Archive for January 2018

A New Way of being Missional Church in Eastern Europe Vladimir Ubeivolc

January 28, 2018
Porţile Oraşului (The Gates of the City), Chişinău

Porţile Oraşului (The Gates of the City), Chişinău

How to be a church and how to do mission?’ These are the most difficult questions which pastors, theologians and practitioners have tried to resolve over the centuries. In Soviet-era Eastern Europe1 Evangelical churches did not discuss mission, yet the topic of mission now features at many conferences across post-Soviet Eastern Europe.

This article combines missiological reflection with a case study of Light to the World church (LTTW) and Beginning of Life (BoL) NGO.

The Church of and for tomorrow

Very often, when we talk about Church, we ground our discussion in Scripture, church history, doctrinal confessions, or possibly in classical eschatological terms.2 I acknowledge the importance of biblical studies, yet at the same time, I think we have a serious gap between the Bible, church history, and eternity. Practically, we struggle to think and act in the perspective of the coming future, or tomorrow.

Of course, there are many theologians and leaders who deal with ‘tomorrow’ as a reality, but most of them are not from Eastern Europe. One issue for Eastern European churches is the division between theological discussions and the Church’s practice. Theology and mission are not discussed together. I think one of the reasons is that our theologians are not answering society’s contemporary questions but are answering challenges from the past.

So, what is the church of, or for, tomorrow? We need to consider the local church, not only from a historical perspective, but also from its role in serving contemporary society with a focus on the future. The church cannot withdraw from active life, justifying its absence because of its tradition or quietist theology, and still remain an important player in society. At the same time, simply echoing the world’s methods of combating problems is not a satisfactory way of undertaking mission.

The church of tomorrow

The church of tomorrow is involved in being a church and shaping theology from the perspective of the future. The Church uses its spiritual gifts of knowledge, wisdom, and prophecy for understanding its identity in contemporary life from the perspective of tomorrow. The Church also uses natural gifts of analytical thinking to predict impending issues and problems. ‘Missional church is, on a deep level, about theological imagination – a different way to see and experience life in the church and the world.’3

It is impossible to shape its identity without a missional worldview. The missio Dei is essential to such a church. When discussing the missio Dei, a trinitarian foundation is necessary, but, more than this, shalom becomes the final goal for God’s mission4 and an intermediate goal for every Church. Shalom should result during and from the Church’s mission (John 14:27). In this sense shalom becomes both a goal and a method. ‘Shalom suggests a restoration of relationship between all peoples, as well as reconciliation between humanity and God. It also suggests the restoration of the earth and our relationship to the land.’5

Trinitarian foundations and shalom frame a holistic approach to mission. The church of tomorrow still locates itself in the Bible and the Christian tradition. At the same time, in addressing contemporary issues, the most important question should be not: ‘What did our precursors teach on this issue?’ but ‘How it will affect our successors?’ The church of tomorrow should be able to foresee coming problems in the Church, as well as in society at large.

The church for tomorrow

The church for tomorrow is the practical response to the theological and prophetic reflections arising out of the discussion above. Because its essence and theology are shaped together with the coming generation, young people must be active players in the conversation. ‘A Community theology invites listening and becomes open to being surprised by God’s purposes rather than our good intentions.’6 ‘Leaders are responsible not for monopolizing theological discourse in the congregation but for leading and equipping people in the practice of theological imagination for interpreting the Word and making sense of their daily lives in the world.’7
New generations are both the object and subject of mission. When we think about the role of young people, it does not mean that older generations should be neglected. It means that they should not dominate any more. The church for tomorrow creates an environment for peaceful cooperation for different generations, open to their values, preferences and methods.

In the church for tomorrow, all generations are equal in theological dialogue and mission. Therefore, the church for tomorrow unites all generations in its reflections, shaping of theology, and its mission.

2. Missional community in Eastern Europe

What does it mean to be ‘missional’ in Eastern Europe? Eastern European evangelical churches are known by their activism in evangelism, church planting, and their Bible schools with a variety of theological programmes. The missional church is currently only discussed in a small number of theological circles. Consequently the idea of the missional church faces considerable resistance from denominational leaders, local pastors, as well as theologians.

I understand missional church to be a local congregation of believers, open to the triune God, who realize their mission through the Holy Spirit, and who have covenanted among themselves. Missional church assumes the missio Dei, that its mission is holistic, and that this involves prophetic presence, witness/evangelism, and social action.8 ‘A missional church is formed by the Spirit of God at work in the ordinary people of God in a local context.’9 Therefore, it is very important to rethink the obstacles and the prospects for missional communities in Eastern Europe.

Obstacles for missional churches in Eastern Europe

The Mennonites’ influence

It is hard to overestimate the role of Mennonites in spreading the Gospel in southern Ukraine and Moldova. Their mission was through ‘witness’, where words were secondary to a Gospel-shaped lifestyle. As Shenk reminds us: “Mennonites became known as ‘the quiet in the land’.”10 German peasants and artisans, whose life was attractive for Moldovans, established the first non-Orthodox communities in Moldova. From the very beginning, Moldovans were not evangelized verbally; rather, the Gospel was shown to them. A hundred years have passed since then, but this quietist approach is still passed down from generation to generation.

Historical background

Christians in the Soviet Union suffered from persecution and restrictions. During the Soviet era, Christians were excluded from an active societal life. Evangelism and public worship were prohibited. Churches were silenced and obligated to listen to the ‘state’s prophetic voice’ directed at them. All social action was forbidden because the Soviet state argued that there were no poor people under socialism.

Inertia of Eastern Europe’s people

Moldova and Ukraine emerged over several centuries of imperial struggle between the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Polish-Lithuanian, Prussian, and Soviet empires. Even today we are impacted by the geopolitics of the USA, EU and Russia. For generations, people in Eastern European countries could not make their own decisions, because their freedom was limited and this created a passive attitude to any kind of initiative. ‘Communism never found a way to motivate people to work hard. It appears that people are lazy… by default…’11

Christians tend to share this mentality. They wonder why traditional forms of mission, used for many years, should be changed for the future. People are generally very active when problems touch their family, but when they are involved in bigger processes, they believe that somebody from outside should come and resolve their problems.

Competing theologies and missiologies from the West

Moldovan capital Chişinău (Kishinev)

Moldovan capital Chişinău (Kishinev)

When the Soviet Union collapsed, western mission agencies and denominations swarmed into Eastern Europe. Some of them offered their services; some came with their vision, theology and financial support. Most evangelicals were open to, but naive, in relations with their western brothers.12 They were glad to have any kind of theological school, church building, or conference. Many western organisations did not coordinate their activities and competitive attitudes were widespread. In the 21st century, the situation has changed because local leaders, more aware of the alternative approaches, have become more selective. In situations where people in churches faced real poverty, and where churches were interested in raising money for different projects, it was very hard to be objective when determining motives. Money from the West frequently dictated vision.

A missional approach is different in its methodology of discipleship. No western theological school with a missional vision, has yet arrived in Eastern Europe with professors, programme, vision and money. There are many traditional theological schools which arrive with all manner of other resources and consequently it is very hard for church leaders to take the risk of adopting a missional approach.

Prospects for missional churches in Eastern Europe

The hope for missional communities in Eastern Europe rests on solid foundations.

Availability of numerous active leaders

Many pastors and leaders are dissatisfied with the current situation and understand the need for change. They are already active in different areas of society and church. Not all of them have profound theological foundations, but they are open and enthusiastic. Speaking at Moldovan and Ukrainian conferences, I meet many leaders who long for access to missional resources in their Slavic languages.

Emerging, local theologies of mission

There have been several attempts by local missiologists and practitioners of holistic mission to provide resources. These include: Mission in the Former Soviet Union (edited by Peter Penner, 2005); Forum 20, twenty years of religious freedom and active mission: Results, problems, perspectives of Evangelical churches in post-Soviet society (Rahuba et al, 2011, in Russian); Evangelical mission in the Eastern European Orthodox contexts: Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine (edited by Malancea and Ubeivolc, 2013). More recent titles include; New Horizons of Mission (edited by Penner, in Russian) and Grey Areas of Evangelical Ecclesiology (Ubeivolc, in Russian/Romanian). All of them demonstrate a growing interest in the theological rethinking of mission from a trinitarian, missional point of view.

Networking

Contact with international missional communities and missiologists helps to shape local and regional theologies of mission. Today Eastern Europe has become a region with open doors. Ukrainian, Moldovan and Romanian laws ensure the religious freedoms that permit missional churches to be established.

3. A case study from Chişinău

There is a risk of criticizing existing forms of the Church without suggesting alternative models. What would these look like in Moldova? This article outlines several options. Of course, these examples are not perfect, but they demonstrate that missiological innovation can transform missional practice and local congregations.

Light to the World church was planted in 1994 by Evangelical-Baptists following an evangelistic crusade organized by the Billy Graham Association. In the 1990s, the church was active in evangelism and discipleship. From 2003 the church’s mission began to develop: it became more contextual, flexible, and open to holistic and missional approaches. From 2012, the church adopted a holistic approach to mission, and together with Beginning of Life formed a ‘Church of / for tomorrow’ model. There are four different clusters in church; each of them leads services in their own style and form. Every Sunday there are around 300 people attending the different clusters.

Beginning of Life was established in 2000 alongside LTTW church as a nongovernmental organization with a goal to fulfil God’s mission in areas where doors were closed to evangelical churches. BoL runs three programmes: 1) ‘Place of Change’ for teenagers, a holistic outreach programme where Christian teenagers play one of the most important roles. 2) ‘Way to Success’ aims to prepare high school students for independent life, teaching life skills, critical thinking, professional orientation and character development from a Christian perspective. 3) ‘Metamorphosis’ serves people who have suffered from social injustice. This programme includes an early learning centre for mothers and kids; a humanitarian aid centre; a rehabilitation centre for victims of human trafficking and exploitation; a prevention centre for social orphans; and some small businesses with a goal to provide jobs for the most vulnerable women.

My research interviews with key people from the NGO helped me to identify aspects of the ‘Church of / for tomorrow’ model:

Equality of different levels of involvement into life of whole community / society as well as in the lives of certain individuals.
Consistency – when people or churches face different problems, they see only the upper part of the iceberg, but missional community takes responsibility for identifying the deeper roots of a problem and finds ways to resolve it.
Flexibility – ability to change programmes as necessary and leave one’s comfort zone.
Leadership adequacy – leaders are selected and trained according to their gifts and readiness, which leads to lack of autocracy. Different leaders are responsible for decisions in their area.
Freedom in choosing forms for each project and cluster.
Readiness to serve people outside the church, as well inside.
Ability to see children and youth as equal parts of the church and helping them develop their potential.

Thinking about the development of the Church of / for tomorrow, we need to bear in mind that the Church of / for tomorrow involves clusters working together because shared vision and relationships unite them. McNeal, describing Mike Breen’s English missional community, underlines the fact that ‘people began to prefer larger gatherings for mission even more than their small group experiences and started to hang out more in the clusters. Identity began forming around these mid-sized groups,… a sort of extended family. The communities began reproducing.’13

There are risks, which leaders should recognise: every cluster can easily become an independent church; competition between clusters can become a problem; different theologies can undermine unity.

At the same time, there are benefits, which are unlikely to be seen in other church models in Eastern Europe: an acceptance of people from different sub-cultures and language groups; involvement in ministry of larger numbers of church members; transformation in society, changes in individual lives, and ongoing church development.

It is too early to say that this model of church and mission is the best. However, it is clear that it has sound theological foundations, genuine relevance, and a promising future.
Vladimir Ubeivolc

Dr Vladimir Ubeivolc is director and co-founder of Beginning of Life NGO in Moldova. For many years he taught Ethics and Missiology in universities in Moldova and Russia, leading and speaking in conferences in former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. He holds a PhD in Contextual Missiology and is the author of numerous articles on holistic mission, human trafficking and social justice.

Endnotes
1. By “Eastern Europe” I have first in mind contemporary geopolitical divisions. Such countries as Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus are on the radar of my research. At the same time Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Armenia have a lot in common with the first group. Some conclusions could also include Russia.
2. E. Voegelin, ‘Representation and truth’ in The collective works of Eric Voegelin, v.5 (University of Missouri, 1952), 176.
3. C. Van Gelder & D. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 147.
4. J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 212.
5. M. Frost, The Road to Missional (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 104.
6. A. Roxburgh & M.S. Boren, Introducing the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 92-93.
7. Missional Church in Perspective, 156.
8. V. Ubeivolc, ‘Mission of Evangelical churches in Moldova. End of the twentieth to the first decade of the twenty-first century’ in Malancea M. & Ubeivolc V. (eds.) Evangelical Mission in the Eastern European Orthodox Contexts (Chişinău: Universitatea Divitia Gratiae, 2013), 130-137.
9. Introducing the Missional Church, 122.
10. W. Shenk, ‘Forging Theology of Mission from an Anabaptist Perspective’, in Mission Insight 13 (2000).
11. The Curtain Rises: Oral Histories of the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2004), 204.
12. W. Sawatsky gives an excellent description what happened in the 1990s in his article ‘Return of mission and evangelization in the CIS (1980s – present)’ in Sawatsky W. & Penner P. (eds.) Mission in the Former Soviet Union (Neufeld, 2005), 94-119.
13. Missional Communities: The rise of the Post-Congregational Church (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 40.

Evangelicals and the Phenomenon of Leadership in the former Soviet Union

January 2, 2018

Leadership theory and practice is essential to effective Christian mission, yet as a multi-faceted, culturally conditioned phenomenon, it is often underestimated and lacking in critical examination. Indeed, greater cultural understanding can be crucial for effective cross-cultural leadership, as secular theorists such as Geert Hofstede have shown.

However, research among Christian communities is often lacking. To help meet this need, Hodos Institute and the Graduate School of Leadership (GSL) at St. Petersburg Christian University carried out extensive research in 2015-16 among evangelical youth (ages 13-29) and youth leaders across 13 countries of Eurasia (former Soviet Union – FSU). The results of this study can be helpful for mission leaders and missionaries in the FSU, as well as in Eastern Europe.

In the first phase of the project, 245 interviews were conducted with youth leaders. Respondents represented 13 countries of Eurasia, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and others. Following the interview phase, an online questionnaire was developed based upon the information collected in interviews. Nearly 2,500 evangelical believers from across the FSU completed the questionnaire, and in total, nearly 3,000 people contributed their thoughts through various means. In the final stage, around 150 youth participated in focus groups in Central Asia, and 30 experienced youth leaders participated in a consultation in St. Petersburg, all for the purpose of refining results and gaining further feedback. Material from this project and resulting practical recommendations for leadership formation among evangelicals in Eurasia is presented in detail in four books published in Russian. These books (see right) are also available in PDF format, and can be downloaded at http://www.hodosinstitute.com/publications.

What emerged from the research were the following primary observations:

1. Leadership is in the process of redefinition

When asked the open-ended question – What is leadership? – a majority of respondents answered beginning with: “It is a person whom others follow, or a person who influences others.” The emphasis on a single figure as leader was evident across the research sample, and overall there was a lack of attention to notions such as followership and collaborative leadership. Also notable was a strong emphasis on positional leadership, which leads younger believers to believe that they have no opportunity to exercise leadership without a position of authority.
Language also plays an important role in the redefining of leadership. Often indigenous terms have their own cultural baggage, and borrowing the English term can also be problematic. One youth leader from Kyrgyzstan commented that in the Kyrgyz language, there is no equivalent word to ‘leadership.’ In Russian, the English loan word has been widely adopted (liderstvo), but as in other Eurasian countries, the term often carries a pejorative meaning, conjuring thoughts of autocracy, pride and abuse of power. Some older church leaders reject the term ‘leader,’ saying that they need servants, not leaders.

2. Mentoring and leadership formation are needed and desired among young Christians throughout Eurasia

Most evangelical Christians in Eurasia acknowledge that mentoring is important, but they also note the deficit of established and wise mentoring practices in evangelical communities. Mentoring is often reduced to or substituted with “instruction,” often long lectures or sermons. The younger generation of evangelicals is looking for mentoring that is not reduced to prohibitions, restrictions or dictates from older leaders, but rather mentoring through good examples, relationships of trust, and teamwork. They want to see principles and values lived out in authentic relationships of collaboration.
Respondents also noted that young people are often seen as simply implementers. One youth leader in the study confessed, “We are not forming [young leaders], we use them…and this is a tragedy!” Young people shared that often they hear appeals to serve, minister, take responsibility, etc., yet often the necessary conditions are not in place for their participation.

3. The dramatic socio-political changes following the breakup of the Soviet Union have led to significant generational differences in regards to understandings of leadership

Among respondents the younger generation sees leadership more horizontally, while the older generation is still rooted in a vertical mindset. Paradoxically, however, while young people desire more teamwork and collaboration, they still want a visible, strong leader.
Misunderstanding between generations is also prevalent. For example, while the majority of older generation claimed that young people view leadership as popularity (charisma), less than 1% of younger respondents confirmed this stereotype.

4. Leadership and mission are often disassociated in both theory and practice

The majority of respondents indicated that good Christian leadership practice is needed both inside and outside the church, but they indicated that church-based leadership training is mostly concentrated upon ministry within the church. At the root of this issue is a truncated definition of mission. For example, while young people spend the majority of their time at studies or work, they most often demonstrate leadership only in the church context. Their work or study context is not seen as an arena for Christian leadership, other than simply for evangelism.
For the betterment of mission collaboration and partnership in Eurasia, it is important to note that leadership formation programs, particularly those funded by Western partners, often lack critical evaluation and analysis. Respondents reported that events and resources are funded without sufficient thought given to assessment of effectiveness or appropriateness.
We reiterate that cross-cultural understanding of the phenomenon of leadership is crucial in Christian mission, and further studies are needed, not only in Eurasia. Cultures are never static, and the need for learning is ongoing. As one mission leader has said, “Cross-cultural leadership is a school from which you never graduate.”1 We hope that the results of this study will provide missionaries and leaders with much-needed understanding of the Eurasian context. Moreover, we hope that it will stimulate further study and critical thinking among those involved in missions in Eurasia and Eastern Europe.

Alexei Belov, Jon Coody and Alexander Negrov

For more information on the Hodos Institute, visit http://www.hodosinstitute.com or email anegrov@hodosinstitute.com
Endnote
1. Joshua Bogunjoko, as quoted by James E. Plueddemann in Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 31.