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Moscow: Reaching the ‘culture shapers’

MOSCOW (BP)–Deep in the bowels of a converted factory complex in Moscow, Denis and his band mates crank up the volume.

The window into their dingy, cramped practice room vibrates as the rehearsal gears up. The drummer, bassist and keyboard player find a pulsing groove with Denis, who lays down rhythm chords on his electric guitar. He sings harmony as Aina, the gifted lead vocalist, sings the haunting melody of one of his songs.

They’re all committed Christians, but they aren’t a “Christian” band -– at least not like the groups that play in churches around Moscow. They want to be heard by a wider audience.

“I have been playing music since I was 13, so when I became a believer I started to play in the church,” explains Denis, now in his 20s. “But then I understood that God can do a lot more. It says in the Bible that the sick need a doctor, not the healthy. I want to use this band to share the Gospel with people.”

That means playing in Moscow nightclubs, cafes and other rowdy venues. That’s fine with Denis, as long as people listen. He became a believer after encountering a Christian pantomime group in a park.

“We’re trying to become more professional, to earn respect with the quality of our music,” he explains. “We also can minister to musicians that aren’t Christians. We’re hoping this will start some sort of chain reaction -– that we influence them and they influence others. We know there’s going to be a lot of temptations and pressure, but the No. 1 thing we’re seeking is to bring glory to God, not ourselves.”

Denis’ vision for reaching other Russian musicians has the enthusiastic support of David*, a Southern Baptist worker in Moscow with the same goal.

David and his Russian/American team (Denis is a member) see Moscow’s artists -– from the pop realm to members of the high-culture music, theater and fine arts communities –- as one of the most influential “people groups” in Russia.

“When you look at Russia –- and Moscow in particular -– they are one of the culture-shaping components of society,” David says. “Some say artists merely reflect culture. I disagree. I think they shape culture. And hardly anybody was doing anything to reach them.”

Artists have long wielded power in Russia, where people still read poetry and argue about big ideas. This is the land, after all, of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov, of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Solzhenitsyn. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and his henchmen feared writers and musicians enough to imprison or shoot many –- and closely control others.

Pop culture and iPods now rule among young Russians, just as in the United States. But the typical Russian youth remains more serious-minded than his or her American counterpart. That goes double for young artists.

“How do we engage this community?” David asks. “[It] is a culture unto itself, and within it are multiple subcultures. There’s pop music, there’s classical music, there’s drama, there’s ballet, there’s garage bands, there’s rock ‘n’ roll, there’s visual arts and on and on.”

One thing’s for sure: Artists aren’t walking into Moscow churches asking to hear the Gospel –- and they aren’t likely to do so anytime soon. So David and his team are going to them.

That involves a variety of means: a production company that enables them to promote artistic events, an English club for musicians, acting workshops and an informal monthly gathering where Christian artists can invite their nonbelieving artistic friends for music and conversation.

One event last year brought orchestral players together with hundreds of visiting musicians and singers for a program of American sacred music in one of Moscow’s finest concert halls. More than 1,000 listeners attended, but the main “audience” was the musicians themselves.

“When I play classical music, some of it moves me,” one of the Russian musicians told David after the concert. “But I didn’t think I would be moved like this.”

An atheist, he has since attended the monthly gathering for artists, where conversation sometimes turns to the Gospel. How to steer it in that direction in the right ways is the challenge. David asks for prayer that he and his team members will discern God’s wisdom.

“We’ve got the answers to life’s ultimate questions,” he says. “But we need to figure out how they’re asking the questions.”
*Name changed for security reasons.

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  • Erich Bridges