MOSCOW (BP)–They arrive one by one for the seminar’s morning start -– eight students from some of the top universities and business schools in Moscow.
They sit stiffly around a conference table, eyeing each other in nervous silence. It’s up to Paul,* one of the seminar leaders, to break the ice.
“We’re your cheerleaders; we want to help you through our experience,” the veteran business executive and Southern Baptist worker tells the students. “This isn’t a university class, so get comfortable. We want you to ask questions. You can’t be successful in today’s world by yourself.”
By the end of the first session, the students -– accustomed to formal lectures and high-pressure assignments -– loosen up and begin interacting. Over the next several days, they get a solid introduction to some tools for success in business and in life: punctuality, self-presentation, time management, customer service, interpersonal relationships, business ethics and personal integrity.
They get plenty of pointers on balance sheets and profits and losses, too, but the seminar stresses the “soft skills” seldom seen in Russia’s highly competitive business climate -– skills such as relating to others, constructive criticism, encouragement and teamwork.
“I always thought if I was the best in computing skills, I would be the best person for a job,” says Vladimir, one of the seminar participants. “But now I understand I have to have people skills.”
The seminar offers far more than tips on making friends and influencing people in the business world, however. It changes young minds about their future and purpose.
“We’re really trying to help students with their understanding of human relationships,” explains Luke,* another worker and seminar leader. “How do you treat people if you want to build trust? One of the most important principles we focus on with them is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated -– with dignity and value.
“We’ve had students who’ve finished the initial phase of training say to us, ‘This is going to change my life,’ or they’ll say, ‘The Golden Rule is the most important rule in all of life.’ These are lost people saying what Jesus said. It really is business training, but it’s amazing what the Holy Spirit can do when we present truth.”
Maxim, an international business major, was one of the more reserved seminar participants. But he had tears in his eyes after the final session as he thanked the leaders. He wrote this on his seminar evaluation form:
“I’d like to find out my values. Would you help me? Do you think that career is the meaning of life? When I’m dying, I want to be sure that I was a good man, that I’ve walked through a right life. Is there truth in business that’s going to help me?”
Clearly, Maxim wants more from life than professional success. He’s the type of student and young professional Paul and Luke look for in their seminars.
The next step is an invitation to one-on-one mentorships with business professionals (often, visiting Southern Baptist volunteers). In five informal sessions, mentors share their lives -– and their faith -– with students and help them focus on life values and goals. After that, responsive students are invited to home worship groups to delve more deeply into the Gospel.
Why go through such a lengthy process to gain a few potential disciples? Experience has shown that quickie evangelism projects at Moscow universities often produce few lasting results –- and sometimes backfire, increasing hostility toward Christians.
Many of the estimated 4 million Muscovites between the ages of 18 and 40 attend one of the 220 colleges and universities around the city. Russia’s elite compete for top jobs in Moscow and beyond. They need Christ, but in the minds of many young Russians, the Russian Orthodox Church is irrelevant -– and evangelicals are a strange cult.
They would be “totally uncomfortable” walking into a traditional Russian Baptist church, Paul says -– even if there were room for them in the handful of churches in the city. They need a spiritual “mailbox” designed for them, a way they can hear and see the Gospel in the lives of believers they relate to in a friendly environment.
Paul and Luke pray that the worship groups at the end of the process will multiply into a church-planting movement among Moscow’s students and young professionals.
Pavel*, a Baptist pastor who helps with the seminars, is sold on the approach.
“After serving in the church since 1997, I have never had such an opportunity to interact with these young people: They are intelligent, highly ambitious and highly motivated,” Pavel observes.
“They want to have healthy families and relationships, but they don’t understand the foundation for relationships. Here, they get introduced to Christian values” -– and later to Christ Himself.
“When they leave our training, they are not the same. That makes our work exciting.”
*Names changed for security reasons.