The Recent Past and Future of Evangelicals in Ukraine
by Anatoly Propkopchuk
In this issue
- On Orthodoxy East and West
- The Recent Past and Future of Evangelicals in Ukraine
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus News
- Faculty Activities
A new era for evangelicalism in Ukraine began in 1988, the year when Ukraine celebrated the1000th anniversary of its Byzantine baptism forced by Prince Vladimir in Kyiv at the Dnepr River. 1988 was still a communistic time with the USSR intact, but the State’s desire to persecute evangelicals deteriorated through years of Perestroika and Glasnost. This was the very first time in Soviet Union history when evangelicals en masse came out of their “underground” churches with the Gospel message and sounds of Gospel hymns. I still remember KGB agents standing around Central Square in Kyiv with their walkie-talkies wrapped in newspapers, but they did not touch anyone. Freedom had arrived; Bibles and evangelistic tracts were freely distributed and people on the streets eagerly listened to the Gospel message. Everything was easy: just read them the Bible and ask them to come to church, or give them a tract and have them answer questions there. Reported numbers of conversions grew sharply, but it seems that the same people were approached and counted by local believers and short term missionaries several times over.
If there was anything close to the revolutionary fervor after the breakup of USSR, it was evangelical excitement in the newly granted freedom to preach, start new churches, and do mass evangelistic campaigns. There were crowds on streets, crowds on stadiums, and crowds in churches. Everything looked easy, opportunities were limitless, and interest in the Bible and the Gospel seemed insatiable. No one bothered to notice that the same appetite for the spiritual and the religious was shown to practically every religion, cult or religious pretender. Anything vaguely mystical fared very well and brought immediate dividends. Generations of suppressed spirituality resulted in tremendous crowds of voracious consumers at the spirituality smorgasbord. Obviously this could not last forever, and after just a few years the initial spike of interest in spirituality began fading away.
After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, materialism became the more immediate need in the crumbling economy of former USSR countries, and nationalistic issues rose in importance. Not only was easy evangelism or “easy believe-ism” pushed aside, but more importantly, the largely neglected issues of systematic Biblical teaching, consistent discipleship and qualified teachers and ministers became evident.
In each Ukranian evangelical church there was a romantic fascination with evangelism, church growth and education, but no one was concerned (or perhaps even able) to evaluate the theological, structural or spiritual condition of churches coming out of heavy persecution, which had suffered years of deprivation of education and literature, and years of cultural isolation. No one cared to come to terms with the recent past. Everything was so exciting that the siege mentality that had prevailed in the former times receded somewhat, but it was still there. Massive evangelistic meetings helped to start many new churches. The number of churches in just the Evangelical-Baptist Union more than doubled in ten years from 1994 to 2004. Many schools were established—colleges and seminaries—by people who were not themselves theologically (or even secularly) schooled. People who had never been taught principles and traditions of solid evangelical education tried to build everything from scratch. Some seminaries called themselves Christian Universities, but it was only in name; no liberal arts degrees were developed or proposed.
By the end of the decade after the breakup of the USSR and the emergence of an independent Ukraine, it was evident that massive evangelistic meetings were becoming less effective. A return to personal evangelism and systematic discipleship was required. In time it also became clear that traditional churches without educated pastors, working teams of ministers, or sturdy evangelistic tools were not growing. In fact they were slowly dying, and the tremendous growth in numbers turned out to be much more a matter of quantity than quality. And, most regrettably, solid evangelical education began in some cases to provoke traditional churches’ tendency to remain in isolationism inherited from communistic times. The older generation of believers and ministers seemed incapable of coping with lightning-fast cultural changes to stay afloat in the new economy of professional performance, in spite of young peoples’ exceptional openness to evangelistic outreach, missions and education. It became obvious that educated people and the emerging younger generation of believers (particularly those without any evangelical background) required solid Biblical teaching, dynamic, flexible church ministry, and lively, non-liturgical services.
The intention was to solve these problems by establishing theological schools and developing church-based education. In the case of church-based education, materials developed in the West for use in other totalitarian countries proved helpful. Bible Education by Extension (BEE) also brought impressive results. Relationships with formal theological education were not so easy, however. Theological schools started by people without theological training and experience in solid evangelical theological tradition easily fell prey to a European-style academism that was detached from or even outright indifferent to the needs and struggles of the churches. Others fell prey to the temptation of a self-serving fundamentalism that was more concerned with sectarian traditional values than solid theological education.
In the first case, academic exercises became more important than the practical use of exegesis, hermeneutics and systematic theology to address the pressing need of educating churchmen, instructing willing people in pew and countering the temptation of cultural (Orthodox or Catholic) pseudo-spirituality. In the second case, stressing the inerrancy of a certain group or structure or church and brushing away anything or anyone not in total agreement with the group’s ideas or recognized leaders became more important than teaching how the Bible addresses contemporary issues or speaks to current struggles. Proof-texting and brainwashing substituted for biblically and theologically informed critical thinking that is so indispensable for addressing contemporary culture.
This situation in formal theological education did not help already disoriented churches that were perplexed by the influx of the new believers who came in without the slightest knowledge of church culture and traditions. Perceived—and in some cases actual—liberal tendencies of academic theology pushed most traditional churches toward familiar fundamentalist isolationism and education that tended to reinforce itself. The only solution that appears capable of restoring healthy evangelicalism in the former USSR is the biblical one of pouring the wine of the Gospel into new skins. This solution is not always the happy one even for the most open and progressive young evangelicals because very often it means choosing between local forms and traditions and foreign charismatic or quasi-charismatic churches or movements. The pressing need for local churches planted by evangelicals educated in the best conservative theological environment has become obvious.
This need was not without its own pitfalls as the best evangelical theological education was not only Western (more concretely US) based but also predominantly Reformed in its theological nature. In the Arminian (at best semi-Pelagian) tradition of evangelical churches of the former USSR countries, Western theological education is often perceived (especially by nationalistically minded people) as an alien Western intrusion into some presumably more acceptable “native” theology preserved in oral and liturgical traditions of the evangelical church during the communist persecution and oppression. Still, a closer look at the traditional churches’ practice and teaching makes it clear just how far from the Gospel truth this preserved, so called “native” (or national) evangelical theology really is.
Reinforcing this practical self delusion about our supposedly native evangelical tradition were the many compliments of Western brothers and sisters about the perseverance of believers under communism—compliments that were dictated either by sheer admiration or nagging guilt. These compliments persuaded believers in the former USSR that communism had not damaged anything; rather, it had somehow enhanced and enriched our spirituality. Suffering had somehow made us immune to theological error, and had preserved evangelical theology in its purest form and essence. But even a cursory look at Ukrainian evangelical publications of the beginning of 20th century shows immediately how erroneous these ideas are and how misguided were the compliments from our well-meaning Western brothers and sisters. The time has definitely come for evangelicals in the Ukraine to realistically review and evaluate their past. We must honestly count our losses, humbly recognize our poverty and return to the real faith (historically more Reformed in Ukraine) of our grandfathers.
Comparing the current situation with evangelical publications like the Baptist magazine of 1908 shows at least two problems in the current evangelical church and evangelical education: lost theological foundation and lost human resources. Frankly speaking, the evangelical church and evangelical community did not become enriched after generations of persecution—it was impoverished. Lacking theological training and qualified ministers and teachers, it became in reality severely damaged, badly crippled beyond any means of self-help. I know this observation is “anathema” to the older generation of evangelicals (to which I myself belong), but we cannot go any further without systematic, consistent and prolonged help from our brothers and sisters from the West. This is particularly important to recognize in view of Ukraine’s crucial position as an evangelical Bible belt among countries of the former USSR, and its tremendous potential to be a missionary-sending country for the whole region. Otherwise, the result will be the isolationist model of “Ukrainian” or “Russian” Christians with all the adverse consequences implied in these terms.
This much-needed help requires importing theological materials (teaching and books) and human resources (teachers and missionaries). In this matter the evangelical church situation parallels the condition of the whole country. The greatest problems of Ukraine’s politics and economy are not the lack of funds or natural resources but lack of good (or better, great) leadership and working political and economic models. The solution is not just pouring money into the Ukrainian economy and politics. Ukraine needs to import working political and economic models, as well as able managers and entrepreneurs with experience and integrity. The current stagnant situation in the country is due to the stubborn, reactionary attitude of a majority of Ukrainian leaders who lack any desire to experiment because of their post-communistic upbringing. Additionally, there is a strong urge to preserve what some people think as “positives” of the communistic past, like structural stability and guaranteed minimal consumption level. All these stem from a desire to avoid taking responsibility for one’s life and the fearful inability to live in freedom.
When we look closer at the evangelical, and particularly the Baptist, churches in Ukraine, the picture is very similar. One wants to cry out: “Stop building churches and start building leaders!” There is a common exercise in Baptist circles of pointing fingers at Europe where there are beautiful churches but empty pews. Unless serious attention is paid to the development of leadership and qualified pastors, Ukraine will face a similar fate. However, the situation is not desperate yet, because many Ukrainian evangelicals do not shy away from receiving help in the form of teaching resources and teachers from the West. In spite of the resistance from post-communistic evangelical leadership, quality theological education continues to make great inroads in churches even if the leaders consider it to be a threat to their positions. Evangelical youth aggressively pursue secular and theological education and are less and less satisfied by the claims of older leaders whose authority is based solely on position or ordination. Today younger evangelicals question attempts to preserve old ways of ministry and life and to keep old traditions in the face of rapidly changing culture. The continuation of political freedoms in Ukraine makes the growth of new evangelical movements inevitable.
This does not mean that life for young evangelicals will get any easier. In their resolve to look to the future, to apply best possible standards (most often Western), to insist on teamwork, to deny competing motives for ministry (cultural, national, financial or personal), they will be regarded as mavericks. Therefore the role played by Kyiv Theological Seminary (KTS) never has been and will not be an easy one. Flexibility and innovation of the seminary team helps KTS to adjust to changing circumstances and needs. New cultural developments do not become a painful challenge but rather a window of opportunity, an incentive to learn, and an occasion to look outside of traditional values and familiar patterns. With all of these, a firm evangelical foundation gives KTS the necessary stability as reliable Reformed theology gives necessary direction in stormy seas of competing uprooted traditions—traditions accumulated through years of communism and, at best, useless in the new free environment of Ukraine. Honestly, KTS is too small by itself to create the evangelical foundation for the future evangelical church and community, but it already serves as a beacon pointing a way for the evangelical direction, warning of the dangerous currents and underwater reefs that leads to theological shipwreck and ministry ruin.
Kyiv Theological Seminary consistently promotes not competition but mutual love and respect even toward those who do not consider themselves the seminary’s friends. KTS faculty have resolved not to talk back even if badly informed accusations are leveled against the school. KTS teachers pointedly avoid encouraging competing traditions; they insist on teaching the Gospel undiluted. The seminary makes it its task to avoid church jargon and use plain understandable words to communicate biblical truth. KTS strives to be practical in its teaching and attitude, understandable to the local church, and helpful to any pastor or church member looking for education or counsel. At the same time, the seminary seeks to show the Bible’s relevance to Ukraine’s political and economic situation. In times of political turmoil, KTS faculty, staff and students do not stay aloof but take positions as active citizens who truly care for their country’s future.
In addition to regular educational guidance and encouragement, the KTS team leads a church planting project (with 50 new churches already planted by qualified pastors) and also encourages and supports a new movement for healthy churches, which currently consists predominantly of KTS graduates. This movement is the first attempt to be a tool helping to create churches that are planted and managed and led according to biblical standards. KTS seeks to play a positive role in the Ukrainian evangelical church by planting seeds of practical patterns of healthy church growth and development, being a consulting specialist, and a direct participant in real-world projects of evangelism and church planting.
Evangelicals in Ukraine not only must import high quality people and materials to renew evangelical foundations in the country; but also must use these important resources effectively. That is why the partnership with Talbot School of Theology is so strategic for KTS specifically, and for the evangelical community in Ukraine in general. Talbot gives KTS a model to follow which is not available in the territories of the former USSR. The best people come to teach, the best pattern for production is used, and the best standards are applied. This gives hope for the best output and lasting effect. Evangelical education in the region is still in its infancy stage and still requires close, high quality mentoring, encouragement and motivation. Therefore KTS considers its partnership with Talbot School of Theology a special provision from the Lord that extends hope not just to KTS but to the whole country of Ukraine.
At the same time, looking back on the vast wilderness of the communist wasteland, we should not expect instant results. It is always easier to destroy than to build, and what was destroyed for several generations cannot be restored easily in one. Still that should not deter us from continuing in the effort to advance evangelical educational without which no other benefit is possible. This task of restoring the Gospel to its rightful place and giving the gift of a truly evangelical Church to our country and the vast regions beyond is in itself a blessing which has mutual and lasting benefits.