2011- Euro Affinity Reports.” Internal report by International Mission Board, January 8, in Moscow, Russia.
Ioffe, Julia. 2010. “Race Riots in Russia.” The New Yorker, December 16. Accessed June 1, 2011, from www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/12/russia-race-riots.html.
Kotkin, Joel. 2005. The City: A Global History. New York: Modern Library.
Latourette, Kenneth. 1941. The Great Century in Europe and the United States: A.D. 1800 –A.D. 1914. New York: Harper.
Nicholls, Bruce. 1979. Contextualization: A Theology of Gospel and Culture. Vancouver: Regent College.
UPI. 2011. “Russian Drug Rehab Centers Criticized.” UPI, March 4. Accessed June 28, 2011,from www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2011/03/04/Russian-drug-rehab-centers-criticized/UPI-471112 99269830.
Buck Burch is a Georgia Baptist Convention missionary for Southern Baptist Cooperative Program development. He led church-planting teams in Moscow and St. Petersburg (1998-2011) and helped to form an ongoing partnership between the Georgia Baptist Convention and the IMB in Russia.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 212-219. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.