By John Smith
Nearly three generations in the former Soviet Union were subjected to intentional, aggressive, and institutional efforts to stifle religion and belief in God. The Communists’ antagonistic opposition to religion left a multitude of scars: alcoholism, abortion, prostitution, lying, racketeering, pornography, suspicion, and corruption on all levels of society. These are not so much the results of Communism, as it is the inevitable result of ignoring and opposing God. The former Soviet Union is full of people whose hearts and souls are empty, longing for something of substance to fill them. The Russian people desperately need the gospel. The nature of the work has changed over the past decade, but the need remains large and pressing.
Lots of thoughts run through my mind as I reflect upon the last ten years of involvement in evangelistic efforts in the former Soviet Union. The demands of the work have tested and exposed so much about what we are made of. I remember the early challenges to even getting involved: “Aren’t there lost people in Montana? Why spend all that money to go to Russia?” “Are your efforts just youthful exuberance? Will you stay with the work and the people whose lives you shake up with the gospel?” “Should you get involved if you can’t or won’t eventually move to live there?” Additionally, while in Russia we constantly faced questions we had never anticipated and situations that we felt uncertain about how to handle. It was all very humbling. Our failures and limitations often made us wish that people better suited for these situations would get involved. But at countless times we realized that prayerfully doing our stumbling-best had to continue if the alternative was to do nothing at all.
Even under the repressive regime of Communism in quiet and intrepid ways, the Lord’s work was being carried out. A Christian from Germany smuggled Bibles and teaching material into the country on a regular basis. In homes across the country, people read and studied the Bible in small, secretive groups. It is difficult to document these efforts and know the extent of their influence, but evidence of their existence is undeniable. At the risk of life itself, hungry souls were reaching out to know their God.
Moved and troubled by the writings of Jeff Kingry, in the summer of 1991, Greg Gwin and Phil Morgan traveled to Moscow as part of an international language program. Their primary focus during this daring trip was to “spy out the land.” They wanted to see if Russian language Bibles would pass the watchful eyes of the custom officials, if one could distribute Bible correspondence courses, and if there was an interest among the people in spiritual issues. Unlike “the faithless eight” who returned defeated and frightened, Greg and Phil returned convinced that good work could and should be done in the Soviet Union.
With the collapse of Communism, God opened a door of opportunity to the largest country in the world. Through the efforts of a number of good men, the gospel began to be taught publicly in several former republics. Churches were planted in several Russian cities among which were Moscow, Podolsk, Tula, Kaluga, Nizny Novgorod, and Pavlova. In addition to these, churches have been planted in the former republics of Lithuania, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.
The past ten years have not been easy ones for the church in Moscow. It in many ways it reflects the truth taught by Jesus in the “Parable of the Sower.” Nearly all of those who so readily and eagerly embraced the gospel in the early years have grown weary or been seduced by materialism and have returned to the world. But, there remains a dedicated and resilient remnant much in need of encouragement and assistance.
The congregation began with the conversion of two professors from what was then known as Moscow State University. A number of public lectureships were held in the early 1990s with several students from the university being converted. The congregation faced many difficulties. The members were spread over a vast region, and it was difficult to secure a suitable meeting place. They were a diverse group of people who had some difficulty integrating themselves into a cohesive unit. The pressure and temptations brought on by new found freedom were tremendous. Mistakes were made by some of the Americans who worked among them. They did not receive sufficient long-term, consistent support. Despite these and other obstacles, there remains a small faithful group who meets in a family’s apartment.
Tula and Kaluga
The church in Tula, Russia, had its beginning in the fall of 1994. A series of public lectures and public Bible studies were held in October. This work was followed up by two more groups of public studies and as a result souls were converted and a congregation born. In the early days of the church in Tula, Carl McMurray was influential in providing stability and consistent teaching for these young saints. Ron Roark and Larry Paden lived for varying lengths of time in Tula providing valuable teaching and leadership. From Tula, interest was directed to the near-by town of Kaluga where a second congregation was planted.
Of particular note in these two cities is the presence of native Russian preachers. Alex Seryogin and Mike Lapenko have preached in these cities. Alex and his family have recently moved to Moscow to work with the church there. The impact and influence of these two good men cannot be overstated. The future of the churches in Tula and Kaluga is bright in large measure to their good work.
The church in Nizhny Novgorod was started in August 1993 when some Baptists there contacted some of the institutional brethren who had been broadcasting the World Christian Broadcasting programs into Russia. These brethren were invited to come and conduct classes in the city. Eventually the Gants were invited to move to Nizhny Novogorod to continue these preaching and teaching efforts. Today there are 30 members who worship together and the Russians do the majority of the teaching and preaching and baptizing.
The church in Pavlova, two hours from Nizhny Novogorod, was started in 1995 as a result of a woman, who was converted in St. Petersburg while visiting family in that city. Upon her return home, the Gants were contacted and they began traveling there for Bible studies and preaching. There have been seven baptisms in that city since that time. Unfortunately however, three of those baptized live in other cities where there are no churches and no other Christians. There are five wonderful souls trying to spread the gospel of Christ in Pavlova today.
Serghei Corchmaru was converted while a doctoral student in Moscow. Steve Brewer worked patiently for well over a year sowing the seed of faith in his good heart. In 1995 he returned home and immediately began teaching all who would listen. Steve Brewer traveled to Chisinau in May 1996 to encourage Serghei and help establish a congregation. Among others, Steve studied with Ekaterina Emnova who later became the first convert in Chisinau. A number of other American preachers have joined in this work and assisted in establishing a vibrant congregation.
In May 1998 the Brewer family moved to Chisinau where they labored for over a year. In large measure, due to their good work, a number of women were converted to the Lord. Among them were Serghei’s mother and his future bride, Anna.
Contact was made in the spring of 2000 with a congregation in Benderi, Transneister (a breakaway Moldovan republic about one and one-half hours east of Chisinau). This small congregation was established through the work of an “institutional preacher.” They do not appear to have been infected by traditional American liberalism and have welcomed Serghei who preaches for them a couple of Sundays a month. Patiently and lovingly he is leading them closer to the truth.
Through an initial contact with a foreign exchange student from Kazakhstan, a door of opportunity was opened for work in this former Soviet republic. Since 1998, several evangelistic trips have been made to Almaty, the former capitol and largest city of the country. Most recently (October 2000) a team of preachers was able to conduct a publicly advertised series of Bible lectures drawing several dozen attendees. To date there have been nearly 20 baptisms. As with any new work there are some obstacles to overcome. Some of the early converts have fallen away. There is a great need for someone to live and work in Almaty on a long-term basis.
It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a list of all the people who have worked in the former Soviet Union and where they have worked. However, there are a few whose contribution must be discussed.
Dan Tholen and Mike Garth, young men from Tampa, Florida, followed Greg Gwin and Phil Morgan to Moscow through the same language program. Rather than returning home at the end of their study program, they stayed. They worked tirelessly in Moscow and were of great assistance to others who worked in Moscow and surrounding cities.
Steve and Joy Brewer have done exceptional work in Moscow and Chisinau, Moldova. The Brewer family was a great stabilizing force in both churches. Joy’s sacrifice and service is worthy of special mention. Unless one has lived, kept house, and raised children in either of these cities, you cannot appreciate the difficulties Joy faced. She did so bravely, faithfully, and cheerfully.
Charlie and Kay Gant are currently working with the churches in Nizny Novgorod and Pavlova, Russia. The contribution these two noble saints have made to the Lord’s work in Russia cannot be over estimated. Their courage, faithfulness, and sacrifice are inspiring. They have faced opposition and disappointment, health problems and shortages of needed goods, as well as the stress of being separated from children and grandchildren.
Ron Roark has made a number of trips to Tula, Kaluga, and Moscow, Russia. Ron has dedicated himself to helping the native preachers grow in their knowledge and faith. As a result of his work and influence there are three native Russian men preaching and teaching in this region.
How have Christians in America benefitted from involvement in the Lord’s work in the former Soviet Union? This work has challenged many to exercise their faith in God and prayer. In doing only that which is comfortable and secure, what results is more a reflection of us than God. Through involvement in foreign evangelism and its attendant risks, many have become spiritually bolder to expect greater fruit and have greater trust in the Lord (see 2 Cor. 9:8-11). Courage comes not from realizing what we can do, but from realizing what God can do through us.
Involvement in foreign evangelism has allowed many to broaden and clarify their understanding of who needs to be converted. To people in my generation and older, the mention of the word “Russian” would most likely evoke feelings of despite, fear, uneasiness. After all, they were the enemy! But, for 74 years they suffered under an aggressive policy that denied the existence of God and opposed serving him in any way. Rather than despising them, we need to have compassion for them. The gospel is for all! The church of our Lord is not, as observation might lead one to believe, for white middle-class America. It is for the Russian, the Chinese, Mexican, and Black. It is for the poor and the unfortunate.
Teaching and preaching in the former Soviet Union has helped those involved to build a greater confidence in power of Word. In 1992, I watched Tommy Poarch teach class after class without the aid of outlines or notes. He simply read from the Bible and asked simple questions. No gimmicks, material rewards or fancy presentations. Simply the power of the word of God.
What has been accomplished in the former Soviet Union could not have taken place without the involvement and commitment of a multitude of people, and certainly not without God’s care and answered prayers. Countless congregations and individuals have cooperated in this work. It has involved a myriad of prayers that toppled a government, opened doors of opportunity, emboldened workers, strengthened new Christians, spread the glorious name of Jesus, and gave courage to those who have decided to answer the call for help from a foreign land. It has involved the sacrifice of wives and children. It has involved men and women from many different congregations, most of whom had never met, who were willing to run off bulletins, type manuscripts, make arrangements for meetings, preach, teach classes, look after families, and do a host of other things in the absence of their local preacher.
I shall forever be thankful to have had the opportunity to teach the gospel in the former Soviet Union. It has been my privilege to work with some outstanding men in this important work. The work that has been accomplished since the fall of Communism is worth all the money, conquered fears, family sacrifice, and other hardships that had to be overcome.
John A. Smith with assistance from Phil Morgan, Greg Gwin, Charlie Gant and Serghei Corchmaru.
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