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New Orleans students prepare way for Moscow church starts


MOSCOW (BP)–No one smiled as the packed train sped beneath Russia’s capital city. It was just another day for commuters on Moscow’s bustling subway system.

For the 17-member mission team from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that arrived in Moscow earlier that day, the subway scene was overwhelming — so many people, so few smiles. The faces in the crowd told stories of hurt, loss and hopelessness. Some of the hopelessness stems from a poor economy and a high rate of alcoholism.

About three percent of Russians attend church each week, and even fewer identify themselves as evangelical Christians.

The mission team soon learned that some of Moscow’s 16 million people have hope and a reason to smile. On their second day in the city, the New Orleans Seminary team met with a small group of Christians for a Friday night Bible study. The mission immediately noticed the contrast between these people and those they had encountered on the train.

“You can definitely see the difference between a Muscovite who is a believer and a Muscovite who is not a believer,” said Michael Jones, a doctor of educational ministry student at the seminary. “You can see the difference that Jesus makes in their lives. You can see it in their eyes.”

The quick smiles and friendly greetings from the Bible study participants revealed that something was different about these people –- they were believers. In their testimonies and singing, the hope of Christ shined through.

The NOBTS team was in Moscow from May 26 through June 3 to prayer walk, help with church planting activities and dialog with Russian Baptist pastors and seminary students. Most of all, the visit gave students an introduction to the work of international missionaries and an experience in cross-cultural ministry. The trip was part of the seminary’s on-going partnership with International Mission Board missionaries in Russia.

“The real desire of the administration and faculty at New Orleans Seminary is that every student who attends would have the opportunity to be involved in a short-term mission experience,” said Joe Sherrer, professor of adult education at New Orleans Seminary and co-leader of the mission team. “Our partnership with Russia helps us realize this goal.”

IMB missionary Brad Stamey, who played host to the NOBTS group, leads the co-laborers team in the northern administrative district of Moscow. Working hand-in-hand with Russian Baptists, Stamey seeks to start new churches in the district, which boasts a population of one million people. The region has only three evangelical churches and about 1,000 believers. The need for new churches is obvious.

It takes great effort for Russian believers to attend an evangelical church. Many Christians in Moscow travel over an hour on the subway to church. Sometimes traveling to church in Moscow involves a long walk, a subway ride, a bus or tram ride and another walk. Having churches closer to home would greatly aid in the evangelism and discipleship efforts around the city.

Shortly after the fall of communism in 1990, Moscow had a time of spiritual awakening. In 1992, following a Billy Graham Crusade, Bible studies sprang up across the city. Central Baptist Church, the largest Baptist congregation in Moscow, released many of its leaders to start new churches, and scores of people came to faith in Christ during that time.

But now it is much harder for churches to reach the region with Christ. According to one Russian pastor, people in Moscow are not as eager to hear the Gospel as they were in the years following the end of communism. It is also much harder to start new churches.

Good News Church, though, is one of the success stories.

Misha Chekalin left Central Baptist in 1992 to start Good News Church in the northern district of Moscow. The church owns a small building — a rarity in Moscow — and holds two services to accommodate the 240 members who attend each week. The pastor has become a leader among Russian Baptists. He understands that church planting is essential to reaching Moscow’s vast population with the Gospel.

Along with a number of other younger pastors, Chekalin is partnering with Stamey, the IMB missionary, to plant new churches in each of the 16 regions in the northern district. The task seems daunting. Church plants struggle to find places to meet. Public buildings are not generally available for rent.

To help prepare the way for a new church plant, the NOBTS team participated in sports evangelism with IMB missionary Holly Henson in the northern district. Henson, a member of Stamey’s co-laborers team, used a softball game, horseshoes and Frisbees to draw a crowd in a local park. After the NOBTS team and a mission team from First Baptist Church in Ponchatoula, La., played softball with a group of teenagers, a Gospel presentation was shared.

Through the summer, Henson and Stamey will use events like this to develop contacts. They hope to develop a Bible study and eventually a church start in the area.

The co-laborers team not only partners with Russian churches, it also partners with American churches to plant new churches in Moscow. Stamey seeks U.S. churches that are willing to adopt the Russian church starts. That is how First Baptist Ponchatoula got involved in Moscow.

Jake Roudkovski, pastor at First Baptist Ponchatoula, was born in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. He studied for the ministry in the United States at Blue Mountain College in Mississippi and New Orleans Seminary. While Roudkovski serves in America, he has not turned his back on Russia.

Because of his deep burden for the Russian people, Roudkovski asked his congregation to consider supporting a church plant in Moscow. The church agreed. Now, the church sends mission teams several times per year to help foster a new church in the area.

The seminary group also spent time prayer walking throughout the city of Moscow. One day the team prayer walked in a southwest Moscow neighborhood where former New Orleans Seminary student Matthew Hatfield* serves as a church planter.

Over 500,000 people live in this tiny, 2.5 square mile area that the Hatfields call home. Hundreds of high-rise apartment complexes stretch toward the center of Russia’s capital city.

The Hatfields are trying to establish small house church groups in nine high-rise apartment buildings. Necessity is a driving force behind their strategy. High real estate costs prevent churches from buying property. Churches also find it difficult to rent space for service -– especially government-owned space.

Along with mission activities, NOBTS students had the opportunity to take an academic course in conjunction with the trip. The course, “maturing believers in a cross-cultural context,” was offered on both the master’s and doctoral levels. As a part of the course, the group met with Russian Baptist pastors and seminary students to discuss the topics of discipleship and leadership development.

On two occasions, the NOBTS group gave presentations on discipleship at gatherings of Russian pastors. The NOBTS students listened to the strategies that Russian pastors use to mature believers. The dialogue offered the Russians and Americans the opportunity to evaluate their own discipleship efforts and to seek ways to make those efforts more intentional and productive.

“One of the things that came out of the course dimension of the trip was the importance of being intentional in our discipleship efforts,” Sherrer said. “As the students reflected on what they saw, and at times what they didn’t see, in the discipleship at Russian churches they were forced to evaluate their own efforts in the churches they serve.”

Scott Jones, a recent NOBTS graduate and pastor of Pearson Baptist Church in Pearl, Miss., said he enjoyed the meeting with a group of pastors at Good News Church on the last day in Moscow. The dialog sessions, he said, helped him take a hard look at his church’s discipleship efforts and look for solutions.

“Their willingness to search for answers was refreshing,” he said. “They want to do all that they can and learn all that they can.”

Measuring the lasting effects these students had on Moscow would be difficult, but the impact on the lives of these students will continue. Most of all the students will remember the faces from the subway -– faces with no hope. They realize that only Christ can bring lasting joy in a person’s life.

The group saw first-hand the challenges IMB missionaries face on the field and gained a better understanding of how to pray for the Russia people. Many NOBTS team members expressed an interest in returning to Moscow to serve again.

Scott Jones plans to bring a group from Pearson Baptist Church next summer. Jones said he felt a special burden for the church planting work of Matthew Hatfield in southwest Moscow.

“As I was prayer walking with the Hatfields, God impressed upon my heart the need for Christians to come and put a prayer covering over their community,” Jones said. “I just pray for the Holy Spirit to come and do the work in the lives of people that only He can do.”
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*Names changed for security concerns.