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Discerning Joy from Sorrow: Reflecting on Changes Among Ukrainian Evangelicals Since Independence

26.07.2004, 16:02
In the summer of 2003 the first graduating class of Odesa Bible School held their ten-year reunion and watched a video of their student days. For half an hour a lost world was restored as old friends with dark hair and slim figures appeared on the screen. Once again they bent over their books, ate their simple meals, and finally filed across a stage to receive their diplomas.

In the summer of 2003 the first graduating class of Odesa Bible School held their ten-year reunion and watched a video of their student days. For half an hour a lost world was restored as old friends with dark hair and slim figures appeared on the screen. Once again they bent over their books, ate their simple meals, and finally filed across a stage to receive their diplomas.

By Mary Raber

"But many of the . . . old men who had seen the first temple wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people." Ezra 3:12-13 (NGSB)

A Ten-Year Class Reunion

Fashions would inevitably change in ten years--but that much? The synthetic shoes, the badly-cut suits, and the coarse knitwear remind the viewer of a Soviet consumer's world that barely exists anymore, except for what can still be found spread on the ground for sale in a flea market. Then there are the old Baptist folkways: the smacking kisses between men, the fervent songs after a meal, and the elaborate homemade entertainment programs. Those things still exist, but have diminished.

When the lights go up, a decade has passed. Any alumni gathering in the world might grow a little thoughtful as its members consider how the world has changed since graduation. But perhaps a group of post-Soviet Evangelicals has more reason than most to be amazed, or even bewildered. Where else in the world have changes in worship, education, and opportunities for ministry taken place with such furious speed? Where else have Evangelical believers been called from relative isolation to creative engagement with a society that used to actively persecute them?

The chief memory the video calls to mind is the buoyant spirit of the early 1990s. Everyone in the film seems cheerfully willing to put up with discomfort, sitting for hours on hard chairs and eating outdoors in freezing weather. The physical conditions of those first students, whether at Odesa or any of the other schools and seminaries founded in the early 1990s, were less than ideal. But what the graduates remember is being privileged, making history, doing something daringly new. Only a short time before, coming together for theological studies would have been grounds for arrest. When the long-awaited opportunity arrived, no sacrifice seemed too much. At Odesa, for example, students with active ministries, secular jobs, or both, plus family responsibilities, traveled long distances to attend class three days a month for four years to earn a simple, unaccredited certificate.

Onrush of New Opportunities

Nor could Christians do enough to meet the sudden onrush of opportunities for ministry. Beginning about 1989 for believers doors suddenly flew open in every direction. Seemingly overnight, lending libraries, hospital and prison visitation, huge evangelistic meetings, sacred music concerts, Bible studies in the schools, summer camps, and all manner of other ministries multiplied. All of them were characterized by crackling enthusiasm.

"We burned for the opportunity to work as missionaries," remembers Valentina Chernova, director of Our House, a social rehabilitation center for children in Makeyevka in eastern Ukraine. "We didn't think about money or about how we were going to succeed. It was hard work, and there wasn't enough pay, and what we got didn't arrive on time, but we gave 100 percent and expected the Lord to take care of us."

Change the scene to September 2003, as members of 11 Kyiv congregations in the Association of Missionary Churches, the fruit of 13 years' diligent evangelism, gather for a joint worship service. The packed sanctuary still looks rough--construction is not quite finished--but balloons and flowers decorate the chancel. A youthful praise group featuring drums and accordion leads choruses projected in PowerPoint slides on the wall. One of the pastors, a young man in jeans, reads a series of prayer items from Christians enduring persecution around the world: Dubai, North Korea, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. "In comparison with us, these people have nothing," he reminds us, "but they're willing to give everything they have for Christ." One cannot help but remember a time when Soviet Christians would have topped the list.

Ambivalence in Abundance

The service is energetic, world-aware, theologically sound, and tasteful. If this is typical of developments in Ukrainian churches since independence, it would seem that there is nothing to do but rejoice. Yet when asked to reflect on the changes they have experienced, many believers initially express more ambivalence than satisfaction.

"There's a lot of Western influence now," comments a Baptist pastor from Cherkassy. "We've lost reverence. You see it in fashions, in attitudes. People are getting accustomed to carelessness."

"Unfortunately, I see degradation at work in the church. I'm not totally pessimistic, but..." begins Pavel Grishchenko, a Baptist pastor from Korosten in central Ukraine. He cites a loss of sacrificial service among the casualties of freedom: "Earlier, we couldn't do enough. We carried heavy musical instruments for long distances through the snow to get to a meeting. Nowadays you can't get people to take communion to old women in the village unless there's a car available."

Chernova agrees: "It used to be that everybody wanted to help. Now everybody wants money. Everybody wants their career."

Less Overt Hostility and More Choices

What has happened? One big change is that Christians now have more choices in their lives. There was a time when the hard-pressed, isolated world of Soviet Evangelicals required total commitment from members. The best part of Christians' energy and creativity went into church life. Tatyana Sannikova, a teacher of Christian ethics in Odesa public schools, remembers: "We were separated. The surrounding society was Communist and atheistic and didn't accept us, so we had our own life. There was a stronger sense of unity and the need to provide mutual support. We were more active in getting together and helping each other. That's not so apparent now."

Now that the church's environment is less hostile, Christians, especially the young, are finding that there are other worthwhile things to do besides devote themselves to church activities. For many, the Christian community has become just one of many aspects of a believer's life, rather than its focus. For example, a Christian young person is now free to get a higher education, but that also means they are busy studying or earning money for schooling, and consequently less available to the church.

Not only that, but Ukraine's shaky economy requires that considerable effort go into making a living. One observer says, "In Soviet times everybody got their 80 rubles whether they worked or not. Now that there's freedom, you can work all you want, but there's not necessarily any pay." Making ends meet may take up time that once was spent in fellowship. For Christians who sometimes equated faithfulness with attending all the scheduled worship services offered each week (usually at least four two-hour services), the trend toward selective attendance is distressing. Moreover, as more demanding careers become available to Christians and as people's lifestyle expectations increase, many Christian organizations can no longer count on attracting and retaining capable personnel without offering at least regular wages.

Worship in Transition

The multiplicity of choices in society as a whole is reflected in a growing number of worship expressions, a change that some observers find unsettling. For example, at the worship service in Kyiv mentioned above, a pastor from Yenakievo in eastern Ukraine noted that only a portion of the congregation stood to pray, a time-honored expression of reverence. Others remained seated. "I know it's not a question of doctrine," he admitted, "But what happens when everybody just does what they want?" A culture war is raging in Ukrainian churches as believers sort out which religious practices are worth preserving and which should be accepted or rejected from other sources, especially the West, which is sometimes perceived as a shallow, cheapening influence.

Meanwhile, opinions differ on what constitutes legitimate Christian expression. Sometimes the discussion degenerates into nit-picking: Is it all right for Sunday school children to sing songs with hand motions? Should believers ever applaud? Yet one also senses real sadness over the erosion of traditional forms, and a genuine eagerness to preserve or create an Evangelical Christian expression that is truly authentic. "I'm not talking about nostalgia for the past," maintains Grishchenko, "What we need is real adaptation; not a worship revolution, but evolution. That takes much wisdom."

Westerners, accustomed to "celebrating diversity," may not be able to grasp what is at stake. Letting some Ukrainian Christians go one way and some another, even in matters of music preference and dress, portends more serious consequences in the minds of many. Grishchenko comments: "We're losing unity. Churches are getting more individualistic. Instead of submitting to church discipline, people just go somewhere else until they find what suits them. I remember one divorce that took place in the church when I was young--just one!--and it was a serious scandal! Now, there's every kind of disorder you can imagine. We're further than ever from the idea of submission."

The Brain Drain . . .

Things might have been more stable if the so-called "old Baptists" had stayed in the country rather than emigrating. Yet another ambiguous change that awaits analysis is the brain- and energy-drain caused by the departure of thousands of Ukrainian believers to the West. The pastor from Yenakievo recalls, "When we were young, my friends and I went to all the funerals and weddings because that was our opportunity to witness. Our prayers were for freedom. Then, all at once, we could preach anywhere we wanted, and immediately everybody left! Everyone who prayed for freedom is now in Germany, the U.S., Australia, or Sweden!"

. . . And the Influx of New Believers

The lack of experienced leadership to disciple new believers is a critical concern. Yet some express the opinion that the departure of so many thousands is God's way of clearing out the old wineskins to make space for the new. Strikingly, in spite of emigration, the numbers of church members have remained stable: as long-time believers have gone, new ones have taken their place. For example, a Baptist church in Snezhnoye in eastern Ukraine lost nearly all of its several hundred members to emigration. Only a few individuals from the original families remain, but the numbers have stayed about the same.

Change is accelerated by the presence of members who joined in the 1990s but sometimes show different characteristics from those of longtime Evangelicals. The former may have more secular education; they may be less afraid to ask questions or challenge traditional structures. One woman who became a Christian in the mid-90s recalled a curious exchange with the pastor of the central Baptist church in her city. After a lengthy worship service that she found uninspiring, the pastor warmly exclaimed to her, "Isn't this wonderful? What is better than having the children of God all together in fellowship in one place?" Unable to hold back her feelings any longer, she blurted, "Actually, when I joined the church I expected more!"

She is not alone in longing for "more," meaning openness and honesty, real answers to life's questions, and non-judgmental acceptance. For as well as being close-knit and deeply committed, Soviet-era Evangelical churches also could be insular, petty, and authoritarian. More frequently now, churches and church organizations are making deliberate efforts to move away from destructive relational patterns and expressing their willingness to look practically and calmly at different approaches to conflict resolution and issues of leadership and authority. More attention is also being paid by church leaders to balancing their ministry and family responsibilities. Sergei Timchenko, director of REALIS, an apologetic and educational center in Kyiv, cites the elusive quality of vulnerability among younger leaders as a positive change, even if those leaders lack experience. "The traditional church leaders operated alone," remembers Timchenko, "Alone, they reached what were apparently unreachable heights of spirituality. They were always concerned for purity, but often that caused them to mistrust others. They tended to control people, not mentor them."

Relating to the Wider Culture

Perhaps the biggest change of all, however, is the many ways that Evangelical Christians are now finding opportunities to relate to the wider culture. Sannikova states:

"It's true that the world has more influence on the church than it used to. But the positive change is that the church is now free to influence the world." Most striking are the endeavors of Evangelical Christians in the area of social services. In Soviet times, Christians looked after their own but were prevented from doing any kind of charitable outreach in the community, which was considered the exclusive prerogative of the state. When the social services system began to deteriorate with the fall of the Soviet Union, Christians were among the people who could help pick up the pieces. Now it is not unusual for churches and missions to operate rehabilitation centers for drug addicts, raise orphans, provide home care for the elderly, or serve as advocates for people with physical disabilities. As ministries develop, so do skills in planning, bookkeeping, and reporting. Christians also pursue education in pedagogy, psychology, and economics with the specific intention of enhancing social service ministries.

Consistent, serious efforts to ease Ukraine's heavy social problems are usually welcomed by government authorities and serve as a powerful witness to God's grace, as well as a means of altering widely held stereotypes of Evangelical believers as backward, unenlightened elements. At the same time, social-service ministries have forced Christians to move out of their narrow circles to deal not only with people in need, but also with officials at many different levels. Sometimes stereotypes of bureaucrats have changed too. Valentina Chernova acknowledges her appreciation for some of her counterparts in government agencies who work with homeless children: "I used to think that it was ‘us' against ‘them,' but I've learned that there are officials who really care."

Recognizing a common cause with the rest of society, especially in the light of their decision to remain rather than emigrate, is leading many believers to think in new ways about their place in Ukraine. Evangelical Christians in the Soviet Union were treated as outsiders and developed a theology that kept them apart. Now, although they are often labeled as sectarians, outside the mainstream Orthodox culture, Evangelicals are also talking more about taking responsibility for their country and often describe their ministries, particularly among children and youth, as an important part of building a viable future. Grishchenko states, "We need to pray for Ukraine. We need to emphasize that we are not excluded from society."

In Summary: Mixed Blessings

Freedom has proved to be a mixed blessing for Ukrainian believers, with more ambiguities and complexities than perhaps anyone imagined in the exciting days of the early 1990s. Handsome Bible college campuses have replaced many of the plank benches of the old days; new church buildings stand in prominent locations in some towns; thousands of children annually attend church summer camps; Christian doctors offer free medical clinics in remote villages; and believing musicians perform on radio. All of these are signs of remarkable, healthy changes that nevertheless are still going through a lengthy, even painful process of absorption and validation. And although no one would go back, many feel some longing for a past that, though harsh, seems at least in retrospect to have been simpler, more confident, committed, and heroic.

The future, however, has already arrived. Every Sunday morning at the central Baptist church in Odesa, about 100 children are blessed before they leave the sanctuary for Sunday school. "Every now and then I remember how life used to be and think about what a great thing it is that all these kids can freely learn about God," comments Olga Sergeyeva, one of the teachers. She adds, "There have always been more and less dedicated Christians, even in the old days. It's just that dedication looks different now. Maybe people now don't go to prison for their faith, but they give up their time and energy to make a summer camp happen." Tatyana Sannikova agrees, "This is the freedom we prayed for. We need to use its opportunities and be grateful."

Mary Raber is a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer living in Odesa, Ukraine. She assists in the editing of Bogoslovskie razmyshleniia [Theological Reflections], the Russian/English journal of the Euro-Asian Accrediting Association. A veteran of eight years residence in the former Soviet Union, she also contributed to the first issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report in 1993.

Reprinted with permission of East-West Church & Ministry Report, from Volume 12, Number 1, Winter 2004