In reflecting on the puzzling contradictions of this country [Russia], the out standing Nikolai Berdyaev wrote: 'It is almost impossible to budge Russia, she has become so heavy, so inert, so lazy . . . and so humbly reconciled to her life. All the layers of our society neither appreciate nor desire progress.' "1
While this assessment may be true of Russian society as a whole, it is not true of evangelism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I arrived on my first visit to Russia in time for the first large baptism of Mark Finley's Moscow campaign. I had heard so much about the former Soviet Union; I wondered what I would find.
I was not prepared for a city that gave the impression of struggling just to exist. Potholes scarred every street; buses rattled and wheezed; dilapidated cars seemed the norm; buildings wore a uniform gray; manicured lawns were nowhere in sight; every subway station had its quota of people trying to sell everything from magazines to cats and dogs.
The hotel I stayed in lacked hot water, as that part of the city was taking its turn conserving power. People's energies were consumed in providing the basic necessities of life, with little left for luxuries. Moscow certainly seemed to be proving the truth of Berdyaev's words: "all the layers of our society neither appreciate nor desire progress."
Thank God, that could not be said Baptism in the Olympic swimming pool of religion and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in particular. Our church has succeeded in reaching large numbers of people as enthusiasm for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ grows. Under Communism, the government pretended that religion had died and declared atheism the state religion, but now people thirst for spiritual things.
Mark Finley, It Is Written telecast director, following a successful campaign in the Kremlin in early 1992, dreamed of an even bigger outreach to the Muscovites. He rented the Moscow Olympic Stadium for a five-week series in June and July of this year.
This was one of more than 250 evangelistic series in Russia that will be conducted during 1993. When the Berlin Wall came down almost three years ago, there were 35,000 Adventist Church members in the former Soviet Union. Now there are approximately 85,000.
While the Olympic Stadium seats 40,000 people, the campaign leaders planned to use only half of the hall. That still left 20,000 seats to be filled. Some 16,000 people attended the afternoon and evening sessions. Five weeks later on July 31, at the final meeting, about 10,000 were still attending.
That so many people would at tend an afternoon meeting amazed me. The two-wage-earner family so common in the Western world has not yet spread to Russia. The work needed to organize a meeting this large also dazzled me. More than 165 volunteers traveled from North America to augment the 160 pastors who came from all over the former Soviet Union.
There were volunteers like Sarah Luke from the Marietta Seventh-day Adventist Church in Georgia who organized 12-step groups. And Scott Thurman, who brought 160men's suits donated by members of the Marietta church for the Euro-Asia2 pastors.
James Cress, Ministerial Association secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, coordinated a field school of evangelism for the Euro-Asia pastors. Dan Bentzinger, of the Adventist Evangelism Association connected with the Seventh-day Adventist Media Center, co-taught with James Cress in the mornings and led field experiences in the afternoons and evenings.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of these meetings concerned the tripling of Adventist churches in Mos cow from 4 to 12. Large theaters were rented for each of these new churches. I attended a new church of more than 700 people, and there are seven more like it. Each of the new churches had a pastor assigned to them. I imagined how over whelmed I would be to suddenly inherit a newly-formed church of 700 with no elders, deacons, or other staff.
Mark Finley and his team scheduled the first baptism for the next-to-last Sabbath of the meetings. They rented 50 buses to carry the baptismal candidates from the various churches to the Olympic swimming pool where the baptism would take place. The day before the baptism the leadership team learned that the contract for these buses, which had been signed and paid for, had been canceled. For a moment there was panic. But the same social situation that allowed sealed contracts to be bro ken also contained the seeds of the solution.
On the appointed day the Russian pastors swarmed over the city flagging down buses and offering the drivers money if they would take the baptismal candidates to the pool. By afternoon we had more buses than we needed, and the people all arrived on time.
What a thrill it was to watch 37 pastors, standing in the pool with their candidates, right hands raised over each one. Then Mark gave the prayer of blessing, and the pastors immersed the candidates and brought them back up to enthusiastic cheers and clapping from friends and visitors thronging the sides of the pool. It took several hours to baptize that group of almost 900. By the time the meetings ended, almost 1,600 had been baptized, and more than 4,000 are being followed up. While a large majority of those attending the meetings were older women (with a scarcity of men and young people), those baptized reflected a better balance of sex and age groups.
People often complain that evangelists show more interest in numbers than quality. Not these. No candidate was baptized until the pastor who had been assigned to them had studied with them personally and gone over the 14 questions on the baptismal certificate. Each person clearly understood that baptism signified their entrance into the kingdom of God and membership in the Adventist Church.
Because of decades of Communist rule the Adventist Church never developed more than an embryonic organization in the countries served by the Euro- Asia Division. This makes adequate care for all the new converts a challenge. But parallel to the growth in membership is growth in church organization.
Interview with Euro-Asia pastors
To gain insight into what is happening in this and other areas, James Cress and I interviewed 11 of the Euro-Asia pastors: five from Russia, four from the Ukraine, and two from Moldavia. We asked them to share freely concerning their fears, hopes, and dreams. We present the following as a nearly verbatim compilation of their answers. It may some times read like a list, sometimes like a story, depending on how many contributed to a particular point.
Ministry: What do you enjoy most about pastoring?
Pastors: Learning truth, serving people. Helping to change people. Sharing eternal perspectives, especially those about Jesus.
Ministry: What are the greatest challenges for a pastor in Russia and the surrounding countries?
Pastors: The weak church organization from the lo cal church to the division. Maintaining a strong devotional life. Winning more youth. Providing more good literature. We want at least 50 percent of church members devoted to missionary work.
It is easier to work in a new church. People are more open and enthusiastic; they still exhibit their first love. How to help them keep that first love. Small groups in the church and getting the whole church organized into Bible classes.
We need church buildings and better finances. The older the church, the more the Laodicean condition. Believe it or not, the same apathy that infects other parts of the world also contaminates the Euro-Asia Division. New members burn with a hot flame. Churches are different as pastors are different.
Keeping priorities straight. What are the important things? The older member comes to the newer member and sees the wedding ring on her finger and says to her that no Adventist can wear it. So she takes it off. Then her husband sees the absent wedding ring and wants to know what is happening. She tells him. "I am a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and must take it off." But even the pastors teach differently in some of these areas.
We need good technical skills, slides, books, equipment, and a budget for local crusades.
Another challenging area is the poverty of the people. People spend large amounts of time trying to find food. However, our task is to show them how to look first toward heaven. The lack of adequate housing in Moscow is a real problem.
I worked in Moscow for 14 months and lived four hours away by train. Some times I spent the night in the flat of a church member. (Among the 12 pastors in Moscow, nine have experienced similar problems; however, a flat has now been provided for each pastor.) I cannot afford to relocate my family to Moscow. Prices allow me to feed my family for two weeks out of each month in Mos cow. When I prepare my sermon I think of how to feed the family. This situation forces the pastor to do something else to earn extra money.
They tell us to pastor a church on $40 a month (that is in United States dollars), but our leaders do not tell us how to live on this amount. The situation with family and housing is the last blow. Our family lives in a run-down and cramped apartment. I cannot relax even at home. Sometimes we have no heat, no food, and no water.
When I began pastoring, I heard about the Ministerial Association from Floyd Bresee, the secretary of the association. I was enthusiastic. I expected the support of this association. But nothing has happened.
It seems to us that no one seems interested in the needs of the pastor; even the conference and union do not place satisfying the needs of pastors very high on their list of priorities. For ex ample, when we are told to move to another city we must find our own apartment, but no money is given to help us find an appropriate one. I visited one town for three months and could not find an apartment and had no money to buy one. Everyone must live in a city dictated by the state. It is very difficult to move locations. Once I was sent to live in a church hall that was half built, with no heat or water.
Ministry: A majority of the people attending the Moscow meetings were older women, with a minority of men and young people. What plans do you have for reaching young people especially?
Pastors: It is important to plan meetings for the right time of year. In June and July the students are not in school, and many have left for vacation or are working.
The advertising needs to be designed to attract young people. Our advertising was not sophisticated enough. If we were to run English language schools and promise to teach people how to read and speak English, we would reach many young people.
We need a different kind of music to reach the young people. It must not be so conservative. Young people want lively music. We need to pay more attention to the kinds of topics that would attract young people. We need better designed handbills. And when we do advertise we must flood the schools and universities with advertising and i make personal contacts with the students.
This series seemed to be designed for middle-aged and older people, with the youth not a major part of the program. We need to organize Bible classes in the schools. We need translation for the deaf. If we want to reach the youth, personal contact is more important than the mass meeting.
We need a lot of time for visitation, especially in the first few weeks of the meetings. Personal work is more important and more effective than mass advertising. If the handbills are distributed too early, people forget them.
Ministry: What are some of the needs that readers of Ministry can help with?
Pastors: We would welcome another congregation that could write to us, exchange ideas, and perhaps provide some financial assistance. People could provide clothing.
Ministry: Westerners have come from America and other countries. What are the benefits and the problems?
Pastors: The large amount of money that spent here would produce five times as many results if given to local pastors to hold their own meetings. For $1 a Euro-Asia pastor will win the same amount of people that the Westerner spends $5 to win. While Mark Finley has done an outstanding job, there is no way for him to know the needs of the Russian people as well as an indigenous pastor. Russian people react painfully to changes in the program. It hurts if American evangelists advertise one subject with a fancy title but then do not cover that subject. For example, one evangelist from America advertised a particular topic and got an audience of 1,000 unbelievers. The audience perceived that he did not adequately address the topic, and so the next night only 300 people came.
It's very important to conduct strategic planning and counsel more with Russian pastors as to where are the best towns and what are best strategies to use. Many evangelistic series create more problems than benefits. We are delighted with the baptisms from the meetings here in Moscow. But with the same amount of money spent in the suburbs and smaller towns surrounding Moscow we could have baptized five times as many people as we have baptized here.
We should have started with the positives rather than the problems. I have worked with both Finnish and American evangelists. The Finnish evangelists are more liberal than the American evangelists in deciding whom to accept for baptism. The Americans are more conservative, which I prefer. On the other hand, the Finnish evangelist trusts the local pastor more than the American evangelist does.
I have held many crusades in the Ukraine and in Russia. I find that when an American and a Russian preach the same truth, the people are more likely to accept the truth from the American than from the Russian. People, in general, feel that Americans are more trustworthy, partly because they have a better lifestyle and achieved greater material success.
There is also the curiosity factor. People think that Americans come from another planet. We have been so isolated that people want to see how people from other parts of the world think and live.
Ministry: Is there a problem with nominalism among converts?
Pastors: We believe that the preparation for baptism in this series was the best that we have ever seen. We have never seen an American evangelist work on such a fine individualistic basis as Mark Finley.
A German evangelist conducted a series in a certain church. He gave the series in two parts: a one-month preliminary series, with a two-month gap, then a three-month series. At that time there were no Adventists in that town. He baptized 90-100 people, and they are all in the church to this day.
Despite the problems, we are greatly encouraged knowing that all is in the hands of our God, who is always able.
Pastors' wives rejoice
Fellowship, intercessory prayer, and intensive training marked five historic days of meetings for pastoral wives in Moscow. Most of the 70-plus women who at tended participated in a first-ever experience of sharing their own lives and learning skills that would enhance their marriage, family, and church life.
In addition to Ernestine Finley, who organized the daily meetings in con junction with the Moscow evangelistic series and gave seminars on priorities and responsibilities, the week-long activities featured Nancy Wilson, wife of the Euro-Asia Division president, Ted Wilson, who brought greetings and ex tended encouragement to the women in Russian. The women applauded happily to hear their division leader's wife speak in their own language. Nancy also participated in the question/answer sessions, which addressed concerns presented by the pastoral wives themselves.
Sharon Cress, coordinator of Shepherdess International, made presentations on team ministry, ministry to and for children, and the services of the Shepherdess organization. Marie Spangler, founder of Shepherdess International, focused on the pastoral family, particularly the needs of the children. In previous years Marie had met with smaller groups of women throughout the former Soviet Union; be cause of religious restrictions, these meetings had been called "recipe exchanges." It was especially appropriate that the founder of Shepherdess International could participate in this first large gathering of pastoral wives in Russia.
The daily pro gram began each morning with a devotional on intercessory prayer by Lillian Guild, who taught the women conversational prayer and led the group in focusing on specific issues to pray for in their small groups. Lillian also encouraged each wife to find an other woman as a prayer partner for ongoing fellowship after the meetings ended.
Each pastoral wife who at tended received a special gift packet prepared by Shepherdess International plus a complete set of spiritually encouraging books provided by Ruthie Jacobsen and the women of the Oregon Conference. Since most of the attendees did not have their own Bible, each woman also received a personal-sized Russian Bible compliments of Bob Spangler and Don Gray of the crusade management team.
One evening during the crusade, speaker Mark Finley asked the pastoral couples of all 12 Moscow churches (four existing and eight newly planted congregations) to come on the platform, and he introduced them to his audience. Nancy Wilson, Ernestine Finley, Marge Gray, Lillian Guild, Marie Spangler, and Sharon Cress presented beautiful flowers to each of the Moscow pastoral wives as part of this special introduction.
Another feature of the morning meetings was the opportunity for pastoral wives to submit questions for discussion. Dr. Harvey Elder, professor of medicine at Loma Linda University, helped answer the personal-ethical questions. Educational credit for each participant came from the Ministerial Association's Center for Continuing Education.
All participants remained enthusiastic despite hot and cramped conditions (more than 70 crowded in a room designed for 50).
Pastoral wives everywhere are encouraged to remember the challenges faced by their sisters in Russia and to pray for the continuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit on their families.
1 Gennady S. Musaelyan, Moscow
Magazine, June/July 1993, p. 3.
2 Since pastors participated from
other countries besides Russia, l
will use the designation Euro-
Asia to describe them even though
the meetings were held in Russia itself.