Sorry it’s been so long – it was such been a busy week in Russia, and since my return it hasn’t slowed down! Below is a slightly updated version of a report I sent at the end of the trip by email.
Monday through Thursday (23-26 May) I was teaching the Doctrine of God course to about a dozen pastors and workers. It’s been a fantastic experience. Monday was a little bumpy as I learned to teach through a translator; I messed up an explanation of the “begottenness” of God the Son so that they thought I was teaching that Jesus had a “source”(very wrong!). I was able to clarify that that wasn’t what I was talking about on Monday, and on Tuesday gave a much slower, better organized, point-by-point examination of the issue and everyone understood very well.
I was very impressed by the response from the class to my perceived “heresy,” however. Oddly enough, the way I came across would have been consistent with Russian Orthodox teaching, but they correctly saw that as wrong and argued the Western view (which is that Jesus exists of himself) and defended that in class. I’m not sure a lot of Western seminary students these days would have caught that.
Tuesday was great – we finished the Doctrine of the Trinity. At Pastor Mikhail’s request, I put together a lecture and in-class activity focused on the deity of Christ; the Russian believers are facing a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so we discussed several different approaches to establishing Jesus’ deity from the Bible. Wednesday we started into God’s attributes and his transcendence and immanence, and despite the very complex material the class proceeded smoothly. Wednesday night I had a (for me, somewhat rare!) treat. I was invited to teach a small group of teenagers, and I took them through Exodus 3. Had a blast with that – the kids asked great questions, they were engaged and active in the discussion.
Thursday we ended class early and I went with Pastor Mikhail and the church’s leaders to a regional conference. All the Baptist churches in the northern Caucasus region of Russia hold this regional conference for the benefit of pastors and to conduct church business (the rough equivalent of a regional Baptist convention). The head of Russia’s Baptist Union was present to speak, as well as the regional seminary’s president.
The meeting was held in Prokhladnyy, a town in the neighboring “krai” or state. We drove south for about an hour to reach the town. As we were heading into areas that are less stable, security was much more evident in this area than where I am now; multiple police checkpoints, as well as armed soldiers and armored vehicles, were seen every few kilometres. Attending the conference were people from the Volgograd and Stavropol regions, as well as states like Krasnoyarkyy and South Ossetia.
About 700 people were present on the first day, which was open to everyone. Friday was for pastors and other leaders, and so there were perhaps 400. That morning, I was invited to address the conference briefly, and passed greetings from Calvary Grace Church and her elders as well as the other supporting churches. I also expressed how encouraged I was to see the Russians’ love for preaching and evangelism and assured them of our continued support in prayer.
I met several brothers there who asked that I pass their greetings. Among them was a Siberian ex-pat serving in Krasnoyarsk named Roman Smirnov, who described his thankfulness for Canadian missionaries who taught him church planting and helped start several Siberian churches. He gave a sobering account of the continued harassment Russian evangelicals face from the authorities, however; his church has been denied rental space because the authorities feel that they are unpatriotic and are trying to “split Russia.”
I heard an even sadder story from my translator. I met a believer from a town in Ossetia named Beslan – a name several of you will no doubt remember from the news. I heard a pastor from the Beslan church give a report from his region Thursday. That pastor, whose name I forget, had five children in the school that was attacked by Chechen terrorists some time ago. Four of his children were killed in the seige. The threats faced by our brothers and sisters in that region are real, as are the challenges of witnessing to a heavily Muslim population. Please remember the Beslan church and its pastor in prayer, in particular.
Another man named Anatolii thanked us for the Antioch Initiative’s impact on the believers in his church, as did several others.
The president of the Russian Baptists, Alexei Smirnov (I think!) gave a lengthy address which impressed me greatly. He explained to his audience that, as I was there and would report back to North America, that he wished to be honest about the Russians’ shortcomings. Two in particular he stressed were: 1) First, he is concerned that Russian believers are too dependent upon foreign support, and pointed out that with 80,000 Russian Baptists they should now be able to largely stand on their own in getting churches built and funding secured for missions and training. He challenged everyone in the room to exhort each Russian Baptist to commit 1,000 rubles a year (about $300 or so) to a denominational building fund, which he said would be adequate to finish every uncompleted building in Russia. He gave a figure of 25,000,000 rubles as being enough for the task (the math doesn’t match the other figure, so I probably lost something in translation).
For perspective: this 25 million rubles, which would apparently finish every uncompleted Baptist church in Russia, is a little over a million dollars, if I have the exchange rate correct. That would not buy one church building in Calgary! But land and materials are far less expensive in Russia.
2) Smirnov rebuked his people for beginning building projects without fully counting the cost first. He gave the example of an American donor he spoke to, who had given regularly for five years to have a set of church windows replaced, and who had not heard if they had been done. He said Russian believers need to be more accountable.
Smirnov also said several other things that particularly impressed me. He cautioned the pastors to guard their marriages and families; he specifically singled out the “I put God first” excuse that I have repeatedly taken to task in the past myself (basically: if God decided that a man’s family life is part of his qualification for ministry, you DISOBEY God if you do not give your family due attention. Or in other words, you put God first and church second BY caring for your wife and children before other concerns).
He asked Russian pastors: “When you meet God, do you think he’s going to ask how big your church was? Or do you think he’ll be more concerned about the MATURITY of your church members?”
He advocated that pastors delegate as much as possible and involve other believers in all the work of ministry.
He said: “When you meet God, he will ask: ‘Did you preach about my love? Did you preach about my wrath? Did you preach about my hatred for sin?” It was so encouraging to hear Christians take all of these things seriously.
I left greatly encouraged for the future of the Russian church. I still have concerns, of course, but their focus on biblical authority, expository preaching, and determination to do even what’s unpopular should, given God’s grace, in time resolve most of those concerns.
Saturday I finished the Antioch course with an examination of arguments for God’s existence – introduced them to the Transcendental Argument for God – and then discussed various errors and heresies related to the Doctrine of God. We discussed, among other things, panentheism, postmodernism, and evangelical feminism. The course wrapped up at lunch and in the afternoon I flew out of Mineral’Nye Vody to Moscow.
Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Russia, and I thank you all for your prayers on my behalf.