Are Protestant Rehab Centres too successful?

The Woes of Success


Are Russian rehabilitation efforts “too successful”?


M o s c o w -- When visiting Baptist, Charismatic and Pentecostal congregations in Western Siberia, one will usually see an entire row of silent men between the ages of 20 and 50 without women or children. These are ex-addicts and ex-convicts who have found (or are finding) their way to Christ. It is reported that virtually all Baptist congregations in Western Siberia are involved in this work.


Rehabilitation centres allied with the Charismatic „Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE) reported of 12.000 long-term “success stories” during the period from 1995 to 2005. If one includes the Baptists and Pentecostals, the total number of such converts for that period should top 20.000. (The ROSKhVE church umbrella has a membership of over 300.000.) ROSKhVE presently represents 350 rehab centres throughout Russia. Its centres can care simultaneously for 7.000 clients.


The St. Petersburg-based, Baptist “Dobry Samaryatin” (Good Samaritan) rehab ministry reports that in one area of Novosibirsk region alone, 600 of its clients have kicked the habit of drugs or alcohol and are now living completely sober lives. During the summer of 2008 in St. Petersburg region, 13 graduates of their programme married. St. Petersburg’s Mikhail Nevolin clams in the evangelical magazine “Mirt”: “Today, no sphere of Protestant social service enjoys nearly as much success as the work with drug addicts.”


Yet in response to this mounting success, Nevolin warns in the “Mirt” article from 30 January 2010 that “every coin has a flipside”. This influx of new converts is “remaking the social composition” of Protestant congregations. People released from jail or recovering from substance abuse have time on their hands. “Many of them are lonely and have no chance of obtaining a job, so they can devote more time to church life than others.” Nevolin hastens to add that ex-addicts are extremely welcome in Protestant circles, yet they are threatening to destroy the diversity of the flock. “Ideally, congregations should reflect the social composition of society in general.” He agrees that congregations targeting specific social groups do have their place, but they should be the exception and not the rule.


Nevolin fears a snow-ball effect resulting from this wave of new converts. Diversity is destroyed not only by an influx of new believers, but also by the ensuing flight of “ordinary folks who have never been associated with (former) drug addicts and criminals”. A congregation gets replaced rather than being increased. Where are the converts from the middle class, the writer asks. “Do they need the Gospel less than others?” He is hereby pointing to a quandary as old as Christendom itself. When inviting people to Christ, it is usually not the most desirable candidates, the successful and moneyed classes, who are first to accept the invitation.


Mikhail Nevolin notes the same “danger” within seminaries and Bible schools. Due to the lack of potential students, schools teaching theology are in no position to be selective in their choice of students. General speaking, he states: “Our young people are in no hurry to become pastors, missionaries or theologians”. This is undoubtedly linked to the scarcity of paid positions for graduates. Nevertheless, ex-convicts and drug addicts are as a rule eager to study theology. They tend not to have concrete plans for their lives and are more willing to adjust. They are less demanding, geographically more mobile and less hampered by family considerations. (But also less likely to emigrate.) Nevolin adds: “Those prepared to study are also supplied with food and living quarters.”


Somewhat akin to David Wilkerson’s “Teen Challenge” movement, the Charismatic, Krasnodar-based “Izhod” (Exit or Exodus) ministry has begun planting congregations which consist primarily of former addicts graduated from its rehab programme. These young congregations are known for their hierarchical, untraditional style rooted in the drug culture. They tend to prove the position stated by Professor Vladimir Lazarev of Moscow’s „Russian Academy of Natural Sciences“: “Narcotic addiction is more than just a morbid passion. It is also a way of life, a subculture with specific symbols, a language, values and norms of behaviour.”


The numbers in general

Russian academics describe substance abuse as one of the three greatest dangers facing modern civilization – the other two being atomic warfare and ecological calamity. Past reports have listed from two to four million of Russia’s 142 million citizens as suffering from drug addiction. This would amount at the very most to 2,8% of its population. A study from 2008 reports only 2,5 million addicts, 30.000 of whom die annually. Roughly 18% of them seek help in rehabilitation centres – about 500 of these centres are run by Protestants.


Protestant rehab programmes are known for their lack of medical expertise and medication. Clients are instead supplied with heavy dosages of Bible, prayer, confession and fellowship – beginning usually from day one. The largest Protestant ministry to addicts - the Charismatic “Novaya Zhizn” (New Life) ministry - has a centre with nearly 400 clients in Kingisepp region very near the Estonian border. Yet the typical centre has 15 or 20 clients and is located in a private dwelling in a distant village. Great stress is placed on empathy and the personal relationship with the client; all of Good Samaritan’s nearly 40 centres are headed by former addicts. Therapy programmes usually take from six months to a year; the longest ones can require a stay of two to three years. Good Samaritan reports that roughly half of those coming leave the therapy programme prematurely. Yet 60% of those graduating from the programme succeed in making a complete and long-term break with substance abuse. This adds up to a success rate of 30% among those who initially began treatment. Christian sources claim that state-run institutions in the East and West relying heavily on medication for drug withdrawal have long-term success rates to the order of 2%.


The stay at a Protestant rehab centre is usually free-of-charge to the client. ROSKhVE’s head, Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, states that 90% of programme costs are covered by the missions and churches themselves. A modest percentage of costs are recovered by the physical labour of clients on-location. State aid does occur on occasion, but can generally be described as minimal. Ryakhovsky reports that church-sponsored efforts usually occur despite, and not in cooperation with, local authorities.


The efforts of these anti-drug programmes are not limited to rehabilitation centres. Anti-drug activists are bad for business, and an Izhod worker in the south of Moscow recently lost teeth and suffered a fractured jaw when passing out invitation cards to addicts waiting to purchase illegal drugs. After ROSKhVE protested about a drugstore at Petrovsko-Razumovskaya metro station in the north of the city which was concocting ever-new poisons for Russia’s youth, municipal authorities shuttered the lucrative enterprise.


Non-Protestant reactions to these anti-drug efforts reach all across the map. A secular specialist has labelled the work at New Life’s centre in Kingisepp region “on par with the results of the very best Russian centres for addiction treatment”. New Life-Director Sergey Matevosyan was even called to the Kremlin in October 2005 and ceremonially presented with a medal by then-President Vladimir Putin. But two years later, a priest heading an Orthodox rehab centre in St. Petersburg, Maxim Pletnev, claimed that Protestant rehab centres were simply replacing one addiction with another. “They may be saving people from drugs,” he conceded. “But these people then display a dependency on the sect very similar to narcotic dependency.”


In the first two decades since communism, the politically-minded Moscow Patriarchate has initially addressed the top of Russia’s society – the successful and moneyed classes. This prioritization has given Protestants considerable room to serve the bottom fringe of society, especially in non-European Russia. (Yet Professor Lazarev calls it a stereotype to assume that substance abusers stem from the lower echelons of society and from dysfunctional families.)


Does, as Pletnev implies, the danger of indoctrination exist among Protestant efforts? Is a specific worldview being forced upon desperate people against their actual will? Does a kind of brain-washing occur? At what point is a client in danger of losing his or her personal will? Must the whole package be accepted, or can a person successfully graduate from a Protestant programme while still remaining Orthodox, Muslim, or atheistic? Are rehab centres often co-responsible when clients break off therapy prematurely? Dr. Alexander Negrov, Rector of “St. Petersburg Christian University”, reports on a worrisome tendency to use non-stop, marathon Bible reading as a remedy for temptation. Little research has been done on the theological content of Protestant therapy programmes. If funding were available, then Negrov would like to start.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Moscow, 29 December 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 #10-30, 1.421 words, 1.942 keystrokes and spaces.