Front Row Seats to Missions in Russia - Radical

Front Row Seats to Missions in Russia

Thousands of soccer fans from around the world have descended upon Moscow and other Russian cities to cheer on their nation’s team in the FIFA World Cup. Their presence in outdoor cafés, Moscow’s many parks and squares, and on public transportation makes for an urban scene that is more colorful than usual. Groups of foreign guests dress to match their country’s flag, paint their faces creatively, struggle to ask Russians for directions in Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese or broken English and draw plenty of attention from curious Muscovites as they sing songs or shout victory chants on the escalator all the way down to the Metro.

The Russians, typically more reserved, or even somber, seem fascinated by the spectacle. I noticed several Russian young people look up from their respective gadgets just to watch a flock of happy foreigners.  I’m not sure, but I think I saw one of these Slavic locals smile in spite of himself. For those of you following the action on television, remember: Not only is the world watching Russia; Russia is watching the world.

The Current Cultural Landscape

For those of us who have lived in Russia for years, serving in missions, this is a terrific metaphor for what is happening here spiritually. In addition to making new strides in domestic church planting and evangelism, many Russian believers and their churches have really opened their eyes to the nations. Many of the visiting sports enthusiasts arriving at Moscow’s main international airport might have noticed this.

For years, direction signs have been displayed in both Russian and English. Fairly recently, however, the same signs have also begun to include Mandarin Chinese. Travelers may also notice that in addition to an Orthodox chapel, there is a Muslim prayer room. Perusing the various arrivals and departures on the giant LCD board in the main hall may complete the impression: though many participants for this event came from the West, Russia itself may increasingly be facing the East. Slowly, the Russian church is becoming not only a receiver of foreign missionaries but a sender as well. Though political tides ebb and flow, sometimes creating complications, developments like these make now an exciting time to come alongside the body of Christ that is already here.

While most of the population still consider themselves to be Russian Orthodox, this adherence is, for some,little more than a cultural identity. That’s often the case in nominally Christian countries. The rat race of materialism has long since replaced the ideology of Communism, and traditional religions such as Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam continue to march forward as mainstays in the cultural fabric.

Evangelical Christianity in Russia

Though they don’t get much press given their comparatively small number, there are also many Evangelical Christians in Russia. For example, there are over 1000 Baptist congregations alone. This figure speaks simultaneously of God’s faithfulness and the remaining need for the gospel in a country with 11 time-zones and 144 million people.  Some people are surprised to find out that Evangelical Christians and Baptists have been in Russia since the nineteenth century. These churches saw periods of significant growth in the unstable years following the Russian Revolution in the early twentieth century. They also suffered various levels of persecution under the Communist regime from the 1930s onward. The early days of perestroika ushered in the turbulent 1990s, a time still remembered as a golden age of evangelism. Recent years have brought new challenges and new opportunities.

What Missions in Russia are Like

Lately, people have been asking missionaries serving in Russia, “What is it like for you there, with everything going on between our two countries?” It’s a logical question, but not the most important one. Yeah, being an American during certain news cycles can make for some awkward conversations. Even our closest Russian friends can make some goofy comments, just as our most experienced missionaries can as well. But, by and large, we are not persecuted or mistreated. As one who has been able to remain in the country, I can say that it is a privilege to have a front-row seat to what God is doing in and through his church in the midst of these times.

The Boldness of the Russian Church

New regulations seem to inspire believers to be even bolder in their witness; the difficulty of filing paperwork for religious events seems to parallel an increase in simpler forms of relational evangelism. Shifts in foreign relations come while the Russian church is shifting from being a receiver to a sender. This is a good time to be doing missions in Russia, and I am so thankful for it.

Tying it All Together

The World Cup and other international events remind us there are some things that do transcend politics and other barriers. As I write the first draft of this article, I am sitting in a café in one of Moscow’s multi-level shopping centers, sipping my hot tea, and looking at a large plasma screen. Of course, it’s on the soccer . . . er . . . futbol coverage. The volume is muted to avoid competing with the 1980s American pop music that is playing. But the picture itself is worth a thousand words. Standing outside a stadium, the young Russian commentator is wearing a large Mexican sombrero. He apparently borrowed it from the flag-draped fan who stands next to him, who’s waving to the camera; beaming from ear to ear. The game is the same everywhere. Going berserk when your team scores a goal is virtually universal (for soccer fans, anyway).

But truly universal is the lost condition of every fallen member of Adam’s race. As well as the need we all have for Christ’s (one and only) solution provided on the cross, and the truth that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. We aim to bring this truth to Russia, and the world, as that is our mission.

Adam Coker has served with the International Mission Board in Russia since 2003. As International Attaché of the Russian Cluster, he seeks to connect Russian believers with the world, primarily within the 10/40 window. He is also on the pastoral team of Dom Otsa church in Moscow.

Less than 1% of all money given to missions goes to unreached people and places.*

That means that the people with the most urgent spiritual and physical needs on the planet are receiving the least amount of support. Let's change that!