"Youth with a Mission" conference, Albania, April 2017
Albania - it is not a foreign place for me. There is something that makes me related to it - it is experience of the militant atheism and experience of the spiritual renewal. I am a witness of both. As I understand, when in the sixties Albania was declared the country of the winning atheism, people were compelled not only to confess it, but to believe in it, believe in atheism as a new, official religion.
I know what it means because I was born in Russia and I remember «Idiot» of Dostoevsky: «It is quite easy for a Russian man to become an atheist, it is much easier than for the rest of the world! And our people not only become atheists, and finally they will believe in atheism, as in a new belief, they will never even notice that it's a belief in a zero. Such is our thirst!»
And where are we now? There was a zero, there was an atheism. Then its place became free for religion. And it has returned, thus not alone. Some religions returned as aggressive religions, others – as passive ones.
We observe: in its pressure Christianity yields to islam. Maybe, this is good? Should we really compete? Don't we have another calling? There is freedom of religion, there is a place for it, there is a demand for sense and values. But where is Christ in all of this? Where is His Gospel? And where do we fit with our understanding of Gospel and the «Great Commission»?
Where are we between the post-modernism unbelief and the post-Christian lack of faith, militant secularism and even more militant Islam?
Who are we in all of this? Crusaders, salesmen, fishermen? Or just witnesses?
If we can not tell our story of meeting with God, then quotations from Bible will not help us. If I can't talk about God as of «God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob …. and Mikhail», then this family connection can be considered as a lost one.
I am convinced, that we have much to say about God. And we must tell it. Tell what was not known before, about pain and joy, tragedy and revelation for our generations. God reveals Himself to us today in a very special way - in the events of our time, in our questions and worries, in our doubts and disappointments.
What is He saying? What is He doing? What is He revealing? What is he calling to?
Does the gloomy background of political and economic crises hide Him from us? Does it seem to us, that everything has lost its sense, that soon all will explode and will perish? But we hear again and again. «It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses.» (Acts 1:7-8).
What shall we witness about? His life and His power. «To know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead». (Phil. 3:10-11).
The world is dying without hope for the resurrection. The church is dying and is resurrecting because it knows the power of Christ's resurrection. Suffering and death – this is a part of our way to the resurrection, way to victory and triumph.
Where is God, where are we?
Usually primarily we ask about ourselves: who am I, what shall I do? But who do we ask? Do we ask ourselves? We ask ourselves and we answer to ourselves. If we ought to ask, we should ask God. But not about ourselves, but about Him. He is our starting point, He is our system of axes, our center, our lighthouse, our mirror, our Creator, and our Father.
When we find Him, we find ourselves. The building of our church is decorated with a large banner with the following text: «Search for God. When you find Him - you will find everything».
And now we get to our questions: what does it mean to be a Christian today, what does it mean to be a leader, how can we understand our mission?
What is the answer to these questions? How shall we ask these questions so that they could be answered?
What does it mean to be a Christian today? This part of question is about Christ. What is He calling us to? Where and how is he working? How can we follow Him and work with Him? And it is not about being «normal Christians», as majority is.
Here we talk about how to follow Christ, how to keep faith and faithfulness to Him. Ask Him and you will find the answer in your heart. Your heart already knows. I grew up in a Christian family, but in a Soviet society. And everyone around me used to say: «Why are you not like everyone else? Be like all normal people». Being Christian meant being abnormal. Now I dream to be told that. We became too normal and our Christianity became too normal for this world. But Christ was never sufficiently normal for this world. What about us? Are we with Him? Or with this world?
What does it mean to be a leader? Here we need to ask our Leader - what does He trust us with – what scale, what level, what tasks, and what people. It's not about success and recognition, power and charisma. The thing is - how to be an assistant in His work. Christian leadership is not about the first place, it is not about the main role, it is a secondary role, the role of a servant. It happened that all my life I have worked in a team as a second in command or a twenty second, but not the first. I'm pleased to be the second. I have maximum freedom and influence. But at the same time, there is still enough distance from such high positions, in which your head is spinning and you lose a sense of reality.
At any place, we have enough opportunities to be a leader and to exert influence. I met good people who said: «I'll become the first person, then I'll start reforms.» But everything turned out the other way. As soon as the reformers “obtained their soft chairs”, they started thinking: «What a difficult way it was. Finally, I'm here. Now I shouldn't destroy all this with any hasty steps or reforms. Reforms are for losers. We need stability.» Be afraid of places and conditions, temptations and trades that will give you such leadership, where besides the status and benefits there will be no other influence. Give the best places for the older people, keep yourself for the cause, and not for the place.
How shall we understand our mission?
Here, our mission is only a part of God's mission. He continues His mission with us or without us. The other question is whether we participate in it. Does the young generation participate in it? Is the continuity of generations torn? Do only young people stay in mission so long that insensibly they become aged people?
God will find people for Himself. He always seeks the right people. However he is never dependent on men. He always and everywhere has His people (He hides the seven thousandth (!) reserve in the days of the «last prophet» Elijah (1 Kings 19:18), and in every city He has «many people» (Acts 18:10).
I used to imagine mission as a heavy necessity. Yes, mission has an element of work, but there are some quite difficult moments. But this is not the most important thing. What is really important in mission – it is naturalness. Do not force yourself. If God is calling, He gives desire, strength, courage and patience.
I know for sure: we should not force ourselves to mission. If we need to be pulled or pushed, then something is wrong with our mission or with its understanding.
What drives us? When does our heart beat faster? When do we feel the breath of the Spirit? When are we on fire and share this fire with others?
At times we are like disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were burnt out. But the meeting with Christ lit them up again. «Did not our hearts burn within us?» (Luke 24:32), - they asked each other afterwards.
If He has lit our hearts, then we should ask Him: «What will you command me to do?» (Acts 9:6).
There is no need to be self-confident, as if we know what to do. We need to ask and listen. How does God work in Europe? What form of mission is most needed? In what form is mission most understandable to those whom it serves? In what ways is it interesting to those who serve?
And the Spirit answers, the Spirit speaks. Our business is to listen, listen carefully. «He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.»
(Revelation 2: 7)
How is it possible to catch the moment, when the Spirit speaks, when His presence is real? How to find the right place and the right state? What do we need to do to experience God's presence and be a part of His work?
Let us seek Him, and in Him we will find ourselves.
Gospel cannot be chained
Gospel is joy and a gift. But for those who agreed to serve the Gospel, this can cost something. Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that his troubles are related to the Gospel, they are there because of the Gospel: «Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel, for which I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained.» (2 Timothy 2: 9). But this trouble helps spreading the Gospel. Chains on the hands of apostle help the Gospel to triumph and defeat the empire.
«Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead» - this apostolic exhortation of Timothy should be heard by all of us, leaders of the XXI century. If death could not hold Christ, then how would iron chains and prison walls, borders and special services do it? If Christ had to die, why shouldn’t we suffer from some troubles, knowing about the imminent resurrection and the undoubted victory?
What is this God's message that chains can't hold it?
It’s not as much in the knowledge of God and His salvation, but in Jesus Christ Himself. I really like the testimony of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. He decided to «quit with the Gospel», he decided to read it and make sure that it is not worth believing. But when he opened the Gospel, he met Christ.
«I sat and read, and between the beginning of the first and the beginning of the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, which I read slowly, because the language was unusual, I suddenly felt that there was Christ on the other side of the table, he was here, standing ... And it was such a striking feeling, that I had to stop, I stopped reading and looked around. I looked for a long time; I did not see anything, I did not hear anything, I did not sense anything with my feelings. But even when I looked straight ahead at the place where there was no one, I had the same vivid awareness that Christ was standing there, no doubt about that. I remember that I leaned back and thought: if Christ alive is standing here, then this is the resurrected Christ. Hence, I know indeed and personally, within my own experience that Christ is risen, and therefore everything that is said about Him is true. This is the same kind of logic as the early Christians had. They discovered Christ and acquired faith not through a story of how it was from the very beginning but through meeting a living Christ, therefore crucified Christ was the one, who was spoken about, and that the entire preceding story also made sense».
If our preaching of the Gospel does not help people to meet Christ, then the rest becomes meaningless. And here I want to suggest four important characteristics of how we should perceive the Gospel and testify about it.
Accessible. It’s very important for us to be accessible but not for everyone at once. There are no generic people and there are no generic keys to people’s hearts. I can’t be accessible to everyone. I have my audience. If I am a professor I should be available for University students and professors. Availability is not necessarily simplicity. It’s relevancy. In case with University, it’s a high level of intellectual thinking.
If you work with youth on the streets it’s obvious that in this case your level should be lower. You can’t speak to them on a high level. You need to be at their level - down low.
We always should speak appropriately (sometimes in a simple way or sometimes in a more complicated way) but we should never distort the Gospel or correct Christ.
We should share that which is really priceless and available for everyone – both for snobby professors and disoriented refugees.
Aren’t we all thirsty and hungry for God? “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Isaiah 55:1)
Aren’t we all exhausted of the heavy load and don’t we have a need to rest? “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
Integral. It’s very important for us to see gospel as integral and allow it to say its word for every sphere of our lives, every minute and every issue. We should not only preach the salvation from our pulpits or small Bible study groups but we should also preach the truth at universities, beauty in art and kindness in charitable works. We need to connect all these things and show beauty and gentleness of God’s truth. And also to show the integrity and magnitude of the gospel that doesn’t save some certain parts of us, cutting us into segments, condemning us for the pain of contradictions but touch our whole life because it IS a new life (Acts 5:20) and not some part of it. The apostles could have just limited themselves to gathering in homes or preaching the gospel just in church but they made the gospel open, public, known and visible. The gospel has the right to fill our lives and if our preaching can’t convey the wholeness of God’s message and new life in God we don’t only limit the power of the gospel but sin against its Author.
Authentic. That means we don’t make anything up, we don’t lie and we don’t manipulate. The danger is in our eloquence, intellectuality, pursuit of getting attention and trying to sell our product. Apostle Paul knew how to impress and it was to such an extent that the governor Festus “said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!’” to which Paul answered, “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason.” (Acts 26:24-25)
“Words of truth and reason” – that’s the way we should defend the gospel. We talk a lot about full Gospel. It’s time for us to understand that it’s authentic, genuine and natural. Real gospel is not artificial, aggressive, boring or glamorous.
I still remember the embarrassment I felt in my childhood when I invited my music teacher to my church. “How was it?” I asked after the service hoping she was impressed with our special program. Her answer was, “It was sappy and corny. But the concert wasn’t bad.” That was it.
Somebody is bored at church. Somebody is entertained. But none of that is real life, these are just supplements. This is not the gospel, these are our seasonings, our pictures and our decorations. Isn’t the gospel exciting by itself?
Although Apostle John was a theologian he still spoke about the gospel of Christ as Life, not a theory or some glamorous picture. He only shared what he had seen and what he experienced. This is the real testimony! It’s first-hand. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1) He personally experienced it and that was why he kept the word of Jesus in his gospel, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
It’s so important today not so much to be really intelligent but to be real. We will have to not just proclaim the truth, but show that it becomes life; and not only show the way but walk it and live according to it (not talk the talk but walk the walk). We don’t need to pretend. We need to be.
Abundant. The same apostle Paul says about Christ as the one giving life with abundance. And compares Him with others who don’t give anything and only steal. “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
People have been deceived so much and they don’t believe when something is given to them. Even Christians have been known to manipulate and mislead. If we take more than we give, we are thieves.
And if we show only the cover of the gospel, and we only advertise it but don’t open the whole richness and abundance to the people, then we steal from them – we steal their hopes, times, feelings, faith and money.
If we still can impress people with anything it’s with our generosity, overflow of goodness and kindness.
Atheism was a zero. It was also physics and metaphysics of deficit. It was faith in emptiness.
What can the real evangelical faith be? It can only be an abundance
And this good news – the good news that is available, wholesome, authentic and abundant – God has entrusted to us so that we would share it with other people. There are no chains or limits for such news. This news is bursting with joy, light and life. Who can hold it in? Who can impede it? Who wants to question it? Who wants to put it to test (see if it works)?