Unprecedented Follow-through Program for the “Nations for Christ” Congress in the Former Soviet Unio
It was an incredible experience! For five days in Riga, Latvia 1000 delegates to the Nations for Christ Congress met daily in a showcase auditorium which two years ago was open only to communist gatherings. Many of those present had been in prison for their faith, some for years.
Now, in a public building set in the middle of a busy public park, they were loudly singing the praises of Jesus Christ. And the published stated purpose of their gathering was to plant a church in every language, culture, town and village in the entire former USSR by the year 2000. Incredible!
I was impressed by the joy of the people at the congress. On the streets of Riga, few people would look you in the eye and smile. But not so among these Christians! I was also impressed by the beautiful music. There must have been at least 7 different musical groups, each with its own unique style. One, a Christian Russian Jew, sang so loudly many of us on the front rows had to hold our hands over our ears, and I couldn't help but wonder if previously he would have been imprisoned for singing quietly.
I have been to several international congresses on evangelism. Most of them were much larger than this one and were carefully planned years in advance. There wasn't time for the same kind of treatment here. Dr. Thomas Wang was the prime mover. He was formerly the International Director of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is now the International Chairman of the AD 2000 and Beyond Movement. In the fall of 1991 he made an extensive exploratory trip all over the former Soviet Union.
In consultation with some of the pastors there and later with Luis Bush, former director of Partners International and now International Director of the AD 2000 Movement, they decided that now was the time to move forward in evangelizing all of the former Soviet Union.
Since the AD 2000 and Beyond Movement stresses cooperation between agencies in everything they do, they invited several other agencies to help sponsor a kick-off conference which would be the beginning of a widespread saturation evangelism effort. David Howard of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) was eager to participate as was World Team and World Gospel Mission, which loaned to the effort the president of their board, the Rev. Dwight Smith.
They also contacted Jim Montgomery of DAWN (Discipling a Whole Nation) who loaned one of their mission with a great deal of experience in saturation evangelism techniques in several countries. Wolfgang Fernandez, a native of Venezuela and only 33 years of age, is a capable organizer and administrator. He did a fantastic job of pulling together this congress in just four months.
Bringing in DAWN meant that this was not going to be just an international conference, as valuable as that was to these formerly persecuted Christians behind the iron curtain. Rather, this conference was designed to lay the capstone of an unprecedented, breath-taking plan to establish in every one of the new republics a follow-up pattern able to "saturate" the mind-boggling complex of sub- nations in an area that spans 11 time zones.
In the Russian Federation alone (which had the most delegates to the congress) there are 31 "autonomous" republics. But when you add the ethnic subdivisions of the 15 free-standing republics which previously made up the USSR, you find 160 different ethnic units of major significance.
The choice of name for the conference--The Nations for Christ-- reflected the special concern of both Thomas Wang and Luis Bush, for many of these "nations" (distinct ethnic groups within the former Soviet Union) are as yet almost completely unreached.
Dr. Wang, born in China and perhaps the most widely known Christian leader from Asia, in 1980 had participated in the World Consultation on Frontier Missions in Edinburgh. It was unique in that it was a consultation of mission leaders only and stressed giving priority in evangelism to the unreached peoples of the world. Those who participated were already thinking ahead to the year 2000, as reflected in the slogan for that consultation: "A Church for every people by the year 2000."
In the intervening years since 1980, Dr. Wang was called to head up the Lausanne II conference in Manila. Though that conference brought together representatives from churches and mission agencies from around the world, Dr. Wang felt there still needed to be a second conference which emphasized the unreached peoples and gathered agency leaders together who were able to take concrete steps in reaching them.
Thus, in the midst of the plans for Lausanne II, he called another smaller conference of mission agency leaders for the month of January in Singapore of 1989. Out of this second conference came the AD 2000 and Beyond Movement, using a revision of the slogan at Edinburgh II (as the 1980 consultation came to be called) which says, "A church for every people, and the gospel for every person by the year 2000."
Luis Bush, also a two-thirds world leader from Argentina, accepted his present position with the AD 2000 Movement and Beyond after leaving the directorship of Partners International. More than any other person, he was the one responsible for the 3000-delegate COMIBAM conference in Brazil in 1987, which brought together Spanish and Portuguese leaders from all over the world. As with the Singapore conference, COMIBAM was a missions conference which challenged Latin Americans and Spanish and Portuguese speakers elsewhere to realize that God was calling them also to become missionaries to the unreached peoples/nations of the world. Especially thrilling to these wonderful Christians was the challenge of the Muslim world. But that is another story.
Though we shouldn't have been surprised, those of us who came to Latvia from the West were a bit dismayed to learn that both theological and ethnic divisions run deep, even among Christians in the former Soviet Union. Although the congress was in Latvia, only two or three ethnic Latvians attended. Since 1945, large numbers of ethnic Russians have been moving into the Baltic States. They feel Latvia is their home. Also, although the Soviet empire has collapsed, there is still a strong Soviet army there, and the soldiers do not want to go home. Understandably, then, there is still a great deal of tension.
Besides the ethnic distrust, there is a also certain theological disunity among the Christians. Unfortunately, perhaps, all of the local leadership of the Congress was not only ethnically Russian but also Baptist. Consequently, out of 800 delegates, only 50 Pentecostal pastors were present. The delegates evidently recognized the problem this disunity would produce for the goal of evangelizing all of the former Soviet Union because the document they produced and signed stated clearly the need for unity and love. But it will take time as well as the grace of God to bring unity to a fractured church and a splintered society. But what better way to find unity than in the common cause of reaching out with the gospel of our Lord to those who have never heard?
The most unique aspect of this particular congress in Riga, however, was the plans for what was to follow the conference. A number of the 200 participants who came from other parts of the world were speakers or workers at the conference. Forty-two, however, came prepared to return with one or another of the delegations from the various republics. There, at the grass roots, they will help train local Christians in saturation evangelism of the entire republic. Some of these "facilitators" planned to stay for months, but most are returning home after two weeks.
Because of their presence more than any other factor, this congress was not planned to be just an event but the spark for 15 national congresses during 1993, one in each of the republics and the Baltic States. The Nations for Christ Congress was thus just the beginning of a process, not the end. More than once Dr. Wang insisted, "If this congress is just an event, we will have failed."
Obviously, however, neither Wang nor Bush would be able to stay behind and lead the crucial follow-through all over the 11 time zones. For that job, they chose the Rev. Dwight Small, again a capable younger leader, this time from the U.S. He plans to be supervising this follow-through in the various republics of the former Soviet Union for several months.
Coming from the U.S. Center for World Missions where our whole thrust is the unreached peoples (not unevangelized people) of the world, I felt that the distinction between the two was certainly clouded at this congress. Even though various speakers--in particular Dr. Wang, Luis Bush, John Robb of MARC, Don McCurry ministering to Muslims, and my husband, Ralph Winter, tried to make clear the distinction between reached peoples with unevangelized populations and unreached people groups, where the initial penetration of the culture is still to be made, I truly doubt that very many of the Soviets understood just what they were saying.
After 70 years of persecution under a communist regime, their focus is almost entirely on their own people, who desperately need to be evangelized. And with the present economic crisis and ethnic conflicts in some areas, the financial problems they face may seem more real than the need to evangelize, I am sure. Some had tears in their eyes when they spoke of the human needs in their various republics, especially the one who represented the devastation in Armenia.
But one of the delegates warned that to focus too much on "gifts" promised from abroad might open their people to cult evangelists who were only too eager to win their loyalty. At least 600 groups claiming to be Christian missions have flooded the former Soviet Union with thousands of workers. Some are genuine witnesses to the love of God. Others are false prophets about whom these needy believers need to be warned, even as Paul and Peter so long ago warned the new believers in the Greco-Roman world.
It was one of their own missionaries who brought that warning. Working as a missionary among an unreached tribal group in Murmansk near the Arctic Circle, he spoke of the greatest need they have, that of laborers. "What we need most is missionaries," he said. "We'll help them build a house. We'll help feed them." And everyone laughed when he added, "We have plenty of fish."
At the high point in the final meeting, this man was joined in front by fourteen other Russian cross-cultural missionaries who are already at work among tribal groups in the Arctic Circle. These, we hope and pray, are simply the forerunners of a vast army of home-grown Christian missionaries reaching out to the many unreached peoples of the former Soviet Union. As Jesus said, "The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few."