Dr. Vladimir Li, pastor of “Moscow Presbyterian Church,” predicts that Russia`s very first Presbyterian umbrella, a General Assembly, will be formed in October.

A working group was created in January 2010 for the purpose of launching a “General Assembly of the Presbyterian Churches of Russia.” Li reports that the first larger gathering in 2010 was premature. “We had too much dissonance, too many divisions and unresolved problems,” he told Presbyterian News Service.

Yet Li, a medical doctor with an additional degree from El Monte/California’s “International Theological Seminary,” sees the human factor, not theological issues, as the source of continuing disunity. “We have corrected initial mistakes,” he added.

The original working committee had consisted strictly of missionaries from South Korea. Li, a non-Korean-speaking ethnic Korean from Russia, is now spokesperson for Russians on this committee. The working group’s co-chair is Thomas Kang of Moscow, a Korean missionary from California. The vast majority of Russia’s Presbyterians are Korean or of Korean ethnicity.

Indeed, Russian nationalists have decried the Presbyterian movement in their country as a “Korean sect.”

When the requirement for state registration of churches in Russia began in 1997, Russian Presbyterians were without any central body. Consequently, the Presbyterians of Russia are now spread across no less than five denominational umbrellas. Some groups are registered with the Charismatic “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” headed by Sergey Ryakhovsky; others are allied with largely-Baptist or nondenominational umbrellas.

Only theologically conservative Korean Presbyterians have sent missionaries to Russia and Pastor Li believes Presbyterians barely differ in their theological views. All adhere to the “five points” of Calvinism and to scriptural inerrancy.

He explains: “There may have been reasons for their separations in Korea, but they are not known here. In Russia, the reasons are usually personal ambition. Nearly every congregation is independent, beholden only to the founding missionary and his mission agency.”

Li says that some pastors do not even know the name of the church umbrella under which their congregation is registered. “We hear there is a rather large group of Presbyterians in the Caucasus region,” he adds. “But we do not have any contact.”

There could be as many as 300 Presbyterian congregations in all of Russia, mostly in the Far East. It is already clear that not all groups will be joining the General Assembly immediately.

Those not joining will include:

  • Moscow businessman Lee Hyng Ree. His efforts include a small seminary on Dubrovka Street attended by a significant percentage of Pentecostals.
  • Pastor Valerian Ten, another Moscow Russian of Korean ethnicity who rejects the term “Presbyterian” and has formed his own “Union of Evangelical-Reformed Churches of Russia” involving several congregations.
  • A Presbyterian group in St. Petersburg headed by Viktor Kazansky which demands that the new General Assembly distance itself from the ordination of women.

Pastor Li, whose grouping of 20 congregations has no female pastors, nevertheless regards the issue as divisive and worthy of postponement. “If we start out with this issue,” he warns, “we will never get around to forming a unified organization. We cannot wait until all are ready.”

Present efforts could be understood as the second attempt to form a Presbyterian umbrella. The “Association of Churches of Evangelical Christians” presently headed by Pastor Ten was originally founded in 1997 as a central legal umbrella which local Presbyterian congregations could join.

Yet membership was not restricted to Presbyterians and now only 30% of its 85 member congregations are Presbyterian or Reformed. The planned General Assembly intends to apply for legal standing, allowing it to register congregations. “We hope our new union will attract additional Presbyterian congregations once it is founded,” Li states. “Some do not feel comfortable in a Charismatic union.”

Yet it is probably erroneous to claim that Russia features the world’s most atomized (divided) Protestant movement. South Korea’s nearly eight million Presbyterians form no less than 112 independent Presbyterian denominations. One could claim that Korean ― and North American ― missions have simply imported their many divisions into Russia.

Reasons for success

The Korean Presbyterian movement is any case an example of astounding, relative success despite its atomized, decentralized nature. Not founded in Korea until 1884, Korean Presbyterian missionaries were active for two decades in the Russian Far East beginning in 1910. Thanks to the brutal deportation of ethnic Koreans to Kazakhstan and neighbouring republics in 1937, their religious influence soon popped up far to the west of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.

Today, roughly 30% of South Korea’s population is Christian. Though South Korea reportedly sent only 93 missionaries abroad in 1980. It now has over 20.000 serving in foreign settings. That number is exceeded only by the USA’s roughly 46,000 foreign missionaries.

Early-morning prayer meetings are a frequent feature of Korean evangelicalism. It is known for its fervor, discipline, directness ― and lack of political finesse. Koreans do nothing halfway, and their successes in evangelism are undoubtedly due to the extremely high level of lay, grass-roots involvement. One negative outcome of strong lay activity are innumerable church splits. Where the laity is largely passive ― for example in the state churches of Western Europe ― few splits occur.

Koreans and ethnic-Koreans living in Russia are reaching out to the millions of illegal and semi-legal Chinese among them. One could claim that the future of foreign mission in Russia will be largely Korean and Chinese. The churches of these two nations have the demographics along with the required drive and financial wallop.

At least east of the Urals, Korean missionaries already far outnumber those from the West. Korean missionaries are very active as students and businesspeople in the once-Soviet Muslim republics of Central Asia. Their readiness to work unofficially has made them particularly suited for efforts in the Muslim-dominated region.  

Russian Methodists ― a second denomination with strong Korean connections ― are now pushing for a leadership consisting strictly of local citizens. Presbyterians have taken another route and are now the Russian confession with the highest percentage of expatriate church pastors.

This is partly due to the readiness of South Koreans to liberally interpret the rules on Russia`s restrictive work visas. Vladimir Li laments that nearly all Presbyterian congregations in the Far East are headed by foreign missionaries and that they “are not particularly interested in being replaced by Russian citizens. So when the missionary moves on, the congregation usually dies.”

The policies of Presbyterian denominations elsewhere have contributed to the heavily-Korean slant on Russian Presbyterianism. In an incredible show of tolerance and positive ecumenism, the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) refrains from planting new congregations and is instead supporting existing Baptist, Lutheran and Orthodox ones within Russia.

The much smaller and more conservative Presbyterian Church in America has taken a similar course and is supporting the independent-Baptist, 46-congregation-strong Russian Association of Independent Evangelical Churches, headed by Moscow’s Peter Sautov. Los Angeles’ non-denominational, heavily-Korean Oriental Mission Church funded a Moscow seminary run by the Baptist theologian Gennadi Sergienko until its closing in 2009.

Li knows of only one Presbyterian congregation founded by North Americans. Of course, Koreans from the U.S. are involved in Russian church planting.

William Yoder is media spokesperson for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is also a special correspondent for Presbyterian News Service.