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Ethnic Church Planting:
A Documentation of the Work of Dr. Chris Thomas
Nancy Kruger, Spring 1994
Case Study: A Slavik Church (Part 2 of 5)
The first contact with the Russian-Ukrainian people was in October 1988 through the Episcopalian agency. Several families had come to the U.S. and needed housing, jobs, help with filling out forms, learning to drive, opening bank accounts and many other things that are difficult for a newcomer in this culture. Dr. Thomas assisted the families with these things, and many of them are still living in the area near the Neighborhood Church in Bellevue. The church celebrated their first service right after Thanksgiving 1988 in one of the meeting rooms of the Neighborhood Church. Within six months there were 40-50 members and within one year the church had grown to about 100 families!
Most of the Christians were Pentecostal or evangelical. Although not all members of the families are Christians, their reason for coming to the U.S. was because of the pressure of religious persecution. Because of this, the people have been very responsive to the Gospel. Once the families are established into the community, many of the non-Christian family members have come to the Lord and have been baptized. Extended families also come together, causing more growth because of "web relationships".
The relationship with the mother church (Neighborhood Church, Bellevue, Washington) has been good, and the members have been extremely helpful to the refugees. Members gave offerings of money, clothes, food, furniture and household items, and many members were willing to 'adopt' a Slavik family to help them with any needs that they might have in establishing themselves.
Besides the support of individual members, the pastor (at that time) was very supportive of reaching out evangelistically to the ethnic communities which were rapidly moving into Bellevue. The church allocated a budget of approximately $1,000 per month for the first year for initial expenses such as Bibles, literature, etc. The money was used in some cases for personal support for the refugees (i.e. rent, food, or electric bills for those who were not able to make the payments). In addition, the Neighborhood Church paid Dr. Thomas' salary.
Outgrowth to Other Areas
After the first year, some of the families wanted to live in an area that would be less expensive for them, so they started moving to Seattle (the Ballard area). The Full Gospel Slavik Church is now in Ballard, and they grew to a membership of about 200. Later, another group moved out to Kent, forming yet and their church. Eventually the Slavik community branched out into ten separate churches, with fellowships now in Renton, Tacoma, Everett, and three in Auburn. The Bellevue church has also experienced one split because of leadership conflicts.
Although there are several individuals who serve in leadership roles of preaching and leading in the prayers, it has been difficult for Dr. Thomas to pass on the head leadership of the Bellevue church to an individual from the culture. Normally by this time in the growth of a new church, this transition would have taken place, but Dr. Thomas found that with this group "the people must have someone they fully respect and trust, and this takes a great deal of time to cultivate." The problems that the people have with "dictatorship" in leaders and the difficulty with trust are both, very likely, issues that come from a background of oppression, mistrust of government and persecution. There is a natural leader who has the Biblical knowledge and skills to become the pastor of this church, and it seems that before long, he may be accepted by the people to lead them. For now, however, the people of this congregation are more willing to trust an "outsider" (Dr. Thomas) as their pastor than they would someone from their own country. (Editor's note: this was written in 1994.)
All of the other Russian Churches have part-time volunteer pastors who are Soviet Union refugees. In this ethnicity, the people have come from house (underground) churches, which have helped to form leadership qualities in many of the people. Since all of the men want to preach, the process of choosing the pastor becomes based on "who commands the most respect from the group'.
Since the leaders are not paid, part-time pastors are appointed as soon as someone is willing to fill the position. While they do study on their own, these pastors are not required to obtain a degree of any kind or to attend the training course offered by Dr. Thomas.
Some do attend, but there can be no requirement because most would not be able to go. Christian books are available in the Russian language and these are available to study. But again, the availability of funds to purchase books for the pastors is limited.
There are very definite ideas of what kind of leadership there should be and what good leadership entails. The rigidity of these rules is the result of the dramatic influence that the political leadership has had on the people of the Soviet Union. Women are not considered to be candidates for pastoral leadership roles in the Slavik Church. Natural leaders are considered by the Slavik people to be men who can control the people, not necessarily one who has the Bible knowledge, sensitivity for people or ability to preach well. If a man has been remarried even after the death of his first wife, he is disqualified for a leadership role of any kind. Another rigid rule is that leadership is life long. Once you become a deacon or a pastor, you are in that role for the rest of your life.
The Bellevue Slavik Church is made up of Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians, but its dominant group is Ukrainians. Several cultural characteristics have been challenges for Dr. Thomas as he attempts to lead the Slavik people in the teaching of Scripture. Some Russian Christians have been conditioned to survive by telling lies in order to get money or help from others. This behavior has earned over into their life here in the U.S., and has caused problems with the people's attitude toward the value of work. Some find it easier to remain on welfare than to risk the challenges of getting a job. Spiritually, it is difficult for them to grasp a full understanding of freedom and forgiveness in Christ because of a great amount of bitterness toward the communist system of government.
During Gorbachev's rule, even the children were belittled if they did not wear the red scarf, identifying them with the communist party. Before Gorbachev was in power, Billy Graham's visit to the Soviet Union included a meeting with the Soviet government (Human Service Commission) to plead for evangelical Christians to be allowed to emigrate to other countries. A list of 5,000 to 10,000 Christians was produced, and they were each given a one way pass to either Rome or Vienna. To get there, however, they had to sell or give away everything except a suitcase of clothes.
Israel, the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Australia and other western countries processed their applications to come and live in their respective countries. All of these western countries (except Canada) provided interim housing and food for the refugees in hotels in Rome and Vienna while they awaited the completion of the application process. Refugees sent to Canada stayed in refugee camps during this time. There remains a great amount of bitterness toward the Soviet Union for their lack of help, for the harsh treatment they received, and for the restrictions they were subjected to. But again, we must fully consider their background and culture before judging Slavik refugees and labeling them "difficult" to minister to, love and care for.
Among the people of this ethnic church, there is a sense of urgency, insecurity and repetition about repentance, as if it were uncertain that forgiveness is really there for them. Several times during messages given by one of the Slavik leaders, the translation given was "If we pray, maybe God will hear and forgive us". Again, given the background of all of these Christians, it is understandable that "freedom" from any type of bondage would be a difficult concept to fully grasp. The obvious "redemptive analogy" for them would be their freedom from communist oppression in the Soviet Union. They did nothing to "earn" this freedom, and they did not have to pay for it - it was, in fact, a gift from God, just as forgiveness from the bondage of sin is for all who believe!
Women traditionally wear scarves as head covering for worship services, in keeping with the Biblical teaching of submission. Other than Lydia's interpretation for Dr. Thomas, he did not observe women speaking in church, except to make announcements, other than once after the sermon (given by the 21-year-old son of an elder) the young man's sister came up to sing a duet with him. While women are allowed to teach the children in Sunday School, this is traditionally the extent of their involvement in the worship service or in leadership in the church.
Another concept that was initially difficult to teach the Slaviks is that of giving in Christian love to support the needs of the church as the Bible teaches. If another individual is in need, it is easier for them to help, but since the church is supported by the state in the Soviet Union, the people believe that they do not have to support the church here. For 100 people, an average weekly offering is about $30.00. Even though they are told otherwise, this has been a difficult custom to break, especially since the American dollar doesn't buy much here compared to what it would buy in the Soviet Union.
A Typical Worship Service
There is a lot of vibrant singing in the Slavik worship service. They use an overhead projector to put the words on a screen in the front (words that for me, are impossible to follow because of the different alphabet!). The service opens with one song, and then the first speaker goes to the front to give his sermon, lasting about fifteen minutes. When he finishes, everyone kneels for prayer, and an older man leads from the front while the congregation kneels on the floor. Several repetitions of this sequence take place before the service comes to an end about two-and-a-half-hours later.
"Ethnic Church Planting: A Documentation of the Work of Dr. Chris Thomas"
Nancy Kruger, Spring 1994.
Introduction, Ministry Focus and Challenges
Case Study: Slavik Church
Case Study: Hispanic Church
Case Study: Vietnamese Church
Summary of Observations Regarding Ethnic Ministry
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