LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–For decades Moscow was the capital of communism, the heart of atheism.
Public worship was prohibited. The proclamation of the gospel was forbidden. Christians surely gathered — but only in private.
The fall of the Soviet Union now has made communist Moscow a relic of the past. However, from an evangelical standpoint, it’s hard to tell. Of the city’s 12 million citizens, roughly 10,000 are Christian.
Southern Baptist missionary Troy Bush believes Muscovites are open to the gospel, and he senses a responsibility to spread Christ’s message.
“Moscow is so large and so diverse,” Bush said recently in a telephone interview with Southern Seminary magazine, a publication of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “We as Southern Baptists are still in the early stages of our implementation of ministry and church planting in this area.”
When the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s, Christians had high hopes; the fall of communism had resulted in an openness to the gospel previously unseen.
But for various reasons, it was slow to take hold in the Russian capital. Some Christian organizations set up shop in Moscow but did the brunt of their work in the countryside. They assumed that Muscovites wouldn’t be open.
Others looked at past Christian gatherings — such as the 1992 Billy Graham crusade — and decided that other Russian areas needed more attention.
The result was a Moscow on the back burner of many Christian organizations’ plans.
“Hence, what you had was a situation where Moscow was largely forgotten in terms of focused missions,” said Bush, who has been in the country since December 1999. “Not until about the last two years have any major evangelical missions organizations clearly defined church planting and evangelistic ministries in the city.”
Bush, a 1999 Ph.D. graduate of Southern Seminary, works with members of his missions team to design strategies that will be implemented to reach the city’s ethnic Russians. Part of his job involves equipping and mobilizing church-planting teams. Another part involves serving as a facilitator between Christians in Moscow and those around the world.
Bush’s team has a goal of seeing 140 Baptist churches in Moscow within five years — a number that would equal about one church for each city district. Currently, there are 23 churches. The team also has a website — reachmoscow.org.
To reach Muscovites with the gospel, Bush said, “we do have to define what that means.” He noted that Russians as a whole tend to be very philosophical. Because they enjoy philosophical discussions, they are quite open to discussing religious issues. “The idea that most Muscovites were once atheists I don’t think ever was true,” Bush said. “I think the academia and the intelligentsia largely were atheists, but most Muscovites are religious and have some type of religious practices. The majority of the people today would still say they are [Russian] Orthodox, but the majority of them have no active participation in the Orthodox Church.”
A city once void of public worship now finds itself at the heart of pluralism. Three million citizens are Muslim. The city has 16 registered Buddhist groups and five Jewish synagogues.
One study, Bush said, found more than 5,000 religious groups within the city.
“You have tremendous plurality in the city that is equal to most any major urban center in the world,” he said. “At the same time, because of all the changes Russians have been through, you find that most Muscovites have very syncretistic worldviews. It’s not uncommon to find someone who would be Orthodox and acknowledging that there is one supreme God and at the same time they may hold very, very strong elements of naturalism and rationalism. They also believe in reincarnation and see no contradiction at all.”
The city’s diversity, as well as its size, has been quite eye-opening for Bush.
“The complexity of Moscow and the size of Moscow has been a very humbling experience. We realize that we can’t mobilize [solely] as Southern Baptists to come here and work,” he said. “We’ll never be able to bring enough missionaries to do everything that the Lord desires to be done.”
Bush has discovered both barriers and bridges to the gospel. One barrier, he said, stems from many Muscovites’ belief that God is impersonal and distant.
“For many of them, they would view him as so distant and so impersonal that a personal relationship with him is not something that’s really achievable,” Bush said. “It’s not even something that many of them pursue. Generally, they feel that their life is controlled by fate, an impersonal force.”
But there are bridges to the gospel.
“Russian Orthodoxy has retained some key elements of the gospel, and those are elements on which we can build,” Bush said. “Muscovites today would say that the moral state of Moscow has declined dramatically. What that does is that it creates a stark background on which to proclaim the light and the truth of the gospel. I think that is a real bridge.”
Russian law forbids Bush — or any foreigner — from starting or pastoring a church. Consequently, Bush works closely with the Russian Baptist Union, discipling and teaching its members.
“None of our missionaries are going out and starting Southern Baptist churches,” he said. “We are leading folks to Christ and discipling them and discipling existing believers so that they can do the church planting themselves.”
So far, the Russian Baptist churches are small.
“Pray for the pastors and the leaders in the Russian Baptist churches here in the city of Moscow,” Bush said when asked how Christians could pray for his work. “Just 10 years ago there was only one registered Baptist church in the entire city of Moscow. Today there are 23 in the Moscow Baptist Association. Most of these churches are small, most of them are struggling.”
Of course, Christians also can pray for Bush and his family. He and his wife, Tina, have three children: JD, 10; Caleb, 9; and Sarah, 7.
“Pray that the Lord would lay upon peoples’ hearts a burden for the city of the Moscow,” Bush said. “[Pray] that the Lord would send workers for the harvest. We need workers.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: PRAYING FOR MOSCOW.