The pastor was one I had a difficult time respecting or understanding—why would a pastor be complaining about non-Christians coming to church? I could not imagine. Yet this man had complained to us that our student meetings were attracting non-believers to his church and he was concerned that they might draw his own students into sinful behaviors. He didn't understand why we couldn't simply work with Christian students—and just the ones from Baptist churches.
I was a newly-arrived missionary in a country of the former Soviet Union. I was working with an IFES team to build a student ministry in the country's universities. This man's obviously un-Christlike attitude towards the lost frustrated me. How could anyone, let alone a church pastor, think this way?
But as a pioneering campus ministry we needed to build partnerships with churches. His church was actually more open than many to at least hearing our vision: a movement of Christian students reaching the nation's universities. So we welcomed, with some uncertainty, the opportunity to meet with the deacon board of his Baptist church.
The meeting itself was a mixed success. It was evident that these older men were skeptical of us, our methods and the values that guided our still-pioneering work. They questioned our mixed-gender leadership and our choice of music, our mixture of denominations and our choice of venue—usually not a church. Still, I was glad for the chance to share first-hand as I knew they heard plenty of things about us second- and third-hand.
And their prayers for us were genuinely heart-felt. Whatever else they thought of us, they were willing to pray for God's guidance and for students in their city to come to know Him.
After our meeting the pastor invited me and a couple of the other team members to have tea with him in his study. We were surprised and warmed by the invitation, although I suspected some secondary motive. I steeled myself for an aggressive line of questioning or even requests that we change our model of ministry.
Choose One: Education or Faith
Instead he began to share with us about his own Christian journey and as I listened I found myself on the holy ground one sometimes stumbles onto when hearing about the sacred and miraculous work of God in the life of a person and a country. That day I learned more over tea than I could have imagined.
"My father was a tailor and a deacon in our church," the pastor shared. "He was uneducated, but everyone respected him—he was honest, he did quality work and he was generous. Still, he longed for his children to have the education he'd never had so he challenged me to work as hard as I could at school.
"When I was in my teens the pressure to join the Komsomol [the communist youth organization] increased. To be a Komsomol meant embracing atheism as my 'faith'—something I just couldn't do. My school teachers used every pressure they could to make me join. They knew my parents were Protestants and tried to convince me to turn against their 'peasant' and 'superstitious' beliefs.
"Finally, they told me that I would have to choose—I remember clearly though it was many decades ago now. 'You can stay home and pray with your parents,' I was told, 'Or you can learn. But you cannot do both. Put aside this foolishness: join the Komsomol and continue your studies.'
"When I told my father he sat in silence for a long time. Finally, in tears, he said to me 'Son, your studies are very, very important. But nothing can come before faith. Even if it means being uneducated peasants, we cannot compromise on that.' The authorities wouldn't budge; if I wouldn't renounce my faith and join the Komsolmol I was no longer welcome at school. I was forced to quit my education.
"Later, as a young man, I took leadership in one of the house churches when our church was forced to go underground. The pressure on Protestant churches grew a lot. We decided to meet only in small home groups. The only times we could gather together as a whole church was when a big event—a wedding, a funeral—happened for one of our members."
He laughed as he remembered, "If we hadn't met for a while we would look around at our young people and say 'Okay, it's time for another wedding; who is ready to be married?'
"I gradually took on more and more responsibility within the church until I was ordained as the senior pastor. I was in and out of jail a number of times in those years for 'illegal religious activity'. Each time I was sure they would send me away to Siberia or keep me in prison for years, but each time—sometimes sooner, sometimes later—God would intervene.
"Once I was sure they were cracking down and this time my punishment would be severe, but then Khrushchev died and everything was in turmoil. Suddenly they released me. I'm sure it was a mistake, but God used the confusion to protect me and my church."
Enduring the Shame
"Each time we were imprisoned as church leaders we would have our heads shaved and be put on street-cleaning duty. This was their main weapon against us—shame. By forcing us out of school, even, they were doing everything they could to shame us before the public. They thought they could shame Jesus this way. The God of the uneducated, the prisoners. They didn't understand the cross! Still, I found this hard. I would cry out to God – 'Why do you let this happen?'
"When the Soviet Union fell everything was in confusion. In many ways it still is. But there was such freedom suddenly for Christians. One day I was at a funeral in the Orthodox Cathedral—it was the funeral of an important man in the city—a school district administrator. I was standing near the back and as the ceremony ended a man standing next to me grabbed my arm. He was a police man and a Party member. He had been one who had interrogated me often when I was arrested. He had scorned me.
"I drew back instinctively, but then I realized that now, as he looked at me, he was crying. 'I'm so ashamed,' he said. He choked back a sob, 'I believed. I was so sure that we had the answer, that we were the new shining society. Now I have nothing to believe in. I'm so ashamed.'
"At that moment God brought to mind his promise from Scripture: 'You will never be put to shame' [Romans 9:33: "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame." and Romans 10:11: "Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame."].
"I told this man what Isaiah had said about those who trusted in idols [Isaiah 45:16-17: All the makers of idols will be put to shame and disgraced; they will go off into disgrace together. But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you will never be put to shame or disgraced, to ages everlasting.].
"I don't know if he turned to God, but my faith was strengthened that day. It's true. We will never be put to shame."
The Freedom of Following Christ
The man before me then smiled with the joy of one who knows the power of shame and the freedom of following Christ, even when it's costly.
"I never got to go to university like the students you work with. It is a great thing that they can study. The church will benefit so much from their learning. Our leaders now are mostly dropouts because we weren't allowed to study. We will grow so much now that our young people can get an education. But I fear for their faith—we must hold fast to truth, whatever else happens.
"Now, how can I help you? Students are so poor these days—I know they struggle. Perhaps our church could provide some food and clothing for them?"
Over tea that afternoon, I developed a deep affection and respect for this man. I understood, probably for the first time, that his hard-nosed approach to protecting his congregation from outside influence had been an immense gift during the years of persecution under Soviet rule. His unwavering commitment to truth and the gospel was a glimpse of what saved the Church in the Soviet Union when Communism tried to stamp it out. He refused to trust in idols, even when shame was being heaped on his head—and, in the end, he stood firm.
This was the heritage of the gospel in this land, a guiding beacon for a new generation of students.