MOSCOW (BP)–Even with heavy coats, gloves and hats, cold air stung the volunteers as they slowly circled the Kremlin, stopping often to pray for Russia and its people.
For the mission team from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, prayerwalking in the middle of a Moscow winter was no easy task. Temperatures dipped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit as the group made the long trek around the massive, 500-year-old fortress. Snow crunched under their feet. The falling snow and cold temperatures were punctuated by brisk winds and gray skies.
The experience offered the American volunteers a rare opportunity to identify with one of the major struggles of life in Russia: cold, dreary winters. Snow that is beautiful to visitors quickly becomes a nuisance to those who deal with it for months on end.
The NOBTS trip to Moscow in January was the latest in an ongoing commitment that began in 2003. International Mission Board missionaries and New Orleans Seminary forged an informal bond to promote and strengthen church planting efforts in the Russian capital. NOBTS professors took an exploratory trip to Moscow in 2004 to plan future mission trips.
The first major NOBTS mission trip to Moscow came in 2005, just months before Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans campus. Katrina put a hold on the trips until 2007 when a small NOBTS group returned to reaffirm the seminary’s commitment to church planting in Moscow. Another trip followed in 2008.
The seminary’s 2010 trip was different from the earlier journeys. This time volunteers spent most of their time helping just one church, the newly launched Dedication Church. When the group arrived in Moscow, Dedication Church was just 50 days old. The church is led by two Russian pastors named Andrei — Andrei Serihk and Andrei Kornashenko. Kornashenko, the younger of the two, is the assistant pastor and is affectionately called Andrei the Second by church members.
IMB missionary Rhenn Cherry works alongside the pastors of Dedication Church. Cherry is clear about his role. He is in Moscow to assist and support the work of Russian believers. He is not in charge.
Cherry wants Dedication to become a self-sustaining, Russian-led congregation. He believes the best way to reach Russians for Christ in this vast city of 15 million is to partner with other Russian believers.
“We start groups of new believers that are led, sustained and reproduced by Russians,” Cherry said, explaining the IMB team’s philosophy. “What we do, we do with an existing church.”
The young church meets on Saturdays in a rented room at the Christian Center in southern Moscow. Owned by several evangelical denominations, the Christian Center offers a meeting place for churches and Bible study groups with no building of their own. Twenty-two churches currently rent meeting space in the building. With only three or four meeting rooms, scheduling is difficult.
Serihk led the three-hour prayerwalk around the 68-acre Kremlin complex and through Red Square on Jan. 6. For Serihk, the Kremlin serves as a symbol of the Russian nation — its power, its people, its history and its pride. He led the team in prayers for the government, for the people of Moscow and for the people throughout the Russian Federation.
At this once-feared fortress, the NOBTS group prayed that the light of the Gospel would shine bright in Moscow and all of Russia. Some reached out to touch the cold, thick walls as they prayed.
The experience was an emotional one for those in the group who could remember the Cold War days when Soviet tanks and missiles paraded through Red Square as a warning to the world. On this day, the Kremlin and Red Square were transformed into places of prayer.
On Christmas Day (Jan. 7 on the Julian calendar), the NOBTS group faced the most difficult challenge of the trip: distributing flyers for a Jan. 9 evangelistic service at Dedication Church. The original plan called for the team to distribute the flyers just outside a subway stop near the Christian Center.
Due to the language barrier, this would be a tough task in the best weather conditions. But the bitter cold and blowing snow created yet another obstacle. On this white Christmas, Serihk decided that the team should move inside and distribute the invitations in the food court of a nearby mall.
The small food court was too crowded for the group of 11 volunteers. Four members of the team decided to brave the cold and distribute flyers at the subway stop. At times the response to the flyers was as cold as the weather. Many refused to take the literature. Others took it, but quickly threw it on the snowy ground. One group of young men took a flyer, tore it into pieces and threw it in the air. Others took the flyer and offered their thanks in Russian.
As the NOBTS team walked to the Christian Center for Dedication Church’s Christmas service, some in the group wondered if their efforts accomplished anything.
The Christmas service included worship, testimonies, preaching and fellowship. The American volunteers also were treated to a traditional Russian meal complete with Coca-Cola and cups of hot tea. The Christian fellowship was sweet, transcending all language and cultural barriers.
The days passed quickly for the volunteers. Soon it was time for the evangelistic service and the culmination of the team’s prayerwalking and literature distribution efforts. The church, which averages 15 to 20 people, had 40 to 50 in attendance on this day. It was the largest crowd in its brief history.
Jake Roudkovski, an NOBTS evangelism professor who grew up in Kazakhstan, preached the evangelistic message in Russian. The group members watched and prayed.
At the end of the message, Roudkovski urged the audience members to confess their sins and put their faith in Christ alone. One man came forward and prayed to receive Christ as Savior. Before closing the service, Roudkovski encouraged others to talk with the pastors if they had questions about following Christ.
During the fellowship time following the service, two women approached the pastors. After both women prayed to receive Christ, the members of Dedication Church gathered around them for prayer. The church joyously welcomed three new believers that day. One of the new believers said she received an invitation flyer at the McDonald’s in the mall food court.
“To be able to observe the principle of sowing and harvesting at work in a cross-cultural urban setting is encouraging,” Roudkovski said. “We are called to sow the seeds of the Gospel into the lives of lost people. As we do so, God is able to give us a harvest of souls for His glory.
“As the group along with Russian believers prayed, promoted and participated in an intentionally evangelistic Christmas service, we saw people come to know Christ as their Savior and Lord,” he said.
The NOBTS trip was different from other seminary trips because of the makeup of the team. Only four volunteers on the trip were related to the seminary. The rest of the team came from Southern Baptist churches in Louisiana and Mississippi. Gary Watkins, president of International Equipping Ministries, also went on the trip. IEM assists the seminary with visa applications and logistics for its trips to Russia.
Roudkovski believes the high cost of overseas travel is a hindrance for student participation.
“The greatest challenge for our work in Moscow is for our students to be able to raise more than $2,500 for travel, lodging and other expenses associated with the trip,” Roudkovski said. “I am praying that God will speak to the hearts of individuals to give financially so that we can have sizable scholarships to help students go.
“I am praying that the day may come that we have resources that will enable every student at NOBTS to go at least once on an international mission trip,” he said. “It will forever change their outlook on the Cooperative Program and the work of the International Mission Board.”
Gary D. Myers writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.