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N. Saloff-Astakhoff and Russian Tent Missions: Reflections on History That Unites

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EMQ » April–June 2019 » Volume 55 Issue 3
These reflections contribute to the history of missions in the former Soviet Union during a very difficult time. They connect with Mennonite and Baptist and mission efforts. I will present seven characteristics of the tent-mission style of Nikita Ignatievich Saloff-Astakhoff to illustrate how it operated and especially how it brought diverse Christian groups together. 

Few examples of mission strategies that brought different traditions together can be found in the evangelical movement to unreached Eurasia in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. This history presents an important lesson in new attempts to unite fragmented evangelical churches. However, unity can be found when churches participate in something that is greater than themselves, in something that belongs to God. When churches and individual believers come together for missions, they unexpectedly find the unity they desire. But when they seek it any other way, the path is endlessly long and confusing. Missions is the only way churches can be united, and the most important way the church remains active and effective.
I have professed this relationship between the unity of the church and missions for a long time: the church becomes unified through its engagement in missions. Historical examples make this point clear, understandable, and inspiring.

The Russian Tent Mission

One example is the Russian Tent Mission (1918-1923) that mainly spread around eastern Ukraine, known then as “south of Russia” (currently the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhia oblasts of Ukraine). It was a time of civil war in the former Russian empire, a bloody and devastating war between “red” communists, “white” monarchists, and “green” anarchists. 
The Russian Tent Mission was founded by Jacob Dyck who grew up in the church but experienced new birth through faith after joining with the Mennonites. He was then called to missions. After Dyck was killed by the Makhnovists in 1919, Nikita Saloff-Astakhoff took over the ministry. This Russian young man grew up in an Orthodox environment. After being born again he joined the Mennonites. Even though Dyck and Saloff-Astakhoff came from different countries and grew up in different kinds of churches, the experience of the new birth and a calling to missions brought them together. Much has been written about Dyck in detail[i]. For personal reasons, I am more interested in Saloff-Astakhoff – a Russian who joined with a German mission movement going into Russian cities and Ukrainian villages. The ministry eventually expanded beyond the Mennonite world and was supported by the leaders of evangelical Christians and Baptists.
Saloff-Astakhoff ‘s ministry, including his tent mission, is a good example of unity in missions. Personally, this example is clear, understandable, and inspiring for three reasons.
First, I grew up in the region of eastern Ukraine where tent mission evangelists preached sixty years ago. This is my home, and I know many of the cities and villages there firsthand. For this reason I am interested in the history of the church and missions in this area.
Secondly, Saloff-Astakhoff was my childhood hero. My parents and I read his books, which had been printed illegally in the USSR. The stories in them were exciting, scary, and inspiring. They were etched into my mind and became a guide to me. 
Thirdly, tent missions began in a time of civil war. This is very relevant, today, as the eastern portion of Ukraine is again engulfed in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. A kind of “Makhnovists” (anarchists) has arisen once more forming the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (pro-Russian quasi states on the occupied territories of Ukraine). Evangelicals are banned in these areas as extremists and sectarians. Only atheistic Moscow communists and old style Russian Orthodox monarchists are allowed.
So the story (or history) is repeating itself. In fact, it continues. Our predecessors offer good examples and valuable lessons that show us the possibility of missions which can unite nationalities, cultures, churches, and traditions. We cannot repeat their experience, but we can creatively build on it.

Uniting the Incompatible – Lessons from Nikita Saloff-Astakhoff

Nikita Saloff-Astakhoff serves as an example of how Christ reconciles and unites the people who wouldn’t otherwise connect. He grew up Orthodox, worked with Mennonites and served as a Baptist pastor. He remained a committed pacifist through two world wars. He studied at the university but spent his life preaching the Gospel. He served on the streets of Moscow and New York. He preached to embittered military men, rebellious metropolitan youth, and hungry villagers.
Today, we lack an understanding of how missions unites Christians of different traditions, that confesses the supremacy of Christ over our differences, and shows God’s healing love in our conflicts. The ministry of Saloff-Astakhoff and Tent Mission teaches us important lessons. 

Mission is a Testimony 

Mission is not an organization or a strategic plan. It is a movement of living witnesses who are ready to die for the cause of Christ. They do not conform to the demands of society but boldly proclaim the radical truth of the Gospel. For modern Christians it is important to hear the resolve of those in past years: “It turned out that there is a place on the cross for truth, and not in the center of society.”[ii]
Missions is not for conformists but for Christian radicals. At the end of his book Tent Mission,Saloff-Astakhoff seems to address modern Christians who face few hardships:
Sheep of Christ, if you are wearing a wolf’s mask, take it off! During our time, an open confession of Christ is needed. “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father,” says the Lord.  There are now many wolves who are wearing sheep’s clothing in order to be in a sheep’s flock. Quite often those wolves preach from the pulpits of Christian churches. Give up your brazen hypocrisy and do not create an easy profession from the Blood of Christ, from the blood of His followers and martyrs.[iii]
This appeal is not addressed to an individual church or organization, but to all believers. Christianity is not divided into Orthodox, Baptist, Mennonite, and others, but into two categories: conformists or radicals; “easy believism” or martyr-witnesses.

Mission is Not a One-time Phenomena 

Mission is ongoing. It continues under different conditions, responding to the new needs of people and new assignments from God. The Mennonite initiative has continued in new forms of ministry:
A group of soldiers (Soldier’s Circle) could not be a lasting organization; it could exist only as long as the war continued and the army existed. At one of the last meetings of the Board of the Circle in Moscow, the question was posed: “How can this organization be preserved and how can its work for Christ continue in peaceful times?” One of the zealous workers of the circle expressed this desire: “If the Lord gave us a tent, we could continue our work, traveling around the country and carrying the Gospel to places where it has not yet been preached.”[iv]
In other words, missions is a movement that constantly expands, embraces new groups of people, and responds to their changing needs.

Missions Unites Individual Churches Within the Universal Church

Of this Saloff-Astakhoff says the following:
Missions worked exclusively in the religious context; it was interdenominational and international. By their nationality, the co-laborers were Russians, Germans, Jews, Finns, and Latvians. By their religious beliefs: they were Mennonites, evangelical Christians, Baptists and Lutherans. They were of different nationalities, different religious backgrounds, different classes and positions, but all were striving for the same goal in the person of Jesus Christ, who was number one for all of them. Ahead were Christ and His Calvary and all around were perishing souls. Therefore, there was no time for disputes about opinions, about the correctness of this or that religious trend. No one even thought about arguing. We were all aware that the Lord had not called us to that. He did not shed His blood so that the members of His church would spend time arguing. We are all saved by Him in order to, in turn, save others. This is our calling here on earth; this is our mission. The hearts of co-laborers were filled with the awareness that the coming of the Lord is near. We knew that our world did not need our opinions or theoretical Christianity. The world is suffocating amidst doctrines and human institutions. The world is looking for life, simplicity, and light. During our work, we did not organize individual communities but sent converts to already existing communities of believers. Our goal was not to baptize but to preach the crucified Christ; not to organize visible churches, but to reach souls for Christ and to add them to the universal Church.[v]
Tent Mission was interconfessional; it was not a substitute for the church but brought together different groups who served together as diverse members of a united family.

Missions Must be Non-partisan 

More simply stated: missions should be outside politics. Even during the conditions of the civil war, Tent Mission workers appealed to the authorities, completed all the paperwork, referred to laws, and sought legal solutions. At the same time, they clearly understood that any political power during those years – Red, White, or Green – was anti-national and anti-evangelical.
Being non-partisan, the leaders of Tent Mission exercised the important gift of spiritual discernment and discrimination in political matters. That is why Saloff-Astakhoff wrote a letter to Prime Minister Chamberlain in 1938, warning of the terrible consequences of the “appeasement” policy, i.e., concessions and sacrifices to Hitler in exchange for “peace:”
Hitler will start treating nations at his own will; people will have to fulfill his will unquestioningly, for no one will have the moral or physical strength to resist him. As soon as Hitler cleanses the countries of the Jews, he will begin destroying Christianity with fire and sword. You avoided the war in which several millions could have died, but you have prepared the ground for the death of tens of millions. Judas betrayed Christ once with a kiss, a sign of love. You have betrayed the nations with the kiss of peace, betrayed Christianity and the people of Israel. Woe to the world from the maniac who appeared, who infected tens of millions of people in his country with his mania, but sad will be the memory of those who helped the maniac acquire strength and power at a decisive moment.[vi]
It is curious that the author of this political statement identifies himself not as a citizen or a public figure but as a “servant of Christ and His church.” This document compels us to be more careful in our understanding of pacifism during those terrible years. As we see, a personal pacifist position did not rule out appealing to the state to defend the international order, particularly in regard to Jews and Christians.

Missions Continued Into the Next Generation and Grew With New Leaders 

In the midst of a terrible time, God called young people who were poorly trained and entrusted them with ministry. Here is what Saloff-Astakhoff writes about his leadership calling:
The summer of 1920 was the time of intense trials for the author. In the autumn of 1919, seven co-workers from the Mission were killed while preaching the Gospel in the south. Among those killed was the organizer and the head of the Mission, Jacob Dyck. At the general meeting of the remaining staff, future leadership was conferred on the author. This decision was such a heavy burden for a young man who had converted only three years ago and did not have the proper experience.[vii]
Missions does not belong to individuals; it continues with new leaders. And here experience and giftedness are not as important as a simple willingness to take the place of one’s slain brethren and continue the mission. 

Missions is Following the Voice of God

This is living beyond the material world and accepting the miraculous. The main characters in the Tent Mission story constantly heard voices and responded to them. They heard God say things like: “Get up and walk,” “Get up now or never,” “Go immediately to Chicago,” or “Go immediately or the disease will return.” 
During my childhood, Saloff-Astakhoff’s books interested me because of the miraculous stories. This was not very common for my native Baptist tradition, so I was curious This shows us that missions is not so much the realization of a deliberate plan, or “religious activity’’ according to rules; rather it is obedience to the Word, wherever it calls you. It is full of uncertainty and trust and always has room for a miracle or surprise.

Authentic Missions is Holistic 

It is a place not only for Tent Mission but also for work with the hospital orderly, the soldiers’ circle, the youth union, and the soup kitchen. It includes the distribution of spiritual-moral literature, the care of the sick and courses about preaching. Holistic care for people during the war is what distinguished Tent Mission from the programs of competing religious groups, including proud Orthodox traditionalism and various sectarian approaches, which offered easy, one-sided solutions. Unfortunately, these lessons have not yet been accepted and understood. The history of Tent Mission is not well-known among modern churches.
My older friend, Johannes Reimer, is one of the few who has tried to apply the experiences of Tent Mission to our current time. He understands the special value of missions seeing how Mennonite Germans served Russians and Ukrainians sacrificially. Perhaps the persecution by the Reds, Whites and the Greens was the payment for the rich past of the Mennonite colonies and “unfair treatment of Russian servants.” Even so, we can agree with Reimer’s point of view that: 
“the Mennonites went through a deep, divine purification. They accepted their destiny with words of repentance. But at the same time they did not abandon their mission among Russians; quite the contrary. The Mennonite’s guilt before the Russians could be blotted out only in this way – by evangelism.”[viii]
We know from the writings of Saloff-Astakhoff that there were various types of Mennonites. Some of them obstructed missions and even made armed threats. Others zealously evangelized neighboring nations. But the personal story of Nikita Ignatievich Saloff-Astakhoff shows that missions changed the life of Mennonite communities, opened them to the outside world, and brought them closer to other evangelicals. It was no coincidence that German Mennonite Jacob Dyck’s initiative was continued by the Russian Baptist Saloff-Astakhoff. This missionary brotherhood has withstood the test of fire and today serves as a example for us.
I conclude my reflections on the lessons OF Russian tent missions with a quote from Reimer’s book. It is helpful because it comes from the “Russian” German, the heir of the tradition I’ve written about here:
Today we live in a time of terrible individualism, and we talk about the tolerance of peoples. But this is still far from being a brotherhood. Here we can learn a lesson from Russian tent missionaries. Among the children of Russian Protestantism today there is no more relevant topic than unity. Missions, which counts on the blessing of God, advances such unity. May this passionate example of Russian tent missions help us comprehend again the truth of these words![ix]
The accounts of Nikita Saloff-Astakhoff and Mennonite tent missions show that unity in missions is possible, even in the hardest times. It is through missions that national and social conflicts can be reconciled. Born-again Mennonites and born-again Orthodox can serve together. In the end there could be no Mennonite missions or Baptist missions. Rather there could only be partnership and participation in God’s mission. Our churches and traditions become alive every time there is a desire to cooperate in God’s mission. We see that our part is small while the possibilities are great. 
At times our task as founders might be to simply pass the mission on to the local leaders and celebrate their success. Mennonite Jacob Dyck was pleased with “Orthodox Baptist” Nikita Saloff-Astakhoff. If we want to restore the history of cooperation in mission between “Russian” and “German” Christians, and between “evangelical” and born-again “Orthodox,” then we need to draw lessons from what was done in the past and follow good examples.

Dr. Michael (Mykhailo) Cherenkov is visiting professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Tabor College (Hillsboro, KS) and Executive Director of Mission Eurasia Field Ministries (Kyiv, Ukraine).

[i] Johannes Reimer, Evangelism in the Faith of Death (Kyiv: LKS, Visson, 2002). In Russian: Раймер Й. Евангелизация перед лицом смерти. – К.: ЛКС, Виссон, 2002.
[ii] N. I. Saloff-Astakhoff, Tent Missions (Irpin, Ukraine: Irpin Bible Seminary, 2000). In Russian: Салов-Астахов Н.И. Палаточная миссия. – К.: Ирпенская библейская семинария, Центр христианского сотрудничества, 2000.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] N. I. Saloff-Astakhoff, The Secret and Power of Prayer (Cherkassy, Ukraine: Smirna, 200). In Russian: Салов-Астахов Н.И. Секрет и сила молитвы. – Черкассы: Смирна, 2000.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Johannes Reimer, Evangelism in the Faith of Death.
[ix] Ibid.
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