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Believers nurtured amid Turkmenistan’s challenges

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (BP)–For Josh Russell*, training church planters is a lot like roasting coffee. Inside a narrow storefront in Central Asia, the Southern Baptist worker details the art of transforming green coffee beans into steaming cups of java. Yet he grins as he remembers the first time he roasted — and nearly burned — an 8-pound batch of Mexican coffee beans.

“It was so dark — it was too done,” he said. “The problem we had was how to know when to pull it out….

“The same thing happens as we’re training and equipping leaders,” he reflects. “When do you turn them loose? Are you waiting so long they’re not fit for the needed purpose because you’ve skewed their thinking?”

It’s a dilemma Russell continues to wrestle with in his role as strategy coordinator for Turkmenistan’s Turkmen people. He’s charged with sharing Christ and planting churches across a nation cut off from the Gospel by more than 65 years of communist rule. And if that task doesn’t sound hard enough, there’s an extra hurdle Russell has to jump — he doesn’t live in Turkmenistan. He makes his home miles away in another country.

Russell is a nonresidential worker, which means he’s not able to live among the people he is trying to evangelize. It’s not a decision he made by choice. Russell served in post-Soviet Turkmenistan almost five years before being forced to leave. Though it made day-to-day ministry more difficult, it hasn’t diminished his passion for reaching the lost.

“What I do is help cast vision,” Russell said of his role. “We have to help Turkmen understand they need to love their own people; they need to take the Gospel to their own people.”

To make that vision a reality, Russell focuses his ministry on cultivating and maturing leaders within the Turkmen church. The goal has evolved into a number of unique projects, ranging from wholesale coffee distribution to a new leadership training facility. The projects, though quite different, are designed around a common purpose — meeting Turkmenistan’s overwhelming need for Christ.

Less than 2 percent of the 5 million Turkmen profess faith in Jesus. Here, Muslims represent the majority, though many claim Islamic faith in name only.

“The Soviets destroyed Islam within Turkmenistan,” Russell said. “I consider most of the people to be atheists or secularists…. I’ve met few who pray or go to the mosque on Fridays.”

Instead of Islam, Russell points to poverty as a key factor in lostness among his people group.

“Most Turkmen live in such difficult situations that they’re not even thinking about their spiritual need,” he said. “They’re so consumed day to day just getting enough food to eat, meeting the needs of life…. They’re blind to the fact they are alienated from God.”

But poverty isn’t the Gospel’s only enemy. Across Turkmenistan, churches are under attack. Believers are placed under surveillance or house arrest. Others are beaten or tortured. Persecution has caused some to flee the country, others have recanted their faith. Pastors are frequent targets.

“One [pastor] was beaten so badly he lost hearing in one ear,” Russell said. “His head also was held underwater to the point he almost drowned — multiple times.”

Though some churches have weathered such attacks, not all are as steadfast. Last year, a 60-member congregation was scattered after its pastor was forced to leave Turkmenistan.

Russell said setbacks like this underscore the need to cultivate new leaders within the church. He believes teaching believers how to endure, even thrive, under severe persecution is instrumental to a church-planting movement (CPM) among the Turkmen.

“Fear prevents them from seeing a CPM,” he said. “The world they live in is opposed to them changing, and they need to be prepared for that.”

Rashid* wasn’t prepared. He was a college student when government agents stormed his small church in Ashgabat, taking the names of everyone gathered there to worship. On another occasion, he was arrested and interrogated. Agents told Rashid he was “dangerous” because he was a Christian. After hours of browbeating, he was finally released even though he wouldn’t recant his Christian faith.

Leadership training events are one tool Russell uses to combat faith-shaking experiences like Rashid’s. Scheduled throughout the year, groups of six to eight Turkmen are flown to a neighboring country for a week of intense discipleship. Training sessions include evangelism, church-planting strategy, Bible study and plenty of discussion. Russell also puts classroom lessons into practice, sending participants out into city streets to witness.

Rashid, now 31, has attended several leadership events. He believes training is a turning point for the Turkmen church because it’s a source of unity and encouragement.

“We brought [back] with us new leaders,” Rashid said of the training. “They were strong, confident. And I saw the difference they made in their local churches.”

Personally, Rashid said the training taught him to disciple others — a skill critical in his role as pastor of a church in his hometown.

Such successes have led Russell to establish a leadership resource center. Funded by the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, he plans to use it as a hub for future training events. In addition to a classroom, library and office, the center is equipped with a bedroom and kitchen which allow Russell to house participants in the training events.

But Russell said there’s more to building strong leaders than training. That’s why he’s recently opened a wholesale coffee business in the city where he lives. The business sets an example for Turkmen churches: Sharing Jesus can mean a job. Besides providing believers with finances to engage in outreach, Russell’s business also opens doors that otherwise may be closed.

As a wholesaler, Russell’s local distributors form the business’ frontline, pulling double duty as both salesmen and evangelistic church planters. The job requires a passion for sharing Christ and a knack for building relationships. The business-based missions model is working so well Russell has received requests to export it elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. He’s taken steps toward opening a coffee shop in Turkmenistan this year.

“We let them know up front we’re followers of Jesus,” he said. “We make it clear we’re unique because we’re believers. Discipleship can’t just happen in a classroom. It happens because you’re watching me live. I’m watching you live. And we’re learning as we go.”

Above all, Russell is excited about the future of the Turkmen church. In spite of obstacles like poverty and persecution, there’s real evidence the Gospel is making progress.

“I see steady, gradual growth within the church — new churches established each year and faithful evangelism taking place,” he said. “We’ve got leaders who are starting to have a vision, taking initiative to go out and start new churches in areas they know the Gospel hasn’t penetrated yet.”
*Names changed for security reasons. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. This story focuses on missionaries who serve in the former Soviet Union as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

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  • Don Graham