Youth Ministry in the Former Soviet Union

Tony Toth
October 3rd, 2009

It’s been 10 years since the Soviet Union collapsed and our churches gained new levels of freedom. The freedom churches had long prayed for finally came. The Lord was faithful and the world maps had a few more countries.

The people of Ukraine remember August 24, 1991, not only as Independence Day for the Ukrainian nation, but also for the sudden supermarket lines of 200-300 people trying to buy bread. They remember shortages of sugar and other food items as things suddenly disappeared from the store shelves. It was a difficult time. During this upheaval, a most distressing event took place in the hearts and minds of Generation X—the massive disappointment and discouragement of the young people.

Statistics say that in 1985, when <em style=”padding: 0px; margin: 0px;”>Glasnost and Perestroika started, two-thirds of 15-30 year olds believed that there’d be a good outcome from all the changes. In 1991, 53 percent remained that optimistic regarding what the changes would bring us. A whole generation of people was ushered into instability where they were forced to reconsider the direction of their lives and their belief systems. They lost faith in justice and righteousness. In essence, they said to themselves, “If we don’t help ourselves, no one will.”

Unfortunately, with all the sudden freedom, churches were ill-prepared to meet the needs of those teenagers. Many opportunities were lost just because there was lack of vision for this type of ministry, and we know “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV).

The children suffered most. Almost every church had a church-planting training school, but how could they plant churches without at least a basic understanding of ministering to the young? During this period of time, hundreds of new churches were planted without a thought toward youth ministry. As a pastor, I’d say training isn’t sufficient unless it encompasses all kinds of church ministries, from one-year-olds to the elderly, from small group strategy to principles of preaching and counseling.

So these rudderless kids went through their lives and raised their children from this materialistic philosophy of life. Their children will soon be the teenagers in our youth groups. They are children of those disappointed parents whose two dominant values are egocentrism and materialism.

Now eight to twelve years later, some churches are finally recognizing the need to reach Generation Y, but it’s difficult to start a youth ministry when the church has never done it before. We have a situation in which only 25 percent of churches have what legitimately could be called a “youth ministry.” The other churches still settle for various small, insignificant youth activities without the real “cutting edge” penetration of youth culture.

However, I believe Ukraine is still going through a “Golden Era” of youth ministry development. Why do I think we haven’t yet lost this opportunity? It’s true that youth ministry development in Ukraine and Russia is similar now to youth ministry 20-25 years ago in the States, but our social and economic situation is different. The Ukrainian Police Department states that 95 percent of youth have nothing to do after school. Everywhere I speak in the States, I see that it’s almost the complete opposite with the American kids—it seems that 95 percent are involved in after-school activities and have very little time for church stuff.

An average youth pastor in the States has to compete with the world and try to outdo the world in the areas of recreation, promotion, entertainment, etc. In Ukraine, that is not yet the case. In most of our communities, if a trained youth minister offers almost any youth programming, he or she could immediately reach a lot of teenagers. The youth minister doesn’t have to compete with the world, because our society doesn’t yet offer much to its kids. The government is still fighting international debts, and very little is done to help teenagers socialize successfully, though each year more and more is being done.

So, now is the time. We can still do much with the Lord’s help, even without extraordinary equipment and personnel. I believe that’s what we see in Matthew 9:36, where it’s written of Jesus, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.” He saw their needs. Understanding your target audience’s needs is the key for any successful ministry.

In our church youth ministry this past year, we prayed for several months to be able to see, through the eyes of Jesus, the needs of the teenagers in big cities like Kiev, the capitol of Ukraine. Then we created a youth program for them, and suddenly several hundred teens were brought into contact with us. You know something is happening when you see a youth group grow from 15 to 120 in three months. That’s God!

Please join us in prayer so this “Golden Era” in Ukraine and Russia brings forth fruits and that this opportunity is not lost, as so many have been before.

Tony Toth

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