Flying in Below the Radar
Russian Protestants and the problem of
M o s c o w -- After a meeting with 60 youth in Moscow two years ago, John Riley, an Arizona-based worker for „Crown Financial Ministries”, concluded that the Baptist youth of Russia are also caught up in the spirit of materialism and consumerism. “All of them wanted iPhones and automobiles, all of them were after the good life demonstrated to them by the new rich.” In an interview at Moscow Theological Seminary on 15 October 2010, he reported that Western-style advertising has been hugely successful in creating artificial need among Russians.
Phil LaBarbera, a second Arizonian who taught at the Crown seminar in Moscow, believes Russians may be even more eager to demonstrate their wealth than are US-Americans. “Yet those in America or Russia who want to show their wealth most often don’t have it. They portray themselves as something they really are not. But I also know extremely wealthy people back home who walk around in jeans and T-shirts. They can do so because there identity is in Christ, and not in their possessions.”
Anatoly Musiyenko, a Crown staff member based in Kiev, added that most pastors are not in a position to teach the young on issues of consumption. Their own finances are often as disordered and unplanned as those of their parishioners. They too struggle with unpaid debt. Leaders have not yet begun teaching on the Biblical principles of finance – such temptations were much smaller during the high-cash and low-merchandise, “forced savings” conditions of the communist era.
LaBarbera noted that Russian Baptists have in their teaching created strong barriers against substance abuse and sexual license. Yet the temptation of materialism “flies under the radar” of Baptist mores. They are “afraid of talking with authority about something they themselves have not yet mastered”. Nevertheless, financial practices form a major portion of our Christian witness. Defaulting on loans or going bankrupt is a very negative testimony to the watching world.
The Crown ministry is no friend of the world’s money lenders. Loans – even for a business endeavour – should be accepted only if sufficient private cushion is available. “Never buy now because of a planned increase in income,” LaBarbera admonished. “Never endanger your family.” Unpaid debt can be a form of slavery, greatly hampering the happiness of Christian families. He suggested: “If you want to buy something costing over $100, pray about it with your spouse and then wait 30 days.” Personal loans are especially sinister, for they make longed-for consumer goods immediately accessible.
Crown Financial Ministries accepts no loans and acts only after sufficient donations have been collected. This makes them largely independent of the up-and-down cycles of a capitalist economy. Its website (“www.crown.org” or “www.crown.org.ua” in Russian) states: “Crown believes that one of the ways God can give direction is through the provision (or withholding) of funds.” Accepting loans can distort God’s plans for realising our hopes.
The speakers noted that Rick Warren’s “Saddleback Church” in California also stresses freedom from debt: His congregation constructed its first church building only after it had attained a membership of 15.000. Citing the fact that the ancient church had thrived in the catacombs of Rome, it was not easy for the guests to accept the necessity of quick church construction in Eastern Europe. John Riley warned: “Satan may use your excitement about a new building to misuse you later in ways you would never have imagined.”
Listeners protested that the political conditions in Russia are very different: Baptists are usually regarded as sectarian. Cases exist in which churches have been built for congregations consisting of less than 15 members. In Belarus for ex., religious worship outside of a building registered for church usage is officially prohibited.
One very international issue discussed on 15 October was the matter of corruption. Phil LaBarbera noted in a conversation that a father does not sin when he gives a bribe for access to medical treatment for his sick daughter. “That man is no more of a sinner than a slave is for being a slave to his master. Being forced to give a bribe due to oppression is not sin. But giving a bribe to create a comfortable shortcut for yourself is very questionable.” In addition, accepting payment or a salary for a service which exceeds the actual value of the service rendered is highly problematic. Usually, the person paying is doing so in hopes of obtaining a special favour – that the recipient be silent about something questionable for ex.. Such cases are clear instances of bribery.
LaBarbera added that our responsibility for probing into the source of donations we receive is limited. If it is clear to him that a donation stems from the lottery, he will return it to the donor. The same is true for a fake donation given only to avoid taxes. “Some things are always wrong.” Yet if a very wealthy Russian Christian pays someone an appropriate price for a service rendered, the person paid does not need to feel guilty, for he does not know the actual source of that money. God is the one who judges the thoughts and intents of the heart. “We dare not put ourselves in his place.” One size does not fit all – much giving and receiving can only be judged by the specific situation in which it occurs. After his conversion, Zacchaeus donated funds that he had earned in an evil and unjust way. “Who can say that a donor’s heart has not been changed? No human in a church can make that call.”
Giving should be done responsibly, yet we also have only a limited responsibility to probe into the outcome of our
donations, for the donor’s blessing occurs at the very moment the donation passes from donor to recipient. Riley asked: “If I give a homeless man $5, am I then morally required to follow him
around for 30 days to make sure he does’t buy vodka?” Yet in a clear case, when a person smells of alcohol, one should buy that person bread instead. Riley complained that many Russian believers
use the suspicion of misuse as an excuse to give nothing at all to panhandlers. They thereby miss out on the opportunity of a great blessing for themselves. The primary issue is or own
generosity, the Crown team insisted. The blessing is always greater for the giver; it’s the donor’s salvation that is involved when a donation is given.
Generosity is the key
Generous giving is a lifestyle, John Riley insisted. “Generosity will change your attitude to your poverty. It can be very addictive. It takes the focus off ourselves.” He criticised the “Prosperity Gospel” as a distortion, for it assumes that the blessings of God in return will be of a material nature. “Most of the reward will be in peace and joy.”
He also criticised “reactionary giving” – giving as a response to specific needs – as short-term in nature. After an intensive program to fund a specific project - the building of a new structure for the church for ex. - giving will return to its former, low level. Yet a pastor’s teaching of generosity has long-term results and makes the formulation of reliable church budgets possible. “Simply teach the truth,” he insisted. “God will water the congregation as the pastor teaches generosity. “
Despite the danger of legalism, Riley views the tithe as a basic element of Christian life. Refusing to tithe means one is not trusting God to provide. Attitude is also vital. “We always have an attitude of scarcity in the church,” he reported, “but that is not God’s way. His way is one of joy and celebration.” In the Bible, tithes were brought to the altar as an expression of joy and celebration. That celebration occured within the community of the congregation.
Riley decries the rapid growth of parachurch organisations, for he sees them as having destroyed the sacred community of the local church as a decision-making body. Local church councils no longer have the power to decide on how best to support local and international needs – parachurch organisations have taken over the task. Or more precisely: The donor no longer trusts his local church to decide over the usage of the funds he donates. He/she makes that decision alone in the privacy of his own home and then donates money to the parachurch organisation of choice.
Designated giving – donating to a specific cause determined by the giver - is another expression of the movement away from congregation-centered decision-making. Designated giving usurps the power of the local community to decide on the proper usage of donations. Riley does not rule out giving to parachurch organisations, but it should occur beyond and over the tithe. The tithe belongs to and should be celebrated in the local church community. The Arizonan consequently believes missionaries should be asking church boards – not individuals – for funding.
Elders and church boards are also of vital importance to the spiritual well-being of pastors and organisational
leaders. “Leaders must always receive council from a board or from trusted individuals. One person alone making decisions on large amounts of money makes him an open field for the attacks of
Satan. Many, many pastors in the US have been caught up in corruption by not following the guidelines of clear accountability.”
How rich are Russia’s Protestants?
At what level of income can the Protestants of Russia afford to become a giving church? When can it be expected to donate more to foreign causes than it receives from foreign sources? Russia places 71st on the Human Development Index for 192 countries; Belarus is at position 68. Brazil, which has donated to mission causes in Russia, is located at position 75; Ukraine is at 85.
That question is virtually unanswerable. But the real issue is not the material wealth of a given church, but rather its generosity. How willing is a church to give of itself in every way to others? Crown insists that large amounts of potential funding remain untapped within the Christian church. Its studies suggest that giving increases 72% after Crown has done a teaching series in a congregation: “It simply pays to teach the truth.” Riley claimed that two out of three church members in the US still do not contribute any funding:
The root parachurch organisations forming Crown Financial Ministries, a Georgia-based ministry focusing on the teaching of Biblical financial practices, were founded in 1976 and 1985. The merged organisation received its present name in 2000. Crown now has 80 full-time staff and is active in roughly 85 countries. Its Ukrainian branch is headed by Anatoly Musiyenko; Anatoly Stepanov is active in Moscow and Viktor Bozhenko in Volgograd. Yelena Prokopovich is responsible for Belarus.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 22 October 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 #10-26, 1.777 words, 10.721 keystrokes and spaces.