Mark R. Elliott, The Arduous Path of Post-Soviet Protestant Theological Education (Wilmore, KY: First Fruits Press, 2020) 190pp; freely available online at https://place.asburyseminary.edu/academicbooks/35/
We are indebted to Dr Elliott for his collection of articles chronicling the history of theological education in the former Soviet Union from the early 1990s to 2020, especially for the immense amount of research and bibliography he provides.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union saw an influx of outside mission agencies commence work in the various republics. Since no formal theological training institutions had existed for Protestants since 1927, this was seen internally and by external agencies as a priority. As a result, Protestant theological colleges were established. While the pressure to train pastors was given precedence, Dr Elliott documents that the results were often disappointing. Formal training under the Communists had been forbidden, but there existed an internship system whereby bi-vocational pastors were mentored by experienced ministers. The establishment of theological institutions led to younger men being trained. Many of these students, however, had little connection to local churches and, at best, had an uncertain calling to ministry. As Dr Elliott’s statistics show, only a small percentage of these students actually became pastors. For example, the chart documenting the graduates of St Petersburg Christian University on page 61 shows only 6, or 5.41% of the graduates, remained local pastors. Nearly 21% either left the faith or emigrated. Furthermore, the dependence on outside funding from mainly Western agencies brought its own problems. One was the theological and cultural biases accompanying the funds. For a Russian evangelical church that was historically Arminian, some of the instructors were Calvinists. This led to the newly established colleges being viewed as theologically suspect. There was also ignorance of, and insensitivity to, cultural questions which arose from the experience of living under communism. In his chapter ‘After Communism: The Mixed Blessing of Western Assistance’, Dr Elliott lays out these and other problems.
Reading this chapter and the entire collection of articles as a missiologist, I could not help but compare the problems in the former Soviet Union with the issues found in other developing countries. What I found valuable was the relatively short time frame (30 years) in which these issues emerged. Having taught the history of missions, to have an example of a compressed timeline is a useful teaching aid. Most of the other examples have taken decades to unfold and often without the clarity of Dr Elliott’s analysis.
The mixed blessing of Western assistance is a dilemma still troubling the missionary enterprise. How to help without causing more problems is an ongoing issue. Dr Elliott’s collection deserves a wider readership than just among those interested in theological education in the former Soviet Union. Anyone seeking to train national leaders and concerned about creating a climate of dependency needs to read this book.