Matts-Ola & Randi Ishoel on Red Square; the church centre on Pavla Korchagina Street in Moscow. Both photos are property of "Word of Life Moscow".
Russia is No Lost Cause
L a d u s h k i n -- Matts-Ola Ishoel (pronounced “Mahhts-Uuuhhla Isss-Ho-el”) is a Norwegian with a Swedish mother who spent the first decade of his life in Sweden. Born into a Baptist family in 1959, he later became a member of the Charismatic “Word of Life” (Livets Ord) movement founded by Ulf Ekman in Uppsala/Sweden in 1983. After serving as a youth pastor in Oppdal in central Norway for eight years, Matts-Ola and his wife Randi moved to Moscow in 1996. Two years later, he became senior pastor of a young congregation planted by Ulf Ekman and initially pastored by the Swede Christian Akerhielm.
Attendance in 1996 already numbered 1.000. The congregation purchased a 1.220-seat auditorium on Pavla Korchagina Street in north-central Moscow in 2006. Today, “Word of Life” is Moscow’s largest Protestant congregation with 6.000 participants meeting at 26 locations in and around Moscow. The paid, full-time staff numbers 100; roughly 35 of them (all males) carry the title of “pastor”. The church’s biggest current project is the “South Campus”, a new youth centre with a 600-seat hall arising near the “Volgogradsky Prospekt” metro station in east-central Moscow. The purchase of that property cost 144 million roubles (roughly 1.655.000 euros), paid for without loans.
“Word of Life” also has congregations in St. Petersburg, Samara and Sochi as well as in four of the five central-Asian republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Matts-Ola is a vice-president within the umbrella “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE) headed by Sergey Ryakhovsky.
The Ishoel couple has four children between the ages of 18 and 23, all of whom were adopted in Russia. Matts-Ola, who is a citizen only of Norway, sat down for a talk with me in Moscow on 25 January 2022.
What has been the secret of your success? There are very diligent pastors in Moscow who after many years still have only tiny congregations. What could the difference be?
I think it is very important to be humble and grateful. I can plant and water, but God gives the increase. “Success” also involves much more than just the amount of people. At the end of the day, God will judge us. His first question will not be how many people you have in the church. He will instead ask: “Have you been faithful to your calling?”
We have placed a very strong emphasis on team work. I have absolutely wonderful co-workers. We plan together, we work together and share in each others’ lives. When we have retreats, they bring their wives.
Many pastors work too much alone; they plan alone. I may be the senior pastor and have the last word, but I discuss everything with my co-workers. We spend whole days together making plans and seeing how we can co-operate. This has created a feeling of teamwork and participation. I tell them that not only the senior pastor can hear from God. Anyone can have a good idea. We emphasize unity. I don’t need to be involved in every decision, but I need to know about things. We have an atmosphere of freedom and cooperation, of team-thinking. That has been the key.
How many of your members come from other denominations? Are you accused of stealing other people’s sheep?
I don’t really know. We do receive people from other churches, but we don’t keep the numbers. We are very careful about this. When persons tell me they are Russian Orthodox, I never ever tell them to come to our church. If one is comfortable in the Orthodox church, let him be there!
How have things changed for your church in the past ten years?
Let’s go back further. In the beginning, Protestants churches were something new and exciting. People came to church just because visitors from the USA or Western Europe were there. People were curious, but that time is definitely over.
Pastors now need to think strategically; they need to train leaders. It’s not enough for a church just to have a good preacher. Churches who only emphasize a good Sunday service will often decline because a church involves so much more. A church meets the needs of people. People need to be discipled and become engaged in the work of the church. It is otherwise very easy for them to leave.
Could you say how much of your budget comes from foreign sources?
Virtually nothing. A foreign guest may of course drop something into the offering plate. But no one has given us loans. Our income for 2020 totalled 112 mill. roubles (roughly 1.287.400 euros), and it was donated by our own people here. That’s a lot of money. But you grow together when you have suffered jointly in order to achieve something. That mutual sacrifice wields together, and without that sense of togetherness, you cannot be a church.
Randi added: We know of a young woman who donated the money she had saved up for her wedding and honeymoon to the church.
I think something only really feels like yours, if you have paid for it yourself.
I and Randi are the only ones from the West in the church. We have had no Western members in the last 20 years. I actually think of myself as a Russian - when I am in Norway, I am seen as a Russian. I felt so incredibly at home when I moved to Russia. I feel like a Russian patriot. There is nothing wrong with foreigners working in Russia. But in time, their work must be handed over to locals.
“Slavic Legal Centre” and other sources report on a myriad of hassles regarding church property. How do you manage with a state that has become restrictive?
I always say when I am in the West that we have never had any problems with the government. It has never limited nor attacked us. I know there have been issues in Russia, but they have occurred on the local level.
Local officials often know very little about Protestants. We need to inform them.
Some matters get blown up in the West. I want to claim very humbly, that we have been very careful to pay all of our taxes and do things legally. We have congregations in our ROSKhVE-association who have lost their buildings. But they had been built illegally. If you did that in Norway, you would get in trouble there also. When laws are intentionally broken, you can’t call that religious persecution.
So you don’t pay your employees’ salaries in white envelopes?
No, we pay taxes for all of our workers. For me that is not just a matter of legality – it is matter of conscience. We taught our pastors from the beginning that we need to pay our taxes if we want God to bless our work. I am absolutely sure that this is one of the reasons God is blessing us.
Your secret of success is that you play by the rules.
That might at least be part of the truth.
How are your relations with churches in Belarus and Ukraine?
We are more active in Ukraine, but relations between the churches are very good. We don’t speak about politics. We pray for our countries and leaders, we pray for peace and for peaceful solutions. Political issues are extremely sensitive and we don’t want them to destroy the relationships between us.
The Pentecostal pastor Gennady Mokhnenko in Mariupol on the front in Kiev-run Ukraine is a vehement supporter of military resistance against the pro-Russian Donbass republics. Would you criticize him in public?
No. There may be issues that need to be addressed in public sometimes, but in general: “Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called the sons of God.” There needs to be room in our churches for everyone. It is not the place of politics; this is the kingdom of God. Individually, people can vote, they can be a member of a political party, but we as a church focus on the kingdom of God. I believe the Bible is very clear here: Pay your taxes and pray for the government.
But we do stand up for moral issues and values. We support traditional family values.
What do Western Christians need to know about us here?
We want to show them that one can be contemporary and conservative at the same time. I believe something is happening in Russia. We are a contemporary church with an ancient message. The church must be able to communicate with people in today’s society. The message may be good, but you cannot reach them if you cannot communicate.
But if society is changing its values, then we do not change those values in order to please others. It is not given to me to change the message. We have our message from the Lord.
There are those who are pushing for a new Christian union between conservative Western Protestants and Russian Orthodoxy. Can you imagine Russia as the last stalwart defender of historic Christianity?
We will need to wait and see. I personally have the greatest respect for the Orthodox church. I have met the last two patriarchs and regard Metropolitan Hilarion (responsible for external relations) to be a friend. Hilarion and I represented Russia at the massive “Jesus Global Youth Day” in the Philippines during August 2019. We were there together. When it comes to questions like values and conservatism, we are definitely on the same team. If we could stand together globally for the classical Christian doctrines and for classical family values, then I think that would be wonderful.
Do you find Franklin Graham too partisan or too political?
I don’t know much about his reception and work in America. I am not really into that. He spoke in our church recently and it was wonderful.
Don’t you have fears regarding future of church in Russia? Could you soon be labelled a foreign agent?
I am rather optimistic regarding the future of the church in Russia. I believe the authorities really want freedom of religion. And if the church really understands what its calling is, then God is going to protect us. I know what some Western pastors have prophesized, but I in my heart I feel much more optimistic about the future.
I think Russia has a global calling to be a missionary country, to stand for the classical Christian doctrines and values. If they can show the world that one can grow and thrive because of these values, then the West needs to see that. Russia is a strong nation; it has a strength that God will be using. There is a kind of fearlessness in the Russian character. We have sent missionaries from here and I think their number will increase. They have a boldness which is from the Lord. They have a can-do attitude and great trust in God. There is something divine about this which is going to bless the world. I really believe that.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Ladushkin, Kaliningrad region, 11 February 2022
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 #22-03, 1.820 words.