Report on a Visit of the Russian Evangelical Alliance to the Far East.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
M o s c o w — During a visit of the Russian Evangelical Alliance (REA) to the Russian Far East in mid-June, a Pentecostal pastor in Khabarovsk repeated a sad joke supposedly describing the state of Protestantism in Russia: A believer shipwrecked on an uninhabited island decided to build himself two churches. After his rescue, he was asked why a single person needed two chapels. He responded: “I always need one church to attend along with a second one I never attend.”
A Baptist leader in the same city reported that the Baptist movement, despite its small numbers, is relatively strong in the Far East. Protestants there are in any case more obvious within society than in European Russia. This is due in part to Orthodoxy’s historical weakness in that region. “But we would be much stronger if we argued less,” he added. Recently, Vladivostok’s largest Baptist congregation split 100-40, with 100 members moving to another building. One issue was eternal security – the Arminian-Calvinist controversy is rearing its head across the entire breadth of the former USSR.
These two cities both feature groups of pastors who designate themselves as “Alliance”. (Blagoveshchensk, located on the border with China, has no such grouping at present.) Yet, Vitaly Vlasenko (Moscow), the REA’s new Ambassador-at-Large, noted that these Alliances tend to be limited to pastors with Pentecostal affiliations. “The Baptists still need to be brought on board”, he concluded. Yet Baptists have no obvious need to act defensively. On 18 June, attendance at Mikhail Darbinyan’s controversial, world-famous “New Generation” Charismatic congregation in Blagoveshchensk was roughly 250. Yet the city’s largest Baptist congregation had 150 in attendance the same morning and the city is home to three Baptist congregations.
Khabarovsk has eight Baptist congregations, each of which has its own prayer chapel. (A happy state unimaginable in Moscow.) Yet the Far East continues to suffer a serious brain drain: The pastors of three of these Khabarovsk congregations have moved to North America. Khabarovsk believers reported that their pastors and laity not making it as far as North America or Germany tend to end up in the warm climes of Krasnodar (near Crimea).
Inter-Denominationalism from below
Not surprisingly, the inter-denominational movement does best at the bottom of the social ladder. Alexander Kaiser, the head of a 2003-founded rehabilitation and homeless centre in Belogorsk, reported on excellent relations with local state and Orthodox offices. Besides drug and alcohol patients, the modest shelter’s 150 beds have included single, pregnant women, 18-year-old graduates of orphanages and lonely grandmothers. The Director, himself a recovered alcoholic, admitted that only one-in-ten residents succeeds in beginning a new life. “But it is they who make our efforts worthwhile,” he added.
In the beginning, his Pentecostal “Priyut Nadezhdy” (Hope Shelter) had been hassled by police and government officials, yet loyal and consistent work over the past one-and-a-half decades has produced major amounts of trust. Police at the local train station regularly dispatch stranded persons; the police in Tynda (696 km to the north) sent them an alcoholic suffering from serious frost-bite. Best of all, contacts with an Orthodox cloister and church offices have resulted in mutual aid. Furniture in the chapel is the gift of an Orthodox priest. The shelter receives clothing from the cloister, it responds for ex. with vegetables grown in its own garden. As an expression of solidarity with his Orthodox friends, Kaiser once took the plunge into cold water at minus 35 Celsius.
The Director proudly showed us a document from President Putin’s office confirming a donation of 350.000 roubles (then approx. $12.000) in March 2014. Government contributions for 2016 were no less than 1,5 million roubles — roughly $25.000. But significant contacts with Baptist circles in the region do not yet exist. “Actually, the Director added, “I am against the existence of denominations.”
Future issues – Commentary
Vitaly Vlasenko sees it as his task to help increase dialogue between Baptist and Pentecostal circles. Pentecostal circles appear open: Yuri Sipko’s sermon at Darbinyan’s congregation in Blagoveshchensk on 14 October 2011 – “I see only angels before me” — has achieved legendary status there. Members of this congregation like to report that protests were arriving from émigré circles in Sacramento even before Sipko’s plane hit the ground back in Moscow. Sipko was President of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) until April 2010.
Indeed, progress can only be made if both Pentecostals and Baptists move beyond their own comfort zones and take conscious steps towards each other. Baptists will need to become less squeamish regarding the theology and worship styles of other Protestants; Pentecostals for their part will need to turn down the volume and adopt forms of worship more acceptable to Russian culture. That sounds nearly utopian for groups such as the Riga/Latvia-based New Generation, which will need to sacrifice that portion of its identity which stems from its reputation as the loudest and most shocking followers of Jesus. They will need to refrain from creating offence where none is needed. Of course, other Pentecostal-Charismatic groups are much more modest in style and their spiritual merging with Baptist groups is almost a given.
In the present context, any movement of Russia’s Protestants towards radical Charismatic groups is simultaneously a move away from the Orthodox. Yet a good working relationship is needed with both. Precisely this dilemma must be overcome if progress is to be made. One dare not be overly optimistic: The fascination with new spiritual developments stemming from North America remains unbroken. In Khabarovsk, I heard for the first time of an independent Charismatic fellowship named “Bethel Church” in Redding/California. Detractors describe many of the miracles taking place at that church as contrived.
Some of the REA’s possible future tasks are much less complicated. They include creating a database of Christian businessmen in Russia and neighbouring countries (including China). Where are Christian banks willing to loan money to young Russian businessmen? Another need involves explaining to Protestants in the Russian Far East the legal ramifications of the restrictive Yarovaya legislation of 2016.
In any case, the REA will not be without tasks during the coming years.
William Yoder, Ph.D. Smolensk, 07 July 2017.