No More Huts with Chicken Legs
The Dreams of Victor Ryaguzov
M o s c o w – Superintendent Victor Semyonovich Ryaguzov from the „Preobrazhenie" (Transformation) congregation in Samara on the Volga wanted to do the Baptist preachers of Russia a good deed. “We do a lot for young people, we hold summer camps and spiritual conferences und much more,” he explains. “But we do little to train our new preachers.” He therefore founded a preacher’s school in 2000, which has already trained 150 preachers in homiletics. He states: “We do not expect our graduates to preach like Charles Spurgeon. But we have already achieved much if they preach better.” And success stories can be told.
The Superintendent dreams of congregations that might work harder to reform themselves. “If it were strictly my choice, I would concentrate our efforts on the inner life of congregations. I hope for a deeper spiritual fellowship, a spirit of fraternal love and a willingness to help each other.” He also hopes for higher-quality music and a deeper form of worship.
He wants to apply those same concerns to the external realm: Baptist chapels have no need to compete with Moscow’s “Christ the Redeemer” cathedral, but they should nevertheless be “attractive, homey and comfortable”. “But that’s where the difficulties start,” he adds. “Even when we succeed in purchasing a piece of land, church construction can become extremely expensive.” He cites the example of Dimitrovgrad in Ulyanovsk region. The congregation has only 30 members; they’ve been constructing a new chapel for seven years. But finances are insufficient. “For that reason the congregation still gathers in a house more like a hut with chicken legs. Who would voluntarily go there? Only supernatural powers can bring people to a place like that.”
It pains the Superintendent of Samara and Ulyanovsk deeply that Baptists are still seen as a socially-isolated fringe element. “We don’t expect respect from the government. It would suffice if they would not disdain us and also call on us to help out with certain public functions. The situation will only change if we ever get access to mass media.”
He also does not demand the ultimate in relations with the Orthodox. It is not a matter of attempting to alter each other’s theology. “I am convinced that not nearly all people in our country want to become Baptists. Orthodoxy liturgy and its stress on the mystical is of greater appeal to them. But others certainly are open to becoming Baptists – they appreciate the strict demands on oneself and the commitment to God’s Word. That’s why the existence of both churches is justified. We only want to be accepted as fellow Christians. We desire a peaceful and reasonable cooperation. We should at least not slur each other and contribute jointly to humanitarian projects.”
He also believes: „Had the majority church in all modesty chosen to be tolerant, it would have only strengthened her authority in society. It would not have cost her nearly as many of her own members. But she states instead: ´Only we are correct – everyone else is a sect.´ That puts her in the position of a persecutor of churches, and that is very, very unfortunate.”
Baptists in Russia and the USA
North America’s evangelical movement is known for its countless divisions. Victor Ryaguzov therefore regards it as impossible to “simultaneously hold to all theological schools“. We are therefore only called to accept that which can be applied to our own context. One should not forget “that we in Russia are living in a situation involving a state-sponsored Orthodox religion. The media only describe us as sectarians, and we are thrown black-white into one pot with all other churches and sects. People are even afraid of losing their health policies or living quarters if they dare to join the Baptists.” He continues: “Mass evangelisation doesn’t work any more. I believe the time for personal evangelisation has returned. That’s how we existed during the Soviet era.”
The Superintendent appeals for understanding and patience regarding those Russians who have emigrated to North America. He explains: “In America, immigrants are concerned about retaining their identity. Clothing, the sermon, the order of church service, they should remain as they were in the USSR. They are afraid their youth might accept the American form and they want to protect them from that. But in the third or fourth generation, this change will come anyway. We need to give the congregations time – using pressure to change something would only split them. In time, the Russian churches will become churches with modern, American contents.”
Thanks to the influence of God-fearing parents and a particularly gifted preacher, Yuri Grachev, Victor Ryaguzov came to the faith in 1967 at the age of 16. After the state had brought his medicine studies to a halt, he was elected pastor of the Kubishevsky (now Samara) congregation in 1980. That congregation now has 800 members. He was named Superintendent for the regions of Samara and Ulyanovsk 12 years later, where he now oversees 30 congregations and groups with a total of 3.000 participants.
In January 2002 something rare occurred: He as a Baptist pastor was presented with the Russian state’s Friendship medal for his efforts in “strengthening friendship and cooperation between the peoples”.
He has two brothers and a sister – the sister is living in California. Their mother is also buried there. Pastor Ryaguzov has been married to Valentina since 1980. The couple has four children.
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 20 December 2007
A release of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. May be published freely. Release #07-56, 890 words.
Note from January 2021: Victor's older brother, Vladimir Ryaguzov (born 1950), was the factual head of Russia's "Evangelical Alliance" from its inception in 2003 until 2013. In that year, Vladimir suffered a debilitating stroke; he is now residing with his family in Seattle/Washington.