Q&A with Michael Cherenkov – explainer of an article on protestantism in Ukraine published in Religioscope.
° Michael (Mykhailo) Cherenkov – Protestant theologian, professor at Ukrainian catholic university, author of numerous publications on post soviet evangelical Protestantism, ordained Baptist minister
Maidan and the war in Ukraine showed to the Protestants that the best way to gain recognition is not by proving their peculiarity but by serving the Ukrainian society with other denominations.
How to explain the growth of Protestant communities in Ukraine?
Protestantism has always been strong in Ukraine and cannot be called a new religious movement. It has gone through periods of rapid development, stabilization and stagnation. We saw the highest increase of Protestants at crisis points in history. The Protestants, with their charity and simple practical faith turned out to be in much demand. The way Protestantism is growing now cannot be called rapid, but rather, stable. Protestants are growing not only in quantity but in quality while acquiring more of cultural, economic and political connections and becoming more influential. The reason and the driving force for the growth of Protestant communities in Ukraine, in my opinion, is their social activity that is connected to their mission- and outreach-mindedness.
Which are the main Protestant communities in Ukraine?
Protestantism in Ukraine is represented by a wide range of denominations, but the most influential and larges ones refer to the “second wave,” i.e. Baptists and Pentecostals that have been developing mainly from the beginning of 20th century (the “first wave” are Reformed Church and Lutherans who are the heirs of the Europeans Reformation of 16th century did not have a long-lasting and strong influence). We can talk about the “third wave” (Neo-Pentecostalism). That is, Ukrainian Protestantism is the phenomenon of the 20th century that had been developed by the history of the Reformation but formed as a unique subcultural people’s movement for simple church and simple faith.
Do believers consider these communities as close to Western values? As a gateway to the West, as opposed to Orthodoxy that is more connected the local traditions and conservatism?
Ukrainian Protestants associate themselves with Western Christianity and Reformation although they do not share the modern liberal approaches of their Europeans brothers in faith. They have inherited some cultural aspects (criticism of rationalism and utilitarianism, emphasis on communality, and distinction between secular and spiritual) from the Orthodox Church but overall, they reject it and treat it as nominal and dead Christianity. That is why the status of Protestantism can be defined in a following way, “at home among strangers and a stranger among his own.” Ukrainian Protestantism is a borderline phenomenon as it is hard to put it the category of either Eastern or Western Christianity yet it can serve as a good mediator and one of the ways of synthesis of two great traditions.
Do Protestant communities in Ukraine offer a different approach and solutions when it comes to politics? corruption? economics and business? (the question is here a clear reference to Weber’s Ethics of Protestantism)
It is unlikely that Max Weber’s theory would work in Ukraine. The conditions of 20th century were not suitable for promoting enterprise and building capitalism. Basically, before Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, the Protestants struggled for survival throughout almost all of their history. The experience they had gained was not in building something (although they did have an experience in that too, mainly in agriculture) but staying faithful to their beliefs in the face of persecutions and death.
In the conditions of democratic Ukraine, the Protestants adopted “the protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism” and became their active agents. Nevertheless, they are very careful with idealization. They see that today’s Europe is moving away from the reformist rules. Besides, Ukrainian reality forces to make compromises, including in the matters of corruption. We can put it this way: Ukrainian Protestants like Weber’s theory but they are practical people while theory remains theory. Consequently, their position is, in many ways, determined by realism – at times bold and prophetic and at times casually mundane and cynical.
How is the coexistence of Protestant communities among themselves? Cooperation? competition?
Competition does take place but it is calm and without conflicts. Protestants appreciate diversity where there is room for everyone. There is an understanding that there are different groups in the society and each group can have their church. Religious market is growing and therefore, those who want to work and not fight will always have prospects.
In the matters of serving the society, most of Protestants are in unity and work together under the umbrella of the Council of Evangelical Protestant Churches of Ukraine, as well as other informal initiatives. Events that unite them the most are large-scale national prayers, protection of Christian values and common celebrations (such as annual Thanksgiving Day or Christmas).
How is the coexistence of Protestant communities with other branches of Christianity in Ukraine? Peaceful? Competition?
The relations of Ukrainian Protestants and other Christian denominations can be called peaceful and good neighborly. The religious structure in the society has been established and the presence of Protestants is even essential for other denominations. Most Protestants are convinced that their task is not to make Orthodox or Catholics Protestants but to preach the gospel – simple Christian truths that have the power to save and can be easily understood by all denominations. In that regard, Protestantism helps Orthodox and other churches to overcome the nominal Christianity and get back to the basics of faith. In other words, what Ukrainian Protestantism talks more about is not criticizing other traditions but rather about their renovation in the spirit of the gospel. Moreover, Maidan and the war in Ukraine showed to the Protestants that the best way to gain recognition is not by proving their peculiarity but by serving the Ukrainian society with other denominations. This practical ecumenism of the past four years has brought more results than the previous interfaith dialogues did. Churches that served their people together in the hardest moments in history took their rightful place next to the others. The society matured enough to recognize that the love to the neighbor and living faith are more important than the canonical status or political influence. We see this consensus both in the society and in the church. It is an opportunity for the Protestants to overcome the habitual marginality and learn to live together with other churches while serving their people.