“The Soviet Union is opening up wider and wider to the gospel. Now is the time for Christians in America to take full advantage of the situation.”
This description of the current spiritual state of the Soviet Union comes from George Brown,* an American missionary, who has been travellng inside the Iron Curtain for several years. Brown believes that the Soviet Union is on the verge of an awakening of unprecedented proportions akin to the Great Welsh Revival at the turn of this century.
The underground Christian church in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine is presently experiencing great revival. Soviet states such as Georgia and Armenia are currently in a state of social upheaval. This scenario could ultimately lead to the establishment of freer Soviet states and possibly the emergence of independent, democratic European countries separate from the control of the Kremlin.
“Gorbachev is an intelligent man,” says Brown. “It is likely that he sees that the communist system will inevitably fail and is in favor of dismantling it while remaining the power broker.”
Brown sees three possible scenarios for the Soviet Union in the next 10 years. The first two are possible outcomes but they are unlikely to happen. According to Brown, “The third one is the most likely to occur by the year 2000.”
The first possibility is that Soviet leadership could fall back into the hands of a conservative communist like Andropov or Brezhnev. Brown says this is unlikely and most political analysts agree that Gorbachev’s popularity is so immense that he will probably remain in power for many years.
The second possibility is that Gorbachev’s reforms will work and that the concept of infusing new life into the old system will be successful. This is Gorbachev’s hope – that somehow capitalism can revive the communist economy of the Soviet Union – but Brown disagrees. “It is obvious that perestroika has failed. The word means reconstruction – you can’t revitalize something that is dead.”
The third possibility is a total failure of the communist system and a breakup of the Soviet state into separate self-governing nations. The Ukraine, with a population of almost 50 million people, would be the largest nation in Europe if it is restored to self-rulership. Brown believes that this is likely to happen within the next 10 years. Gorbachev, he says, could emerge as a benevolent dictator over the remaining state of Russia and the Siberian states.
Presently, public demonstrations for freedom in the Baltic states, Soviet Georgia, and Armenia are common occurrences. Worker apathy coupled with natural disasters have made the retention of these satellites economically unprofitable. Brown believes that the policy of glasnost may be Gorbachev’s way of speeding up a process which he sees as coming to an inevitable conclusion. In the meantime, the new openness has paved the way for mass evangelism by American missionaries.
Caught Off Guard
“The situation in the Soviet Union is a lot like what happened when Peter was in jail in the Book of Acts in the New Testament. The other disciples had been praying for Peter to be released. However, when this finally happened they couldn’t believe that God had answered their prayers. In the same way, Christians in the United States have been praying for 70 years for freedom to preach the gospel in the Soviet Union. Now that it is happening we are being caught off guard.”
Brown stresses that it is important for the Church in America not to miss a golden opportunity. “We have an open door and yet few people are aware of it. American Christians are so used to thinking of the Soviet Union as an evil power that is going to invade Israel, that most do not believe a total turn around is possible. Instead of reading the latest prophecy book about Gorbachev being in league with the antichrist and wondering what that birthmark on his forehead really means, we should be mobilizing to invade the Soviet Union with the gospel.”
The defeatist attitude that characterizes many Christians’ predictions about the outcome of the communist world can be attributed to dispensationalism, an idea that has dominated Western theology for the past 150 years. Brown cautions Christians against being apathetic about the possibilities for the Soviet Union. “There are some terrific things happening among the so-called ‘underground’ churches. I can tell you from experience that many of these churches no longer like to term themselves ‘underground’ and now are beginning to become openly evangelistic.”
In the past, it was illegal to preach in the open. Pentecostal churches as well as all Protestant denominations always maintained a fervor for evangelizing the Soviet people. This had to be done secretly, however. An open display of this activity led to many arrests of Soviet Christians. According to Brown, Protestant denominations that are the most liberal in the United States are evangelical behind the Iron Curtain.
When asked about the genuineness of the experience of most professing believers, Brown said that without a strong commitment it was unlikely that someone could remain a Protestant believer for very long in this type of setting. All of these churches stress the importance of a salvation experience and a living relationship with God.
“It takes a real commitment to maintain this type of fervor. Most professing Christians in the Soviet Union have a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ. There are some who have fossilized in ritual and tradition, who have let superstition keep them from a true relationship, but even among this group there is a small percentage of believers who love Jesus with their whole heart.”
For many years, George Brown has been travelling into the Soviet Union to preach the gospel. In the past he was able to enter either as a performer or music instructor. He was always able to present a strong Christian witness under this covering, but had no exciting stories to tell about narrow escapes from the KGB or meeting with strong opposition. He attributed his success to using extreme caution and wisdom in dealing with each situation. In the past, he was able to help Soviet Christians emigrate from their country but usually encouraged people to remain in their nation where they were most needed to preach the gospel.
Open Evangelism in a “Closed” Country
Brown had worked for many years with the Soviet underground churches as a pastor or evangelist, but more recently under Gorbachev’s reforms the nation has been allowing Bibles, tracts and Christian literature to come into the country. Missionary activity is still restricted, but Brown says that many Christians are able to enter the country as touring artists or musicians. In this setting, Brown has been able to openly preach the gospel for the first time.
This year he was invited to take part in a jazz festival which featured mostly Soviet performers in the streets of some eastern cities. “I sang mostly gospel songs set to slow blues arrangements. Before I performed, one of the festival managers told me that once I was on stage, I could preach or say anything I wanted. At one point, I talked to the people and told them about the love of Jesus. I said, ‘I know that most of you are not used to the style I am about to perform in, but I know that you will appreciate it because the Soviet people appreciate truth and honesty.’” Brown then sang worship songs for the crowd.
Realizing that Brown was taking greater liberties under the new system of glasnost than had ever previously been allowed, a huge crowd gathered and the people were fascinated by what he had to say. The promoters of the festival were greatly pleased with this response and he was later interviewed for a documentary and a Soviet radio program. In both of these interviews, he was able to openly share the message of the love of Jesus for the Soviet people.
The people viewed him with curiosity, asking, “You are an American, you have no relatives in the Soviet Union, you are not Russian in nationality, why do you love the Soviet people?” Many people told him that they could tell by the depth of emotion in his singing and preaching that his feelings were genuine. This gave George Brown further opportunities to share the good news of Jesus’ love for the people.
This summer Brown toured the Soviet Union again and was optimistic about future possibilities for his ministry. “My dream is to form a worship symposium that could be taught at one of the universities.”
Brown is hopeful about the future of Christianity in the Soviet Union but warned Americans against fatalistic thinking. “I would like to admonish Christians in this country to begin thinking more positively about the Soviet Union. I see a new breed of Christians coming out of the reconstructionist movement. These Christians could have a great impact on the Soviet Union.”
“It is ironic, but most Soviet citizens think democracy is something that the government gives you.” Brown spoke of the Soviet people as having no knowledge of the work ethic or of any of the Christian principles that are foundational to democratic government. It is possible that Gorbachev’s reforms could continue without Christian influence. This would inevitably lead to a secular state – a freer life for the people – but with a government based on the ideals of Western humanism.
Brown emphasized that American Christians should be taking bold initiatives, but dispensationalist thinking has gained such a stronghold in American churches that most are unprepared to do anything. “There should be a greater emphasis on victory,” Brown said. “I believe that Jesus is concerned with seeing an expression of His glory in the Soviet Union before He returns.”
The Soviet Union is now open to the gospel. Brown’s many years of experience behind the Iron Curtain presents America with a challenge to respond.
- This American missionary’s true identity has been withheld in this article.