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Dialogue: A conversation with Chuck Whittle

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — REACHING RUSSIA isn’t as easy as once thought, the longtime missionary says. Planning and patience are vital. 
Tell us about Churches of Christ in Russia today.
There are approximately 58 congregations, plus 15 “preaching points” where members meet, scattered across the entire geography of Russia — from Far East to west. But there are many cities with 300,000 to 500,000 people where there is no congregation and no mission work going on. The churches that exist today are primarily small congregations of less than 50 people. There are, perhaps, two or three with attendance of 100 or slightly more. The rest are basically small churches with anywhere from 10 to 15 people. That has not always been the case.
What was the evangelistic climate in Russia immediately following the fall of communism?
In the early 1990s, there were many baptisms. It was not unusual for there to be 200 to 300 baptisms in some of the cities. It was not unusual to have attendance of 100 or near 100. But by the mid-90s, the politics of Russia changed and the relationship between Russia and the U.S. had changed. Instead of looking toward the U.S. for the betterment of Russia, the attitude seemed to be that America was not the friend of Russia.

How did the change in the U.S.-Russia relationship affect churches?

The older people who had been in the churches began to drop out. This happened not only among Churches of Christ but all the denominational groups that are here. It became much harder to reach the people.
I am confident that many Russians had the original impression that America is rich and great because of Christianity. Therefore, they thought, “If I become a Christian, I should expect immediate improvement in my life’s condition.” And, of course, that did not happen instantly for most people, and they felt jaded toward Christianity. This accounts for some of the reasons for the dropout in churches.
However, there are new converts every year in virtually every city as Christians are reaching out to non-Christians. People are coming to Christ, and most of those who are Christians now are young people who come with an open mind and who aren’t burdened with history — the history of the Soviet experience and the history of disappointment with Christianity.
What has been the impact of churches’ financial aid to Russia?
When we brought in humanitarian aid in the early 1990s, it was the most divisive thing we could have done because the heart of the Russian soul is that everyone is equal. In one congregation, a sister was ill, and she was given money so she could get medicine. Then another woman came and said, “I need money. If you gave her money for that, I should have the money for what I need.”
We have had funds available to mission teams here from churches in America to help orphans primarily. That has become difficult because you have no way of knowing when you give it what is flowing to the orphanages. So we have tried to do projects where we can control the costs — like the rebuilding of bathrooms or giving of vitamins.
At Gatchina, we took on a ministry of providing vitamins and influenza inoculations for one school of 1,400 students. That was the only school that was not closed that winter due to influenza. We had parents say, “How can people who live so far away love our children enough to give them vitamins?”
What internal challenges do Russian churches face?
The church needs more trust in Christ and trust in each other. The Russian leadership syndrome is one leader and he is an autocrat. So when they hear about servant leadership, they can say “yes,” but when they start experiencing togetherness — often their first reaction is “No way is your idea better than mine.”
Missionaries have tried to change that, but the attitude of servanthood comes much later. A second challenge is that there are so few men in the church.
What is the greatest need of Churches of Christ in Russia?
There are many cities of at least 300,000 people without a church or a missionary — without anyone really trying to reach out to that city. We need Americans, British, others who are willing to invest in a long-term view of helping a culture to change. And the culture will change as there are Christians who will stand up for their beliefs.
I keep thinking of the prophets. They would go and preach to the nations. I think that meant they preached to the government, and the government influenced its people.
What do you wish American churches understood about evangelism in Russia?
Not too long ago I met with an eldership that has long supported Russia, and I pled with them to realize that long after most of us are dead, there’s going to be a need for supporting and encouraging the work in Russia.
In the 1990s, all the churches that were sending people here were so excited. You could come over and convert souls in two weeks. Well, nations aren’t brought to Christ in a day. Cultures aren’t changed in 10 years, not in two generations. And we need to develop that attitude — not just in Russia but wherever we go — that we hasten their growth as much as we can, but we can’t expect Russia to go from a communist nation trying to destroy religion to developing mature Christians in five years and withdraw our support.
We need missionaries, people to walk alongside the Christians, watch them stumble, encourage them and not lose faith that God is in control and that God will bring the fruit. We just need to keep working.
Nov. 1, 2006

Filed under: Dialogue

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