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.”
We recently quit our jobs and are moving to Russia with a team of three for a year. Nansi will be helping orphans, I will be working with local churches and Philip will focus on corporate prayer. We are going with East-West, a missions agency dedicated to the Great Commission.
Lots of updates and photos to follow. Please subscribe to our mailing list to learn more!