Skip to main content

In 1994 and 1995, I traveled to seventeen different cities in Russia and Ukraine to study a ground-breaking undertaking. Known as The CoMission, it was a vast partnership of Western mission groups, parachurch groups, and denominations that sought to educate former Soviet public educators who taught communist ethics on how to teach Christian ethics. It was an endeavor that made the front pages of national papers such as USA Today and the pages of national magazines such as Newsweek.1

Although The CoMission had various strengths and weaknesses, I want to focus on a particular part of the story today. The reality is that this massive missiological undertaking that still bears fruit would not have been possible without the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of Paul Eshleman, who passed away this past month. Christian academics, are not always kind to Christian entrepreneurs when telling their stories of risk-taking and boundary-pushing, but I think we must learn to appreciate and celebrate their unique gifts.

Eshleman is the reason that one of the most successful evangelistic tools in the history of missions came into being, the JESUS Film. Although that part of his narrative was chronicled in his CT obituary, the story that was not told in that obituary was one that I partially witnessed—how Eshleman brought knowledge about Jesus to millions in the former Soviet Union who had never heard about Christ.2

As the head of the JESUS Film Project, Eshleman had always dreamed of distributing and showing the JESUS film in the Soviet Union. The JESUS Film Project’s policy, however, was to show the film in connection with local Christians and cooperating churches. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, however, such a strategy made participating Christian believers vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment. Frustrated with this closed door, the leadership decided to attempt distributing and showing the film outside of a church context.

In 1985, this new strategy met with its first major success. The official dubbing director at the State Television Commission in Budapest, Edyth Bajer, agreed to dub the film. The top actor in Hungary also agreed to dub the voice of Jesus, and the anchor for the nation’s official evening news agreed to do the narration. Within months of the JESUS video’s release in Hungary, according to Eshleman’s telling, it became the number one seller.3 Distributing the film through government film agencies had clearly worked.

Based on their Hungarian experience, Eshleman and the JESUS Film Project leadership prayed for God to open the door to the Soviet Union. Since Georgians had a reputation for being successful black marketers, they sought to negotiate with the government film agency in the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Eventually, they contacted the head of the Georgian Film Studio, Rezo Chkeidze. Although Chkeidze was rumored to be a KGB agent, through him the JESUS Film Project successfully negotiated the dubbing and distribution of the film. On December 8, 1989, sixteen months after the first negotiations, Georgian officials gave Eshleman an official escort to the opening première of the JESUS film before a packed Philharmonic Hall in Tbilisi, Georgia. His attempt to crack the iron curtain had proved a remarkable success.

After the breakthrough in Georgia, Eshleman decided to try and duplicate the project in Eastern Europe and all the other republics of the Soviet Union. Through the JESUS Film Project’s efforts, the film premièred in 13 Soviet republics and Eastern European countries between September and December of 1990.

Astutely, when writing the contracts, the film distributors asked the national studios producing the film to invite the cultural, religious, and Communist Party leaders to the premières. They reasoned that, if the leaders attended, the rest of the populace would not be afraid to come. To their surprise, numerous communist officials expressed interest in the film. In what would prove the most important coup de gras for the JESUS Film Project, the minister or deputy minister of education from almost every republic and country attended the particular première in their country. After each of the premières, the highest school officials in fifteen republics and countries asked the JESUS Film Project to show the film in their public schools. Every one of these fifteen petitions came within six months after the first showing in Georgia. From the comment cards they received, the project leaders found that the film touched upon a particular moral and religious chord. As one person wrote on his card, “We need a new basis of some kind to determine what is right and wrong.”

In light of this new opportunity and the current moral vacuum, Eshleman felt a unique burden from God to try a new strategy. Thus, Eshleman scheduled an appointment with Eugene Kurkin, a Russian Deputy Minister of Education. Before going, Eshleman was faced with a possible dilemma that he described to me in an interview:

Someone said, “Well you know that if we give [the schools] a film, they will show it. And you know if they show it, some kids are going to come to Christ. And then how are those kids going to be followed up?”  And I said, “I don’t know. Maybe we could lead one teacher to Christ in every school and that teacher could follow them up.”  And they said, “Well, they would never let follow-up material be taught in school.” And so, I said, “Maybe we could develop a course on Christian ethics or something, and we could put some follow-up material in the course. And they would teach the course.”  And so that’s where the course on Christian ethics and morality was developed . . . because we needed a course that would give principles of Christianity and include some basic follow-up for new believers that could be taught in an educational environment. And I actually invented the name of the course. I wrote it on an envelope while I was flying on the plane over to Moscow. We had no course. (personal interview, 11/30/94)

Thus, in spite of the Persian Gulf War, on January 23, 1991, Eshleman traveled to Moscow to meet with Deputy Minister of Education Kurkin to discuss his proposal for showing the JESUS film in the largest Soviet republic’s schools and to follow up with training educators to teach Christian ethics.

On January 24, Eshleman talk over his proposal with Kurkin. Eshleman offered to distribute a free copy of the JESUS film video to more than 66,000 Russian schools and to provide training for an education course and curriculum entitled, “Christian Ethics and Morality.” According to Eshleman, Kurkin reportedly remarked, “We don’t know how many caverns there are in the foundation of our society after seventy years without God.”4

Astutely, Eshleman offered a rationale that spoke to this need. He presented Christian moral education to the Russians as something that would help Russia’s national interests. In an interview with me, Eshleman summarized the approach he took when communicating with Kurkin and other post-Soviet education leaders:

We’re the very best friend that any government in the world can have if we teach the principles of Jesus.  The very best thing we can do for any country in the world is help all of their students to come to know Jesus so that they’re kind and care about one another.  The whole reason society breaks down is that they aren’t kind and they don’t care about one another.  They don’t care about people who are sick and dying and have AIDS and all the other things, and they are not kind to one another.  Now, if we can get them to do that, they’re going to save on jails; they’re going to save on all the necessities for orphans that are abandoned; and they’re going to save on all the money we’ve invested in drugs and alcohol and child abuse and everything else because people care about each other, and they are kind to one another. Therefore, we ought to go into every country in the world and get the government to help us, and governments’ ought to help us because in so doing they help themselves. (personal interview, 11/30/94)

Eshleman contended that the social effects of Christian teaching were reason enough for the post-Soviet educators to invite them into their country.

Coincidentally, a major meeting with representatives from all the school districts in Russia was to take place the next day. During the meeting, officials were to discuss church-state issues. Kurkin said they would also consider Eshleman’s proposal. Five days later, the Russian Ministry of Education gave the JESUS Film Project permission to try three experimental convocations in Moscow, Vologda, and Leningrad (officially renamed St. Petersburg in September 1991). At these convocations, the Western Christians would show the JESUS film, distribute the Christian morals and ethics curriculum, and train the teachers to use the curriculum in voluntary after-school classes.

Later, due to the success of these convocations, this approach would be adopted and used throughout Russia, Ukraine the Baltic republics, Moldova, and Bulgaria. Today, the International School Project continues to use this approach to educate teachers in countries throughout the world about Christian ethics.

Looking back on my praises and critiques of this endeavor in my first book, I see both strengths and weaknesses in my critical analysis of this massive project–an analysis of which I am still proud.5 One weakness I confess is that I failed to appreciate the creative and redemptive gifts of Christian entrepreneurs like Paul Eshleman who show us how to bring big dreams into action. Graduate programs teach you how to critique but not how to appreciate messy risk-taking for Christ. Today, I realize the historically ground-breaking work that he did at a key moment in world history. I offer this blog post as an effort to correct that earlier blind spot. Thanks Paul for all you did for Christ. 

For more on the results of this endeavor, please see Perry L. Glanzer, The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia (Waco, TX:  Baylor University Press, 2002).

Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, blog posts will occur on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to give our team a little summer reprieve.  


  1. Perry L. Glanzer, The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia (Waco, TX:  Baylor University Press, 2002).
  2. Most of the rest of this essay is adapted from The Quest for Russia’s Soul
  3. Paul Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus (Orlando, FL: New Life Publishers, 1995).
  4. Eshleman, The Touch of Jesus, 188.
  5. Glanzer, The Quest for Russia’s Soul

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.