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Planting churches in a ‘cold’ country

EDITORS’ NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 2-9, focuses on missionaries who serve in the former Soviet Union as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

IVANOVO, Russia (BP)–Southern Baptist missionary Mel Skinner keeps an empty whiskey bottle somewhere in his family’s apartment in central Russia.

In the fall of 1999, local women at a restaurant gave whiskey and chocolate to Skinner and his family as a gift to welcome them to Ivanovo. At the time, the Skinners had just moved from Moscow, where they had been church planters for several years. Though he later dumped out the whiskey, he still tears up at the memory of the gift.

“They came up to the table and said, ‘Excuse me for interrupting your meal,'” he recounts. “‘We just wanted to say thank you for coming to our café. We noticed that our day was better after you’ve been into our café than it was before you came in.’ God used all that to just confirm to us this is the place He wanted us to be.”

Since 1992, Skinner and his wife Nancy, who have two children -– Sarah, 16, and Anna, 13 -– have lived and ministered among the people of Russia. They’ve lived there longer than any other International Mission Board missionaries since the fall of communism. Though they have struggled to make the impact they had hoped for, they haven’t wavered in their call to the country.

Skinner has been offered other missionary jobs throughout the region, but he believes he is called to reach Russia by starting churches. The Skinners transferred in August from Ivanovo, near Moscow, to St. Petersburg in the north.

“Our second term, I was that strategy coordinator guy over a large area,” he says. “And that was just enough for me to realize God hasn’t put me together to do that [type of work]. All I want to do is impact a population or a people -– a city.”

Skinner helped start a church in Ivanovo that averages 150 to 200 people each Sunday. Out of that group a smaller church group started. Skinner subsequently began Bible studies in other parts of the city, hoping to start more churches. Now he will take that same strategic approach to planting churches in St. Petersburg.

Reception to the Gospel in the cities can be as frigid as a typical Russian day in January. But in the middle of a welcomed Russian summer -– with temperatures usually in the 70s to low 80s and the sun shining until after 10 p.m. -– Skinner brushes off any thoughts about the harsh winters or the struggles to spread the Gospel.

His wife, however, remembers dark times when they first moved to Russia. Nancy struggled with depression and the desire to pack up everything and go back to the United States.

“Only God’s grace keeps me here,” she says. “It’s His gracious hand upon us, because there have been times it would have been so easy to leave. Somehow God always got us through that. He’s faithful, and His grace is very sufficient.”

She keeps a piece of cardboard folded in half that rests on a shelf in the living room -– a note from her daughter. On one side is, “I love you Mommy.” On the other side is, “Be happy all the time.”

“The first thing in my thoughts when I get up is to thank the Lord for a new day … regardless of how it is outside,” she says. “There is true joy in the Lord.”

Skinner and local missionaries visit areas of Russian cities where they hope to start Bible studies. Skinner, a self-proclaimed introvert, appears to have a natural gift for sharing his faith as crowds of young people gather around him at an apartment complex.

A couple of boys quickly dismiss his efforts and walk away, but the rest crowd around him. They seem to listen intently as Skinner shares the Gospel in their Russian language. After finishing his presentation, a few in the group ask Skinner for an autograph since he is the first American they have met. No one seems all that interested in the message. Unfazed by the response, Skinner moves to another area of the complex.

“Somebody once talked about the number of times somebody needs to hear the Gospel to be saved, to make that rational decision to trust your life to Christ,” Skinner says. “I don’t know what that number is, but most of these people have never had any kind of Gospel access.”

Many cling to the Russian Orthodox Church, which Skinner and local believers contend is more about tradition and obligation than true faith.

“Russia is an Orthodox country, but ask them what it means to be Orthodox, and they don’t have an answer,” says a local believer who accepted Christ after developing a friendship with Skinner.

“Why go to the church and light a candle when no one can tell you why they light a candle?” he asks. “They light a candle, go get drunk and don’t remember lighting the candle.”

Rumors about Baptists –- and any other group besides Russian Orthodox –- often circulate in Russia. Baptists are seen as a cult, Skinner says. Some believe Baptists kill and eat their young.

“Generally, I laugh,” Skinner says. “I basically say, ‘You know if that were true, they would have closed all the Baptist churches. They would have thrown all Baptist people in prison … or executed them.’ Generally, when [people in Russia] hear the truth, they know the truth.”

Whether through walking their dog or running errands, the Skinners make friends and have seen signs of spiritual growth. One friend credits the Skinners with helping her get through a difficult, lonely time.

“I had no friends, no one,” says a missionary from a neighboring country. She describes her friendship with the Skinners as a “miracle.”

“God made a difference in my life through them. They taught me God loves me despite my disobedience.”

Skinner is optimistic great things will happen in Russia’s cities –- he just doesn’t know when. He looks around his home for that old whiskey bottle to remind him why he is there.

“What I want is for [God] to be honored and glorified in my life,” he says. “That’s all I want. It’s really not about us. It’s about God and His glory for eternity.”
Shawn Hendricks is a writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Shawn Hendricks