Pitching Out the Player and Listening Up
The Russian Union’s Youth Director reports
Report – Feature
M o s c o w – Though Russian Baptists have lost half of their substance, much still remains. That’s the opinion of Evgeny Bakhmutsky (Moscow), four years on as Director of the Department for Youth Work for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB). He claims: “There are congregations which have lost 80% of their members to emigration; others have ceased to exist.” He imagines that if the mass departure for the USA and Germany after 1990 had not occurred, there might be as many as 300.000 Baptists in Russia today, “and we Baptists would be far-and-away the most influential evangelical confession in Russia”. Though fewer than half of all Baptists moved westward, the Youth Director reckons with a quality loss of over 50%, for “it was the most active and capable church members who left”. Today, the RUECB has roughly 80.000 adult members.
Nevertheless, the National Youth Director remains convinced that the weakened but still perky Baptists of Russia have something to offer the world. He maintains for ex. that in congregational life all generations are direly in need of each other. No generation should be allowed to detour around the church. “That’s why we refuse to create a youth movement alongside the church. The service of our youth goes straight through the middle of the congregation. Unfortunately, I keep running into youth work in various European Baptist unions leading a life of its own. We think that is not a Biblical way.”
In view of its many decades of experience and contacts, Pastor Bakhmutsky regards Russian Baptists as an avant-garde highly capable of coming to the aid of Charismatic churches. “The Charismatics are not just pro-Western, they are totally immersed in Western culture. Sometimes when they remember that they actually intended to be a Russian church, they come to my office and we have a talk.” He continues: “I have the impression that Charismatics know how to put on a good show. But they do now know how to work with their people.” Charismatic congregations are known for their high rates of fluctuation. He has experienced more than once how Russia’s traditional free churches have offered the disenchanted refuge and something to hold on to. “Very recently 200 young persons from Charismatic circles came to me for counsel. They were wanting to leave their congregations.”
Evgeny Bakhmutsky flies to the U.S. on a regular basis. He has the impression that the Russian Union needs to support the children of Baptists who have emigrated. “Their young people are cut off from their roots. They don’t see themselves on the side of their fathers any more, for they speak English. But they also remain separated from other American youth, for they attend a Russian-speaking congregation. So they are not realising their potential.” Parents attempt to impose a Russian subculture on their offspring, which no longer exists in Russia proper. “But we understand their kids better and we invite them to come serve with us for a time in the old country.” Here they can find themselves again; here they have better chances of recognising their own identity. But Bakhmutsky sees no reason to decry a past emigration which has occurred and cannot be overturned. He believes God will use the departure of so many to open new doors of opportunity. “We are very eager and open to work with our Baptist brothers and sisters in the West.”
Generally, the Youth Director is alarmed by the superficiality of American faith. “We know what it means to really believe in Jesus, for our spiritual fathers and grandfathers paid for their faith with their blood. Yet the American churches have never been persecuted. So we have been able to preserve an earnest and authentic faith.” According to him, one result of an unchallenged faith can be an “extreme liberalism” expressing itself for ex. in the ordination of practicing homosexuals.
The Baptists of Russia also take evangelism very seriously. North Americans tend to see themselves as surrounded by believers. “They can only imagine evangelisation as necessary on other continents, or at best perhaps in Mexico. It’s often a new idea for them that personal evangelisation is necessary right in their own midst.”
Evgeny Bakhmutsky is convinced of the talents of his young people and hopes they can play a major role at the Baptist World Alliance youth convention scheduled for Leipzig, Germany from 30 July to 3 August 2008. A meeting will be held with Western organisers in Kiev on 7 December regarding Leipzig. Despite the fact that the Russian Baptists´ annual conference will be held nearly simultaneously in Moscow, Bakhmutsky wants to win 200 young persons from throughout the ex-Soviet CIS-countries for the trip to Leipzig. “We have terrific music in Russia,” he assures. “And it isn’t just one more form of music. This music is truly one-of-a-kind in the world!”
The Catch-Up Game
This young Baptist from the Siberian city of Kemerovo would never claim though that everything is in the best of shape in his country. The paradigm change in his society has been breathtaking. Congregations have suddenly found themselves in a completely new political and cultural age; the congregations themselves even consist at times of a completely new crowd. The Youth Director informs that over 50% of the young people in his congregations are not from Christian homes. Bakhmutsky himself is no exception. Due to state pressures, his parents stopped attending church. He found faith and the church on his own when he was 14 (in 1990). Probably, the majority of youth having pious, Russian Baptist parents are now living in the West.
It can also be noticed in Russian congregations that not every young person manages to keep the CD-player turned off until the end of a church service seemingly incapable of ending. But Bakhmutsky does not want to go too far on the question of alternative forms of worship. Three sermons, 10 hymns and four poems – they’re not the problem. “Content is the issue.” If the programme offered meets the spiritual needs and questions of today’s youth, they will “pitch out the player and the headphones and listen up”.
Being that political changes occur much more rapidly than our ability to adjust, Russian congregations are also continually forced to play catch-up. The break between generations is clean and dramatic; a subculture born in the era of repression is no match for the challenges of the present. “The older generation needs to understand that it dare not pass on its culture to our youth. But their moral values, their lessens of life and spiritual knowledge must be passed on at all costs. We were once taught how to survive in a repressive setting. So we didn’t know how to manage under free and libertarian conditions. That’s what we’re learning now.” Living on the fringe in the shadows – that needs to be a thing of the past. We must find our way back into the midst of society.
Due to several false starts, the RUECB was not blessed with a functioning youth department until 2001. Bakhmutsky has been department head since March 2003. The department has five salaried workers in its Moscow offices. Seven branches, each with one salaried worker, are scattered across the wide expanses of the country: Khabarovsk (Far East), Krasnoyarsk, Pensa, Mozdok (Caucus), Perm, St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The department places great stress on training: In Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan it holds seminars on working with youth. Working relations exist with the Baltic states as well as Portugal and Romania. The smallest and weakest unions, Tadzhikistan and Turkmenistan, for ex., are also supported financially.
Evgeny Bakhmutsky was educated as an economist and manager. He graduated from theological studies at the Baptist seminary in Akademgorodok near Novosibirsk. He and his wife Tanya have two small children.
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 21 November 2007
A press release of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #07-47, 1.293 words.