As I walked up the many steps to the preaching pulpit in Central Baptist Church near Red Square in Moscow, I had a flash back. Looking down I recalled a picture of Billy Graham preaching in that same pulpit in a time when the Soviet Union was in its ascendancy.
What I didn't know was that it had been kept open by a curious historical circumstance. It was 1941 and Stalin was doing his best to persuade USA president FD Roosevelt to enter the fray of the war and create a second line of defense for the Soviets against Hitler.
Negotiations shifted from one side to the other. Finally Roosevelt agreed. But included in the agreement was a promise by Stalin to keep open Central Baptist, the only Protestant church allowed.
Today that has changed. While the KBG continues surveillance, churches are planted, ministries initiated and people carry on, living out their faith. However it isn't a carry-over of atheistic communism that poses a challenge of Evangelicals. Instead it’s the Christian majority. The Russian Orthodox Church founded by Greek Orthodox missionaries in the tenth century implanted their vision of religious hegemony or domination. Today the Russian Orthodox is nationalistic, putting the most ardent of patriots to shame. Imbedded in their Christian vision is a deeply rooted view that Russia is theirs. Any infringement by another Christian community is predatory. It isn't just Evangelicals who push up against this proclivity to territorialism, Roman Catholics are also viewed with suspicion. For them a Russian Christian can only be Orthodox. Any other form of Christian faith is sect at best and cult at worst.
They felt an infringement most acutely after 1989 as the Soviet Union collapsed. Western missions booked their flights and arrived to evangelize. Seen as a western religion, Evangelicals crossed a border deemed sacred by the Orthodox. Seeing this as a form of globalization their fear was reinforced as agencies recruited short-term missionaries, and operating with little or no language skills were deficient in cultural sensitivity.
So hearing this I asked a group of Christian leaders how and when they came to faith. Most did so in the early 1990s from the very missions they critiqued. They admitted the arrival of the western groups brought results, but only for a time. As the excitement of ministering in a formerly closed country waned, fewer came and less support flowed. The initial flurry of people and resources created a bubble of expectation and when it burst, they were left on their own.
Russia is a land of contradictions. It has a deep and rich history. Some of our greatest writers are Russian: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and composers: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky. In sports they stand atop the podium in world events. Canadians know our greatest 20th sporting moment was the 1972 World Hockey event. Who among loyal Canadians can forget Paul Henderson’s goal scored just before the end of the final game of the Russian/Canadian series?
Dr. Brian Stiller (left) with his wife Lily in Moscow, Russia.
Now turn the page. In just the past century, note how its political leaders’ in their perfidious use of mass starvation and slaughter advanced and protected their ideological formulations.
I learned they have an amazing sense of self-awareness. It is this: they confess to a heaviness and weariness of the soul, and for good reason. In the past century some 20 million have died by war, killings and forced starvation at the hands of government. (The actual numbers vary according to source of the research.) They were fed the lie that their ideology was superior, only to learn better years later. Since 1917, and to a lesser degree today, they’ve lived under surveillance and fear, not knowing who even among their own family would report words or actions deemed offensive to the secret police. Within the soul of the Russian people there lingers heartbreak from decades of dictatorial control. Vodka, their liquor of choice literally means “bitter one.” As was explained, “Life is so tough that only after a few strong belts, can one better speak of life.”
Today its search is for a national identity or ideal. Suckled by the Orthodox Church for millennia its identity was overturned and rudely redefined by a Marxist/Leninist vision, only then to see its socialism morph into a mixed form of capitalism. Follow their history: Wrenched from feudalism and a Czarist régime, in the early 20th century they were strong-armed by a Communist régime unmatched for its destructive cruelty. Now that their ideal has been broken, they ask, who are we now?
What is the way forward for a Christ-centered witness? Not surprisingly the hope of the Lord’s soon return is reassuring. For others the desire to influence the public square is shut off. That space is filled by the Orthodox. There is no simple or singular answer. The Russian people are Asian, not Western. The matters of faith are slowly evaluated and the power of tradition rules. However what they do know is another's pain and suffering. It was told to me this way: "If someone knows you have walked the valley of sorrow they will listen, for they know then that you too understand.” The message, “Jesus makes one happy” doesn't have the pull or attraction as does identity in suffering.
The future is shaped by leadership. But what kind will it be for Evangelicals? Will it be what they have they been under for centuries? A dictatorial, top down, untrusting elite resorting to secret surveillance to maintain power? The culture has been so polluted by secrecy, a lack of trust and self serving autocrats that it will take a spiritual revolution to redo that model.
Now is the time to pray and enable the rise of a new generation of Christian leaders. Pray that the servant paradigm will take hold. And then that their influence will find its way beyond their borders into Central Asia and the many "stans" of that region.
Can you imagine the impact such a community will make when stylized, not by mistrust, secrecy and brutality but by the love of the risen Lord? Into other parts of the world they will in time go as the Spirit uses their learned understanding of God’s ways in tough and hostile environments.
Their understanding of a suffering Savior is a filter through which they will effectively love and minister.
The Apostle Paul knew it, and Russian Christians know it as well.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance.