The Mission Movement in the Post-Soviet Context

Jan 6, 2022

By Bishop Eduard Khegay – 

I was born and raised in Almaty, Kazakhstan (former Soviet Union). My ancestors come from an undivided Korea four generation back to the 1860s. I became a Christian in 1992 when I was a student at Moscow State Tech University shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. God blessed me richly. I studied in the USA for my M.Div. and D.Min. degrees and met so many wonderful people. In other words, I have Korean blood, Central Asian upbringing, American and Russian education, and a Russian soul. 

God has given me the privilege to send and receive missionaries, be part of mission teams in different countries, experience different cultures and languages, do training events, and hear powerful testimonies. The mission movement has the power to change lives, and I want to be part of God’s mission in the world. 

The last 30 years have taught me some important lessons from the mission movement in the post-Soviet context. They include many blessings and also problems. And they are often intertwined together. Let me just briefly touch on the few of them. 

1. Language, culture, and mentality. There is a powerful scene in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 movie The Terminal when the main hero, Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) from fictional Krakozhia, helps a Russian man, Mr. Milodragovich, who wants to bring medicine to his ill father in Canada. Frank Dixon, the Acting Field Commissioner of the airport, wants to confiscate the medicine because Mr.  Milodragovich has no medicinal purchase license. But Viktor Navorski tells the commissioner that this medicine is actually for a goat. This would allow a person to take the medicine onboard without needing a license. The commissioner understands that Viktor is lying and asks him why about his actions and why he helps a man he does not even know. This scene makes me laugh and cry at the same time. It caricatures the Russian and American men to the point of extremes. But the point is well taken. We grow up with our own language, culture, and mentality, and sometimes it is hard to understand a person from a different country and why they behave the way they do. 

I admire missionaries who come to our land and study our language, culture, and mentality. All these things define the way we think and feel. When someone speaks my language and understands our jokes, I feel that this person is one of us and the connection gets much stronger. If someone respects Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky or Rakhmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, I pay attention to this person and what he or she has to say about God. 

On the other hand, it is sad to see missionaries who make little effort to learn the local language and understand our culture. Of course, some people have more talent for learning foreign language than others. But even with limited vocabulary and genuine interest for local culture and the people, a missionary can be effective. 

Another issue is using an interpreter. Often times I was the one. Besides the issue of quality of translation and integrity of the interpreter, people may perceive the missionary as a rich foreigner who hires others to do the job. In the context of a poor economy, it may inadvertently create power or status differentiation which did not exist before. And a missionary may not even be aware of that. 

2. Reaching goals, building relationships. Most of us who grew up in the Soviet time experienced an authoritarian leadership style which implied that the Communist party sets goals for you. You didn’t have to think and worry about your future. Some people of my generation who were born in the 1970s still have a hard time to dream their own dreams. So, when Western missionaries came to our land and introduced goal setting, strategic planning, and SMART and SWAT analysis, silence was the predominant reaction from our people. It took us many years to figure out how to work with this new paradigm, and we are still on the journey. 

Generally speaking, our sisters and brothers from the West were people who wanted to get things done, while our local people value more relationship building. If you come from a place with many resources to a poorer place, you see many possibilities to improve life and your compassionate instincts move you to act. Local people may admire you and follow your leadership until you realize that the future of your mission may seem uncertain after you leave. 

It is much harder to invest in building relationships and patiently wait when local leaders would have their own dreams and strategic plans. But isn’t genuine discipleship about building relationships? Westerners feel that we go to extremes and drink too much tea and don’t reach the goals. And they are right. We do talk a lot. We need to work more. But going to another extreme – reaching your goals and missing building relationships – can damage our mission as well. My hope is that mutual learning and edification can help us build great teams for God’s mission both in the West and in the East. 

3. East or West, which is the best? The politics of the world’s powerful countries is very polarizing today. I often feel that we are in an era of the Second Cold War. If you are in Russia and speak highly of a Western country, many people may perceive you as traitor. If you are in the USA and speak highly of Russia, you may get in trouble with your friends and colleagues. Is there a Christian way to deal with that? And how can we join God’s mission that will transform people’s hearts and minds so that they can see every human being as a child of God regardless of citizenship? 

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), Russian religious philosopher, wrote in the beginning of the twentieth century that Russian thinking cannot be Eastern or Western. He argued that both of these extremes are not appropriate. His hope for Russia was that she would grow to global leadership and wake up the inner creative activity of the people. We as a church also cannot be Eastern or Western. We are called to be together and bless one another whether we come from East or West, North or South. 

Unfortunately, the declining number of mission teams to Russia (even before the pandemic) suggests that the scary politics portrayed by the mass media puts brakes on the mission work internationally. Some people buy cheap news, argue about what is best: East or West, and lose focus on God’s mission.

The Bible challenges us today: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The mission of God is about sharing our light with others, especially those who suffer from darkness of spiritual, economic, political and social oppression and deprivation. 

Who will go for God and whom shall he send today to share light, build relationships, and learn language, culture and mentality of God’s people?     

Bishop Eduard Khegay is the Resident Bishop of Eurasia Episcopal Area in the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference of The United Methodist Church. This is the second of a series of articles provided by TMS Global to platform some important voices in global Methodism.

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