Following Your Ears to Church
Comparing three of Moscow’s newest Baptist congregations
M o s c o w -- Russia is famous for doing without signs or route pointers. That’s especially true (voluntarily or otherwise) of Protestant meeting places.
1. One very young Moscow congregation has solved the problem in a unique fashion. All it takes to locate “Moscow City Church” (MCC) is to follow one’s ears into Hotel Milan in south Moscow. At 11,00 on a Sunday morning the music will be resonating from the second floor – one simply takes the steps upward and opens the door where the beat sounds loudest. It will open to reveal a small auditorium with stage. Roughly 60 persons will be in attendance – hardly anyone over the age of 35. This congregation is only a year old and matters such as acoustic volume appear to be left to the discretion of the bandleader. The band’s leader, the keyboarder, also plays a terrific sax. On the Sunday I was there, Communion was served at the outset of the service to the sound of very lively music.
The preacher of the day delivered his sermon sans tie and in jeans. His question-and-answer sermon was punctured with “Amens” and raised hands. This is one of the very few Baptist churches of Russia which watch the clock. The one-and-only sermon lasted 31 minutes and the final song was over 80 minutes after the start of the service. (Perhaps the price of hotel space contributes to that brevity.)
This youthful congregation is an outgrowth of the Campus Crusade for Christ’s student ministry. (But the graduates of a drug-rehab programme form an important second segment.) Campus has been active in Russia since 1991; Vitaly Vlasenko, head of the pastoral team, spent more than a decade with that organization. This congregation takes to heart a teaching propagated by Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church: “The bait must be tasty to the fish, not the fisherman.” It’s not the tastes of the old-time churchgoers that matter most.
2. Events are more staid at the three-year-old “Your Church” congregation meeting at the RUECB’s (Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist) “Moscow Theological Seminary” in the east of the city. The music is contemporary, but its musicians still believe in three- and four-part harmony. The worship team consists primarily of members of the Ukrainian “Zhivaya Kaplya” (Living Drop) music group. When Yevgeny Goncharenko’s classical-church music courses are in session at Second Baptist Church, its semi-professional musicians do guest appearances.
Things are more festive here: Head Pastor Leonid Kartavenko may wear a ministerial collar and white sash. At least one of Your Church’s two-or-so sermons will be conversational in nature – Rev. Kartavenko is a gifted communicator. All generations are present, but Pastor Kartavenko insists: “We are a church mostly for the middle-aged.” The theology is inclusive. “We do not necessarily rebaptise those who believe they were sincere when they were initially baptised, say, as Orthodox.” He notes that in old times, unregistered Baptists even rebaptised those who had arrived from other Baptist quarters.
“Growing is hard work”, the Head Pastor adds. Membership is around 80 and increasing slowly. But I noted during a recent visit that the congregation sported many new faces: Some of those who had come from Second Baptist Church to help get things started have apparently felt free to return to their home congregation. Your Church appears in full operation. Of the three congregations listed here, only Kartavenko is able to serve nearly full-time as a pastor.
3. A third congregation also sports Second Baptist roots: Yevgeny Bakhmutsky’s “Russian Bible Church” (RBC), now meeting in the RUECB’s central offices on Varshavskoe Shosse. A cello replaces the brass instruments here; the music is contemporary, but subdued. Again roughly 80 members, but many more participants and guests. The congregation may have the youngest average age – few persons are over the age of 30 with more than a few children. But one active member, insists: “We are in no way trying to avoid older people.” Bakhmutsky, who was until recently Director of the RUECB’s national youth division, recruited many of his primary staff through his youth contacts.
Strong emphasis is placed on the spoken word; expository preaching is the order of the day. At least one of the two sermons lasts from 50 to 60 minutes; services take at least two hours. Much in the style of groups such as “Calvary Chapel”, books of the Bible are preached through from beginning to end, chapter-by-chapter. The Bible is regarded as infallible on all topics, including science. Here the “sufficiency” of Scripture is a key theological term.
A great rarity: The congregation has more male than female members. The congregation stresses male leadership and has four ordained, male pastors. A member recalls: “Before the congregation was founded two years ago, Bakhmutsky spent a year discipling a core group of young men and women.” Stress is placed on thorough planning and organisation; every active participant is asked to find his/her personal ministry and task.
The services devote time to prayer – prayer for the nation and its leaders coupled with the prayers for one’s own circle of acquaintances and family members.
How the three groups compare
Despite their many commonalities, these three congregations differ in flavour and style. The music is loudest at MCC, calmest at RBC. Your Church offers women the greatest opportunities for leadership; RBC stresses male authority. Leonid Kartavenko believes his congregation has horizontal leadership structures; RBC stresses leadership by a team of male elders.
All three groups are adamantly evangelical, yet it is a matter of debate as to which group most resembles traditional Russian-Baptist theology. Though aspects of RBC reflect the historical Russian model – its decidedly, non-charismatic orientation for ex. -, its Calvinist theology veers from the classical model. RBC is at least the most traditional in form.
All three groups stress a “professional”, well-prepared worship service. Electronics, AV and the Internet are taken seriously. Kartavenko reports that the majority of those watching his congregation’s services do so via the Internet (www.yourchurch.ru). RBC (www.rbcerkov.ru) offers its sermons as downloadable mp3-files. MCC’s site (Church24.ru) needs the most work – but they are also the youngest of the three congregations.
In all three cases, the gathering is far from over following the final “Amen”. Great stress is placed on getting acquainted. The “snack” offered at Your Church following the service usually suffices for both lunch and supper. All three take the business of fishing seriously. Winning persons “off the street” and not weaning believers away from other congregations is stressed. More than a few new members have Orthodox connections. Street evangelism is still somewhat possible in Russia: In the course of a week beginning on 4 September 2011, RBC recited the entire Bible in Moscow’s pedestrian zone “Arbat”. All three groups feature attractive excursions for the young including boat cruises, summer camps, English camps and picnics. One Your Church excursion even included parachute-jumping.
Last but not least: None of these three congregations have the word “Baptist” in their names. Yet all assure that they are not ashamed of the word “Baptist”. These congregations desire to be inclusive: They all desire to win and include those who do not want to describe themselves as Baptist. Bakhmutsky explains that his congregation also wants to partner with newer congregations who have never called themselves “Baptist”. Nevertheless, all three congregations are led by past or present department heads at the RUECB’s Moscow headquarters. Vlasenko heads the RUECB’s Department for External Church Affairs; Bakhmutsky is the Union’s Senior Vice-President. Kartavenko headed its Missions Department until February 2008 and is now allied with the ex-Baptist, Evangelical-Christian businessman Alexander Semchenko. Yet Your Church remains a RUECB-member.
Many of the practices these congregations are attempting to implement were first introduced by Russia’s Charismatic movement in the 1990’s: a contemporary style of worship, youth orientation and decentralized leadership. A fourth, very large Charismatic congregation, “Tushino Evangelical Church”, retains strong past (and future?) Baptist ties. (See our press release of 16 October 2009.)
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 20 September 2011
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 #11-18, 1.315 words, 8.404 keystrokes and spaces.