Life on the Edge of the Baptist Umbrella
A One-Time Exception is Becoming the Rule
M o s c o w -- A significant exodus from Russia’s Baptist Union (RUECB) has been in process every since the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev. Membership has dropped from over a million to roughly 70.000 – due though in part to the creation of national churches following the breakup of the USSR. But this has also been accompanied by a movement toward the Union’s edge, without official departure from the denomination.
An initial movement to the edge of the umbrella occurred very soon after 1990 with the arrival of the conservative Calvinist movement under the auspices of the Illinois-based “Slavic Gospel Association” and the Californian John MacArthur. More liberal – but nevertheless conservative – movements followed. These included groups sponsored by “Kovcheg” (the Ark), which is not to be confused with the movement founded by the French-Canadian Catholic Jean Vanier in 1964. Another one on the fringe is the “Dom Molitvy dla Vsekh Narodov”, (House of Prayer for all Nations) which has groups both under and outside the RUECB’s umbrella. Also known by the abbreviation “IHOP” (not to be confused with the restaurant chain), it was founded in Kansas City in 1999. The Moscow-based “VSEKh” (All-Russian Fellowship of Evangelical-Christians), was founded in 2008 largely by the Baptists Alexander Semchenko and Leonid Kartavenko. Itself an umbrella, a number of its congregations are still partly under the umbrella of the Baptist Union. Vitaly Vlasenko and his Moscow congregation are also ensconced on the fringe of the Union’s umbrella.
Independently-governed theological institutes are particularly populous on the Baptist Union’s fringe. Two of the best known are “St. Petersburg Christian University” and John MacArthur’s large “Samara Center for Biblical Training”.
Perhaps the newest congregation out on the fringe is “Dom Otsa”, (The Father’s House - TFH), serving since January 2017 at Raushskaya Naberezhnaya Street 4/5 in central Moscow. Its leading members include a higher-than-average percentage of people named Sipko. Indeed, one of its founders is Sergey Sipko, the RUECB’s senior vice-president from 2014 to 2018. His father, Yuri Sipko, president of the Baptist Union until 2010, is a frequent visitor and preacher at this church plant. Interestingly, both Sergey Sipko and his predecessor as senior vice-president, Evgeny Bakhmutsky, are active in movements of the fringe of the Baptist Union. But the two are essentially on opposite ends of the fringe, for Bakhmutsky is the leading Russian representative of the MacArthur movement.
TFH’s founding base now consists of 7.500 members worshiping in five congregations throughout Orange Country, California. The movement was founded by Dave and Donna Patterson 30 years ago and describes itself as a “multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-racial church”. Moscow’s TFH even states in its founding creed that it is “a contemporary church; maintaining (traditional) content while being adaptive in its forms”. Contemporary forms combined with friendliness and an openness for strangers clearly lower the threshold for newcomers – a major concern for younger, mission-minded Baptists. These movements on the fringe – with the exception of MacArthur’s group – tend to be louder, less male, more international and racially diverse than your average RUECB congregation. Gatherings of RUECB-pastors remain strictly male with most participants above the age of 50. But Russian Protestantism in general is younger, more diverse and less exclusive than its leadership.
TFH’s home congregation is located in Vacaville/California, only 56 km (37 miles) west of the Russian-Baptist stronghold at Sacramento. This is very likely one reason for the establishment of a connection to Russia. TFH also has congregations in Irkutsk and Omsk/Siberia, the latter being the home turf of the extended Sipko family.
Confusing is the fact that Moscow features a second congregation named “Dom Otsa”. That Pentecostal group is headed by Mikhail Dubrovsky and meets at the Pentecostal ROSKhVE’s seminary on Porechnaya Ulitsa in south Moscow.
Baptist Union leadership appreciates the fringe’s aid in propping up the membership rolls, but relationships and power bases with independent funding are being formed beyond the reach of Union leadership. A covert emigration, an erosion from within, is beckoning. A disguised, slow death is on the boards for the RUECB if it intends to be more than an administrative umbrella. These new quasi-Baptist faces will not be taking their orders from Baptist headquarters. And indeed, if headquarters would attempt to pass out orders, then those on the receiving end realise that the exit door is never far.
Few will say it loudly, but TFH’s appearance is one indication of growing estrangement between the extended Sipko family and current Baptist Union leadership. That estrangement was readily apparent on social networks during 2018. The post-1990 era among the once Soviet churches has become the era of centrifugal forces pushing away from the hub and towards the fringe. Expect this global trend towards decentralisation to continue, also in Russia.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 6 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 #19-12, 782 words.