Thursday, September 4, 2008

Russian Christianity Retrospective

Earlier today I picked up a Christian magazine and read the headline, "The Church in Russia: What Does the Future Hold?" I thought the article might be one or two years old at the most, but when I found the publishing date, it was 1992. So I was holding an article that predicted the outcome of a time period that has already passed.

I knew virtually nothing about Russia in 1992. If I did know anything, I don't think it made a very strong impression. I didn't go there myself until 1996, and then my experiences were limited to summer camp. The author of the article, presumably an American, describes the situation as he sees it upon visiting Russia in 1992. One notable theme that he notes is how the question of theodicy applies to Russian history.

"Their suffering has become a profound treasury of hard-won experience that has quietly elicited spiritual growth and deepening reflectiveness. No one would wish another to suffer, but when it does regrettably occur, it is possible that it can bring one closer to God, who suffers with humanity in the incarnate crucified Son…Hedonistic narcissistic Americans do well to learn from that wellspring of arduous experience, and not presume to teach Russians an elementary course in Spirituality 101. Our own materialistic culture is far more deeply corrupted than theirs in many ways. There is little room for boasting. Those emerging out of 73 years of atheism may be more open to the address of God through the suffering neighbor than we in pious and secular America."(13)

With the above comments and elsewhere in the article, he seems to convey the idea that recent suffering in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union puts them in a position to draw closer to God. Missionaries believed that there was a deep spiritual hunger in Russia, and used that as a reason to begin massive crusades. As many of these crusades were still in their infancy, the author attempted to find out from Russian Christians what they needed most, so missionaries could better serve their needs.

“…we learned from our partners in dialog that they thought that food was not more important than teaching and learning, or eating more than receiving the bread of life. They need nothing more urgently than the opportunity to relearn to believe. Post-Soviet Christians told us it is incorrect to assume that they need material food more than spiritual food. That is a part of the materialistic determinism they are now disavowing”(14)

This passage confuses me. First of all, whom are the Post-Soviet Christians correcting? Were there missionaries going around saying "here's some food, but you probably don't want a Bible"? Or are they correcting fellow Russian Christians who were enticed by promises of wealth from the West? My feeling is that there was and still is a need for both material and spiritual food. However, missionaries do need to be careful not to promote materialism.

"When American Protestant liberals visit the Soviet Union, they sometimes echo the line that it would be unecumenical if they took part in preaching or teaching ministries, and that our efforts must be limited to charitable or compassionate ministries for the homeless and sick. That is a false dichotomy for Russian Christians, who do not see theological teaching as separable from charity or sacrament. (15)"

This excerpt surprised me as well. I wouldn't say that missionaries always excel at combining evangelism with charity. However, what interferes is not a fear of being divisive but rather a fear of breaking the law. If I can speak for myself, I would say that it's very hard to serve with an open heart when you have been told that you're not allowed to give out Christian materials or sing certain songs. If you try to do the evangelism subtly, sometimes it feels like you're manipulating people. And foreign Christians are received differently than Orthodox Russian Christians.

There's a lot of material for discussion here. I found a few articles assessing the effectiveness of Western Missionaries in Russia. There's a general consensus that the missionaries swept in and formed western-style fellowships, ignoring local churches and their customs. The following links are to articles that are themselves at least 10 years old, yet discuss problems that are still relevant to missions in Russia today.

Article quoted above: Oden, Thomas C. "The Church in Russia: What Does the Future Hold?" from Radix Magazine, Inc. Volume 21, Number 2. 1992. Reprinted from "Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America & Russia."

Other articles:

http://www.georgefox.edu/academics/undergrad/departments/soc-swk/ree/Volguina_Proselytizing_June%201997.pdf

http://www.geocities.com/missionalia/reimer96.htm

2 comments:

  1. You said:

    "There's a lot of material for discussion here. I found a few articles assessing the effectiveness of Western Missionaries in Russia. There's a general consensus that the missionaries swept in and formed western-style fellowships, ignoring local churches and their customs. The following links are to articles that are themselves at least 10 years old, yet discuss problems that are still relevant to missions in Russia today."

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    Completely agree. I remember, back in the late 90's, telling some of the US missionaries: "Why don't you guys do nothing but live here and learn everything about Russia? Eat our food, learn the language, get over the first (second, third, etc.) cultural shock. Just live here for a year or so, learn to eat that marinated in salt fish that some babushkas sell on the streets, learn to accept feeling humiliated because you understand very little of what's going on around you, and when you are sorta "refined" through all of this and other things - then preach anything you want."

    I have experienced similar things living here in the US. My English was better than everage when I first got here and I loved the American culture, yet I still had to learn A LOT before being able to minister to people here effectively.

    On a different note, I would like to travel to Kenya some day and try the head of a goat boiled with its eyes, brain and tongue still in it. Yummy! That would be a cultural experience to me.

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  2. I think that for long-term missions, it is a good investment to spend some time before the trip and some time after arrival learning language and culture. There's only so much you can learn in the classroom.

    I'm not sure where short-term missions fits in.

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