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St. Petersburg: Beautiful city home to deeply committed Christians


ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — (Editor’s note: The full text of this column is translated into Russian, at the conclusion of the English version.)
Traveling here seemed easier this time than our first visit two years ago.
I think I was suffering from minor “culture shock” in 2006. The sheer vastness of the Russian Federation — which extends over large parts of Asia and Europe and includes more than 100 ethnic groups and 11 time zones — overwhelmed me for a few days.
Language differences constitute a huge barrier for most western visitors, and they bothered me more than I had anticipated.  Myriads of “informational” signs written in unintelligible Cyrillic disoriented me.  
 
I’m not fluent in any foreign language, but I’ve have had enough language study and travel experiences that I don’t ordinarily feel completely lost in unfamiliar places.  But here in this city of 5 million people and with access to almost no information, I felt uneasy and insecure in the early days of that first visit.
This time the trip was more like a rendezvous with a dear friend.
The Christians at the Church of Christ on the Neva and the Institute of Christian Theology and Practical Ministry were gracious hosts, warm and encouraging. We felt great joy to be reunited with our brothers and sisters in Christ and to see how they are growing in their love and service toward one another.
The city itself is an utterly captivating place. With its magnificent buildings and romantic atmosphere, St. Petersburg is a living museum. And Churches of Christ in this area, while small and somewhat scattered, are no less intriguing.
Lynn and I went to this “Venice of the North”  to conduct two events:  a three-day family seminar for the Church on the Neva and a two-day marriage enrichment seminar for ministers and their wives. Thirty-four couples from 28 congregations in Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine attended.
In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, numerous missionaries came to Russia and the former Soviet Union. But nearly two decades later, few missionaries remain. The region has fewer than 50 Churches of Christ, according to Joel Petty, a member at Neva, and the president of the Institute of Theology and Christian Ministry in St. Petersburg.
Most congregations have fewer than 40 attendees, Petty told us in 2006. He described many as “struggling or at least stable, but most are not growing.”
Still, bright spots exist, including growing congregations in Tomsk, Barnaul, Syktyvkar and the Church on the Neva in St. Petersburg.
Neva is the result of a 2004 merger among three local congregations. Entirely Russian-led, today it is considered one of the strongest churches in the former Soviet Union.
Home for the Church on the Neva is the third floor of a rectangular office building, only two blocks from the Neva River, an essential part of St. Petersburg’s world-famous charm. Generous American Christians purchased the building for $780,000 in 2004. It has been remodeled to meet the needs of the congregation and to accommodate national conferences and seminars.
Unlike the vast majority of Russian congregations, Neva is blessed to have this safe, permanent meeting place. Logistics aside, pulpit minister Oleg Yakimenko says it can be difficult to rent a meeting place for a church in Russia.
Yakimenko is a gifted evangelist. The tall, red-haired 32-year-old is from Magadan, on the far eastern side of Russia, has won many souls to Christ and planted churches in the Ukraine and St. Petersburg. He knows the congregation well and urges them toward maturity with encouraging words and challenging sermons.
Neva has been on a growth curve since 2004.  From a beginning attendance of  25, today the weekly attendance averages 95-100.  At the current rate of growth, it won’t be long before they outgrow the worship area. 
Another distinctive feature of the Neva church is the obvious presence of male leadership. A large percentage of the men regularly teach and preach, including Slava Zacharchenko, who has effectively  preached the gospel at Novosibirsk and in St. Petersburg. Russian musician and composer Konstantin Zhigulin is a member here and often leads singing. Many of his original hymns are now sung throughout the churches in Russia.  Symphonies in Russia, including the Novosibirsk Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestra have performed Zhigulin’s works.
These leadership examples encourage visitors from smaller churches where male leadership is often lacking, Yakimenko said.
He cites several indicators of a growing spirituality and maturity at Neva, including a greatly increased Sunday contribution and ministry initiatives among the members. Members teach adult and children’s classes, prepare the weekly Sunday fellowship meal, care for the building and are involved in evangelistic Bible studies and outreach activities throughout the week.
Along with Yakimenko, Dima Gusarov may be the most active soul-winner. He uses his gift of evangelism on the Internet as he dialogues with people who are seeking the truth.
During the past three years, he has had serious contact with around 100 people in religious forums. He has baptized five and expects a sixth baptism later this month. The converts are a diverse group of people from several cities, he says. Almost all are faithful members of Neva.
Gusarov is 35, grew up and attended college in St. Petersburg and is now the building manager for Neva.  Converted by the International Churches of Christ in 1993, he attended the Institute of Christian Theology and Practical Ministry from 2005 to 2007.  Last year he left the movement and became a member at Neva.
He loves Internet teaching and believes it has taught him to express his thoughts more clearly and improve his writing skills. As he teaches, he says he is always working toward building a relationship so that he can meet people, baptize them and connect them with a Church of Christ.
We left Russia indebted to our sisters and brothers in the Lord and with a deeper understanding, respect and love for the Neva church and for God’s servants throughout the area. Their courage and tenacity in the face of a hostile culture and small numbers is deeply inspiring.
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Filed under: Insight

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