Russia. It occupies a place in our psyche like none other. Just saying the word out loud carries ominous tones as if one was sharing a story around a campfire whose sole purpose was to scare kids before they went to sleep.
Much of this is just Hollywood. Movies need a bad guy and in the 80s that meant Russia. Even after the Cold War became a relic of the past, Russians were still the villain du jour. Soviets became gangsters who became totalitarian autocrats bent on world domination. The only thing standing in their way? The American hero.
That was my picture of Russia. At least until my feet hit the ground.
15 minutes into leaving the Saint Petersburg airport, my outlook changed. This was just a city; not too different from the countless others I’d visited. The people are just people; not too different from the countless others I’ve observed. Really all they want is to go about their daily lives, put food on the table for their kids, find friends, etc., without even a nod to geopolitics or conspiracy theories.
And like every other human being on the earth, they need Jesus.
Yes, Russian teenagers grow up viewing the world through a different cultural lens from mine. The language is different (oh my is it different). Many grow up in urban apartments instead of suburban homes. They walk the streets instead of driving cars but there’s a thread that runs through the fabric of their existence along with every other kid on earth. They need to be loved and they need a relationship with the Lord.
Young Life has a rich tradition of sound, biblical ministry based on the simple notion that the Gospel is best communicated in the context of a relationship. If ever that was on display, it was in Russia. Many of the kids I met were estranged from their father (just like America!). There wasn’t much community to go around but they had what every kid needs: Young Life leaders, stepping into the gap, living out Colossians 4:5,
“Conduct yourself with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.”
In the United States, it’s easy for the program of ministry to seduce us into thinking that like an assembly line produces cars, the program produces spiritual results. Contact work + club + camp = Christians and when we say camp, we spared no expense.
That’s not Russia. Camp was nice but we’re talking a set of buildings that surrounded a grass field. Yet, that couldn’t have mattered less. Leaders loved kids. They gathered in a circle and bounced around a volleyball. They led their friends through chants and cheers, making a movie, playing in a lake as cold as a glacier, and in nightly clubs best described as a stream of consciousness, the Gospel was made clear. The good news of Jesus was on display for all to see.
Ilya, a refugee from Ukraine. Tima, a boy with more siblings than I remember whose mother was incapable of caring for her children. Sascha, a future diplomat. Nastia, the daughter of an Orthodox priest. Each of them along with numerous others responded to the message of the cross. “I want to know more,” “I don’t understand how someone could love me this much,” “I want to know God.”
Ministry in the context of a relationship. No bells. No whistles. Just a group of ably led adults with a passionate desire to incarnate the love of Jesus in their words and deeds. They are transforming a country for Christ. I’m grateful to have been given a window into their world. I can’t encourage you enough to go and take a look for yourself.
— Pastor Brad Banks, Faith Bible Church, McKinney, TX