FRESNO, Calif. (BP)–Bruce Raley knew he was a long way from home when he arrived at Hye Sierra Camp in the mountains outside Fresno, Calif.
However, Raley, the teaching pastor at First Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla., wasn’t nearly as far from home as most of the 31 Russian-born Southern Baptist leaders he would meet there.
“Most participants at the retreat immigrated to the United States because of religious persecution,” Raley said. “Some came before the collapse of the Soviet Union, most afterwards.”
Raley went to California as part of the “Meet Me Across America” initiative of LifeWay Christian Resources to send ministers of education into all 50 states to assess churches’ ministries and help design a Kingdom-focused plan to fulfill their mission.
Raley said prior to the Meet Me Across America ministry, ministers of education routinely met for regional meetings. There were 90 of them in 2002 alone, and that year some of the ministers of education decided to do something more.
“We said, instead of just going and sitting in a meeting, let’s do something to elevate our vocation,” said Raley, who spent a year helping plan the outreach and recruit ministers of education willing to pay their own way as volunteers prior to the Meet Me Across America’s kickoff this year.
CONNECTING CULTURES & AGES
While most of the Meet Me Across America teams go to individual churches, Raley said the Pacific Coast Slavic Baptist Association specifically requested a retreat setup.
“We don’t go in with a plan in our briefcase,” Raley said. “We go in and listen and strategize and help plan in the areas they need help.” Certain discussion topics are scheduled but more are determined through informal conversations with the participants throughout the weekend.
One of the biggest concerns facing the churches of the Russian Southern Baptists Raley met on his trip was a declining interest among youth. Raley said he and his ministry partner, Michael McVay from First Baptist Church in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., had to help the church leaders see the cultural factors playing a role in church attendance among Russian youth.
While most of their parents are native to Russia, many members of the younger generations grew up in America and speak English as their first language. The older Christians are grateful for the religious freedom they experience in the United States but, at the same time, are tied intensely to their Russian heritage. Churches provide close ties to their homeland, so most Russian church services are conducted like services in 1950s Russia. This creates language and cultural barriers for many of the youth.
“Older folks who came over did not learn English, so they made a group that does not reach outside,” said retreat attendee Adolf Pichaj, a retired pastor and current youth minister at Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church in Hollywood, Calif. “It [the Russian church] is a country within a country. It’s like a family gathering.”
Pichaj said the retreat provided strategies for reaching beyond the “inner circle to the outside” in order to reach youth who are less comfortable with their parents’ Cyrillic language. He added that his church has begun appealing to younger generations with modern songs that include Russian lyrics and more American instrumentation. “The music separates us from them, but youth are responding to the more modern Russian songs.”
LIFE OUTSIDE THE BIBLE BELT
In addition to retaining young congregants, Russian churches often struggle to fill leadership spots since Russian heritage is a requirement for their leaders. For this reason, Raley said laypeople often fill the churches’ leadership roles.
“We [churches in the Bible belt] have a much larger base to draw from [for leadership], but in those churches, the laypeople must assume responsibility because of the lack of ministerial leadership,” Raley said.
In fact, most of the retreat attendees were laypeople, and the Russian leaders readily participated in seminars about the benefits of small group adult Bible study, teacher and leadership development, how to define the church’s purpose and numerous other topics.
“The participants were like sponges that soaked up information,” Raley said. “We came in as outsiders and it took them a while to understand where we were coming from, but by the end of the retreat it was a sweet time of fellowship.”
Part of that fellowship was Raley and McVay getting a genuine idea of Russian culture. Raley said he ate Russian food such as beet soup and preached in a Sunday service where the songs were all in Russian.
“We developed a neat bond over those few days,” he said.
Several church leaders invited Raley and McVay back for further training, and Raley noted that continuing the relationships begun at the retreat is a major aspect of Meet Me Across America’s mission.
“We want to stay in touch and be an encouragement to them. It was really a great experience put together by God.”
In all, volunteers made 24 trips for the MMAA ministry in 2004 and consulted with more than 800 church leaders, pastors and staff.
LifeWay’s director of network partnerships, Bill Taylor, said he is pleased with the feedback he’s received concerning MMAA, especially when he hears of churches placing more importance on the minister of education position.
“It’s [MMAA] been very successful for the ones who were able to provide the resources and time to the ministry,” Taylor said. “I am very encouraged about the whole thing. I predict in the next 10 years, the most sought-after position on church staffs will be the minister of education.”