These words are written from St. Petersburg, Russia, where I am privileged to be delivering lectures on preaching at a conference organized by leaders of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Russia (ERCR). The ERCR is one of Russia’s rapidly growing denominations. The pastors here have gathered from far away places including Uzbekistan, Siberia, Belarus, Moscow, and other places whose names I cannot spell. Two pastors from Siberia whom I met just a while ago told me they heard about the conference only four days before it started. They said they dropped everything they had planned to do and made a two-day train journey so they could join us.
I already have learned these Russian pastors are smart—smart enough to realize they are not as smart as they would like to be. The years of Soviet rule left them with some truly dedicated Christians, a true remnant who kept alive the faith underground despite Communism’s foreboding threats. They have become the seed of a new day for the church here.
However, Communism left no room for the luxury of formal theological training, which is what is needed. The skyline of this amazing city is dotted with the beautiful, colorful tall steeples of once great houses of worship that were closed and re-directed for other purposes in the past century. Today, those steeples sit atop museums, warehouses and whatever else the communists designated them to be.
Saint Petersburg! Are you hearing that name? Listen deeply. Savor it in your mind and hear what it tells you about itself. This city is named for a saint who once heard Jesus Christ declare, “You are the rock on which I will build My church, and the gates of hades will not overcome it.” Try as they did, the perpetrators of hell’s own form of government ultimately proved the eternal truth of those words. In 1703, Tsar Peter the Great founded this city and named it in honor of the saint for whom the tsar himself was named.
Even the language of this land betrays its Christian heritage, for it is a strange concoction of Hebrew and Greek letters that was devised by the early Christian scholars, well versed in the Bible’s original tongues, who adapted them to devise the Cyrillic alphabet that Russians use still today. Conjugate the verbs here and you begin to recognize they have a certain New Testament Greek connection.
However, the suffering has not completely ended. This past Sunday, I preached in an underground church in another section of the city. “Now that the communists are history, why do you still meet underground?” I asked the pastor, whose father and grandfather died in the Communist Siberian death camps for preaching. Our translator replied for the pastor saying, “When the Communists were here, they threw the preachers in prison. Today, the Muslims have moved into this section of the city, and they threaten the ordinary church members. They boycott our businesses and try to proselytize our people and their children.
“However, even without the Communists or Muslims, we still would be forced to meet underground because the leaders of the established Russian Orthodox Church control the local government and have persuaded local government officials to refuse us the necessary permit to hold our worship services openly. So, we meet underground because we would have to go to court for meeting without the proper paperwork.”
Is it not an amazing thing that the Russian Orthodox Church—which history reminds us, once sent more pilgrims to the Holy Land than any other church and commissioned missionaries across the globe to carry forth God’s message and do His work—today tries to keep evangelical Christians from meeting to worship in the very country whose name it bears? Yet, there it is.
When you meet this Sunday and preach with unreserved freedom in your place of worship, please “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (