What Is Engage Russia All About?
In its simplest form, the Engage Russia project is about connecting Southern Baptist churches with the unreached and unengaged people groups of Russia. It is our prayer that as Southern Baptists are on mission in Russia the Gospel would be more widely spread and that new believers would then begin to share their faith and create new communities of disciples.
What does it mean to be Unreached or Unengaged?
Unreached People Groups
An unreached people group is “an identifiable group of people distinguished by a distinct culture, language, or social class who lack a community of Christians able to evangelize the rest of the people group without outside help. The only opportunity for the people group to hear about salvation is through an ‘external witness.’ Most missiologists consider two-percent of the population as the ‘tipping point’ at which the group is generally considered ‘reached’ with the Gospel.”
According to the latest statistics from The Joshua Project there are nearly 200 unreached people groups in the Russian Federation.
Unengaged People Groups
According to Finishing the Task, there are 10 people groups in Russia that are classified as both “Unreached” and “Unengaged.” These people groups have populations over 50,000 and are “perhaps the neediest of the needy as they are unengaged, which means that no church, no mission agency...no one has yet taken responsibility to tell them about Jesus Christ.”
Where Are Our Career Missionaries?
Around the world, people are moving away from rural life and are concentrating themselves in large city centers. In Russia, half of the country’s population is currently living in cities of a million or more people. Currently there are around a dozen of these large million-plus cities in Russia. Therefore, the majority of our career IMB missionaries are located in these large urban centers. While God continues to call some to serve in the rural areas of Russia, it is strategically important for the IMB to place career missionaries in the large cities with the prayer of impacting as many people with the Gospel as possible.
How Does Engage Russia Work?
In the same way that Lewis & Clark explored the American western frontier so settlers could come behind to plant fields, build farms, and establish towns; Engage Russia provides Southern Baptist Churches with a ‘map’ for engaging the different people groups of Russia with the Gospel. But Engage Russia is about more than just guiding people to find the unreached people groups of Russia. We want to also provide “soil samples” or guides to help the church to really know the people whom they are going to serve. To this end, the Engage Russia team strives to provide mission teams with complete ethnographic profiles about Russia’s people groups.
Of course, this concept of scouting out what is ahead of us and preparing for others to follow with the intent of inhabiting the new land is not a modern one. There is also a Biblical model for the work of the Engage Russia team. In the book of Numbers, Moses gives instructions to 12 men who are to be the first into the land that God promised the Children of Israel. “See what the land is like, and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. Is the land they live in good or bad? Are the cities they live in encampments or fortifications? Is the land fertile or unproductive? Are there trees in it or not? Be courageous. Bring back some fruit from the land." Numbers 13:18-20 (HCSB) In verse 26 we find that it was not enough for the men just to go and scout, it was important that they shared what they learned. “They brought back a report for them and the whole community, and they showed them the fruit of the land.” Numbers 13:20b (HCSB)
But Engage Russia is more than just research. Like Lewis & Clark, the Engage Russia team visits the cities and villages where these unreached people can be found in order to establish and build relationships with the people in those communities. Before a church mission team comes to Russia to work with a people group, the Engage Russia team has already spent time in those areas. In addition, they are constantly documenting those experiences with various forms of media such as photographs & video to supplement the research provided to the churches.
In addition to researching the culture, language, religious beliefs, and customs of a people group, the Engage Russia team also tries to seek out local believers in each of the areas they visit. In doing so, they can help to paint a more accurate picture of the current status of the Evangelical church and can help churches focus on strategies that may be used to meet the needs of the people.
Native Americans -- An Analogy
While there is not an analogy that completely helps an American understand the concept of people groups in Russia, we can easily draw a comparison between the American Indian and a people group of Russia. In many parts of the country Native Americans still maintain a separate identity, language, religious beliefs and culture. And, some of these different American Indian tribes can still be found gathered together in different towns and cities across the heartland.
Are They Christians Or Not?
As you encounter research about Russia, and about Russia’s people groups one of the things you may find is that they are listed as being Christian. Therefore, this confuses many when you begin talking about the “unreached” or “unengaged.” In this context, the designation of “Christian” can mean a variety of things. Usually, this definition in this context, indicates the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
However, as you examine Russia’s history and how the ethnic Russian people conquered the land and the people in what is now known as the Russian Federation, you find that as the people groups submitted to the authority of ethnic Russians, the new rule of law and government also established the Russians’ official religion, Russian Orthodoxy.
So, what does that mean today? Almost everybody in Russia, when you ask them on the street, will identify themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church. And, most every city or village will have some kind of Russian Orthodox church building. However, most are marginal practitioners, if at all, and a majority of those who ever visit an Orthodox chapel or cathedral only do so on Christmas or Easter holidays or for the baptism of a child or burial rites for themselves or a loved one.
Russian Baptists - An Overview
Most people are surprised to learn that Baptists have existed in Russia for over 140 years. Southern Baptist missionaries and the Engage Russia team cooperate and work alongside the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Russia -- part of the large family of Evangelical Christian Baptists, a Protestant evangelical movement which began in the Russian Empire in the midst of the Orthodox establishment. It originally attracted peasants, urban artisans, lower military, and ethnic minorities. While in some areas of the country the number of Russian Baptists seems to be growing, it is clear that across Russia for a person to be identified as a Baptist is to be identified as a member of a sect or cult.
In many of the areas where the unreached/unengaged people groups live it is possible to find small to medium-sized congregations of Russian Baptist believers.
If the Russian Baptists are there, why should we go?
To answer this question, let’s go back to our analogy comparing Russian people groups to the Native Americans. In doing so, let us also draw this fictional anecdote:
Reaching the Creek of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
As the American west was being settled in the early 1800s, thousands of Native Americans were moved from their tribal homelands to reservations. The Creek Indians, native to Alabama, resettled in what is now northwest Oklahoma. The present day town of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma was founded in the process and today many Creek Indians continue to live in this area. For the sake of example, let us say that the Creek Indians in and around Broken Arrow represent one of the unreached people groups of Russia.
A basic Google search will yield dozens of listings for Southern Baptist churches in and around the city of Broken Arrow. And, this count does not begin to include the number of other Evangelical Christian churches in the area. Based solely on this research it would be easy for us to conclude that the Creek Indians of Broken Arrow have adequate access to the Gospel. However, if one were to take a research team to Broken Arrow and begin to do an in-depth study of the people who are attending the churches in this area, they may quickly find that the vast majority of the attendees are not ethnic Creek Indians. And, if this team were to take a survey of the language and style of the worship songs being sung, it would be likely that well over 90-percent of those songs would be in English and of a style that can be found in any number of Baptist churches throughout the country. Finally, if this research team were to count how many of the sermons on any one given Sunday were being preached in the Creek language they would also find that only a small percentage were being preached in Creek. Therefore, although there are dozens of Southern Baptist churches with the potential to reach the Creek of Broken Arrow, very few, if any, are actually doing the things that it would take to connect the Gospel message with a person who has their own distinct language and culture.
While this is a fictional anecdote, it does paint an accurate correlation to describe what we often find when we visit an unreached people group in Russia and find existing Russian Baptist or other Evangelical Christian congregations. Typically, when we encounter this scenario, we find ethnic Russians reaching ethnic Russians with the Gospel. As a result, these congregations usually have a very small minority of ethnic people group members. And, while the pastors may have a heart for reaching the members of the people group in the area, the churches have not made great strides to reach out to them in a culturally or linguistically appropriate way.