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Teaching Evangelism in Russia

The ministry of evangelism in the Russia United Methodist Church has changed drastically in the fifteen years since the reestablishment of the Church in 1992. Rapid change in Russian society resulted in swift changes in the expectations that people had for the Church. Though the spiritual needs of the Russian people at present remain as deep as they have been in the past, the general attitude towards the church, religion, and the world overall in Russia has changed greatly.

In fall 2005 the Russia United Methodist Theological Seminary in Moscow with the support of the Foundation for Evangelism, an affiliate of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, established the E. Stanley Jones Professorship of Evangelism in the Ruediger and Gerlinde Minor Chair to address the urgent need for systematic and comprehensive analysis of complex rapidly changing issues related to evangelism in the cultural environments of Russia and the former Soviet Republics and to provide a sound foundation for present and future pastors for developing evangelism in their ministries.

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The initial work in the field of evangelism required further analysis and interpretation of the cultural situation, spiritual needs, and evangelism practices of the United Methodist Church in Russia and Eurasia in the 1990s to be made available for the pastors and leaders of the church. The same had to be accomplished for the first decade of the twenty-first century. Changing patterns of Russian cultural, economic, and social environments had to be made explicit so that in that light some principles pointing toward development of a robust and indigenous culture of evangelism in the United Methodist Church in Eurasia could be identified and set in motion.

Evangelism in the 1990s
When Communism lost it's ideological hold over Russian government and society in the early 1990s, people we're left without a guiding paradigm in which to understand their lives. This vacuum sent many people of all ages on a search to find a meaningful way to understand their place in the world. The United Methodist Church became one of the places where people found real answers to some of their most difficult questions during this period of searching in Russian society.

The abrupt and flawed transition to a market economy in the early 1990s left many people in the former Soviet Union in greater poverty than they had ever known. Salaries we're not paid, and when paid, they we're insufficient to buy necessary staples. Many people lost their jobs as previously state-supported industries and institutions lost support. Life was difficult for most people of the former Soviet Union, and people we're not only trying to understand this new world in which they found themselves, they we're also trying simply to survive. Again, the United Methodist Church answered the need of the Russian people providing many shipments of humanitarian aid, volunteers who helped to repair orphanages and Russian Orthodox churches, and other projects.

In those hard years in the 1990s, the kindness of United Methodist Christians and their willingness to provide people with their first, free Bible resulted in continuing growth of interest in the United Methodist Church. The answers that many found to their search for meaning in the Russia United Methodist Church encouraged some people who had never been to any church before to make it their spiritual home and resulted in the rapid growth of the church in those years.

In the Russia United Methodist Churches, people found hope, not only for the present but for eternity. Hope was hard to find in those days, with most people despairing of even survival. The church also provided warmth and fellowship. At that time, when it was difficult to know whom to trust and what to believe, the openness and joy of United Methodist Christians in Russia was a welcome change.

American and Korean United Methodist Missionaries also found an eager response to their presence in Eurasia, as Russians desired to make the acquaintance of their former "enemies."

First Decade of the Twenty-first Century
All these circumstances mentioned above resulted in emergence of many United Methodist Churches in Russia and Eurasia. However, now, more than a decade and a half after the fall of Communism, the situation in Russia has changed drastically.

President Putin has provided the stability and leadership to allow Russia to bring itself out of the darkness and despair of the early 1990s. Today, the Russian economy is doing very well, and many people, especially in the larger cities, have confidence that their lives will continue to improve.

The Russian Orthodox Church, too, has increased it's power and position in Russian society. While many Russians are still atheistic in their beliefs, there is a significant portion of Russian society that has accepted the Russian Orthodox Church as an inherent part of their cultural heritage. Using this claim to heritage, the Russian Orthodox Church has been pushing for harsher legislation against non-Orthodox Churches and for mandatory classes in Russian Orthodoxy in the public schools.

Another component that makes the question of evangelization a particularly sensitive subject is the practice of the Russian Orthodox Church to qualify virtually any evangelization activity proselytism. In fact, the United Methodist Church in Eurasia is reaching out to those who do not attend church and who do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ, which is evangelism, not trying to convert Orthodox Christians to another form of Christianity, which is proselytism. The understanding of evangelism that is receiving more and more recognition in the United Methodist Church in Eurasia in recent years has been formulated by William J. Abraham in his book The Logic of Evangelism: Evangelism is a "set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the kingdom of God for the first time." Nonetheless, any evangelization must be sensitive to the Russian Orthodox Church, as well.

All these changes have made the previous methods of evangelization ineffective. A free Bible only is no longer sufficient to meet spiritual needs of people.

New Developments in Evangelism in Eurasia
The United Methodist Church in Eurasia has recognized the need for new approaches to reach out to people in need of a relationship with Jesus Christ. The first effort made together by the seminary and the church in Russia is identification of already existing evangelism practices in the UMC in Eurasia. This exercise will allow the church to build on them, familiarizing all local churches with them and helping pastors and church members to understand what caused those evangelism practices to be successful.

The Annual Competition for the Best Evangelism Project is designed to be a strategic avenue for achieving those goals. In it's first year of existence, this program invited ideas and evaluations from all five UMC Annual Conferences in Eurasia on evangelism practices implemented on the local church, district, or Annual Conference level. Representatives of the ten best projects will be invited to the Eurasia Conference in Moscow in July 2007 where, in the course of a one-day Festival on Evangelism, they will make multimedia presentations. The three best projects will be given evangelism awards.

Overall the Competition aims at creating room within the United Methodist Church for conversation focused primarily on evangelism. Here leaders, gifted in the ministry of evangelism, will share their practices and experiences with the pastors and leaders in each Annual Conference in Eurasia and answer their questions, encouraging dialogue and promoting excellence in evangelism. Thus, the Competition aims to lay the groundwork for creating a robust and indigenous culture of evangelism within the United Methodist Church in Russia and Eurasia.

In his endorsement of the Competition for the Best Evangelism Project, the Bishop of the Eurasia Episcopal Area Hans Vxby described the expectation of what should happen within the framework of the Competition as a prophesy, on the basis of Isaiah 48:6-7 and Acts 2:16-18. Vxby stated, "Prophesy is the gift of grasping God's thinking, anticipating the new things God has intended, and having the courage to let them happen." He encouraged all pastors, congregations, youth groups, and other units of the church to take part in the Competition and see it as an opportunity to practice what the prophets and the first Christians challenged us to do.

The Preacher of Evangelistic Love
One outstanding evangelism servant in the past dozen years in Russia and a participant in the development of the original idea of the Competition for the Best Evangelism Project was Lydia Mikhailova, a pastor in the Russia United Methodist Church and the first District Superintendent of the South Moscow District. Lydia Mikhailova was in her forties in 1994 when her husband died from cancer, leaving her with two young sons. Lydia was no stranger to trials. Born into a family that had been exiled to the Russian Far North from Ukraine to work in a timber-felling labor camp, she had spent the early years of her life barely able to survive. The family was rehabilitated only after Stalin's death. However, the death of her husband sent her into depression. Grief-stricken, Lydia sought solace, which she found when a friend invited her to a church service at the United Methodist Church in Lytkarino, outside Moscow. Blessed by the comfort the only Christ can give, Lydia spent the rest of her life telling others about the Good News.

Lydia came to the church through friendship evangelism, and she practiced that method of evangelism whenever she could. She was a "preacher of evangelistic love." She came up with many ideas of ways to reach people with the Gospel. Love triumphed in her life. Rather than let herself be hardened by her tragic experiences and difficult past, or to forget about it as many tried to do, Lydia conquered her past with God's love. One way in which this great love acted was in her work to start a church in the Far North, where her family had once been imprisoned, as an evangelism project from her church in Moscow where she served as a pastor.

Although she lived little more than a decade after her husband's death before she, too, died of stomach cancer, this decade was one of great joy and great fruit for the Kingdom through the Russia United Methodist Church. In both local churches where she was a pastor (the majority of the District Superintendents in Eurasia combine their ministry with service as pastors in local churches) during her ministry, as a skillful administrator who knew how things worked, Lydia was able to secure buildings for the local congregations. This was a great achievement in the extremely expensive Russian real estate market and one of the urgent and primary needs for each Russian UM congregation. People with broken hearts came to her churches and received healing and a genuine desire to live lives of people transformed through Christ. Both of her churches grew into some of the strongest churches in the District.

Even as she lay in the hospital three weeks before her death, she shared the Gospel message and read the Bible to the other women in her ward. When she was sent home for her final days, the women cried and begged her not to leave them, so meaningfully had she ministered to them even in her own time of weakness and disease. Lydia has left this legacy with the United Methodist Church in Eurasia. In her memory, the Administrative Council of the Russia United Methodist Church at it's last meeting decided to raise funds in Russia, the United States, and other countries to encourage the church to place an emphasis on evangelization in Eurasia through the Lydia Mikhailova Evangelism Fund.

Thus, the United Methodist Church in Eurasia is moving forward to create a new culture of evangelism to reach out to meet the spiritual needs of the many people who have no relationship with Jesus Christ. Though times and situations have changed rapidly and though things are continuing to change, the United Methodist Church in Eurasia with support from partners around the world is finding new ways to bring the Gospel of Christ to Eurasia.

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