In 1988 my church aided (that’s an understatement) the resettlement of twenty-four Ukrainian Pentecostal refugees. For me it was part of the experience of a lifetime: I had my first contact with the Soviets on a commercial level the previous year, and visited Moscow and what was then Leningrad in April. Getting to know the Ukrainians was both educational and heart-warming. After years of reading and hearing about the persecuted church, to actually get to know people who had experienced it was not to be missed.
What we found was a people who had been through a lot but were a lot more fun than we expected. What they went through depended upon the generation. The older people had it very hard, quite a few of them had done hard time in Siberia or ended up in “orphanages” because their parents were in prison. The younger people had had it easier: the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years saw the easing of persecution, but they were still barred from higher education unless they became communists (on the outside at least, there were many opportunists in those days) and joined the Young Pioneers. Most did not, but they had no problem participating in the “underground” economy, which came as a surprise for law-obsessed Americans. Life was not bad but they left because they never knew what would come next.
It’s fair to say that, from an activity standpoint, American Evangelicals have two “pillars”: stewardship and evangelism. The Ukrainians were innocent of both. I discussed in my piece Losing the Church Property, or Why the Romanians Don’t Tithe the reasons why Christians in countries like the Soviet Union and communist Romania did not practice stewardship as we have understood it. It seemed strange that something like evangelism, which has such strong support in the New Testament, wasn’t on their agenda, or at least not on their agenda in the way we thought it should be.
But it wasn’t strange. Christianity, certainly the way they practiced it in underground, unofficial churches, was illegal in the Soviet Union. In the later years the police turned a blind eye to what they were doing (they were unable to do that with the way they drove their cars) but the spectre of being shut down was there all the same. They had to be guarded in what they said and to whom they said it. They were marked people, and in some ways that was their evangelistic technique. But their house churches were free from state control (which is more than the Russian Orthodox Church could and can manage) and enough people were either born or converted to get church growth even in the circumstances they were in.
Today we’re told by people like Tim Keller that we need to be “winsome” to evangelise those around us. Stepping away from the class problem, for our Ukrainian friends, it was simpler: the state was against them, they had to fly under the radar. In this country (and how this works out depends upon what part you’re in) we live in the anarchists’ dream, one I described in my piece Why the Spanish Civil War is Still Important:
To these a great new truth seem to have been proclaimed. The State, being based upon ideas of obedience and authority, was morally evil. In its place, there should be self-governing bodies–municipalities, professions, or other societies–which would make voluntary pacts with each other. Criminals would be punished by the censure of public opinion.
Today we have the same type of enforcers, using public opinion as a backstop, intimidating the rest of us. How this will translate into legal force remains to be seen, although as they rise in the system it is inevitable. (It’s hard to make a clean distinction between the two, in the Soviet system snitches and public opinion could be brought to bear as well.) Those who simply live the commands of Our Lord will be subject to disadvantages, just as their Ukrainian counterparts were.
How people like Keller–to say nothing of those who teach more conventional soulwinning–plan to deal with this problem is hard to say at this point. Widespread evangelism, like revival, requires a fairly open society, and that’s what’s slipping away these days. It’s certainly not the end of the spread of the Gospel, as the Chinese and Iranians know all too well. But it’s a game changer for everyone.