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For many Christians in Russia, the freedoms of the early 1990s are largely gone. The Russian Orthodox Church, once a victim of Communist oppression, is now cozy with the Kremlin, but at a price: It overlooks the growing authoritarianism of President Vladimir Putin and human rights violations reminiscent of Soviet times.
Putin trumpets the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) as the one true faith and source of Russian superiority. He blesses new churches, and the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill proclaims Putin’s rise as a “miracle from God.” The ROC persuaded the government to pass a law in 1997 restricting the religious freedom of “foreign faiths,” and Putin pushed state-owned energy companies to invest billions into the rebuilding of churches destroyed by the Soviets.
The ROC—now one of the largest landholders in the country—even has the right to teach religion in public schools and preview any bill sent to the Russian Duma. The ROC is largely silent about the Kremlin’s murdering of critical journalists, politicians, and lawyers; its attacks on Georgia and Ukraine; its aid to the murderous Assad regime in Syria; and its fostering of crony capitalism that rewards corrupt oligarchs and steals from the innocent.
Putin, a former KGB agent, remains popular as he begins his fourth term, but perhaps not as well-liked as polls claim, according to Pavel Stolyarov, who also works at a Christian apologetics ministry. “If people are asking, ‘Do you like Mr. Putin?’ the answer is, ‘Yes, of course. Goodbye.’ It can mean almost nothing.” Reports of wiretapping and the unexplained deaths of those who cross the Kremlin have shaken at least some Russian citizens.
The trends are still worth tracking: Putin’s popularity peaked after the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 but plunged when the Russian leader moved this year to increase the pension age—an attempt to help offset the skyrocketing costs of war in Syria, annexing Crimea, sanctions, and a budget-busting World Cup. Critics pointed out the irony in the legislation, which raised the retirement age for men from 60 to 65: Life expectancy for Russian men is less than 65 years of age.
Russians are proud of their iron will and ability to withstand hardship. But the independent pollster Levada Center recently concluded that a growing number of Russians are weary of hating the West and making financial sacrifices for Moscow’s ventures abroad while corrupt oligarchs and patriarchs line their pocketbooks. The credibility of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill plummeted when observant bloggers spotted a watch worth at least $30,000 on his wrist. Church credibility plummeted after a failed attempt to photoshop all traces of the watch from the patriarch’s website.
Some Orthodox are concerned about the ROC’s spiritual health and point to the words of novelist Nikolai Leskov: “Russia has been baptized but not educated.” Between 70 and 90 percent of the population identifies as Russian Orthodox, but around 30 percent do not believe in God, and half have never opened a Bible.
While the Russian Orthodox Church has been busy building and blessing new churches (25,000 since 1991), non-Orthodox groups are often at loggerheads with the courts over worship space.
In Vyborg, a city of 80,000 people near the Finnish border, members of Vyborg Christian Church meet at a Seventh-day Adventist building each Sunday—a less than ideal situation. The facility lacks space for a nursery, so parents drop off their children at a separate location before worship.
Pastor Andre Furmanov said “local mafia” have blocked his church’s efforts to purchase a building, sending him outside city limits to search for adequate space. The challenge: Most church members don’t own vehicles and walk to church.
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For the past 12 years, Frank Hu (name changed for security), a pastor in central Taiwan, has led short-term mission trips to the Chinese province of Henan where he organizes camps for up to 140 college students.
But this summer, church groups in three of the six villages where Hu regularly held retreats warned him not to come, as there was no place for them to meet. After February’s Religious Regulation went into effect, local officials have shut down what they consider “illegal religious meetings” and detained one of the church’s pastors. Churches in two other villages invited Hu to put on the camp, as local officials are more lenient in some areas. Still, those camps drew only 30 to 40 students.
The Chinese government likely chose Henan province as a target because of its high population of Christians. Both government-sanctioned Three-Self churches and unregistered house churches have felt the government clampdown escalating in recent months as evidenced by numerous cell phone videos of destroyed churches, burnt Bibles, pastors’ arrests, and cross demolitions circulating online. Because of Chinese censorship, Henan Christians pass the videos on to overseas Christians who spread the images through Facebook and Twitter.
Because Three-Self churches are under government control, they face the brunt of the new rules. Minors under 18, Communist Party members, and members of the military may no longer attend churches, and the government requires some churches to have a Chinese flag on display, sing the national anthem, and collect data on attendees.
According to John Gao (name changed for security), a missionary familiar with Henan, the government is forcing official churches to merge, so instead of monitoring 50 churches, they can just monitor five. The result, Gao said, is that attendance at some Three-Self churches in the countryside has dropped by 50 percent. Families have no one to watch their children on Sunday mornings, others fear that attending church could cost them their jobs, and others in remote villages are too far from a Three-Self church to attend.
This has led to growth in attendance at house churches, but house churches face their own challenges. Under pressure from the government, landlords have evicted large house churches with more than 150 attendees, and churches that own their buildings are seeing police ban the use of their buildings for church meetings.
Hu said the house church pastors had made preparations to break into smaller groups that meet at homes, and he believes the effect of the clampdown may be that churchgoers become more involved with their churches. Instead of one pastor, a few elders, and 200 congregants, every house church of 10-20 will need a leader, helpers to set up the room, and a worship leader. Persecution is also an effective way to separate the wheat from the chaff: Some may stop attending church, but they may have only attended for material benefits.
Students are also a target in the crackdown: At the end of the school year in June, schools required parents to sign a statement that they wouldn’t let their children attend religious activities over the summer. College administrators warned incoming freshmen not to talk with anyone on campus who broaches the topic of religion, yet Hu said brave Christian students still build relationships with freshmen and invite them to church.
I asked Hu if he felt the locals were afraid as they face increasing pressure. “They are more cautious and alert, but not afraid,” he said. He believes the government is using Henan as a trial run and will spread the persecution to the rest of the country.
In a Facebook post, Pastor Wang Yi wrote: “Pray that the Lord would prepare each church member to count the cost and cast away his worldly things, pray that He would give us the blessing of righteous suffering and watch over our spiritual life, and not take away our reward because of our cowardice and weakness.”
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Evangelical churches have become political echo chambers—and many of their congregants prefer it that way. Surprisingly, younger evangelicals—those 35 to 49 years old—desire homogeneity more than their elders.
That’s according to Lifeway Research. The polling group asked evangelicals to assess the statement: “My political views match those of most people at my church.” Nearly 51 percent of respondents agreed, and the generational breakdown was stark. While 44 percent of those age 65 and older and 47 percent of those ages 50-64 agreed, fully 61 percent of 35- to 49-year-old evangelicals agreed.
While the data expose an escalating politicization of the church, they also underscore a darker trend. Lifeway asked evangelicals to agree or disagree with this statement: “I prefer to attend a church where people share my political views.” While 42 percent of respondents disagreed and 12 percent were unsure, 46 percent agreed, with 35- to 49-year-old churchgoers agreeing far more often (57 percent) than those ages 50-64 (37 percent) or 65 and older (33 percent).
The Bible tells us that Jesus has “torn down the dividing wall of hostility”: He reconciles through the cross people who would otherwise stand divided—but many evangelicals condone politically divided Christianity. If Lifeway’s findings are accurate, these evangelicals not only fail to see the gospel contradiction inherent to their ecclesiastical self-selection, but actually prefer it.