P and S live and serve in a Central Asian republic, where they lead the student movement in the country. After four lean and difficult years, the last academic year has been exceptional in the amount of fruit they have seen. P writes to share these encouragements.
In 2016 I gathered our eight staff to set ministry priorities over the next five years. Our goals were clear: to reach more students with the gospel, to deepen Christian students’ understanding of the gospel, to improve the structure of our charity, to grow and support our staff team and to develop our relationships with churches.
At the beginning of the lockdown in March I fell ill and had to step back from work completely, but it brought me real joy to see how the staff adapted. They knew what we were trying to achieve and were focussed on relationships with students, so they simply switched methods and continued meeting them online.
This past year we started a new project – an outreach discussion group. Our new staff member bravely went out near the universities and invited students from the street. We had no idea what to expect, but around fifteen students came each week. One of these was Alan.
He seemed to have everything – he had a good part-time job, his family was wealthy and his father was high up in the security services which would guarantee him a good job on graduation. But after a rough break-up with his girlfriend he realised he had nothing worth living for. That night he was planning to take his life; instead he took a flyer, and came to our group. The theme that evening was wanting to know the truth, and that the truth sets you free. It gripped Alan, and he wanted to know more and more. He seemed to us like a spy so we kept him at arms’ length, but he downloaded a Bible onto his phone and began to read John’s Gospel. One time he turned up early and said he had had a difficult week; he had told his friends he had decided to follow Christ, and they rejected him. God gave Alan an extraordinary insight into his word, and through our weekly meetings on key gospel themes like truth and freedom, he rapidly came to a deep understanding that only the love and grace of God can change a person. He saw that the rule of Islam, under which he had been brought up, was powerless.
Realising that his interest and conversion were genuine, I began to meet with him to study the Bible. His parents rejected his decision, and took him to the mosque to try to persuade him back. But Alan had seen the emptiness of this world and tasted the grace of Christ – there was no way he would deny his Saviour. When his parents asked him to choose between them and Christ, he began to pack his bags. His mother relented in tears and told him to stay, but for a long time his father would not speak to him. During these weeks we studied 1 Peter together, about suffering for Christ and new identity in Christ. We are now in Hebrews, seeing how Jesus is better and therefore we shouldn’t give up. He loves reading the Bible; it is so wonderful to see someone forming their theology straight from it (at one point he asked: ‘I know I need to be baptised – is that something I do myself, or how does it work?’). Alan has joined our church and is a real encouragement to many there. He is actively witnessing to other students and leading Bible studies and has applied to join our charity as he graduates this summer.
Two years ago Sasha joined our staff team here. My wife and I mentored her; she is not an easy person, but we are thrilled to see her grow. She now really values the gospel, and sees how the cross needs to be at the centre of her ministry to students. She has invested in a few students, studying the Bible weekly with them. Two of these students have each led another student to Christ this year. One of the students Sasha met with led a Bible study for other students on Zoom. One of the participants of that study wrote afterwards:
‘The word that I received in the last [Bible] study touched me very strongly. It is a new realisation that Jesus does not condemn me, but forgives me. I have often blamed myself for things that have happened, and it’s difficult to forgive myself. But that study helped me to do this – I realised that I am forgiven by the Father. In an instant I received comfort in understanding that, whatever happens, I remain that same child of God. He still loves me and he still waits for me. I’m not perfect. I can’t 100% stop sinning, but I can follow the Spirit in me, and not my flesh. I want God to be my only authority and not try to follow others, to give in to the condemnation of others, or the condemnation from myself. And if I do sin, then I need not to run away from God, but run to the God who is running to meet me.’
This is what our ministry is all about – to see students transformed by the gospel, and sharing that life-giving gospel message with others, who will share it with others also.
Probably every missionary longs to see the growth and maturity of the local church, but it is difficult to know how, as a young foreigner, you can make any meaningful contribution. How would you feel if a stranger arrived at your church, and introduced themselves, in faltering English, as someone who felt called by God to move to your church in order to help it grow?
We knew that usefulness starts with being good church members. We helped out with the Sunday School, and I offered to start a Bible study for the few teenagers in the church. They were not interested, but the youth (18-35) were, and a small group formed. I became friends with Sergei, who was responsible for the youth. After fifteen months, the pastor unexpectedly resigned and left the church, and Sergei became the pastor. By this time we were good friends and we began to meet up regularly for coffee, sharing the joys and struggles in our ministries. I have been invited to lead the church board in their strategic planning, and together the vision was agreed: ‘To grow in our knowledge of God, and to help others grow.’ We suggested that instead of a youth Bible study we could hold a midweek whole-church Bible study. This grew to around twenty people, aged 14-70, some of whom had yet to commit to Christ. Over the last eighteen months I began to meet with a group of five guys (including the pastor) and together we prepared the study. Now this group prepare and lead the study by themselves.
My wife also became friends with the pastor’s wife, and through their friendship she has changed. She confessed one day: ‘I used to tell people about the church; now I tell them about Jesus.’ The church has also embraced the Uncover evangelistic Bible studies produced by UCCF, which we have in Russian. People have come to faith through these studies, and those who have been led through the studies have gone on to lead studies with others.
God has brought a steady stream of people to faith over the years. It has been really exciting to see around five to ten new believers joining the church each year, and to see them joining in Bible study and growing in their faith.
These are the good stories: there have been many frustrations along the way. There are other people who we have ministered to (and you have prayed for) over months and even years, who just did not respond, did not want to grow or did not want to listen to what the Bible taught. We still hope that the seeds we planted will one day bear fruit. But we do rejoice that God has graciously allowed us to see some of the fruit of our labour. It is your labour also, as you have stood with us in your prayers.