The excitement of 10 years ago has faded. Russians aren't as quick to accept an invitation to an evangelistic rally these days, according to one Project 250 regional director. "You hand them a ticket and they say, 'Just one more religious group.'"
Some are disappointed because they had a great spiritual experience that lasted a few days or weeks and then faded away. Without other Christians to help them understand and apply their faith to daily life, the gospel produced no lasting change, Vasilizhenko said.
"People in Russia know about Christ now, but not what to do about Him. The Bible is not forbidden anymore, but people don't know what to do with it."
He is convinced that the best way to reach Russians is for Christians to live in their towns and demonstrate the love of Christ through their lives. "What we need is relationships, people who will open their homes to others," he said.
Says Andrei Grovlin, a church planter in Dubrun, a small town near Bryansk: "I have seen people repent at big crusades but they are not in church. We need to build bridges through personal relationships. That is the Russian way. It is part of our culture to build relationships."
The 300-plus church planters on the field for Russian Ministries emphasize relationship evangelism. They reach people in their communities primarily through making home visits, starting social ministry in hospitals, orphanages, and prisons, running summer camps for children, doing community service, and being good neighbors. Those touch points are the beginnings of relationships that develop into further involvement, such as weekly Bible studies and church services.
"We find the best way to evangelize is by witnessing to people with neighborly deeds," said Andrei Lozhbenev, who works in Uvarovka, a town of about 5,000. "It is a small town so everyone knows us. We are getting to know people by helping them with small needs, such as if they need help with their garden or fixing up their house. We share the good news with them as we do this."
As relationships grow people begin to drop their inbred suspicion of evangelicals, opening the door for small-scale, public evangelistic events, such as Jesus film showings, anti-drug presentations in local schools, and outdoor Christian concerts. In the year-and-a-half Andrei has been in Uvarovka he has started a church with 10 members and gained a good reputation among the town's residents.
"The key is, they see our lives. They see that we are a spiritually healthy family and that our relationship with each other and outsiders are good. They see how we pray and worship God and that there are no disadvantages to our lifestyle," Lozhbenev said.
Methods may vary, but almost every church planter's story is the same, said Aleksandr Parshikov, who works in Pogar, about 140 kilometers from Bryansk. "The beginning of all church planters is similar - just making friends and Bible studies."
Rebuilding Russia through Social Ministries
Traveling across the former Soviet Union Project 250 Director Valentin Vasilizhenko is sometimes discouraged when he sees the great needs of his nation, most stemming from the terrible poverty.
"I see an empty village and I think, 'O God, someone left because there is no opportunity in this village. No hope. Once there was a farm, there was life, but probably someone died and the children left and the village is starting to die.' "
Through important social ministries done through Project 250, Russian Ministries is helping rebuild the nation. By working in orphanages and schools, rebuilding homes and starting churches, and giving their time and talents to their communities Project 250 church planters are changing Russia town by town.
Take the village of Nehreta. Several years ago it was a dying town, the school was closed down and many houses were abandoned, Vasilizhenko said. But in recent years Christians started an orphanage in the school and moved into one of the abandoned homes. As the children turned 18 and began to leave the orphanage they moved into other abandoned homes, fixed them up, and planting gardens on the property. Today the village is full of life because Christians saw the potential and worked to make it nice, he said.
Church planters have done similar deeds in other communities. A missionary in Tuvla donated a set of expensive Christian books to a local library; Gubyena, the missionary in Spirovo, fixed up a World War II memorial that sits on his church grounds and held a public dedication ceremony. Many church planters engage in social ministries that discourage drug use and teen pregnancy and provide assistance to the poor.
In Dubrovka, workers from the Bryansk regional center volunteer their time to an orphanage that has 120 children, among them 33 who have severe developmental problems and need constant care. The volunteers contribute food, formula, and diapers to the orphanage that is desperately short of those items and give comfort to the overworked and underpaid nurses who watch them.
"We are warmly received by the staff," says Anna Savatchkina, one of the volunteers. "They are thankful and happy that we have come. They see that the church is filling in gaps that the government can't fill and they are ready to be partners."
Through Russian Ministries, a group of Christians in Germany has already partnered with the orphanage to help renovate its building and provide money for clothes. Also, a group of Southern Baptists in Kentucky has pledged to raise money to help the orphanage hire more workers.
Sometimes they even help those who don't have a community to live in. Stavropol regional director Aleksandr Vdovichenko oversees an outreach to 170,000 Chechen people, refugees from the war that devastated their country. Project 250 workers distribute food, clothing, some medical supplies and school supplies for children. They also are helping the refugees register with the local authorities so they can have protected status in the community.
The workers have also started a church of 25 people among the Muslim Chechens, complete with a children's choir.
These good deeds have given Russian Ministries and evangelicals in general more respect and acceptance in their communities, says Voloshin. "The humanitarian projects they are doing brings very good status, a gives a good impression of Christians. It helps spiritual renewal work and it helps empower all evangelical Christians in Russia."
Tomorrow: And the Little Children Shall Lead Them. How ministry to young children is changing the next generation of Russians and their parents.
PHOTO: Symbols of Russia's past -- from AP/Wide World Photos.