InterACTION - September 2016 Is Mission Work Illegal in Russia Now?

An Important Message From InterAct Executive Director Dale Smith

Near the end of June Christian media outlets, and even a few secular ones, began buzzing about an alarming new bill that had been passed by the Russian Parliament. Dubbed the “Anti-Terrorism” bill, it specifically addressed and restricted certain religious activities such as evangelizing, missions and proselytizing. As the bill sat on President Vladimir Putin’s desk, waiting to be signed, news spread quickly across social media and email. Christians across Russia and around the world prayed and fasted that he would not sign it into law. But on July 7th he did. So what does this mean for the future of the church in Russia?

On the surface this can appear to be a roll back to the days of the Soviet Union. Many who grew up during the days of the Cold War probably remember stories about religious persecution in Russia; pastors taken away in the middle of the night, churches destroyed and believers arrested and sent off to gulags, never to be heard from again. It’s easy to speculate and let our imaginations run wild. Certainly, there is great cause for concern. But it’s important now to step back and look at the facts, pray and trust God’s sovereign hand in all of this.

Russian Christian lawyers have been examining this new law carefully. They have hosted many meetings and webinars with Russian pastors and Christians to look carefully at the specifics of the law and discern its intent. Current and former Russia field workers with InterAct have sifted through summaries of these meetings and have found a number of common points that keep emerging. Here are four important points to keep in mind.

While the law specifically restricts “missionary activity,” it is important to understand this in the context of the law itself. It was written by people who have no concept of what true “missionary activity” is from a biblical perspective. According to the expert opinions on the law, “missionary activity” is defined as the spread of a specific set of beliefs by members of an organization or association with the intended goal of recruiting new members.

Anyone may personally, without restriction, speak of his or her own faith, convictions about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and do so in practically any place. But as soon as someone invites people to a specific church at a specific address, that becomes “missionary activity.”

Churches that own property and have their own buildings registered for religious services may conduct religious services and missionary activities at those locations without restrictions. Churches that meet in rented spaces and in homes may freely conduct worship services and religious rites, but may not conduct “missionary activities,” which is understood according to the above definition.

Foreign “missionary work” is still permitted, but no longer falls under the category of a humanitarian visa. Foreigners engaged in “missionary activities” must now be invited by a religious organization and apply for a work visa. Again, it is important to keep in mind that this is referring to “missionary activity” as defined by the law itself. In the last decade, InterAct has rarely used religious visas but focused on its missionaries obtaining residency permits which allows them long-term stability and freedom to live and minister in Russia.

These are just a few important points that have emerged from these meetings. If you would like to read more specific critiques about this law you may do so here.

As time goes by there will inevitably be many inconsistencies in the interpretation and enforcement of the law. In some regions of Russia where churches already face resistance from local officials, this law will likely be used to further restrict church work and persecute believers. But in other regions churches may be impacted much less.

What does this mean for InterAct and our ministry in Russia? We are still there! We are committed to making disciples among least-reached peoples across the North Pacific Crescent and that includes Siberia. Since we began sending missionaries to Russia over twenty years ago, most of our ministry has been behind the scenes doing the work of relational evangelism and discipleship. As far as we can tell at this time, this new law will affect our current activities very little.

Another possible “silver lining” is that there is a huge opportunity now to help disciple Russian Christians in what it means to engage more in relational evangelism. Much of the Christian evangelization that was done in the early 90s was on a mass public scale. And many churches that were planted during that period have continued those methods of outreach until today. Facing the restrictions of this new law provides an opportunity for the Russian church to focus more on building trusting, loving relationships with unbelievers with the goal of sharing their faith and having those deep conversations about the gospel, an activity which is still completely legal.

PRAY for Russian believers and churches to persevere in the work of the gospel. Pray for wisdom and for the Lord’s guidance to find new ways to share the gospel of Christ with their neighbors, friends and family.

PRAY for strategic and intentional church planting in Russia’s unreached areas. There are still hundreds of communities with no witness of the gospel whatsoever.

PRAY for more workers in the field. We need long-term workers in Russia now more than ever! We believe God has providentially positioned our organization in Russia to be engaged in a type of ministry that will be minimally impacted by this new law. As far as we can tell, the type of ministries we do in Russia do not fall under the legal definition of “missionary activity.” Consider if God might be calling you to GO and serve long-term, and ENCOURAGE others to do the same.

GIVE to mission work in Russia. Consider becoming a financial parter with a missionary serving there, or support other ministry projects. Contact us and we’ll let you know how you can help.

REMAIN CONFIDENT that God is in control. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 16:18 that that the gates of hell cannot prevail against his Kingdom. Fight discouragement with the truth of God’s word and pray that Russian believers would do the same.

Confident He is still on the Throne,

Dale Smith

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