Not as Bad as One Would Think
Lutheran life following the emigration of its „glue“
V i t y a s / F a r E a s t – The restrictive Yarovaya-Laws of 2016 are not the problem, assures Vladimir Vinogradov, Dean (Propst) of the Omsk-based “Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia and the Far East” (ELCUSFE). Responsible for the Siberian portion of the church, he sees a major problem in the fact that his already badly-shrunken parishes continue to be split further by outside forces. North American church bodies succumb to the irresistible temptation to plant their own flag within tiny, very distant fellowships. There are other, even smaller Lutheran fellowships, yet Propst Vinogradov sees in Vsevolod Lytkin’s “Siberian Evangelical-Lutheran Church” a primary opponent. In 2003, this Akademgorodok (near Novosibirsk) based denomination became independent from its founder, the Lutheran church of Estonia. It is allied today with the conservative, St. Louis-based and nearly two million members strong “Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod”.
„We regard (Lytkin’s church) as schismatics,“ insists the Dean, “for many of its pastors worked once for us. And when they departed, they took some of our best congregations with them. I would have understood if they had left for reasons of finance.” It therefore pains him particularly that in social networks the departed “throw dirt in our direction. Even clergy our making accusations which are not the least bit true.”
Also involved is the conservative, St. Petersburg-based “Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia” (ELCIR). The Dean reports that Ingria-Bishop “Arri Kugappi and Lytkin have jointly led services - and we do not understand that. The church which has been closest to us has begun to collaborate with schismatics.” A clarifying talk has not yet taken place. In December 2019, this heavily ethnic-Finnish church is scheduled to elect a new bishop. Changes could be in the offing.
Though only a child at the time, Vinogradov remembers wistfully the state of interpersonal relationships late in the Soviet era. Thirty years ago “a missionary from Ingria had lived in our church in Omsk and his congregation gathered itself” in our sanctuary. “It was a completely fraternal relationship. We had once been a single church, but then suddenly some in our fellowship began to describe themselves as ‘Finnish’.”
Adventist circles have also adversely affected the ELCUSFE. In a number of cases, pastors have transferred to this confession and taken their congregations with them. This has usually occurred without a dialogue with the affected Lutheran leadership.
The Dean describes the Yarovaya Laws primarily as a bureaucratic issue; he regards them as a concretization of the original – repressive – legislation of 1998. “All pastors and congregations need to be supplied with the proper documentation. We have more paper than ever when we want to send children to a summer camp. Our bookkeeping must always be transparent.” He has the impression that Baptists are involved in more “cases” than the Lutherans. “The human factor also plays a role. The world ‘Baptist’ in itself already awakens negative connotations among many government representatives.”
Tensions with the state are of course nothing new for Russia’s Christians. During the Soviet period, Siberia’s Lutherans – and more than a few Baptist congregations – were unregistered. For those in Omsk, the nearest registered Lutheran congregation was located in the Kazakh capital of Tselinograd (now Nur-Sultan). Ethnic-German Lutherans, in contrast to most Finns, gathered in deeply-pietistic “Brethren” congregations.
Today’s situation is drastically different. As many as 90% of the ex-USSR’s ethnic Germans have emigrated. This exodus of several million has had major consequences for Lutheran church life. Entire villages and congregations have become orphaned. Vinogradov assures that the exodus continues.
According to „Wikipedia“, only 24.050 persons in 400 congregations still belong to the Moscow-based umbrella “Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Russia”. Several decades ago one spoke of hundreds of thousands. Roughly 118 of these congregations with 5.000 members belong to the ELCUSFE. Ingria has 75 congregations and approx. 20.000 members. Numbers tend to be inflated: Lytkin’s Siberian Evangelical-Lutheran Church supposedly had 2.100 baptised members in 2015.
Ethnicity can be a glue keeping congregations and churches together. Thanks to family and cultural connections, many congregations survived over generations independent of the quality of its services or the appearance of its church structure. Yet in the case of the Lutherans, that “glue” has exited the country. Dean Vinogradov consequently regards the German roots essentially as a burden and impediment. “People refrain from coming to us because they do not regard themselves as Germans. The grandmas still speak German, yet their children, the parents of today’s youth, know none. The young consequently tend to find a home in Baptist or Pentecostal circles. German-speaking congregations have no future – they will be extinct in five to seven years.”
Increasing urbanisation is also a factor. Even from the distant reaches of Siberia, church members are increasingly finding a home in major centres such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and sunny Krasnodar. The future will indeed be Russian-speaking and urban.
The youthful Dean is not without hope. The congregation in Krasnoyarsk, for ex., is young and vibrant. Unfortunately-ill “Pastor Gleb Pivovarov and his team have no fear regarding the new. They have members without a Christian background, they know how to experiment and remain open for new styles. There are (traditional) Brethren congregations in the vicinity and the two sides influence each other positively.”
Kyrgyzstan still has only 15 Lutheran congregations with roughly 1.000 members, yet the Dean describes them as vibrant and active. “They have a number of young pastors.” At a meeting with youth coordinators from this mountainous country, he was impressed by their general attitude. “Many of them are good and bright people.”
A major cut-back in funding from the provincial church of Hanover promises major changes for Omsk headquarters during 2020. Nevertheless, “the situation is not as bad as one would think”, the Dean assures. “Optimisation, transformation and restructuring are required.” Creativity is on demand; some quarters will need to be let to outside parties. “Our situation is stable,” Vinogradov confirms. This church will carry on, even if the future is even more modest.
Vladimir Vinogradov, born 1983 in Omsk, has an ethnic-German father and a Russian mother. “Prior to my baptism, the two grandmothers argued about me,” he reports. “But the German grandma won and I was baptised a Lutheran.” Trained as a teacher of sport, the youthful Vladimir nevertheless decided to study at the seminary in Novosaratovka near St. Petersburg. He completed those studies in 2012 and has served as a dean since 2016.
In 2006 he married Olga, a nurse for patients needing rehabilitation. As a volunteer, she remains very active in the church’s youth work. The couple has a son.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 3 December 2019
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #19-09, 1.091 words.