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Russian-speaking evangelicals in the West

What are the spiritual and theological characteristics of the Russian-speaking diaspora and what explains their tendency to form their own congregations?

EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVES AUTOR 273/Johannes_Reimer 26 DE ABRIL DE 2024 10:20 h
Russian Orthodox Church of St. Maria Magdalena in Darmstadt, Germany. / [link]Heidas[/link] Wikimedia Commons.

The Russian-speaking diaspora in Western Europe

Russians and Russian-speaking people from the former Soviet Union, i.e. people "who speak Russian in everyday life but are not Russians (representatives of Russian nationality), e.g. the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine or the Baltic states" [1] form a large diaspora in the West today.

With over 140 million native speakers, Russian is the most widely spoken language in Europe. [2]

Millions of people speak the language and shape their lives in this cultural space.

More than 4 million immigrants from the states of the former Soviet Union live in Germany alone. [3]

In the USA there are between 3-6 million, depending on the count, and in Canada 2 million.

And that's not even counting the refugees from Ukraine and Russia who came to the West during the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Many of these immigrants brought their faith with them to Europe.

Today, around 2.4 million Russian-Germans officially belong to the Protestant Churches and exhibit an extremely pietistic spirituality. [4] More than 340,000 confess to belong to one of the Evangelical Free Churches. [5]

Immigrants have also founded their own congregations in the USA and Canada.

In the Californian capital Sacramento alone, there are more than 120 Russian-speaking Evangelical Free Church congregations with a total of around 30,000 members. [6]

Their churches are vibrant, church services are attended by hundreds of people and their personal faith seems to be very important to them for integration in such a very different Europe and America. [7]

The majority of them can be described as evangelical.

Russian-speaking immigrants have also come together in Protestant congregations in other Western countries.

There are larger congregations in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Israel, Great Britain, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and in Scandinavian countries and above all in Finland.

Like many other migrant churches, the Russian-speaking ones tend to stay away from the large local church associations and are rarely integrated into the local ecumenical movement or the Evangelical Alliance. They often seem strange to the local Christians. 

They are simply different. [8] So what are their spiritual and theological characteristics and what explains their tendency to form their own congregations?


Traumatised, post-Soviet - a growing community organises itself

Christians came to the West from the Soviet Union out of a situation of persecution. Many families were traumatised. Quite a few had lost their families in the prisons and camps of the Gulag.

And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic tensions in many places, especially in Central Asia, forced Europeans and thus Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews and Germans to emigrate.

Many of them emigrated back to the Russian Federation, others to Western Europe and America.

Great freedom awaited them in the West. But they came to countries that were foreign to them, did not understand the language or culture and did not really find their way around the churches in the West.

The Russian-German theologian Dr. Herrmann Hartfeld sums up these experiences in the title of his book Returning home to a foreign country. [9]

The Russian-Germans, who had been proud of being German in the Russian Empire for centuries, now asked themselves the question: "How German are we really?" [10]

My own experiences also make it clear how quickly the anticipation of my ancestors' historical homeland turned into frustration. [11] The label "Russian" quickly stuck to me.

The representatives of other Russian-speaking nations who had left the Soviet Union also found that they did not quite fit in with the Western culture of Europe and America.

Even where, for example in the USA, Russian-speaking communities from earlier waves of immigration were to be found, the newcomers did not feel understood.

That is why they organised themselves. Today, their congregations, free churches for example, are among the largest in Germany and also in North America.

In addition to the intensive cultivation of their congregational life, they are increasingly involved in world missions.

Missionary organizations such as "To All Nations" [12] or the Bible Mission [13] in Germany, as well as Mission Euroasia in the USA [14] have sent out hundreds of missionaries to many countries around the world and work hand-in-hand with other evangelical organizations on the mission fields.

And the training centers, above all the Bibelseminar Bonn (BSB) [15], have long since established themselves alongside other theological schools in the West.

These and other works by migrants have become indispensable, especially in the countries of the old homeland. They support evangelization, church building, theological education and social-transformation projects.

Unlike many Western missionary organizations, which came in their thousands in the country after the opening of the USSR, they did not abandon the mission fields when difficulties arose with local and national authorities, but are constantly looking for new ways to spread the Gospel in their old homeland.

In comparison, however, the missionary success of migrants from the East is devastatingly low. In hardly any Western country do they evangelize their native neighbors.

They stick to the Russian language in church life and exclude the locals in many countries for this reason alone.

But even where they use the lingua franca of the country, such as among the Russian-Germans in Germany, they rarely seek contact with the locals.

They live in a parallel world, a self-contained diaspora. Although individual Christians break out of this world and are also active in church building among the locals or migrants who speak other languages, these are few exceptions on the whole.


Missionary contribution to the re-evangelization of the West

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, more than 6 million Ukrainians have now fled to Western Europe, 1.2 million of them to Germany alone [16], an estimated 200 to 250,000 Evangelical Ukrainians have thus come to the West.

In no other European country are there as many evangelicals as in Ukraine. And unlike the former migrants and immigrants from the CIS countries, these people very often come from extremely missionary churches.

Many missionaries were sent out from Ukraine both to the peoples of the former Soviet empire and far beyond into the world.

Today, Ukrainian missionaries can be found in the far north of Siberia, in the mountains and prairies of Central Asia, as well as in Nepal, northern India, Vietnam and in many African countries.

Ukrainian refugees have been coming to Western Europe for two years now. Here they quickly join the existing Russian-speaking communities. In some places, they are also founding their own churches again.

What role has God intended for these Christians? Can we recognise God's will behind this mass exodus? It can't just be the arbitrariness of a mad dictator in Moscow that the Ukrainians have to endure.

Those who look ahead can truly see more. No, God is not the cause of the Ukrainians' unimaginable suffering. And no, the Russian aggression is not part of his plan, as the Orthodox proponents of the eschatological kingdom of peace claim in the idea of Russki Mir (Russian world). [17]

But God can also turn such situations around for the best.

Indeed, the refugee movement from Ukraine could become an enormous missionary force once the Ukrainian believers have overcome the pain of flight and the suffering of war in their homeland.

Quite a few today understand the terrible fate that has befallen these people as a result of Russia's aggression as a kind of missionary dispersion.

Otherwise, what sense would the disaster make in God's economy of salvation with this people?

The West needs nothing more than such a missionary force today. It is not only the Roman Pope who is calling for the re-evangelization of Europe. [18]

And migrants have been the most important driving force behind the spread of their faith throughout the many phases of the Church's history.

In his highly acclaimed article Mission and Migration: The Diaspora Factor in Christian History, British missionary historian Andrew Walls rightly concludes that the Christian mission always ran alongside migration flows and that Christianity must therefore be understood as a migratory religion. [19]

Walls writes:

"Forced migration, flight from persecution, captivity, enslavement by enemy raids, the peaceful search for work and trade, it seems, all played a role in the spread of the Christian gospel in the Roman Empire." [20]

Walls assertion is shared by many other missionary experts. [21] Jehu Hanciles, who has intensively studied the spread of the gospel through the movement of peoples, even claims that the rapid spread of the gospel among peoples only succeeded because Christianity made use of migrants and migrant flows. [22]

He expects that today's migrants to Euro-America will also soon set clear accents for the renewal of faith in the West. [23]

Admittedly, these accents will differ in many respects from the image of the Christian community that is common in the West today.

Will this include refugees, migrants, immigrants and migrants from the former Soviet Union? The generation that came out of persecution is waiting for proof of this.

They were and are primarily preoccupied with themselves and are engaged in missionary work abroad. However, the potential that lies dormant in them can be seen in this very mission. Shouldn't they also be doing evangelistic work for their immediate neighbors?

Yes, they are different. And the different nature of the Eastern European faith communities has been amply demonstrated in the West over the last few decades.

Similar to the missionaries from the South, the Eastern Europeans also bring with them a gospel that is much more closely related to people's everyday lives and emphasizes experience. [24]

At the center of their faith interests is less the discussion about the right understanding of faith, but rather the right life according to faith. What is decisive for them is not what we profess in theory, but what we do in our everyday lives that is appropriate to our faith.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that doctrine is of secondary importance to Christians in the East. But a doctrine that cannot be lived is questioned in principle. And such accents would certainly do Western Christianity good.


Ukrainian refugees - a missionary motivation and a new start in the local mission?

It is more than a pious wish - the refugees from Ukraine could indeed inspire the Russian-speaking evangelical diaspora anew for mission and evangelization in the West.

After the opening of the Soviet Union, they have experienced in their own country how God has acted through them and have obediently gone into the vastness of the world as missionaries.

Now the war has scattered them from their own country into the wide world. Like the apostles in Jerusalem once and the Christians in the church's painful history ever since, they are on the road without a roof over their heads.

But it is precisely such stories that have ultimately brought the Gospel to the peoples of this world. After all, it is less important to have a roof over your head than to have Jesus in your heart.

And the Ukrainians have that. May they become a blessing for Europe and America.


Johannes Reimer, Professor of Missiology at the University of South Africa (UNSA) and was a member of the leadership team of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) for many years.



1. Nataliya Filatova: Ukrainian in contact with other European languages. English, German and Russian borrowings in the field of politics. Inaugural dissertation in the Faculty of Philosophy and Department of Theology at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Kooperativer Bibliotheksverbund Berlin-Brandenburg (KOBV), December 18, 2007,19.

2. Thea Bohn: What Are The 10 Most Spoken Languages In Europe? In Babbel Magazine, June 22, 2021, https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/most-spoken-languages-europe (19.01.2024).

3.  https://mediendienst-integration.de/gruppen/postsowjetische-migrantinnen.html (19.01.2024).

4.  Stefanie Theis: Religiosität von Russlanddeutschen, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag 2006), 13.

5.  John N. Klassen: Russlanddeutsche Freikirchen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Grundlinien ihrer Geschichte, ihrer Entwicklung und Theologie. (Nuremberg: VTR 2007),147.

6.  Russlan Gurzhiy: How many Russians/Ukrainians live in Sacramento? https://www.slavicsac.com/2015/03/23/how-many-russians-ukrainians-live-in-sacramento/ (24.01.2024).

7.  Heinrich Löwen: Russlanddeutsche Christen in Deutschland: Das religiöse Erscheinungsbild russlanddeutscher Freikirchen in Deutschland. (Hamburg: Disserta Verlag 2014),18-19.

8.  See my book: Johannes Reimer: Aussiedler sind anders. (Kassel: Oncken Verlag 1989).

9.  Hermann Hartfeld: Ruckkehr in ein fremdes Land. (Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus Verlag 1986).

10.  Svetlana Angela Kiel: How German are Russian-Germans? An empirical study on ethnic-cultural identity in Russian-German resettler families (= Internationale Hochschulschriften 516). (Münster: LIT 2009), 186.

11  …

12.  https://to-all-nations.de/ueber-uns (24.01.2024).

13.  https://www.bibel-mission.de (24.01.2024).

14.  https://missioneurasia.org (24.01.2024).

15.  https://bsb-online.de (24.01.2024).

16.  See exact statistics for 2024 in: https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1356654/umfrage/anzahl-ukrainischer-fluechtlinge-in-den-eu-staaten/ (23.01.2024).

17.  On the idea of the Russki Mir, see: Johannes Reimer: The "Russian World" - a politically dangerous idea. In: Evangelical Focus, 29.04.2022, https://evangelicalfocus.com/features/16516/the-russian-world-a-politically-dangerous-idea.Sber

18.  For the concepts, see: Friedemann Walldorf: The New Evangelization of Europe. Mission theologies in the European context (= series of systematic theological monographs, volume 8). (Giessen: Brunnen-Verlag 2002).

19.  Andrew Walls: Mission and Migration: The Diaspora Factor in Christian History. In: Journal of African Christian Thought 5/2 2002),4.

20. Ibid, 5.

21.  For example, David Smith: Mission after Christendom (London: Darton, Longman and Todd 2003); Samuel Escobar: A Time for Mission: A Challenge for Global Christianity. (Leicester: IVP 2003); Johannes Reimer: Multicultural Church Building. Living Reconciliation. Marburg: Francke Verlag 2011), 50ff: 51; Jehu J. Hanciles: Beyond Christendom: African Migration and Transformation in Global Christianity. In: Studies in World Christianity 10/1 2004, 03-113.

22.  Hanciles: Beyond Christendom, 99-100.

23.  Ibid, 98, 103.

24.  Smith: Mission after Christendom, 97




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