I visited Crimea, Ukraine in the summer of 2007. Without a doubt, my favorite city was Sevastopol. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed here and you can take tour boats around the harbor – hence the Russian flag everywhere. During the Soviet Union, the Soviet Black Fleet was here. After independence, Russia rents the base and shares the harbor with the Ukrainian fleet.
With its strategic location, Sevastopol has been sieged by the British, French, Turks and Germans over the past several centuries. Crimea is once again in the news with reports of increased Russian troop levels supporting protests against the newly installed government in Kiev.
To see why I loved the city so much – and Crimea in general – check out the photos!
We spent Christmas Day with Nansi’s home church in a Gypsy village of Dupnitsa, a town south of Sofia. I preached from a nontraditional Christmas passage (John 1:1-16) and Nansi translated. The children all got presents from Samaritan’s Purse, so if you and your church participated in any of the international Christmas gift outreaches, we saw the fruits of that!
Christmas Eve Table
Owen preaching, Nansi Translating
Blessing the children
Gypsy Church in Dupnitsa
Receiving their gift from Samaritan’s Purse
Everyone’s gifts from Samaritan’s Purse
“The Greatest Gift.” Booklets given with every present from Samaritan’s Purse
Fellowship and hand warming after the service
Digging into the Samaritan’s Purse gift
Stove provides heat for the room and a place to cook
Most people in the Gypsy village live in half finished houses
Yards between houses
Exterior of houses
Beautiful mountains around Dupnitsa, Bulgaria
Beautiful mountains around Dupnitsa, Bulgaria
Panorama view from the Gypsy village in Dupnitsa, Bulgaria
This week a friend and I were talking at Starbucks about our ministry in Russia and the history of Evangelical Christians in Russia and Ukraine. In the middle of our conversation, the lady next to us turns around and says that she is from Ukraine and overheard our conversation. We soon begin to understand that her hope for salvation is in her nation. Click on the video to hear about our conversation and the conviction of God on her heart:
Where is Our Hope?
I ask if she believes in God, she says that her grandmother did, but she can’t. Religion is a crutch for the weak. It’s ok for people to go to church, because they learn morals, but God can’t exist because of all the suffering in the world. “After Chernobyl, I can’t believe in God.” In her opinion, the disaster at Chernobyl was not an accident, but an intentional attack meant to kill people and lead to the destruction of the Ukrainian people and the Soviet Union. Why would God allow that? The only hope is for the people and politicians of Ukraine to bring greatness to the nation.
My friend and I told her that our hope is not in democracy and it is not in America. Our hope is in the living God who redeemed us in Jesus Christ – who suffered for us while we were still enemies. That the human heart is evil, not just some people, but all people. “I can’t believe, I can’t believe.” She stood up and prepared to leave. Visibly shaken, she kept repeating “I feel so guilty, I feel so guilty. I see my grandmother standing in front of me, scolding me, ‘Olga, how dare you!’”
Believe in Your Heart and Confess with Your Mouth
Olga confided that she doesn’t usually tell people she doesn’t believe. She doesn’t know why she shared that with us, “I thought you were students of history, I didn’t know you were so religious! I believe in my heart that there’s no God, but I don’t usually say it. I feel so guilty.”
We told her we’d be praying for her and her son and invited her to the Russian language church where I am a member if she wanted to talk more about God.
Paul writes that we should believe in our heart and confess with our mouth (Romans 10:8-13). Interesting that she believes in her heart that there is no God, but she is shaken to the core when she confesses with her mouth. Please pray along with us that the conviction she feels will bring fruit.
Surveys in recent years have shown that between 60-75% of American Christian youth will cease attending church after graduating from high school. This low retention rate has led to many concerns about the demographic decline of confessing Christians.
Many speculate as to why, and a Christian foundation asked confessing atheists at colleges across the country why they became atheists. The conclusions were surprisingly uniform – and present a damning condemnation of contemporary approaches to youth ministry.
One student, Phil, shares his journey to unbelief:
“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kumbaya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.” …
[Phil] loved his church (“they weren’t just going through the motions”), his pastor (“a rock star trapped in a pastor’s body”), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim (“a passionate man”). Jim’s Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: “He didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.” …
During his junior year of high school, the church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim’s dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, “didn’t know a thing about the Bible.” The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil.
Too often we think that youth ministry should be about fun and games. With the reduction of “Big Church” sermons in the Evangelical world to simplistic, rhyming aphorisms for a better life, the standard has been set so low that the youth ministers are forced into farce. From the adults our youth have learned that doctrine isn’t fun, and catechism is a terrible game. Of course, catechisms were originally meant to train children in the faith.
In tandem with, and likely because of, the dumbing down of our teaching in youth ministry, there has been a devaluation of the depth of the Christian response to this world:
“The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. [Stephanie] seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. …
Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”
Jesus’ call is not to a better life, at least, not in the way that the world understands as better. Jesus calls us to lose our lives, to renounce all that we have. Personal significance, purpose, ethics – our whole lives – are to be understood through God’s plan of redemption and self-revelation in Christ.
Our answers are deeper, sharper, more meaningful … and costlier than the world’s. We just shy away from them. Through our methods we teach that fun is the core value of life. Are we surprised that when freed from church they continue to seek out self-centered pleasure?
We should not be ashamed of Christ’s full-throated proclamation of payment for and dominion over our lives. If people don’t sense that we take the Christian message very seriously, why would they?
But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening:
“I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,” someone asked.
“I do not,” Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, “But he does.”
A religion of form … performed in a decent, regular manner will not provoke others to say, as they said of Paul, “Much religion doth make thee mad.” The religion of the heart where one is “alive to God, and dead to all things here below” may prompt others to pass the sentence: “Thou art beside thyself.”
An article from Time shows the particular problems that the Pskov region is facing:
“Having tucked into his first bottle of vodka earlier than usual, Anatoly Zhbanov goes on an afternoon stroll to buy another one along the dirt road through Lopotova, a dying village on Russia’s western edge, in the region of Pskov. It is mid-April, and clumps of snow are still melting at the roadside where Zhbanov, a local artist, stops to peer inside a lopsided cabin, the home of a local bootlegger. In the window stands a plastic jug filled with murky liquid, its neck sealed with a rubber glove that seems to be waving hello. “That’s how you know it’s ready,” Zhbanov says. “The gas released from fermentation makes the glove inflate. We call that the Hitler salute.”
In the past few years, the region of Pskov has become famous in Russia for two interconnected blights: moonshine and depopulation. In 2006, a brew tainted with chemicals killed at least 15 people and poisoned hundreds, marking the first time a Russian region had to declare a state of emergency because of vodka. Last month, when the federal government released the census data collected in 2010, Pskov earned another claim to fame: it is dying out faster than any other region in Russia’s heartland … more than 6,000 villages have turned into ghost towns, or as the census calls them, “population points without population.” About 2,000 of these are in Pskov.
In just eight years, the region has lost 11.5% of its population, a rate of decline more often seen in times of war and famine. This might have been expected in Russia’s permanently frozen north, like the region of Magadan, once home to the Gulag prison camps, where the population dropped 14.1% in that time. But Pskov lies on the border with the European Union, and the city of St. Petersburg, Putin’s birthplace, is only 100 miles (161 km) away.
In Soviet times, huge collective farms and machine works were based in Pskov. Village life thrived, and the main city was famed for noble things like fending off the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. But traveling the region’s backroads now inspires the creepy feeling that a plague has just passed through. Every few miles a cluster of huts emerges from behind a hill, and most of them turn out to be abandoned, their floorboards warped and splintered, releasing a smell of decay. The fields are overgrown, and old grain elevators tower over them like enormous ghosts — landmarks to Russia’s demographic catastrophe.
“People know that working a tractor means getting up at 5:30 in the morning, washing yourself, getting dressed, staying sober the whole time and working a full day at the wheel,” Turchak says. “The mentality here is such that people ask themselves, Why would I humiliate myself like that?”
That doesn’t seem far from the truth in Lopotova. Around sundown, one of Matveev’s friends passes by, drunk and stumbling, having finished a day driving a combine a few towns over. “There goes one of our working stiffs,” Matveev calls out to him, and the rest of the young men burst out laughing before they settle back onto their log.
Lots of updates and photos from our mission trip to follow. Please subscribe to our mailing list to learn more!