Generous Orthodoxy in Minsk
The Baptists of Belarus are optimistic
M i n s k -- Minsk’s “Good News” (Blagovestie) Baptist congregation at Ulitsa Chaikovskogo 37 in the north of the city has made great progress. What had begun in 1990 with a handful of believers stemming from the unregistered Baptist movement has blossomed into Minsk’s second-largest congregation belonging to the Belarusian (White Russian) “Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. “Good News” has baptised 500 new believers in the past 19 years and has even founded two daughter congregations. In 2007 it sent out 100 of its members to form the “New Earth” congregation. Just this year it parted with 70 more in order to found “Light of Hope”. The three congregations have a combined Sunday-morning attendance of 500-600, rivalling that of the city’s most senior Baptist congregation, Golgotha.
“We have had a wonderful time the last 7-8 years,” reported Senior Pastor Dmitry Lazuta on 27 May. “We have baptised 40 new believers annually and are growing new church leaders.” A two-year evening programme attended by 25 young persons, all of them former university students, is offering a hands-on course on mission and church work. But the pastor cautioned: “Crowds are not showing up. We have to fight for every convert. So we must be very professional in our efforts. But I remain very optimistic. It is a good time for the church.“
“Good News” never was simple regular fare within the Baptist movement. It began with the fact that Pastor Lazuta initially wore a beard. His congregation was probably also the first Baptist one in the country to permit drums; young people and the absence of a dress code are also obvious. Today, the two daughter congregations are undoubtedly the loudest Baptist congregations in Minsk. Lazuta reported: “Thanks to the Pentecostals, we discovered that services might also be joyful – that it is not a sin to celebrate God. His congregations are also the first Baptist ones to utilise women as small-group leaders. He sees beauty in diversity: “I believe God uses the different streams of Christianity to make us richer.”
What must change within the Baptist movement? “We most promote the value of tolerance,” he responded. “We need to emphasize that our Union has many things in common, but we differ in methods and style. Only now is our leadership beginning to recognise that we have no future unless we accept our differences.” Though the Minsk pastor has reservations regarding the theology of the US-American Brian McLaren, he loves the title of his 2004 book: “A Generous Orthodoxy”. “That’s what we need!” he exclaimed. “We dare not declassify a worship service as a ‘funeral’ or ‘discotheque’. That’s an insult and we must fight against that. Generous Orthodoxy is the only way to go. We must study the changing times and communicate the unchanging truth with changing methods.”
How are relations with other congregations within the Belarusian Union? “Some are for us, some are not,” Lazuta answered. The pastor remains a part-time instructor at the Union’s Minsk seminary and heads a church-planting programme sponsored by the 1933-founded “Slavic Missionary Service”.
Why did “Good News” bother to join the Belarusian “Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” a decade ago? “We had limited fellowship with others, “ the 1998 graduate of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia explained. “We wanted to be open for new experiences and ideas. We were self-sufficient in many things, but not self-sufficient in terms of fellowship.”
Dmitry Lazuta reported that in 1989 a kind of second split occurred within the non-registered Baptist movement in Belarus. Initially, this Baptist movement had broken off from the Soviet Union’s “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” in 1961. Twenty-eight years later, its Belarusian branch demanded a re-registration of its members. “At that time this church had a procedure for purifying itself, called a confession. Every member was required to stand before the congregation and confess his or her sins. My circle of friends and I felt this to be appropriate only if it were voluntary. So we and hundreds more left the denomination.” He added: “There are many good things I learned from them, like faithfulness and commitment.” To this day, he remains a pacifist. But Lazuta also regards that denomination as legalistic and judgemental: “Spiritual pride is a problem for them.”
Now known as the "International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists" (IUCECB), the one-time "Initiativniki” still enjoy a relatively strong presence in Belarus with as many as 4.000 members and strong congregations in Minsk, Brest, Gomel and Mogilev. Their world membership is roughly 78.000; perhaps half of them still reside in the countries of the former USSR
The further division of Baptist groupings within Belarus has indeed not yet come to a halt: In 2008, 16 congregations with approximately 300 members broke with the official Belarusian Union. The group’s leader is Viktor Nemtsev (Minsk), a former professor. The break is attributed more to leadership than to issues of theology. One worker for the official Union states: “Our greatest problem today is the lack of unity.”
Pastor Lazuta is also the only Union pastor who has preached at Minsk’s controversial, charismatic “New Life” congregation. He explained: “I wanted to express my respect for what they are doing as an officially underground church. I respect their courage.” Meeting in a former cattle barn on the Western outskirts of the city, the 1.000-member congregation is known for the highly-confrontational style of its negotiations with the government. These included a 23-day hunger strike in 2006 and a petition with 50.000 signatures delivered to Brussels EU-offices in March 2008.
Yet Baptist tent evangelism remains active and the Baptist Union’s “Zhemchuzhinka“ (Little Pearl) children’s camp and social programme in Kobrin near Brest continues to enjoy solid relationships with the Minsk-based government. In a conversation with this press service, “New Life’s” lawyer, Sergey Lukanin (Minsk), conceded that conditions have improved since 2007, when three of his church’s pastors were jailed for brief periods. Problematic remains in any case the large areas of legal grey: Many practices (and buildings) deemed illegal by legislation continue to be tolerated by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko. “New Life” was last ordered to vacate its highly-unusual church building as of 1 June 2009.
Lazuta concluded: “I am grateful to God for situation we have today. I wish we had more freedom, but we in any case have much more freedom than we had 20 years ago. We should not be complaining – we still have great freedom to witness to our neighbours and relatives. And that remains the primary source of growth for our church. Our government may be authoritarian, but it certainly is not totalitarian. We are somewhere in the middle between democracy and totalitarianism. We were spared the economic shock treatment meted out by the Russian government under Boris Yeltsin, and many observers feel that decision was very much to the benefit of our country. We are still very hopeful about the possibility of continued change and improvement.”
The “Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the Republic of Belarus” has 13.500 members gathered in 290 congregations. Its President is Nikolay Sinkovets (Minsk). Roughly 100.000 (1%) of the country’s 9.8 million citizens are Protestants.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Minsk/Moscow, 3 June 2009
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. May be published freely. Release #09-17, 1.188 words, 7.509 keystrokes and spaces.