MOSCOW (BP)–In a land marked by political and cultural transition, churches can grow stronger and reach future generations with the Gospel if they “turn their heart’s affection” toward the Kingdom of God, Ken Hemphill advised Baptist leaders from the countries of the former Soviet Union.
“God is seeking a people who will embody His name, embrace His mission and obey His Word,” declared Hemphill, national strategist for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Empowering Kingdom Growth emphasis.
He spoke to more than 100 Baptist union leaders who convened outside Moscow to learn how the EKG initiative could make a spiritual impact upon the region’s numerous people groups. EKG blends a spiritual focus on the Kingdom of God with planning tools to help congregations discover their vision, mission and values.
“An effort like this helps lay a spiritual foundation for understanding what God is doing in the world and how churches can take part in it,” Hemphill said. “We’re not emphasizing a specific model for the church, but a passion for God’s Kingdom that can be customized for the cultural setting.”
Representatives of the International Mission Board partner with two dozen Baptist unions across the sprawling landmass of eastern and central Europe – home to 400 million people who comprise 425-plus language and cultural groups spread across 12 time zones.
The EKG conference –- held as part of the 51st meeting of the Euro-Asiatic Federation of Evangelical Christians-Baptist -– was funded by the IMB, the SBC Executive Committee and the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
Fifteen years ago, Baptists in the region were part of one union. In the post-Soviet era, churches formed separate national unions and are now grappling with how to cooperate in ministry amid newfound freedoms. Some of the countries where the leaders serve are taking economic strides forward, while others remain burdened by political and religious pressures as they continue to emerge from communism’s shadow.
Baptist work in some of the countries dates back more than a century. Union leaders wonder whether changing some of the old traditions — in order to reach new generations — could generate conflicts among union-affiliated churches.
“The biggest challenge in the short term is the strong reliance on tradition and doing ministry the way it’s always been done,” said Fiodor Baraniuk, director of the Sunday School department for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist. “EKG is helping people to refuse doing church in just the traditional way.”
Even with struggles ahead, Baraniuk has high hopes for the EKG process and future partnerships with Southern Baptists working in Russia and the former Soviet countries.
“EKG has helped our churches have a clear sense of determining where we should go,” he said. “We are trying to filter everything we do through the eyes of the Kingdom of God.”
In the end it will pay off, Baraniuk predicted.
“We are setting ourselves up for a spiritual future,” he said. “We may not see results immediately. We are taking the long view.”
Hemphill hopes EKG will help the churches transcend generational and cultural divides as they adjust to new cultural and political realities.
“The church here is coming out of a long period of persecution and oppression, but they’re reaching a new generation that may not know that history or even appreciate it,” Hemphill observed. “Both groups are going to have to have a level of respect and appreciation for one another.
“It’s really humbling to see these leaders embrace the biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God,” Hemphill continued. “While we’re certainly in a different cultural setting, the biblical basis for EKG is cross-cultural. It is not a program, but it must become a passion bathed in prayer and based on God’s power.”
Hemphill said that kind of focus prevents “spiritual myopia,” a condition in which people are concerned more with church meeting their needs than participating in what God desires to do in the world through them.
“When our focus is on our own comfort and our own tradition and our own desire, that’s the thing that paralyzes the church from reaching the next generation,” Hemphill said. EKG enables churches to look beyond their immediate needs and launch ministries that share “God’s heart for the nations,” he added.
Hemphill also noted the importance of churches dealing with “the heart’s affection” before making dramatic program changes.
“It’s after you change the heart that you can change the thinking of the church,” Hemphill told participants in the two-day conference. “If you try to make structural changes without changing the hearts, you’ll generally fracture your church. It needs an affection and passion for the Kingdom of God.”
Hemphill walked participants though numerous biblical passages to lay a foundation for ministry focused on advancing God’s Kingdom.
“[God] represents Himself through a Kingdom-focused people,” Hemphill asserted. “He empowers them to join Him in His redemptive activity among the nations. I don’t want us to forfeit our opportunity of being a mission people.”
Some of the Baptist unions have already embraced the initiative.
Yuri Sipko, president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist, said: “It’s very important for our churches. It’s a very serious call for revival.” He and other RUECB leaders began using the EKG process three years ago to articulate a new vision for the union and help older churches face new ministry opportunities head-on.
“In the life of every church we should remember the past and respect our teachers,” Sipko wrote in an essay for a national Baptist magazine. “However, we should also see the present and get ready for the future in order to be the church which is up-to-date today and ready to fulfill its ministry tomorrow.”
The IMB’s representative in Russia attributed the warm reception EKG received from the Baptist union leaders to its strong biblical content.
“EKG, from beginning to end, presents a biblically based, conservative Christ-centered process for helping churches look at ways to not just grow the unions but at ways to help all evangelical believers,” Ed Tarleton said. “Pastors and leaders in these countries share incredibly strong concerns for being biblically based in what they do. EKG is a great combination for strengthening existing churches and providing the DNA for new churches to be planted.”
Baptist union leaders also affirmed EKG’s biblical framework.
“Because it is tied strongly to a biblical basis, it provides a real motivation,” said Victor Kulbich, general secretary of the All Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christians-Baptist. “It’s not a program but a heartbeat for God’s Kingdom.”
In the 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, Baptist churches in Ukraine have tripled their number -– from 900 congregations to around 2,700. Nearly 48 million people live in Ukraine, with 70 percent of them in the cities.
The majority of the union’s churches, however, are in villages, Kublich said. Thus, the Ukrainian Baptist Union is concentrating church-starting efforts in the cities.
“Our strategy has changed to try to reach our cities because in the cities churches can multiply,” Kublich said. “We believe if God is going to change our country, it will happen through our churches. We want to plant many new churches and the concept of EKG is really the answer to how we’re going to do that.”
Kublich emphasized the importance of working together to spread the Gospel in Ukraine, a nation that enjoys more freedom than most of the former Soviet countries.
“We believe the growth in the Ukraine that we’ve been able to see is because of the mutual partnerships we’ve had with other unions and with other groups,” Kublich said. “We want to find ways of cooperating and working together because we are part of one Kingdom – His kingdom.”
Other Baptist union leaders expressed similar sentiment.
“EKG is the real heartbeat of the Gospel,” said Peter Mitskevich, senior vice president for the RUECB. “It’s really a way for us to focus on [God], on the right thing. It’s giving us some tools to implement and the opportunity to apply it in our churches.”
Mitskevich affirmed the joint work of the various Baptist entities: “It’s not just Americans helping Russians. There is a unity –- brothers helping brothers, serving the church and spreading God’s Kingdom.”
Mick Stockwell, an IMB representative based in Ukraine, believes EKG will help Baptist churches in the region plan for the future.
“The Soviet society pretty well ran people’s lives and they were not taught critical thinking and planning skills,” Stockwell said. Churches were struggling to simply survive in that context rather than seeking to grow or minister in strategic ways, he said.
“Often our personnel have been frustrated because we did not have a good biblical tool to help our partners develop vision and strategy,” Stockwell said. “We have wonderful partners who are seeking to grow their own churches and to plant new ones, but they are often overwhelmed with the day-to-day struggle.
“[EKG] is a very practical tool with which they can sit down with their ministry team and ask the critical questions and arrive at vision, goals and strategies that will help them to be a part of the Kingdom,” Stockwell said.
Southern Baptist leaders and IMB representatives introduced EKG to Russian Baptists’ key leaders three years ago. They accepted the initiative as a national ministry focus after a prolonged session of reading Scripture and praying about its use among the union’s approximately 1,400 churches.
Jere Phillips, a professor at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary near Memphis, Tenn., was among early advocates for using EKG in Russia.
“God’s Kingdom is something we can each believe in and take hope in,” Phillips told conference participants. “We have discovered in our own lives and in our own churches that the principles of EKG can take an old dying church and make it live again. It can take a denomination that is wandering and looking for meaning and give it direction and hunger for souls.”
Phillips noted EKG materials have been translated into Russian and Ukrainian, with additional translations under development.
EKG started in the South Carolina Baptist Convention to help churches engage more aggressively in God’s mission for the world.
“A church that isn’t moving forward doesn’t have a heart for the world,” declared Carlisle Driggers, executive director of the South Carolina convention and EKG’s primary originator. “Jesus was preoccupied with calling people to His Kingdom here on earth. A Kingdom-focused church sees the world through the eyes of Jesus.”
A “Kingdom mindset” has long-term value, Driggers added. “This is not a program, it’s not a fad, it’s not something that’s here today and gone tomorrow. It’s being obedient to Jesus when He calls people to the Kingdom. And that call is to last until He establishes His ultimate Kingdom.”
Calling EKG a “spiritual vision,” Driggers underscored the importance of starting right.
“The whole process begins with spiritual preparation,” he said. “If we’re going to lead the churches, then we have to do it spiritually. The goal of spiritual preparation is for the people of God to be captured by the heart of God through Jesus.”
Rodney Hammer, the IMB’s regional leader for central and eastern Europe, set the tone for the EKG conference during his opening address to participants.
“The Kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God and the commission of the King is for all believers,” he said. “God’s intent is that we do this together in this day.”
Stockwell pointed to the importance of strong ministry partnerships: “Jesus gave us keys to the Kingdom of heaven -– not the locks -– so we would open the doors. He has given us great opportunities to work together.”
Driggers reminded participants that EKG principles can take several years before people really grasp their importance. However, Baptist leaders attending the conference expressed optimism.
“EKG is very effective,” Kublich said. “I believe this can happen in our generation if we use it wisely, effectively and only for His glory.”
For his part, Hemphill, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, called EKG a rallying point for Baptists and other evangelicals around the world.
“One of the reasons I was willing to leave the presidency of Southwestern Seminary is because I believe God wants to do something in our day that is so large and so grand that no one can receive glory for it but Himself,” Hemphill said.
“What compels me to this task – and I have to think in terms of my own denomination -– is what could happen if 42,000 Southern Baptist churches were animated by the spirit of God. What would happen in the churches of your unions if they could be animated by the Spirit of God? The reason we link together is not for our survival but for reaching the nations.”
The Baptist union leaders also expressed enthusiasm about their part in such an effort.
“Our desire is to live according to God’s will -– doing what He asks us in our time,” Mitskevich said. “We would like God to bring revival and we just want to be His instruments. It is our dream to see the expansion of God’s Kingdom in our time.”
Cameron Crabtree is editor of the Northwest Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Northwest Baptist Convention. To learn more about IMB work in the region, log on www.hope4cee.org.