by Mark Harris
How can we improve evangelistic effort among Russian young people? I believe some of the best answers to this question come from young Russians themselves. In fact, my beliefs were confirmed in a research project I performed in the first few months of 2000 in and around Moscow.
How can we improve evangelistic effort among Russian young people? I believe some of the best answers to this question come from young Russians themselves. In fact, my beliefs were confirmed in a research project I performed in the first few months of 2000 in and around Moscow. I found it refreshing to listen to the young Russian Christians. They didn’t have a tradition of what evangelism "should be like," and were ready to boldly criticize approaches that might be considered "tried and true" by Western evangelists. I feel that the suggestions selected for this article show these young people to be serious and thoughtful students of both Scripture and culture. We should take them seriously. They have much to teach us, and can help us see ourselves in a new light.
SUGGESTIONS ON CONTENT AND DELIVERY OF THE MESSAGE
1. Teach deeply.Westerners have a burden to make the gospel understandable and clear. But in the opinion of many young Russians, this effort often results in taking truths that include mysteries and complexities and making then sound like they are simple and obvious. By reducing great truths to simplistic formulas, many appear to have a lack of reverence for the gospel. They communicate that they don’t have much appreciation for mysteries and deep truths. The Russian sense of awe and mystery can be traced to the Orthodox influence in Russian thinking. "Orthodoxy was attractive to me in its emphasis on the mystery of God. When you understand God in these mysterious terms, it sounds much more deep and wise. That is a more appealing picture of God to the Russian mind than the Western clear, loving, ‘4-law’ God. With Protestantism, you are asking yourself, ‘Am I getting a simplified version of the truth?’ Maybe the Western teaching is clearer to understand, but maybe it is a simplified version. Maybe God is more like this other idea, and is more consistent with this mysterious attitude and insight and whatever. So when I read some American evangelical writings, I thought they were pretty shallow, and not really deep enough." (28M92A)
2. Free your message of foreign elements. The gospel should be taught in its purity, unadulterated by debated dogmas, emphases, and formulations that were born in a foreign context. One adulteration is the enthronement of the "sinner’s prayer" as a means of conversion (something not found in the New Testament). Perhaps born of a desire to lead people away from cultural Christianity to definite conversion points, it has often degenerated into an empty ritual, especially when exported to a completely different context such as that of Russia. Young Russian leaders are beginning to understand that this approach leads to empty responses among Russians. "I think people shouldn’t use the bridge-type diagram and sinner’s prayer in evangelism. They just draw the diagram and say, ‘Let’s pray a sinner’s prayer.’ Russians will repeat after you when nothing is happening on the inside." (19M95O)
Another form of subtle adulteration of the gospel is to use terms that create inscrutable images in the minds of listeners. Often this happens with evangelical phrases not found in Scripture. "Sometimes Americans say things that Russian people don’t understand. Russians don’t understand things like ‘accept Jesus into your heart.’ We don’t have phrases like that. They sound real strange to us, and cause people to reject the message." (19M97O)
These ideas may have connection to biblical truths, but are formulations, not clear biblical commands such as "believe" and "repent." It is better to keep your communication free from terms that are going to cause stumbling for reasons other than rejection of the gospel itself.
3. Do away with scripts.Russian young people spoke against the use of the "canned" approaches to communicating the gospel which are commonly used by people from the West. These approaches don’t feel natural to them, since they are too rigid and artificial. Westerners may like the fact that it is easy to train people to use them, and that they are "efficient" to use, but these methods have a low level of effectiveness due to the mechanical interaction involved. These approaches are especially offensive in Russia because they violate cultural values, in which flexibility and simplicity are appreciated over order and discipline. Americans tend to operate with a business-like efficiency, looking for orderly results. This doesn’t feel like life to Russians.
One young woman characterized such approaches: "It can be like, ‘Okay, boom, boom, boom, let me check this off. Let’s see, you realize this, you realize that,___’" (23F92A)
A lack of wisdom and love forces people through a scripted and inflexible presentation that treats people like objects of a consumer survey. "Sometimes Americans come who just know the Four Spiritual Laws brochure. And if in the middle of the presentation Russians start asking questions, they will say, ‘Just wait a while, and listen to all of this.’ Then they don’t ever answer the questions. They don’t want to divert from their brochure. But this brochure doesn’t always answer personal questions of the listener, which will help them understand. Stopping and answering questions shows love. But sometimes Americans act like, ‘Come on, your questions are not important.’ They don’t say this, but this is what the Russian person feels." (19M97O)
4. Communicate truth progressively and in good measure. Westerners seem to feel an irresistible force pulling them toward the "bottom line." They want to get to the point in their gospel presentations, and don’t have much patience for laying foundations. The common pattern is to utilize minimal biblical introduction and maximize the focus on the bare truths and call of the gospel. Yet the gospel message is built on much biblical revelation. It exposes deep features of human nature that are not quickly and easily explained. These take time to "sink in" even in a culture such as the U.S.A., which has been so deeply influenced by Protestant teaching. Russia has relatively little of such influence (Orthodox teaching on the subject of conversion is quite different.) Young Russians need to be prepared to receive gospel truths. "I was at ground zero regarding knowing what faith is, or understanding any kind of doctrines. Gospel approaches have to start with A and go to Z with Russian people, because of our history." (23F92A)
SUGGESTIONS ON THE CHARACTER OF THE MESSENGER
1. Be Godly in character and attitude. Young Russians who have lived through the 1990s have heard many different kinds of messages regarding religion and faith. One more person making claims about God is not impressive to them. Many have had more than their fill of people trying to, as my Russian friend says, "stuff them with something." In this context, a witness who would stand out from the crowd must be a living expression of the message of transformation: a model of the truth. Words of depth should be matched by depth of character and attitude; words of purity and light should issue forth from a life that radiates pure light.
"Your attitude is very important. Russians are very sensitive to how they hear something. Just what you say on the outside is not going to work. What you feel on the inside they will see and they will sense. So you have to live it. If it is in your heart, they will get it." (21F93O)
The understanding of godliness in Russia is heavily influenced by Orthodoxy. There is, among Russians, an innate appreciation for spiritual depth that even young people may have, whether or not they have any personal desire for this themselves. Unfortunately, in contrast many Americans come across as shallow, and are not respected. "I don’t want to judge, but I say this based on the impressions. Some Americans truly give an impression of a depth of godly life and communicate the gospel deeply, but others present it superficially. The Orthodox Church presents God solemnly. I don’t say that we shouldn’t have any joy, but at the same time it should be deep. When it remains superficial, it becomes a stumbling block, and people will sooner or later get disappointed. Unless one’s teaching and attitudes present the depth of godly things and of the godly life, which is both experienced by missionaries and expressed, I would say to forget about mission work in Russia. It will never work with superficiality." (29M92A)
2. Be discerning. Mature workers should be spiritually sensitive, alert, and generally able to distinguish between what is authentic and godly versus what is of the natural man. This kind of keen perception is more difficult across cultural and language barriers, where communication signals are not so familiar to the Westerner. Even so, the cross-cultural worker should not be naive and credulous in the face of professions of faith. Among Russian youth this is very important, since there are many other reasons they may want to get close to you. "The difficulty with young Russians is making sure that they don’t want to talk with you just so that they can practice their English and find out about the States or whatever. Yes, you have to befriend them, but make sure that they are genuinely interested, that they know this is a very important topic you are sharing with them, and that they are not simply wanting to please you because you are a friend." (23F92A)
SUGGESTIONS REGARDING BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
1. Expect mistrust. This warning is an important key to the whole issue of evangelistic work among modern Russian youth. Until a young Russian has a basic level of trust in you as a person, very little of what you say will be received very deeply. Because of the current environment in Russia, winning trust is the necessary first step in evangelism. After this, a young person will be more comfortable in exposing to you his or her thoughts and feelings, knowing you will receive them with love and wisdom, and be more willing to listen, knowing you are a safe and reliable person.
The recent historical context is important here. Many Russians were willing to trust religious people from the west immediately after Peres-troika, because they were not aware that mere were many competing ideas about how to come to God. But this soon changed. "After the fall of the Iron Curtain, not only Christian missionaries came, but other cults and religions as well. People started getting lost in all of that. Confusion and fear arose. Many turned to the Orthodox church for the sake of something firm and full of stability, something that existed here for a long time and is really trustworthy. What all of the people want to know is the truth- something with stability, something that is firm and unshakable. The Orthodox church, with its history and tradition, would give this impression. They would say, ‘We’ve been here a long time, we have received traditions handed down by the apostles,’ and so on. ‘And here they come, these missionaries. Where do they come from? Where are their roots?’" (29M92A)
Another barrier to trust is the lack of identification of Russians with American culture. "Sometimes Russians are afraid that together with faith comes a different culture, a strange culture. You need to be careful not to bring culture to them instead of God." (20F94A)
Americans must work more sensitively in order to overcome this cultural barrier. "Many Americans don’t understand our lives. They preach based upon their American realities, not thinking about how people here live." (28F91M)
Too many Americans doing evangelism in Russia seem to be unaware of these barriers to trust, and don’t do much to try to overcome the barriers before launching into the message.
2. Promote mutual respect. To build a close relationship, each person must show regard and courtesy toward the other. Westerners have not always come to Russia with the humble attitude required for building mutual respect. As a result, their efforts have been hindered. Some people seem to have an exalted perception of their own character or importance in evangelizing Russia. "Some people come to Russia to witness and ‘bring those poor Russians to Christ.’ That never worked with me. When people come to Russia to talk about Christ, they shouldn’t be feeling like, I know all these things, and you don’t, and it is my responsibility to tell you.’" (21F93O)
Humble attitudes are absolutely critical, but some Americans seem to come to Russia with a messianic complex. "When Americans say, ‘We are going to reach Russia for Christ!’ Russians usually think, ‘Why should you reach us?’" (17F96O)
3. Aim for heart fellowship. n comparison with that of Russians, the American idea of friendship tends to be superficial. "For Russians, the most important thing is friendship. I had a problem communicating this with many Americans, because even the word ‘friendship’ we understand differently. For us, a ‘friend’ is one to whom you go when everything is bad or when everything is good. A friend is closer than a brother." (28F91M)
Americans expect instant "friendships" that have no basis in deep sharing of lives. Once trust is established and hearts are opened, the goal should be to make deep spiritual connection with young Russians-a true sharing of life that meets their expectations of friendship. Russians have often been disappointed that they did not find this in American-style churches and organizations. "I wanted deeper relationships, and what I experienced was shallow. We would say that we were brothers and sisters, but I needed closer and more loving relationships than we actually had." (21F96O)
Some American programs resemble a "truth factory" as much as they do a fellowship, and they fail to reach the heart of young Russians. "The first thing that I can mention that was done wrong when I was being evangelized was that the follow-up work was really formal. All those manuals and all those systems that people were following without good personal relationships. It was like a well-oiled machine which was working, working, working, but without any personal discipleship." (26F92A)
4. Commit yourself to people. "Americans must realize from the start that effective evangelism in Russia will demand a whole-hearted commitment. Making disciples "demands a long process of building the relationship. While the relationship is going on, you need to pour your whole soul and life into this person." (19M95O)
Few Americans have the time or ability to do this with young Russians.
"I work with teenagers. The problem of reaching them is close to my heart. I understand they need lots of attention. Even in the world there are organizations that work with youth. The only ones that are successful totally dedicate themselves to youth. It is very important to teenagers to always have somebody to depend on. I think people from the West are not ready for the time required. There are many limits on their time, and they have other priorities." (27F95A)
One final related exhortation from young Russians is that most Russians require a special kind of perseverance as they deal internally with the call of the gospel. "I think that one thing you would find with most Russians is that, even if you present the gospel to them, and you think they really understand-and they may indeed understand it-they don’t want to make a decision right away. Procrastination is probably the biggest thing with us. You should not be too pushy. If a person is going to procrastinate, he is going to procrastinate." (23E92A)
"In dealing with Russians, it is difficult to get an answer right away-yes or no, willing or not willing to trust God. There needs to be a continuous relationship, not just a one-time meeting where the person says, ‘No, I’m not willing to become a Christian.’ You have to persevere." (22M94A)
Perseverance in the relationship helps ensure that a person comes to a clear understanding of the message, and that you have proven yourself a loving and trustworthy guide on their spiritual path. There is simply no substitute for investing time in a person.
I have listened to many young Russians on these topics, and I have a further concern. I believe we need to consider not only the propriety of the evangelistic approaches that we use, but also what we are passing on to Russians by way of "training" for evangelism. Are we setting them up for failure by handing them naive, ill-conceived approaches? Will we ruin their reputation by leading them to do things that needlessly turn off the peers they are trying to reach? Will our methods give them false impressions that will carry over into other aspects of discipleship? Our classroom mentality often sends a message of detachment from life that feels unnatural to Russians-and rightly so. Increasingly we are being encouraged by Russian leaders to help them lay a foundation of proper theology, but then to let them take the lead in discerning the forms and approaches that are wisest for communicating the truth of the gospel to their own people. May the Lord give us humility and conviction to this end.
Mark Harris has been involved in pastoral training and evangelism in Russia since 1993. The research on which this article is based earned him a doctorate degree from Western Seminary (2000).
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