NOTE: The text below was written twenty years ago, yet it is as valid as it was when it was first published, not just for Russia, but for the entire Central & Eastern Europe..
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The church of Russia, as the churches in other post-Marxist countries, needs help from the global church–meaningful help! Let me briefly spell out some basic requests from a Russian Christian to a Western church wanting to support the mission of the church in post-perestroika Russia.
- Incarnational Rather Than Organizational
In this respect I want to identify basic attitudes which, I believe, a good missionary to my country would need: become one of us and we will listen to you. Live as we live, but without sin, and we will copy you. The answer is not to talk about solutions, but to live them out. The answer is not the Christ of the Text, but Christ incarnate.
- Partnership Rather Than Confessionalism
Accept the fact that the Holy Spirit was already in Russia long before you came. God did not start saving the world on the day your particular theological system or denomination was born. God did not start changing Russia on the day you crossed the yellow line at the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. God was there for at least one thousand years before you came.
Discover God’s agents and enter into partnership with them! You are, no doubt, God’s missionary agent to Russia, since the Lord has called you to go. But please understand–you are not the only one. God has had and will continue to have his carriers of mission and renewal in post-perestroika Russia. They might not always be as educated as you are. But is education really the only proper measurement of spirituality? Of course not!
Establish the native rather than yourself! Why the establishment of all these Western dependencies? Why all the branches of our Western agencies in Russia, just like in the business world? Do we really think they need Russian American Baptist or Russian Korean Churches, or Every Home for Christ “American-style”? Let us check our own motives and see what is the real force behind some of our mission enterprises. Build missionary structures for Russians and not for yourself.
Commit yourself to three basic missiological principles: pray together, proclaim together, pay together. Togetherness is what most Russians miss in Western missionaries. But this is one of the most important values of Orthodox-minded Russian society. Togetherness, or sobornosty in Russian, is the key to the Russian heart.
- Power Encounter – A Modus Operandi for Missions in Russia
My advice to Western missionaries would be:
- Realize what the real power struggle is. Since Ilarion, the first Russian Metropolitan in Kyiv (1054-), mission has meant first of all a power struggle between the God-sent Christian and demonic forces. Russian Orthodox culture is deeply rooted in a view of powers attacking the faithful daily. Superstition and the preoccupation with the occult are also symptoms of the Russian religious mind. As a result, feelings of fear and inferiority towards a greater power and a never-ending dependency on all kinds of “witch specialists” have flooded the country. After 70 years the attempt of militant atheism to change the religious soul of Russia ended without any real success. Instead, it produced a spiritual vacuum which simply invites even more interest in the occult.
- Learn from the natives. This, however, implies a humble heart, confessing our own inabilities, and understanding the pitfalls of our Western theological developments of the past three centuries. Rationalism has impoverished the Western church by taking away the heart of biblical Christianity–true spirituality. The Orthodox way of thinking could teach us a lot in this regard. And when going to Russia, a post-orthodox country, we will have to learn in order to succeed; learn from the Orthodox past and learn from the people we are involved with.
- First: pray; second: wait; third: obey. The medieval Russian monastic missionaries also defined mission in terms of a Gebetskampf, i.e. prayer warfare. Western missionaries in Russia today are known as actionists. They do, and they do a whole lot. The Russians, however, seldom admire doers and go-getters. Their culture is more poetic, contemplative, meditative. Western missionaries would do much better if they organized less programs and spent more time in prayer. The Russian normally looks for a holy, much rather than for a successful human. To prepare themselves for their life mission, Russian missionaries of the Middle Ages would spend years in a cave in prayer and fasting. Stephen of Perm, for example, spent fourteen years “before the LORD” before he went on to reach out to the wild Zyryans. And he surely was successful!
- Church Planting Rather Than Mass Evangelism
The last thing post-Marxist Russia needs is more talking. People are looking for live models. The real need lies in a fully transformed and community-oriented church. Church planting, therefore, receives absolute priority in Russia. But what does this great task imply in such a situation? The following could serve as guidelines.
- Let the natives determine what type of congregation needs to be established. Plant a church for the people, and while planting, stay with the people.
- Try your best not to copy your home congregation. This will always be your biggest challenge. Even if you believe your home church has developed the best model ever, don’t think this can ever be universal as it may not apply to your Russian community at all.
- Establish a community – and need-oriented church. Mission must aim at the transformation of society as a whole. Russians will almost automatically measure your missionary work holistically. Pure evangelism which neglects social responsibility will sooner or later fail in this country.
Christianity has a real alternative to offer. The biblical truth could not only fill the ideological emptiness of the Russian soul, but also offer models of societal life still unknown to both socialism and capitalism. To define those in clear and practical terms is our challenge for missions tomorrow.
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Excerpt reprinted with permission from Missionalia (April 1996): 18-39. For Dr. Reimer’s study of pre-1917 Russian Orthodox missions, see “Mission des fruhen Monchtums in Russland,” unpublished Th.D. thesis, Pretoria, University of South Africa, 1994.
Johannes Reimer, born in the Soviet Union, is a missionary with Logos International, Lage, Germany.
Johannes Reimer, “Mission in Post-Perestroika Russia,” East-West Church & Ministry Report, 4 (Fall 1996), 8-9.
© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies