Good News Church Attains Double Digits
Rick Renner still active in Moscow
M o s c o w -- It was a Baptist woman who first pointed me to the existence of “Rick Renner Ministries”. Six years ago, I asked her which Moscow church she would recommend to a searching young lady from a completely secular background. But I was not so reckless as to send the young woman there – I sent myself instead. My initial impression was that this ministry is a total transplant from Oklahoma, the home state of Tulsa-born Rick Renner (born 1958). Where else in Russia can one find a Protestant organisation offering hard rock and performance dancing plus beauty tips and fashion shows for the ladies?
But is it just to dismiss Rick Renner and his “Good News Church” as strictly foreign? The Charismatic movement has obviously struck a chord in the hearts of some Russians. Though it celebrated only its 10th birthday on 12 September, Renner’s 3.000-member congregation qualifies as Moscow’s second-largest Protestant gathering. Matts-Ola Ishoel’s “Word of Life Bible Center”, which stems from the Swedish Charismatic movement of Ulf Ekman, has over 3.500 members. Except for the sermon by Renner and a three-minute slot for speaking in tongues, nearly everything presented at Good News Church is in Russian.
The Charismatic movement of Russia may have as many as 400.000 adult adherents – most of them gathered within ROSKhVE, the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith.” (This union is not to be confused with the traditional Pentecostal “Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith”, out of which it arouse in the 1990s.) ROSKhVE is above all a legal entity for negotiations with the state. It cannot be described as a church, for it is divided into diverse groups, each having its own leading personalities. Renner is part of a “Good News” association claiming to unite 700 congregations within the region of the former USSR, yet the association operates within Russia under the broad umbrella of ROSKhVE. The continuing access of the Renner family to Russian visas can well be attributed to the diplomatic skills and connections of ROSKhVE-Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky.
Good News Church may qualify as Charismatic, yet the assumed spontaneity is carefully orchestrated. The frequent commands from up front include: “stand up”, “sit down”, “clap” and “greet your neighbour”. The service on 5 September included Renner’s command: “Ask your neighbours how you can pray for them!” Since the complete stranger next to me could have been an emissary from the Taliban, we both chose to remain silent.
But how does the Charismatic movement connect with the Russian psyche? Good News Church’s loud, precision presentation of music and dance reminds one more of a Red Square parade than of the incense-spiced melancholy of a serene, candle-lit Orthodox service. At least both Orthodox and Charismatics appear rooted in the traditional Russian preference for the irrational, for mysticism and magic. “Pray this prayer seven times, and then God will . . . “ has been a typical Russian folk approach to Christian faith. In Charismatic terms, that is expressed for ex. as: “Pay your tithe and God will . . .” If you do “A”, “B” will follow. Think too of the mystical power of icons, relics and holy water – Charismatics use handkerchiefs.
The Charismatic call to the Gospel is very direct. It is fuelled by the burning expectation that God will act. “God just gave me a word of prophecy,” claimed Renner in the September service. Charismatics are not known for their modesty: The deeds of God and the misdeeds of humankind are clearly named. The cessationist and dispensationalist theology of many Russian Baptist congregations approaches faith from the opposite end. Cessationism claims that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased after the founding of the 1st-century church. Such a mind-based theology appealing strictly to the Biblical text offers the comforting, intellectual assurance that one has been saved for all of eternity. The Charismatic faith is much more immediate and direct; it’s for those who relish excitement and high-level adrenaline.
One secret of Charismatic material success must surely be its effective preaching of the tithe. On 5 September there were three offerings, the first one was, as usual, preceded by a pep talk on the tithe. In that brief sermon, Renner assured that refusing to pay the tithe was “robbing God”. The only possible conclusion of his talk was that listeners were robbing God if they did not pay their tithes to Rick Renner Ministries. Yet this tithe is in the end painless, for it is more of a business investment than a selfless sacrifice. Charismatics stress that God will repay one manifold for a tithe. God is loyal and true and an investment in Him will perform better than any stock market. For the Charismatic “Prosperity Gospel”, the accumulation of wealth is proof for the validity of a given ministry. Except for Charismatics and Adventists, few Russian Protestants preach tithing.
An additional source of income is the strong market for self-help Christian literature. Good News Church markets a wide variety of books, most of which are translations from the English. In a video on the Internet, Renner confirms that the storied evangelist Kenneth Copeland has been a strong financial supporter of the Moscow effort from the beginning and lauds Copeland for his copious Christian stewardship (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOTaMI7TVG0). Copeland, who has repeatedly been under US-government scrutiny for tax evasion, owns an airport at Ft. Worth/Texas and, as of 2007, two executive jets. One of them is a Cessna Citation X valued at 20 million dollars. Rick Renner Ministries runs the Moscow offices of another multi-millionaire Charismatic: Joyce Meyer of Missouri.
Renner, who began his European ministry in Riga in 1991, now also heads a three-year-old, 1.200-member congregation in Kiev. He proved his political savvy by steering clear of political landmines during the period of heightened political tensions between Moscow and Kiev prior to the election of Viktor Yanukovich. Renner has sharply criticised Sunday Adelaja, the Nigerian-board head of what is claimed to be Europe’s largest congregation: Kiev’s “Embassy of God” which once had perhaps 25.000 members. Adelaja, who was accused of major financial irregularities in late 2008, has also claimed to be a father of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution”.
Judged by a showing of hands at the September service, less than 10% of “Good News Church’s” members have been believers for as long as 10 years. This seems to indicate that the vast majority of members came from a secular background. But the lack of long-term believers very likely also indicates that a person converted at Good News will not stay for as long as a decade. Charismatics are known for strong turnovers, for a constant coming-and-going. Baptists and the Orthodox should probably not be complaining about proselytism – many persons converted in Charismatic circles will still end up as members of the Orthodox or Baptist faiths.
Departures are due in part to the fact that Charismatics offer their followers a finished, cut-and-dried package. Issues of leadership and church ministry are already decided. At least on the level of the public Sunday service, the regular church member is required to do nothing more than donate funds. And sadly, in addition, many are disappointed that the promises they have been given remain unfulfilled. Intimacy within the congregation seems weak. A US-author writes: Leaders are “gunning for success rather than intimacy with their sheep”. Most attendees at Good News do not appear to know each other.
Space is always at a premium in Moscow, and the Good News Church has been announcing the construction of its new edifice for years. In his preaching, Renner has compared it to Solomon’s temple. That extremely expensive and politically-complicated effort has apparently fallen on hard times. For five months now, the entire congregation has been meeting in a small congress hall on the eastern edge of the city. Its diminutive size has forced the expansion from two to four Sunday services. Renner admits that the completion of their new building is at least several years away.
Rick Renner and his wife Denise, both are described as the congregation’s “senior pastors”, do not engage in inter-confessional relations. Several years ago, the requests of a Lutheran bishop for a get-acquainted visit went unanswered. Due to this lack of correction from other church quarters, Charismatics tend to offer wide zones for “theological creativity” and heresy. Renner carries the title of “Apostle” – far beyond that of a simple “Bishop”. That office is rejected by some Charismatic groups such as Moscow’s “Tushino Evangelical Church”.
Characteristics worthy of consideration
In late August in a mid-sized Baptist church west of Moscow, a pastor admitted in his sermon that he possessed neither computer nor email address. Due to the possibility of negative influences from society, he concluded it was better to remain so. Renner’s sermon on 5 September began with a greeting for the TV and Internet audiences. Rick Renner Ministries understands the power of media. Its webpages are thoroughly professional in appearance; the precision-orchestrated church services and sermons are thoroughly prepared and ready for broadcast. Here there is no room for the prayers of sobbing grandmothers and the recitation of homespun poetry so prevalent in the Russian Baptist tradition. At Good News Church, most people can only help shape their cell group at home or work behind the scenes at church. Yet in return, they get a professionally-produced worship “product” worthy of serious listening.
Attendance is not recommended for those preferring privacy and anonymity. Papers and pens are in circulation and an attendee can expect to have been relieved of name and address within the first hour. Email and mobile phones keep members and cell groups connected in a hopelessly overcrowded city.
I am ambivalent as to whether the traditional Baptist or the Charismatic form of church service is better. Both offer major strengths and weaknesses.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 15 September 2010
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #10-25, 1.631 words, 10.183 keystrokes and spaces.