We were preparing to do our last Peacemaking seminar at the small church in Shatsk, Russia. The pastor came to me and asked if a woman could share her testimony during the presentation. We were tight on time, and as a result I was a little reluctant, thinking she could testify at any other time when the team wasn’t there. The pastor then explained through the translator. “This woman wants to testify while your team is here because she was saved through what you shared last year. When you taught people how to share the Gospel with the wordless book last year, one of our members used that method to share with her and now she is a believer.” When we are on the mission field, we plant a lot of seeds, but rarely do we experience that kind of direct feedback to our efforts. This morning I want to talk about Russian missions, since Jeannie and I just returned from our fourth trip there. I don’t have a lot of pictures to show and I don’t plan on giving every detail of what occurred, but I do want to talk briefly about why we have partnered with Russian churches in missions in the past, and why we will continue to do so in the future.
First of all, we partner with Russia, with Russian Baptist churches, because of the call. Seven years ago God began working in my heart about the need to go beyond the four walls of the church to do ministry. To that point my exclusive focus had been on bringing more and more people into the church building. Mission presentations, especially presentations about international trips, were a necessary evil of church life. I had to work with these folks who traveled to other countries and were all excited about what happened there. So when someone from my congregation went, I would oblige them and allow them to share about their trip when they returned, but I wasn’t into it. I had my own life to live and my own ministry to conduct that was focused exclusively on the church and what was happening inside the building. Through a series of Divinely-designed circumstances however, God began revealing to my heart that His followers are called to go beyond the four walls and do ministry. Unless we go beyond the four walls and do ministry, we are not being obedient to God. Acts 1:8 was a verse God used to speak to my heart and mind, changing my outlook on what it means to follow Jesus. That verse says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” I then understood that a large part of my call to follow Jesus is to “go” – to “go” into my neighborhood, to “go” into my community, to “go” into my state and my country, and to “go” to the ends of the earth. So I began praying about opportunities for missions, opportunities that began local but would eventually involve global missions, for that is the call of God to the church.
Through another series of Divinely-designed events, I became involved in Child Evangelism Fellowship for local missions. Unlike many other children’s ministries, they do not seek to bring children to church to win them to Christ, but go to where the children are. They go to neighborhoods, to housing projects, and especially to schools through afterschool Good News Clubs. (Incidentally, our Russian hostess for the last two trips, Lena Bulgakova, happens to be a teacher/trainer with CEF of Moscow.) Shortly after getting involved with CEF, I participated in a KAIROS prison ministry outreach to the Mount Olive Correction Facility in Montgomery. This whole experience touched upon regional missions. I still however, didn’t have any direction on how God was leading me to go “to the end of the earth.” As I prayed about where God might have me to go internationally, I looked over all the mission possibilities that were available to me through American Baptist missions and elsewhere. I began to be drawn to the people of Russia, and going to what had been the bastion of Communism and the arch-enemy of the United States during the Cold War. I learned of the WV Baptist/Russia partnership, and received details of a trip they had planned for the coming summer. With a sense of fear and uneasiness about going halfway around the world to what had been a very hostile country towards the US, I obtained my passport and raised the funds to go. Jeannie felt called to go with me, so we made our first trip there in July 2007. We returned in 2008, then did not travel anywhere in 2009 due to family illnesses. In 2010 we wanted to see if God had another direction in mind for us as far as international missions, so we went on a teaching trip to Guwahati, India. We were blessed by the people there and believe we were used by God, but after that trip our sense of leading to the people of Russia was confirmed. We returned in 2011 and then again this year.
The way God often works with international missions is that there is an attraction to a particular people group. The attraction may be Asian, it may be Indian, it may be Hispanic, it may be African, it may be Slavic. For Jeannie and me it is Slavic in general and Russian in particular. Russia is where God is calling us to be involved in regards to international missions. We partner with Russia because of the call.
Then, we also partner with Russia because of the relationships. Since the year 2000, church members from the West Virginia Baptist Convention and church members from Ryazan Baptist congregations have been building a cooperative partnership. We communicate together regularly, we pray for one another, and we visit one another’s countries and encourage one another as we follow Jesus. We learn from one another and inspire one another. The passage that best describes this kind of interaction is Philippians 1:3-5. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” The Apostle Paul was used by God to cross ethnic boundaries, geographical boundaries, cultural boundaries and even political boundaries to share the Gospel and to expand the kingdom of God. We are called to do the same, building relationships with people who have a much different background and lifestyle than our own. The key for us is the relationship, the partnership. It is not a one-sided experience, in which we just go to help for a week. It is a give-and-take that is expressed most fully in a trip, but continues when we are both in our own countries. What we do on a trip and the time we spend together deepens the ties between us.
For example, on this last trip Pastor Pavil, the pastor of Hope Baptist Church, shared with us the story of his wife Zoya’s family. Her father and his brothers, and her grandfather, were all Baptist pastors during the days of the Soviet Union. The grandfather was a Baptist pastor, who knew that eventually he would be arrested, imprisoned and even killed for his Christian faith and ministry. When that day finally came (and they later learned he was executed after being arrested), his oldest son became the pastor of the Baptist church. He took the position knowing that it was only a matter of time until he too was arrested. When he was arrested and imprisoned, the next oldest brother took the pastorate of the church. They constantly put their lives on the line in the service of Christ – that is how important Jesus has been to them. Even though the Soviet Union is now a thing of the past, the persecution Russian Baptist suffer at the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church is severe. They are ostracized and ridiculed for being Baptist. Being Baptist, or anything other than Russian Orthodox, is perceived as a scandalous thing. We don’t have anything here in America that compares to that kind of treatment. As we learn more and more about the depth of their devotion, it inspires us.
On Sunday March 4, two members of our team, Jeannie and I worshiped at the Word of Christ Baptist church in Ryazan. They meet in the second floor of an old Soviet kindergarten. The weather that morning was horrible – the roads were covered with 5 inches or so of fresh snow from the previous night. As we were driven to the church we slipped and slid on the roads. When the service began, the sanctuary was full. Nearly all the members participated in one way or another in a three-hour service. Various women sang, read Bible passages and poems. One of the church’s elders preached the message. We shared the Lord’s Supper together, then afterwards had a few more songs and testimonies. After the service they wanted to sit and visit with us, but we had to leave quickly to attend another meeting. A couple of days later, however, we all sat down and talked with the pastor of the church, Vloyda Kochnev. He was a very humble man, and spent nearly an hour explaining how God has been working on his congregation. We learned more about his faith and his family, and he was encouraged that we cared and took the time to listen. We partner with Russia because of the relationships.
Then, we partner with Russia because of the need. The last two years we have gone to Russia we have visited and ministered in an orphanage, and there is certainly a need there. The greatest need however, is in the churches. When we empower the churches, we empower believers who can minister in those orphanages, women’s prisons, and other places not just once a year as we do, but throughout the year. As God was moving in my heart about the need to be missional, I questioned if the local church was really that important. Why invest my time and money in just one congregation when Jesus wants us to be on mission? Missions is where the action is, not in the local church – that was thought at one time. I slowly began understanding that the local church has a vital function for missions.
The local church is the sending station – we send people to go into the community, into the region, and into the world. Perhaps we could understand it as the local church being the harbor. Mission ships are launching from the harbor, being received in the harbor, they are continually going out and returning. For ships to continue to go and to return, the harbor has to be stable and strong. We could have elaborate ships going to all kinds of destinations, but the work would soon stop if the harbor goes into disrepair. There has to be a harbor, and the harbor needs to be well-equipped for the work of missions to continue. On this last trip Jeannie and I did not feel led to ask for any donations from our church family here – we received a few, but we didn’t ask. The reason we didn’t ask is that the harbor had a greater need for funds than we did. We have to keep the harbor strong and well-equipped — we can’t let it slip into disrepair. There is a need to strengthen churches here for missions, and there is a need to strengthen Russian churches for missions. Dima Makiva is the pastor of Korbalino Baptist Church. It is located in a small town beyond the city of Ryazan. Jeannie and I have gotten to know Dima and his wife Lena well, and also know their children. We have stayed in their home, and they stayed in our home this last fall. They have a missionary working with their congregation, and he goes into the community and helps share the love and message of Jesus. Dima had requested we bring a couple of used iPhones with us, and thanks to one of our church members we had two that were donated to by a teacher. One of those phones is now being used by the missionary there in Korablino. Dima planted his church a few years ago, and they began in an old, dilapidated building in which they were allowed to meet. The owner, who professed to be a Christian, told them that if their church did well, he would give the building to them. Over the years they have made improvements to the facility, believing that eventually it would be their own. Now the owner is saying he has changed his mind about donating the building to them. So if things do not change direction, Dima’s congregation will lose their meeting place and will need another facility. The owner will take possession of a greatly improved structure. These pastors are new to business dealings, and have not had the savvy to develop formal legal contracts. Dima is young, energetic, and is devoted to Christ. He needs prayer, encouragement and counsel however, in how to secure a meeting place for his church. He doesn’t need money as much as he needs prayer, encouragement, and counsel in moving forward. This kind of situation is one of many across the region of Ryazan. In response West Virginia Baptist Churches partner with Ryazan Baptist churches to receive mutual encouragement and inspiration. As a result the local congregations on both sides of the relationship are strengthened, and more able to do missions in their communities, in their regions, and in other countries. We partner with Russia because of the need for local churches to be strengthened and encouraged.
This morning I am not making a financial appeal for Russian missions, as much as my heart is attached to Russian missions. Acts 20:28 says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” I can’t appeal for financial support for Russian missions when this local congregation, this mission harbor, is in dire financial need. I am appealing to you to pray for local Baptist congregations in the Ryazan area. Several of them have no partner churches in West Virginia – they have no congregation here that will commit to pray for them and to encourage them there. Dima’s congregation in Korablino has one partner congregation in West Virginia, but given their circumstances and the ties we already have with them, they could use us as another. They are going into their community, but they need encouragement. There is also the church in Novomirchurinsk – they have no meeting place, and they are the congregation that is closest to the orphanage with which we are familiar. They too are going into the community with mission, but they need encouragement. Will you commit to pray for them? Will you consider partnering with them as they seek to be a harbor that sends believers into their community, their region, and throughout the world?