Russian Protestants move to the fringes of traditional denominational life

Russian Protestants are increasingly experiencing “atomization and decentralization,” closing the curtain on an early Soviet era, where the million member Union of Evangelical Christians and Baptists (UECB) was unifying force of Protestantism, writes William Yoder in the online journal Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe (March). The change can be seen in the state of the Russian Baptist Union, once the mother church of the UECB, now reduced to no more than 70,000 members, with many members and congregations on its fringes holding conflicting teachings and practices. Yoder writes that Russia today has a wide pluralism of old and new denominations ranging from Exodus, a church body consisting mainly of former substance abusers, to new Pentecostal churches that include many “cultural outsiders,” such as retired Army officers, who have come to the faith since the 1990s. And there is more cooperation between Russian evangelical churches. But today, bishops and church offices “have less and less to say. Decentralization is the key…This trend is due in part to past foreign funding for individual projects, and the greatly increased crowd of [Russian] immigrants in the West expecting a say in the governance of congregational affairs in their homeland.” He adds that the church mission groups from overseas have largely left for greener pastures and the “congregations remaining behind are now, more than ever, required to determine their own fates.”

The increased government pressure on foreign religions is only one factor in this new independence of Russian congregations; another reason is the “short attention spans in the West.” The case of the Baptist Union, once one million strong, is the clearest example of this decentralization. Starting in the 1990s, when conservative Calvinists from the U.S. under such a leader as Californian John MacArthur exported their teachings, groups and congregations began to form on the edges of the Baptist Union. They now include the Kansas City-based charismatic International House of Prayer and the multi-lingual and multi-racial movement known as The Father’s House, which has 7,500 members in Moscow and throughout Orange County, CA. Yoder writes that the Baptist Union leadership appreciates the fringe’s help in “propping up the membership rolls, but relationships and power bases with independent funding are being formed beyond the reach of Union leadership. A covert emigration, an erosion from within, is beckoning.”

(Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe,