In a Class by Itself
The International Mission Board in Russia
Report and Editorial
M o s c o w -- There truly are things which function better in Russia than further West. One example are the relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) with world bodies such as the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Richmond/Virginia-based Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In Western Europe, relations between the SBC and the unions forming the European Baptist Federation (EBF) are on the back burner, yet in Russia the RUECB cooperates well with both. (EBF is the European arm of BWA). The stresses which the SBC`s mission society, the International Mission Board (IMB), experiences in Russia are largely governmental and state-church in origin, not evangelical. Things are different though in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where the Unions have withdrawn from the BWA and EBF.
RUECB-President Yuri Sipko is keen to emphasise his own Union’s constructive cooperation with the IMB. They also register broad agreement on issues such as Biblical inspiration and the leadership role of women. Alexander Popov, the Baptist Superintendent in the Izhevsk region just west of the Urals, is deeply convinced of the value of IMB support. He noted in a recent conversation that the missions drive in his region, Udmurtia, was no North American creation. “It was our idea that we cooperate. We developed the projects mutually. In our area, the Southern Baptists worked strictly through us and our Union. They wanted us to plant the congregations ourselves.”
The Southern Baptist Convention’s 16,3 million members make it the USA´s second-largest denomination. The Roman Catholic Church has three times as many members, but Catholics cannot come near the Baptists´ 44.000 congregations. The SBC has fielded a mission society (the IMB) ever since its founding in 1845; it was known until 1997 as the “Foreign Mission Board”. The mission has been active in post-communist Russia since at least 1990.
Groupings have repeatedly split off from the SBC. The most recent splits resulted from the „Conservative Resurgence“ movement which gathered momentum after 1960. This decidedly conservative faction has succeeded in getting its own candidate elected president of the SBC every year since 1979 - its presidents serve only one-year terms. The most liberal grouping, the “Alliance of Baptists”, split off in 1987; it now has the support of roughly 125 congregations. The moderate, 1991-founded „Cooperative Baptist Fellowship“ (CBF) enjoys the loyalty of 1.900 congregations. The SBC chose to remove itself from the BWA in October 2004. 210 Baptist churches with a total membership of 37 million remain within the BWA fold.
This recent division within the SBC has been labelled a “reformation achieved at incredibly high cost”. Texas seminary president Paige Patterson, himself an architect of the “Conservative Resurgence”, laments the fact that this struggle has lead to vocational disruption, injury and damaged friendships. “No one seriously confessing the name of Jesus can rejoice in these sorrows.” Leading Southern Baptists such as Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter and Rick Warren remain on the other side of the divide within the SBC.
Richmond is far away
Russians had a saying centuries ago: “The Tsar is far away and God is on high.” But not only Moscow is far away for most Russian evangelicals – Richmond/Virginia is even further. The fireworks in North America appear to have had little effect on the work on location in Russia. IMB-workers are – or have been - involved in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bryansk, Ivanovo, Nizhny Novgorod, Ufa, Izhevsk, Volgograd, Ekaterinburg and the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, among others. In Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula North American missionaries are involved directly in the planting of a new congregation. The RUECB-seminary in the Novosibirsk suburb of Akademgorodok receives vital IMB support. These missionaries organise conferences, evangelistic campaigns, concerts, Bible distribution, English classes and humanitarian projects (Beslan, for ex.) A Christian campground near Bryansk has been supported.
As with most other Western missions, the IMB attempts to concentrate on mission to the unreached as well as to other distinctive groupings. In this instance they include the Udmurts, a non-Slavic people related to the Finns residing in the region of Izhevsk, as well as the Muslims of Moscow and Russia in general. Other target groups include Russians of Korean origin, the deaf, Jews, students and artists. Ed Tarleton, the head of its Moscow office, dreams of reaching two dozen of Russia’s roughly 180 peoples.
Matters worth copying
The International Mission Board is a leading expert at mobilising Christians on the home front – a skill which Europeans could be well-advised to learn. Donation drives and an annual “Volunteer Summit for Central and Eastern Europe” are held in the USA; this year’s Summit will be held in late April in Sherwood/Arkansas. The Internet plays a heavy-duty role in the drive for mobilisation: see for ex. „hope4cee.org/Russia“, “hope4russia.org” and „hope4artists.com“. The webpage „hope4udmurt.org“ describes how a church event featuring the Udmurts can be organised – including the proper cuisine. Particularly active in generating missionary activity for Russia is the White River Baptist Association located in the Arkansas village of Flippin (population 1.357).
The IMB is also a king in the prayer movement for evangelisation, and Russia held first place in the IMB’s support campaigns during 2007. On 27 May, the world’s Southern Baptists dedicated their annual Day of Prayer and Fasting for World Evangelisation to the 770.000 Udmurts of central Russia. The annual Week of Prayer for International Missions, which took place from 2 to 9 December, focused on the missionaries serving in the region of the former Soviet Union.
Not surprisingly, the employees of the world’s best-funded Protestant mission society possess significant amounts of small change. But they also know how to share it. In 2007, the two annual conferences for the missionaries of Central and Eastern Europe collected donations totalling more than $90.000.
Within or without?
Across the globe, the IMB usually retains its own mission and programme. Though it may cooperate closely with the programme of a national union, the two missions remain separate and independent entities within that country. This has sometimes led to the claim – as in Nigeria – that the IMB “runs a parallel organization apart from the national conventions”. Internet reports from the team in Khabarovsk express the expectation that locals will join IMB-run projects – not vice versa. In early 2001, the IMB and RUECB-congregations in the Irkutsk region broke ties. Reports indicate that local pastors wanted support for existing projects. Yet the Southern Baptists preferred to start new church-planting initiatives with little or no financial support for locals. But the attempts at cooperation took a very different turn in Izhevsk.
Even in the very best of circumstances, differences in culture and economic clout remain a major hurdle for the work of missionaries in foreign countries. The IMB does have long-term missionaries: Mel and Nancy Skinner, now stationed in St. Petersburg, have been serving in Russia for 16 years. Ed and Teri Tarleton have been on location for two years less. Yet the vast majority of work is done by missionaries in Russia for the shorter term – persons much less-equipped to take on the twin “foes” of culture and economics. The IMB has developed and labelled a wide range of service options for short-term missionaries speaking little or no Russian. A “Virtual Strategy Coordinator” for ex. is a US-based lay volunteer given the task of developing a plan to evangelise a given Russian city or region. Other options include the teaching of English and “prayerwalking” – a practice by which one prayerfully canvasses a given area on foot in hopes of chancing upon opportunities to converse with passers-by.
But, not surprisingly, the lack of experience and cultural empathy will on occasion show through. The Houston-based Virtual Strategy Coordinator for Nizhny Novgorod wrote recently: “Most of the city's 1,3 million people have no access to the Gospel and little interest in religion or anything else from the West.” Last year, the head of IMB-efforts in European Russia reported: “The door is definitely closing. The groundwork is being laid to get [the Christians] ready for the next wave of persecution and the future necessity of house churches.” That news is of course of little encouragement to those Russians committed to staying in their homeland and not hanging out the white flag prematurely.
How “high” is high overhead? One simple indication for the disturbing ratio between cost and effect are the immense travel costs instigated by missionaries working for limited periods in Russia. But this is an issue for nearly all missions still active in Russia. If there were no short-term foreign missionaries, there would often be none whatsoever. Prayerwalking can be an important endeavour – but is it worth the cost of a roundtrip flight from Texas to central Russia? Is it more effective than praying in Texas? Some questions cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.
The biggest happening in town
It is possible for the Baptist majority gathered within the BWA to question aspects of IMB mission work. One should nevertheless keep the relative sizes in mind. With a worldwide total of 5.400 missionaries, the IMB qualifies as the globe’s largest Protestant mission society. Its missions budget for 2007 totalled $165 million. The afore-mentioned CBF supports 163 foreign-based missionaries and has an annual missions budget of $6 million. The „American Baptist Churches“ (ABC), which also resulted from the split of 1845, supported 150 foreign missionaries in 2002.
IMB fields 20 missionary teams throughout Russia. The number of IMB-missionaries residing longer-term in Russia is just under 100. Although ABC-members are active on mission projects and in the Moscow seminary, neither they nor the CBF presently have any foreign missionaries residing in Russia. By May, three teams of short-term missionaries will have visited Russia in 2008 – a frequency no other Baptist mission can match. (The “Slavic Gospel Association”, which is also very active among Russian Baptists, is an interdenominational mission.) When it comes to vision and levels of foreign Baptist mission activity in Russia, the IMB remains in a class by itself.
The best solution
The trauma of the SBC´s departure from the BWA is far from over among the small Baptist denominations of Western Europe. The SBC appears to be forming a relationship with Germany’s ethnic-German immigrants from Russia – the Aussiedler. A major player for these contacts is the “Bibelseminar Bonn” Bible institute, which is frequented primarily by the children of Aussiedler. A preachers´ conference in Lemgo featuring top Southern Baptist brass will be held in collaboration with this institute from 21 to 24 May. Attending will be Paige Patterson and Morris Chapman as well as former SBC-President Bobby Welch. This conference will ring the alarm bells of those European Baptists fearing the creation of an alternative World Alliance or at least increased distance between Aussiedler and native-German Baptists.
If SBC-leadership could accept a reasonable amount of diversity and new forms of unity found, then the suspicion of competition would become superfluous. The denominational infighting and church splits so prevalent in North America are a “luxury” which the impoverished evangelicals of Europe cannot afford. Baptists badly need each other. The labourers in the vineyard are few indeed.
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 17 April 2008
This report tends only to inform and lays no claim to representing a unified, single position of RUECB-leadership. May be
published with permission. Release #08-16, 1.835 words.
Note from January 2021: Thirteen years ago we were already writing that the "door is closing" in Russia. Undoubtedly, the IMB remains active in a small way in Russia, but it attempts to remain under the radar. Ed Tarleton has been head pastor of the "International Baptist Church of Budapest" since 2018. Southern Baptist co-operation with Germany's "Bibelseminar Bonn" remains strong.