New York, NY, April 13, 2011--A little more than 20 years ago United Methodist people took a bold step in reigniting in Russia mission work interrupted three-quarters of a century earlier by the communist revolution. It became the conceptual, if not the structural, model for what are today more than a dozen widely dispersed "new mission initiatives" of the denomination.
"New" after two decades? Yes and no. Methodism in Russia and Eurasia is very new when compared to the age of Christianity, Protestantism, and even Methodism, which is itself a fairly young movement. But it is a generation old in actual years; it has second-generation members and maturing experiences and aspirations.
By openly confronting the questions that arise as a "new" mission grows up, the church in Russia and surrounding areas is providing guidance for the other mission initiatives that follow in its course. For two years, the church in Eurasia worked on its road map into tomorrow.
Come Walk with Us
The major theological, social, and organizational challenges were clearly visible at the 15th consultation of the Russia Initiative held in Oklahoma City April 7-9 under the theme, "Come Walk with Us on the Road." A total of 160 people took part, including 42 from Russia and Ukraine. Most of the others represented US partner congregations in the Russia Initiative network. The consultation was sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries, the United Methodist worldwide mission agency.
Most of the proceedings from St. Luke's United Methodist Church were broadcast on the Internet--worship, speeches, discussions. Many photos and videos were used, visual reminders of a journey going back to the early 1990s. There have been many "high points" in the story:
- a food lift into Russia in the weeks after the demise of the Soviet Union
- the organizing of the vast territory of Eurasia into annual conferences
- the opening of a United Methodist seminary in Moscow
- watching all the Russian congregations--more than 120 today--become led by indigenous clergy.
The Road Ahead
At the Oklahoma City event, Bishop Hans Vaxby and a team from Russia explored "The Road Ahead for the United Methodist Church in Eurasia," spelling out the general topography of the road map and filling in with very specific ministry examples and challenges.
The objective is to perceive and follow God's vision for Eurasian United Methodism. That vision is expressed as three-fold and immediate. By 2015, the church aims to be:
- Dynamically growing
- Recognized in the society
- Helping people to become committed Christians.
The heart of the vision, Bishop Vaxby explained, is not simply to grow Methodist churches or to make the name United Methodist publicly recognized; rather, the vision is about helping people to find meaning in their lives, to learn that God loves them. Many people in Eurasia, he said, are "still confused about the meaning of their lives, 'having no hope and without God in the world' (Ephesians 2:12). We meet them on the sidewalks, they sit by our side in the buses, and they are the neighbors next door and relatives in the home village. They are there, and they need our help to get in personal contact with God and become Christians."
As on earlier occasions, Bishop Vaxby explained that the enthusiasm for religion that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union has waned. It now takes greater effort to effectively illustrate the power of grace and love.
The vision has implications for congregations, clergy and lay education, conference structure, and connectional relations. And here is where a map for the road together becomes essential. Bishop Vaxby and the team spelled out the implications for the people called United Methodists in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Plotting the road map is a project with considerable grassroots and annual-conference involvement.
Being intentional--clearly focused--on the vision is essential. The Rev. Irina Mitina presented this terrain with primary reference to congregations, which by their very existence as Christian communities are sent to "go...and makes disciples" of Jesus Christ. Each congregation is expected to grow in worship attendance, financial self-sufficiency, lay leadership, and service to neighbors--not, again, for the sake of growth but as witness to the love of God.
Areas of Road Work
Five areas of "road work" have been laid out. These are: 1) quality of ministry, 2) education, 3) self-sufficiency, 4) mission, evangelism, growth, and 5) social service. Bishop Vaxby and his team went into strategic detail on each of these areas of work, and responded to a range of questions afterwards.
Particular interest centered on the goal of congregational self-sufficiency. From the outset, a great deal of the financial support for the United Methodist Church in Eurasia and its far-flung congregations has come from partner churches and annual conferences, mostly in the US. The partnerships are multi-faceted, involving prayer, education and volunteer work, but outside economic support for the Russian churches is significant and often designated for specific purposes, like a particular pastor or building.
By projecting self-sufficiency, was the bishop suggesting the need for less outside financial support? "Not less money," Bishop Vaxby said, "but the Russian church may need to use money in a different way from the past, allowing congregations to reach toward greater maturity." The process, the road work, he said, must belong to the people; partners, including funders, walk with the people with the intention of helping to empower them. "We build a church together," Bishop Vaxby said of the United Methodist connectional system.
The value of the United Methodist connection, he stated, is that partners in mission help one another not only with money but in building spiritual courage, in supporting the belief that God can accomplish God's purposes.
In a video message, Thomas Kemper, general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries, paid tribute to the church of Eurasia in its attempt to achieve maturity and find its way toward greater self-sufficiency. He saw it as important for other mission initiatives. (View Kemper's video message.)
The Rev. Jorge Domingues, Global Ministries' deputy general secretary for Mission and Evangelism, brought personal greetings to the consultation. He noted that the Russia Initiative was not only the first recent initiative, but has done groundbreaking work by "inviting local churches, conferences, and individuals to be engaged in planned, organized, and visionary mission work. Many of the churches and conferences that support the Russia Initiative have been inspired to support other initiatives as well."
Worship on the Journey
Among the highlights of the Oklahoma City consultation were the contributions of the praise band and part of the choir from the Ulyanovsk United Methodist Church, located in a city on the Volga River some 800 miles east of Moscow. The young people sang in both Russian and English, blending music from multiple streams of worship.
A Celebration of Ministry Together included a photo montage of United Methodism in Eurasia. A litany focused on Russian, Ukrainian, and American hands joined in mission. It concluded with this prayer:
[God,] Give us wisdom to continue to listen to each other. Allow us to hear your voice as we work together, forging our partnership of faith. With deep thanksgiving and love, we raise our prayer in the name of your Son, Jesus the Christ. Amen.