by Wil Triggs
If you are considering ministry to the U.S.S.R., there are some points for you to consider as you your work.
Sunday morning. The alarm goes off. You and your spouse get the kids out of bed. The family dresses, eats, and heads for church. When you arrive, you are surprised to find that the platform is filled with strangers — Christian guests from another country who tell you that they’ve always prayed for you, that they are so happy to be able to visit you at last, and that they love you and your church. One of them preaches the sermon for the morning. They obviously know a lot about the Bible. After the service, some of the women of the church prepare lunch for the guests. After another meeting with the elders, the visitors leave for another town.
It’s a novel and interesting Sunday service, but the next week, the same thing happens, this time with a different group of visitors. They take pictures. They give you ink pens and Christian bookmarks. They exchange addresses with some of the members of the church. They want to help your church. They want to give you anything you need. Because they are wealthier than your congregation, some members begin to ask for all kinds of things, and soon the gifts get bigger and more expensive. Week after week, the procession of visitors continues, until you can barely remember what a normal Sunday service is like. Sometimes they arrive by the busload.
Not thinking about what your church lacks on its own, what effects would such continual visits have?
This is an inconceivable scenario for us in the United States, but for the few Protestant churches in the major cities of the Soviet Union today, it’s not just conceivable, it’s happening. One of the leaders of the evangelical church in the Soviet Union recently told a worker that in a single day he received 15 feet of faxed messages from Christians in the West. As positive as the current changes for ministry to the Soviet Union are, Western missionaries be careful in their approach to the U.S.S.R. for the obvious reason of the economic and political turmoil of the country, but also because the Soviet Union is a difficult and demanding mission field that is easily misread by visitors. It may very well look like parts of Western Europe, but really getting lasting work done in the Soviet Union can be so frustrating for the traditional missionary I heard one irritated mission worker from the United States describe the backward nature of the U.S.S.R. as "Bangladesh with buildings."
The incessant arrival of Christian travelers to a church has been denied access to most Christians from other countries for years brings to light several weaknesses of the church there and the church here. In working together, we should strive to focus on our strengths, but it is the weaknesses of the two churches that control the situation. So if you are considering ministry to the U.S.S.R., there are some points for you to consider as you your work.
IT MUST BE TRUE BECAUSE I SAW IT
After his recent trip to the Soviet Union, one Christian leader reported that while his back was turned, six Bibles were taken by prison guards rather than the prisoners he intended them for. "Now we would like to think that maybe those Bibles were taken by guards who want to read them," the man wrote to his constituents, "but I’m afraid the truth is, they sell them on the black market."
While it is true that Bibles are sold on the black market, the Christian leader gives no evidence that those guards are not simply taking what was before them so they wouldn’t have to buy them on the black market. He may be correct but he may not be. On short visits to the Soviet Union, visitors from the West have no choice but to interpret what happens to them, but they should exercise care when applying personal experience to statements about a country as vast as the Soviet Union. Whether this man was right or wrong, the incident points out a simple hunger for the Bible that leads to a simple conclusion for any person traveling to the U.S.S.R.— if you are going there with Scriptures and they are intended for certain people, do not set them down and turn your back. Though the Soviet system has failed, the collective nature has still made a lasting impression on the people. In the minds of many citizens, everything still belongs to everyone.
If you do turn your back on Bibles and find that they have disappeared, do not express serious reservations about the distribution of Bibles and Christian literature when you return to the United States based on your personal mishap. To equate a handful of Bibles disappearing from an individual traveler with the distribution of Bibles and Christian books by trucks, trains and planes to distribution centers within the country is to grossly project your personal disappointment onto other Christian workers who have struggled to establish the delivery networks that are now developing within the country.
For whatever reason, Bibles do seem to disappear in the Soviet Union as fast as they are available. The best way to make the Bible less of a commodity on the black market is to flood the country with Bibles, so that anyone who wants a copy can get one. We have the funds in the West and missions have the channels to make that happen. With restrictions relaxed, this is the time to make sure it really does happen.
It is easy for Christian travelers who are eyewitnesses to events in the Soviet Union to misunderstand what they are seeing. In a country like the U.S.S.R., where appearance often has not matched reality, what a person actually sees is only a portion of what is actually going on. The difficulty comes in trying to grasp what is going on behind the scenes and inside the people. To understand these dynamics, a short visit to the country is simply not adequate.
PERMISSION, BUT TO DO WHAT?
There is a tendency on the part of several missions to report the granting of permission to print a certain Bible or Christian book in the Soviet Union. Similar reports announce unprecedented opportunities for Joint ventures in the Soviet Union. Usually such reports then explain the need for financial assistance from Christians in the West. Anyone investing funds into literature for the U.S.S.R. should ask their agency some questions that normally don’t apply in other countries. For example:
Though you may have permission to print in the country, do you also have clearance to distribute? If so, how and when will the distribution take place? If not, your permission to print may only guarantee that you will have to pay for the printing of books that may never get distributed. Be careful. Don’t assume that the Soviet Union’s publishing and distribution systems work in the same way as our own. Unless we enter into our publishing and, we hope, broadcasting, agreements with Soviet representatives with wisdom and prayer, our efforts are in jeopardy. We may begin to blame the Soviets for failing to their end of bargains in cases where we never really understood what the agreement was in the first place.
There are still censors in the Soviet Union, and any literature that is printed in the Soviet Union must be approved by censors before it is distributed. Though printing and distribution channels may be completely worked out, at least be aware that the censor is still a hurdle that must be jumped. Be on guard, too, lest the censor attempt to remove Christian references from your book. This is especially true concerning books about social issues, marriage, family, and child-rearing.
Because there is a paper shortage in the Soviet Union, you will almost certainly be asked to provide paper for printing. If you are not asked, it would be a good idea to ask about where the paper will come from and what kind of paper it is. When dealing with the Soviets, try to get as much spelled out as possible.
When it comes to joint ventures, the hunger for dollars, English speakers, and Western connections make the offer of a joint venture partnership almost a matter of course for someone going to the Soviet Union. It would be more unusual to not receive an offer of partnership at this point than it is to receive an offer. Do not report your joint venture partnership as an unprecedented ministry development, especially before it has gotten off the ground.
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the simple joy of Soviet officials permitting you to do something that they didn’t used to allow. But be sure you understand what they are allowing you to do and what they are not allowing you to do.
URGENT NEED CALLS FOR IMMEDIATE ACTION – OR DOES IT?
Is it better to translate Christian education materials from the West or train Christians in the country to begin developing their own materials? The fastest and easiest way to get Sunday school materials to the country is to translate existing materials. To begin training people in the country is to begin a project that will take years to complete. But any Christian considering work in that country should consider which approach he is going to take.
A visit to the Soviet Union can be life-changing. The simple beauty of the church services, the minor-keyed hymns sung by strong choirs, the fervency so evident in the prayers of a church filled with people can all make for an amazing experience for a Christian from the West. When we see the shortage of Bibles, Christian books, and Christian education materials, the immediate reaction is to give them some form of help as soon as possible. The impulse to do something to help these people comes naturally, almost involuntarily, for those of us who have been raised in churches where there has really never been any lack of material support.
But it is important to be sensitive to the needs of the people in the Soviet Union, to put their needs for health before our own felt need to give help to them. As immediately gratifying as it may be for you to give them an English book, or a translation of an English book, as gratifying as it is for them to receive all such books, for the church to be truly healthy, more attention needs to be directed to focusing the church there toward developing their own writers and their own approaches to outreach, Christian education, and other forms of ministry.
This is a concept that is newer than glasnost to the church there. They have lived in a survival mentality for so long that it is difficult for them to wait for their own untrained people to develop skills that already exist in the West. But unless some Christian workers from the West adopt specialist roles within the country, roles that will guide and develop their own people into the new areas of ministry, the church may lose even more ground to outside influences than it did under the overt persecution of earlier days.
The simple fact that the church has survived in the Soviet Union after 70-plus years under Marxist-Leninism can be misleading, especially to people new to ministry in the country. The church may be inspiring and gracious to the casual visitor, but do not be fooled into thinking that the church has no problems. Legalism, a lack of formal training, the lack of Scripture over the years, the infighting, centralized control, and isolation that have become theological tenets— these are just a few of the internal challenges that the church in the U.S.S.R must confront during changing times if it is to survive and thrive under greater freedoms rather than greater persecution.
DOES THE SOVIET UNION HAVE A PARACHURCH?
Since glasnost, the membership of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, the registered Protestant group in the U.S.S.R, has dropped from an estimated 500,000 in 5,000 churches to 250,000 members in 3,000 churches. The primary reason for this decrease is the secession of Pentecostal congregations from the UECB. But the changing dynamic within the church is multiplied by individual Christians who are initiating their own Christian ministries outside organized church authority.
The Latvian Christian Mission was founded by evangelicals and works primarily in hospitals, kindergartens, homes for the elderly. The mission has its own organizational structure, as well as its own bank account. It is the first recognized parachurch organization in the Soviet Union. Many other groups have followed its example. Vadim Kovalev, president of the Latvian-based mission, describes the work as a group composed of "Baptists, Pentecostals and Lutherans. We do not strive for strict centralization of work. On the contrary, we give complete independence to our branches." As the U.S.S.R. begins to relax its restrictions on the church, Christian activities are becoming more diversified and the church is dividing itself into several directions. This means that outreach to that part of the world will become more complicated.
Why the complications? Because the church there does not yet understand how to relate to the parachurch. Kovalev’s comment about the lack of centralized control of the mission is in contrast to the centralized control of the organized church. Centralization provided strength as the church under communism struggled to survive. Today, the organized church remains centralized, but the new works like the Latvian Christian Mission are working to provide new channels for ministry and outreach that are not hindered by the forms and structures that helped the church survive during more oppressive times.
The church in the Soviet Union is struggling to work through the dynamics of the church and the parachurch, and missions from outside the country should exercise sensitivity in relating to one group or the other. We should strive to be positive examples of cooperation between church groups and parachurch groups.
STRANGERS IN EVEN STRANGER LAND
The Soviets are wonderful hosts, even though their living standards are lower than in most Western countries. They are a gracious and giving people. This is wonderful for visitors, but it can take its toll on the hosts. The financial stress of providing even a basic meal for guests is considerable, but at the same time, you are expected to accept all such meals for fear of offending your host. And if you are making a mistake or offending someone, you may not know about it. They will simply keep their thoughts to themselves. All the more reason for Christians traveling there to be prepared. This is true not only for the faux-pas at dinner, but for Christian ministries as well. If you represent a Christian publishing firm, and you ask a Christian about their need for your book, the answer will almost certainly be yes. To say no to a guest, especially about their ministry, is just not appropriate.
Yet many Christians do not realize the hardship that continual visits cause their Christian hosts. Time and money spent on foreign guests mean time and money not spent ministering to their own people. It’s not that they don’t need help and support from their foreign brethren. In many cases, we are their only source for basic training, literature, and ministry strategies, but the one-time visitor is taking his toll. Unlike Americans, the Soviets do not have an "instant" mentality. As we all know by now, McDonald’s is a new phenomenon there. Almost nothing happens quickly— at least not by our standards.
What that means for Western missionaries who want to have a positive effect is that their work must be strategic and there must be a long-range time commitment to these people. There is a place for educational exchanges and short-term workers in the country, but an even more strategic contribution, and one that seems to be sorely lacking on the part of many workers, is the presence of long-term workers who are ready and willing to commit significant blocks of time to ministry with people there.
HOW DO YOU SAY THAT IN RUSSIAN?
Speaking of years of commitment, all of the suggestions in this article assume someone with proficiency in the Russian language. That is a skill that takes years to acquire, but if all things are possible with God, then it is possible for Western missionaries to learn to speak Russian or one of the languages of the other 14 republics of the Soviet Union. The evangelical church in the U.S.S.R. simply does not have enough translators to handle the volume of visitors coming into the country. In order to advantage of the ministry opportunities present today, and to send into the country specialists who can really help develop a new generation of Christian writers and workers, proficiency in the language is a necessity. Even when their translators are present, they may not understand what it is you are trying to say – and they may not even realize that they don’t understand.
From another perspective, the short-term visitor from the West often does not realize how deceptive a two-week trip to the Soviet Union can be. The spiritual interest is so blatant and the needs are so great; it is easy to be overtaken with the desire to share the needs so much that we forget all that we don’t know about the country and its people. Beware of Christian leaders who present themselves as experts in the U.S.S.R. after short visits to the country. If you are such a leader yourself, do not be fooled into thinking that you know more than you do — your mistake today may be your calamity tomorrow. Recognize all that you don’t know, along with the little that you do. I have been working for nine years at a mission geared toward ministry to the U.S.S.R., and it often feels as though I am learning more about what I don’t know that what I do. For the Soviet Union, the beginning of knowledge is recognizing all that you don’t know.
By no means does this article begin to address the many angles of ministry in the Soviet Union, where churches and missions are only now beginning to emerge from behind the shadows of decades of oppression. Should the Soviet Union collapse into several different countries, this could change the church and mission outreach in that part of the world even more. I believe that what we do to help Christians in the Soviet Union will determine what direction the spiritual life of the church in the coming years. It can atrophy and lose its presence, as has happened in other parts of Europe, or it can be a launching pad for a new time of ministry for the Soviet Union — and for other parts of the world as well.
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