I have been traveling to Russia for twenty-four years, and I have served with the International Mission Board as the Virtual Strategy Coordinator for Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia, for twelve years. During these 24 years, I have traveled to Russia 27 times either alone or with a team. Each trip has its own challenges and unexpected surprises.
This year, when our team arrived, we were met with some unexpected changes. For twenty-four years, the standard instructions when going through passport control were, “don’t smile, don’t talk.” That is the way we entered and left the country for twenty-four years.
The Old & The New
This year was different. Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup. When we got to passport control, the officers smiled at us, spoke to us, and even joked with one team member. I read that Russian officials and police had been given lessons on friendliness. It's not that Russians aren’t friendly, but their cultural ways of showing friendliness are different than some other countries who would be attending the games. These new expressions of friendliness were the first change we encountered!
We flew from Moscow to our city, Nizhniy Novgorod, which was a host city for the games. It was interesting to follow FIFA and see all the upgrades that FIFA money made in the cities—their infrastructures and their processes. Upon leaving the airport, we took a ramp onto a new, well lit four-lane freeway. It was beautiful. Our driver was very proud of this new road that FIFA money provided their city. We did notice more lighting on the streets in the tourist areas. Other improvements included a park along the Oka River, a new, four-lane bridge across the Volga River, new busses, a new metro line to the stadium, and of course—a new stadium.
After 24 years, we were pleased and happy to see these new developments improving the country that we love.
And some things have not changed. Driving through the countryside to speak in churches in Gorodets and Balakhna, we saw the Russian harvest at its peak. Cars parked along the road were the sign that people were in the forest picking mushrooms. We saw the stubble showing what was left of a good wheat harvest. We drove through villages with cottages over 100 years old with “lace’ windows. You get a feel for historic, cultural Russia on drives like these. It felt like time had stood still.
Exciting Changes Ahead
But time does not stand still, and some things do change. There are changes that expand beyond the physical. The evangelical church in Russia is growing, and that is a change. In 2001, we led a conference for the pastors in the city. There were only eleven churches for over two million people. This year, over fifty evangelical pastors were at the monthly pastor’s prayer meeting. That is an amazing change. One of the pastors said, “It is a new day for our country. So many things are permitted.”
In spite of new laws that were passed in 2016 limiting evangelism and worship, the church is flourishing. One church in the city bought land two years ago. They are now clearing it and have laid the foundations for a drug rehab and homeless shelter. A second rehab is planned for the same site. There is harassment from officials that horrifies those of us with an American worldview. But these churches love and take pride in their country. They see freedoms that were not there fifty years ago. They are excited about opportunities to plant new churches.
Generations of Churches
On my most recent trip, I was able to speak in three churches. The “mother” church was planted in Nizhniy Novgorod 12 years ago. The church planting team started a rehab, and the folks in the rehab became the core group for the church.
It is the practice of these churches to start other churches as quickly as possible. They train people from within the church and send them out to another location. Ten years ago, a graduate of the rehab in Nizhniy Novgorod started a rehab and a church in Gorodets—a town about forty miles north of the city. Two years ago, the third-generation church was born when a graduate of the Gorodets rehab started a rehab and church in Balakhna—a town halfway between Nizhniy Novgorod and Gorodets. It was amazing to speak to the mother church, daughter church, and granddaughter church all in one week!
I have been encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by the young church planters in Russia today. In spite of harassment, they move forward with their vision and zeal to reach the lost. They are the future of Christianity in Russia, and I believe the future is in good hands.
Please pray for Russia and the church that is established there. You can follow the UBA Virtual Prayer Walk here. To receive monthly updates of specific prayer requests for Russia, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.