Evangelical-Christians - Baptists Without the Trimmings
New Developments at Moscow’s “Tushino Evangelical Church”
L a d u s h k i n -- In a time of dwindling numbers, “Tushino Evangelical Church” looks like a success story. Only in existence since 1992, the congregation in north-western Moscow currently boasts a Sunday attendance of roughly 500. In 2000, the congregation was able to purchase a massive culture hall making its home the city’s largest Protestant structure after the Lutheran “Peter-and-Paul Cathedral”. Thanks to its size, it was able to host the now-defunct “Russian-American Christian University” from 2005-09. And its Sunday worship service can easily become an all-day affair: Following a noon meal, a person can enjoy further activities and courses. On Sundays, the doors rarely close before 16:00 hrs.
This all has been achieved despite the fact that the congregation lost 70% of its membership when it parted ways with the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB) in April 2003. (See the initial article from 16 October 2009 under “RU Pentecostals” on our webpage.)
Senior Pastor Alexander Kuznetsov (born 1960), who along with Andrey Petrov is also a founding pastor, sees unity as the key to any future Protestant success. He claims: Our movement has remained so small “because we have no unity. And whenever we achieve unity, God answers.” Kuznetsov stresses that he does not regard his own theological convictions and Biblical interpretations to be superior to those of others: “We never claim that our church is somehow exclusive.” All good is from God and the Orthodox faith also hosts many sincere believers. “All those who proclaim Christ are my brothers and sisters; there is only one church.”
The Senior Pastor sees Protestant smallness as a major impediment to success. All Protestants should express unity, all hands must be present “on deck” if they are to harbour any hopes of being taken seriously by society. According to his reckoning, Moscow is home to 40.000 Protestants gathered within roughly 350 congregations. Assuming a population in greater Moscow of 20 million, this adds up to 0,2% of the populace. He estimates the number of baptised Russian Protestants as not exceeding 600.000. Total Russian population is nearly 146 million. “VSEKh”, the „All-Russian Fellowship of Evangelical-Christians” to which the Tushino congregation belongs, is said to have 350 congregations,
Alexander Kuznetsov regards Protestant “subkulturnost”, its sense of being a subculture distant from general society, as a major brake on growth. This subculture is characterised by its traditional dress codes, language, behavioural mores and low social standing. Such attributes evoke dread and fear among outsiders. One therefore dare not accost new arrivals with abrupt appeals such as: “You are lost – get saved!” The pastor explains: “Outsiders don’t understand us. They need to see first of all how we live and what our families are like. They need to become acquainted with our interests.”
This is the point at which Kuznetsov finds the approach of the Californian Rick Warren and his “Saddleback Church” particularly appealing. “He tries first of all to help persons by offering them (secular) self-help programmes.” Tushino consequently offers programmes that go beyond substance abuse, such as women’s groups, concerts and cultural exhibitions. A Christmas market with Santa Claus is included.
This approach even coalesces well with the anti-proseletyzation “Yarovaya Laws” of 2016. “We only needed to make a few adjustments,” the pastor assures. A frontal confrontation is ill-advised. The pastor’s spouse, Ludmilla Kuznetsova, is Belarusian and he points to the work of the “Salvation” (Spasenie) congregation in Brest. On weekdays, that church evolves into a sport centre offering table football (soccer) as well as courses for women and the pregnant.
Despite Protestant smallness, Kuznetsov remains unfrightened by the Orthodox challenge. He believes there will always be a market for Protestant offerings. “Many Russians, including older ones, do not understand Orthodox rites.” A very strict ritual and a solemn theology do not satisfy the wide swath of tastes also present in Russia.
The pastor does not even regard the ramifications of Covid-19 as strictly negative. “Our church was only on-line for three months beginning on 15 March 2020,” he recalls. “That tested us, but the results of working on-line are more positive than negative. We’ve had to improve our forms and content. On-line work is competitive, and that is good.” Their services also allowed one to celebrate Communion at home using one’s own bread and drink. He adds: “But I believe personal contact is irreplaceable. If you completely stop coming to church, you will eventually also stop listening on-line. The Internet remains a matter of proper usage; it’s a neutral resource, like radio or books.” The pandemic did not even result in a drop in income; the congregation regards itself as self-funding.
Has the total absence of Western visitors had repercussions? “Not at all,” the Senior Pastor assures. “We hardly had any Western visitors before anyway.” Germany’s Johannes Reimer, an Evangelical-Christian Russian-German now serving as Director of Public Engagement for the “Evangelical World Alliance”, remains a close friend.
Despite being a role model, Tushino rejected Rick Warren’s plans to create a „Saddleback Moscow“ branch several years ago. Kuznetsov is convinced that extensions of Western congregations on Russian soil do not suit the times: “Russians have their own specific culture and tastes. Look at how much effort and money the South Korean churches invested in Russia!” he exclaims. “It was all for naught.” Strict Korean discipline and order do not fit well into the Russian soul.
Saddleback did inquire on how they could otherwise best serve the churches of Russia. The result is a resource centre with reference materials located in VSEKh’s “Zelenograd Baptist Church” located just north of Moscow.
The recent past
The Tushino congregation officially transferred from the Pentecostal umbrella ROSKhVE to VSEKh in 2018. “The times have changed for ROSKhVE,” Kuznetsov reports. “In 2003 they considered dropping the Pentecostal name. Yet since then they have resolved to become more Pentecostal.” The Evangelical-Christians of VSEKh see themselves in the middle between the Pentecostal and Baptist movements, but the Senior Pastor describes himself as “more Baptist than Pentecostal”. Tushino has not pushed speaking in tongues or the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
There were voices appealing for Tushino to return to the Baptist, RUECB-fold. Yet Kuznetsov did not relish renewed disputes on non-essentials such as the forms of worship, loud music and dress. “We also practice open communion.” In addition, spouse Ludmilla has served as a pastor in the church since 2004, serving primarily women and children. Pointing to Scripture, her husband believes a woman should not normally serve as a congregation’s primary pastor. Kuznetsov and Leonid Kartavenko from Moscow’s “Your Church” congregation are the current heads of VSEKh.
Alexander Kuznetsov believes that Protestant women enjoyed greater freedoms as late as the 1920’s. It was Stalinist repression that forced Baptists to become a narrow subculture restricting the involvement of women.
The severity of restrictions on mission stemming from the Yarovaya legislation vary greatly. According to the Senior Pastor, repression is often worst in those rural areas where state authorities have little knowledge about evangelicals. Protestants do on occasion still have access to hospitals and prisons. Since schools are multi-confessional, he does not see them as the proper location for mission efforts.
Kuznetsov believes the heads of Belarus’ Protestant denominations are reacting properly to the present crisis in state leadership. Their appeals are kept general, calling for prayer, non-violence and new agreements between the rulers and ruled. Individual pastors, especially younger ones, do frequently get quite specific in their demands. Yet “entire denominations cannot make concrete political demands, for their members are not of one mind on political issues.”
Tushino’s Russian-language webpage is: “https://t495.ru”.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Ladushkin, Kaliningrad region, Russia, 10 February 2021
A journalistic release for which only the author is 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 #21-03, 1.257 words
An Interview with Three on the Secrets Behind Tushino’s Success
The shepherd (Alexander Kuznetsov) is very protective of his flock. Consequently, we
were not permitted to interview his sheep. We therefore chose to ask three Moscow church leaders two questions: (1) What’s unique about the congregation in Tushino and (2) to what do you
attribute its ongoing success?
Leonid Kartavenko and Alexander Kuznetsov are the joint directors of VSEKh, the „All-Russian Fellowship of Evangelical-Christians”. Kartavenko’s Moscow congregation has a unique name: “Tvoya Tserkov” (Your Church).
Tushino is unique in that it has been able to develop a worship service agreeable to unbelievers while retaining an evangelical theology. They offer contemporary music and their designers have worked hard to give their stage and rooms a modern look. The atmosphere is one of cozyness and protection from the very outset.
Tushino does not have the kind of doorkeepers you would expect in Russia. On arrival one usually gets asked gruffly: “Who are you, why are you here, where do you want to go?” At Tushino, guests are instead greeting warmly and wished a good stay.
In addition, they try to keep people in church after the end of the service. They give guests reasons for sticking around. Not only is one offered tea or coffee – the church features a genuine café on the ground floor. They have real cooks and one pays for the food, but the prices are reasonable. People from the neighbourhood take advantage of this – they go to church for a meal. One can even come for breakfast before the service without participating in any worship service. But that is the exception. This effort is the first step towards evangelisation. The food makes it interesting for people to come and meet with others.
Tushino openness for society in general is unique. Other congregations also have terrific buildings, but they’re closed all week. This one has a kindergarten. It’s for pay, but it attracts the kind of parents who care about the upbringing of their offspring. At certain intervals, the church offers gatherings for mothers. Kindergarten mothers are invited to come, and they do.
At Christmastime the church offers a courtyard festival with music, fun and games for the whole family. A Santa Claus makes his rounds. Once I overheard a visitor exclaim: “It’s late afternoon and their Santa Claus is still sober!” The church has a great reputation with local authorities because it plays by the rules and visits all the proper offices. So such festivals do not permit “religious agitation”. But off on the sidelines, guests are shown around the church and questions are readily answered. “What, you don’t have any icons?”, they exlaim. People tend to be frightened of religious groups and this is a great way to introduce them to the spiritual world.
Alexander Fedichkin is President of the “Russian Evangelical Alliance” and long-time pastor of a Baptist church plant in south-eastern Moscow.
The Baptist Union decided in the 1990’s to found a congregation specifically targeting young people. The older generations were thereby expected to tolerate a new style directed at the young. This church was looking for new, uncharted roads. Alexander Kuznetsov was even willing to incorporate Charismatic elements into his Baptist services. They experimented with tongues and ending up joining the Pentecostal ROSKhVE.
The issue of confessional membership was never important to the church. They wanted above all to answer the questions and needs of the young, and that was unique. In time, the congregation became disappointed with the Pentecostals and chose to transfer to VSEKh. The people in VSEKh are all Baptists or former Baptists; it’s a Baptist confession under another name. But this confession is very concerned about offering something contemporary; about offering answers to modern-day people.
The building has played a significant role in the church’s success. This house of culture looks and is very official; it’s not a basement with an odour of sectarianism. They serve the community and work for the common good. The church offers many excursions and other activities for young people. Perhaps their greatest achievement has been the ability to express the values of a traditional Christian faith in the language of the young.
It’s true that the congregation suffers from a constant coming-and-going. People do not tend to stay very long once they have been converted. But this is a characteristic typical of Charismatic congregations: They tend to work on the fast-food level. Once people tire of the superficial and want to dig deeper into the Christian faith, they search for other options. But Tushino remains strong in its ability to initially attract non-believers.
Vitaly Vlasenko is a Baptist pastor and Global Ambassador for the “Russian Evangelical Alliance”.
The Tushino congregation is unique for attaching so little value to confession – they’re a kind of non-confessional church. They were Baptist, then Pentecostal, and now they’re Evangelical-Christian (VSEKh). Each person is allowed to find his or her own form of expression in worship. They are truly a cross-cultural gathering; they have an international, non-ethnic flair. Everyone is welcome.
A second important factor has been the long-term, positive leadership of the pastors Alexander Kuznetsov and Andrey Petrov. They started this church from nothing years ago; they are the true fathers of the group. The people love them and they love their people.
One secret of their success is a secure-and-steady leadership team that cannot be deposed by any higher church office. The leadership is free to do as it feels fit. I don’t think the congregation even has a lay church council. Councils can indeed be a good thing, but in Russia they tend to play a negative role.
I doubt whether the congregation has official membership rolls. If you come to church, you already qualify as a “member”. The most important thing by far is that you come and participate. They do not impose themselves on anybody; they are careful not to burden new believers with obligations. People need to feel free; they don’t attach any strings to participation.
Commentaries added on 17 March 2021.