Moscow's vast mosaic

Responsiveness is key challenge

by Erich Bridges, posted Thursday, July 12, 2007 (7 years ago)

MOSCOW (BP)--How do you reach the 15 million souls of Moscow? One at a time.

The Metro, Moscow's renowned underground rail network, mirrors the city itself. It is huge, with untold miles of tunnels buried deep in the earth and escalators stretching out of sight. It's crowded; an estimated 9 million people ride daily, from homeless immigrants to high-powered executives. It's elegant and cultured, with chandeliers, marbled mosaics and works of art adorning more than 150 station platforms.

And it's dark. The people you see there seem achingly alone despite the pushing crowds around them.

"See their faces?" whispers a missionary riding with a trainload of Muscovites. "See how sad they are? They've got no hope."

The Metro mirrors Moscow. And Moscow mirrors Russia.

Approaching its 860th birthday, the city begun by a medieval warrior prince has been the capital of a vast nation, the stronghold of czars, the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church, the mind of a great culture, the center of Soviet communism. Ruled by the Mongol Golden Horde and Ivan the Terrible, burned and rebuilt, starved by famine and revolution, "conquered" by Napoleon, besieged by the Nazis, terrorized by Stalin, Moscow has endured.

"We know how to suffer," boast older Muscovites, who pride themselves on their combination of toughness and sophistication.

Communism did its best to destroy that spirit during 70 years of grim, gray conformity. Today, however, Moscow has re-emerged as the gleaming jewel of the "New Russia." It throbs with color, energy, life -– and spiritual hunger.

"They have it," a missionary says of that inner hunger. "But they don't realize it."

NEW GENERATION, OLD PAIN

Red Square on a sunny summer day surges with young hipsters, families out for a stroll, wedding parties, stylishly dressed women, ragged pensioners scrambling for loose coins. A demonstration by a small band of aging communists mourning the Soviet Union's demise attracts little more than a few curious onlookers.

"We are dying off," one of the communists bitterly complains. "Every year there are fewer of us. The youth don't care about anything. They only live in the present."

Actually, Moscow's new generation does care about something: getting an education, scrambling for a good job, making money. Moscow is the social and economic dynamo of Russia. An estimated 80 percent of the nation's total wealth flows into and out of the city.

Up to 15 million people -– more than a tenth of all Russians -– live within the four urban "rings" that surround the Kremlin's walls. It is Europe's largest metropolitan area.

At least 4 million Muscovites are between the ages of 18 and 40. They include the heart of Russia's educated leadership class. Graduates of the city's 220 colleges and universities compete for the best jobs. The successful enjoy the city's shiny shopping malls and nightclubs. The rest of Moscow's millions hustle to make a living.

Underneath the bright surfaces of the city, however, lies a hard substratum of Russian pain. Six in 10 heads of Moscow households are alcoholic. Many men die too young from drinking and despair. Many children seldom see their fathers. Mothers struggle alone to make ends meet. Dysfunctional families are the rule, not the exception.

Russians are proud of their heritage of great literature, music and art. But the revolutions, wars and mass dislocations of the 20th century tore away much of their history -– and left nothing to replace it. Nearly all Muscovites are born into the Russian Orthodox Church, but few worship in its ornate, mostly empty sanctuaries.

CHALLENGES, OPPORTUNITIES

Longstanding suspicion and hostility persist toward non-Orthodox religious groups -– including Baptists, who have worshipped in Russia 130 years. Even if they don't practice Orthodoxy, many Russians feel they would be denying their "Russianness" by joining another church.

The novelty of post-Soviet religious freedom has worn off. In heady days of new openness in the 1990s, Muscovites would respond by the thousands to evangelistic campaigns. No more. Now it's a hard, slow effort to make committed disciples of Christ.

That's not necessarily bad, according to missionary Ed Tarleton, a 14-year resident of Moscow.

"There would be a hundred people accept Christ, but a year later you couldn't find them," Tarleton recalls of the early post-Soviet days. "It doesn't sound as glamorous, but now if a missionary says to you, 'We've got 10 to 15 people in our Friday night Bible study,' a year later that Bible study is turning into a church."

The biggest challenge of all is the sheer size of Moscow. An estimated 8,000 evangelical believers live among the city's 15 million people.

Mikhail Chekalin, 46-year-old leader of the association of 28 Moscow Baptist churches, understands the enormity of the task. As the grandson of a Baptist pastor shot for his faith under Stalin's reign of terror, Chekalin relishes the new freedoms.

"It's wide open," he says. "We can do evangelism without being reprimanded. We can do it in the streets. We can meet with our brothers and sisters without problems. We can start churches. We can preach like our fathers could not. People are searching for Christ -– and we must search for them."

How do you find them in a sea of 15 million?

"We have 28 churches, and that is small," Chekalin admits. "But there are people in these churches God is preparing to do evangelism and start churches. God has given us the inspiration and desire for this to happen."

VEINS OF GOLD

As partners with Moscow Baptists in the evangelism task, Southern Baptist missionaries seek effective ways to help. A key strategy is to break the enormous city into smaller, more manageable pieces:

-- Geographical pieces, like the Northern Administrative District, where veteran missionaries Brad and Lori Stamey coach a team focusing on starting churches (see "'Co-laboring' in the North" here).

-- Social pieces, like students from elite universities (see "Golden Rule nurtures a revolution" here).

-- Cultural pieces, like the city's musicians and artists (see "Reaching the 'culture shapers'") and the Deaf community (see "God's love transcends their ears" here).

-- Religious pieces, like the city's Jews (see "Making room for the Messiah" here).

Tarleton calls them "veins of gold" in Moscow's rock-hard mountain.

"You can't take on the whole city -– it's too massive," he acknowledges. "But you can find avenues. If you find a responsive pocket, follow it, and it leads you to the next."

It's an impossible task without God. With Him, all things are possible.

Reaching Moscow "is going to take an outpouring of God's Spirit," Brad Stamey says.

"That's what we need to pray for -– an outpouring into the hearts and minds of people that gives them a hunger for spiritual truth, that makes them seekers. As the Scripture says, he who seeks will find.

"We're seeking the seekers."


Prayer:

-- That ministry teams will find spiritual seekers among Moscow's masses.

-- That God will pour His Spirit in the hearts and minds of Muscovites.

-- That Russian Baptist believers will plant many churches in greater Moscow.

-- That ministry doors in the city will remain open as long as it takes for church-planting efforts to take solid root.

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