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To be witnesses

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My speech for YWAM EUROPE UNITED (April 8-12, 2017)

Albania is not a foreign place for me. We have both experienced and lived through aggressive atheism and spiritual revival. As I understand it, Albania was pronounced the first official atheist state in the 1960s. The people were made to not only recognize atheism, but also accept it as their official religion.
I understand what this must have felt like for them, because I was born in Russia, and I remember reading this passage in “The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “It’s so easy for a Russian man to become an atheist, easier than for anyone else in the whole world! And our people don’t simply become atheists, but they must believe in atheism, as in a new faith, without ever noticing that they are believing in a zero. Such is our thirst!”
So, what is happening in Albania today? First, there was a zero. Then, there was atheism. And after that, atheism was replaced by religion. Some religions came back aggressively, but some appeared more slowly. And now, we are worried, because under pressure, Christianity is giving way to Islam.
This leads us to think about many difficult questions, such as should we try to compete with Islam? Don’t we have a different calling? Freedom of religion demands that we make room for all faiths, but God also commands that we pursue certain values. How do we understand the gospel and the Great Commission in the midst of all of this?
Who are we called to be as we face aggressive secularism and even more aggressive Islam? Are we crusaders? Are we salesmen? Are we fishermen? Or are we just witnesses?
If we can’t share our personal testimonies, then Bible verses won’t help us. If I can’t speak of God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… and Michael, then there is no connection to today’s world.
I am certain that we have so much to share about God, and we must tell others about Him. We have to share things that haven’t been said before, and reveal the purpose of pain and joy, tragedy and revelation for today’s generations. God is revealing Himself to us in a very special way – in the happenings 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 us to do? Could it be that the current political and economic darkness facing our world is hiding Him from our sight? Sometimes it seems like there is no meaning in all of this, and the world is just locked in a downward spiral.
But, we must remind ourselves of these truths:
“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
And what must we witness about: The life and power of Jesus Christ. I want to know Christ “that I may know…the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
The things of this world die without resurrection, but the Church dies and comes back to life, because it has experienced the power of Christ’s resurrection. Suffering and death are part of our path to resurrection, the triumphant and victorious path.

Where is God? Where are we?
We usually start by asking about ourselves: who am I, and what should I do? But who do we ask that? Our own selves? If we truly want an answer to this question, we must ask God. But not even about ourselves. We should ask Him about Him. He is our point of reference, our center, our beacon, our mirror, our Creator and our Father.
When we find Him, we find ourselves.
There is a big banner on the building of our church that says, “Seek God. When you find Him you will find everything.”
And so we look at 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?
So, how do we ask these questions in such a way that we will receive answers?

What does it mean to be a Christian today? This is really a question about Christ. What is He calling us to? Where is He doing something and how is He doing it? How can we follow Him in it and work together with Him? We are not talking about being “normal Christians.” We are talking about how to follow Christ, how to keep our faith and faithfulness to Him. Ask Him and you will find an answer in your heart.
I grew up in a Christian family but in a Soviet society. Everybody asked me, “Why are you not like everybody else? Be normal, just like other normal people.” To be a Christian means to be abnormal. I wish people still said that now. We have become too normal and our Christianity is too normal for this world. But Christ was never normal enough for this world. How about us? Are we His? Or are we with the world?

What does it mean to be a leader? We need to ask our true Leader about what He wants us to do. We are not talking about success and recognition, power or charisma. We are talking about how to be a helper in His work. Christian leadership is not about being in charge. It’s about being a helper and servant.
All my life, I’ve served in second-in-command roles, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I have a lot of freedom and influence, and at the same time, I don’t have to face the extremely difficult responsibilities of being in charge. We all have plenty of opportunities to lead and influence. I have met very good people who say, “I will start changing things when I have power.” But this never really happens. As soon as they are in power, they say, “This has been such a long road, and now I can’t ruin everything by making a wrong decision and passing reforms. What we really need is stability.” In this way, they’re running away from any chance of making a real difference.

How do we understand our mission? Our mission is just a small part of God’s big mission. He could do anything He wants with or without us. The more important question is whether or not we are participating in His mission. Are young people involved, or is the Church being led by only older generations?
God will find His people. He is always on the lookout for the right person. He is never dependent on just one person. He has His unseen reserve of 7,000 (!) of the days of the “last prophet” Elijah (1 Kings 19:18) and He has “many people” in every city (Acts 18:10).
I used to imagine missions as something difficult that we still have to do. And yes, being in missions involves hard work and many challenges, but the most important thing is to let go of control and let things happen in God’s timing. We don’t have to force ourselves to do missions work. If God calls us to ministry, then He will give us the desire, strength, boldness and patience we need.
We should ask ourselves, what really moves us? What makes our hearts beat faster? When do we feel the breath of the Holy Spirit? When are we ignited, and when do we ignite others?
At times we are like the disciples on their way to Emmaus. They had been extinguished, but meeting with Jesus lit them on fire again. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” they asked each other afterwards.
If He was the one who made our heart burn we need to ask Him, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:6, New King James)
We don’t need to be arrogant, thinking we know what to do. We need to ask and listen. Is God working in Europe? What kind of mission is needed there? How can we help those we serve experience Christianity in a positive and interesting way?
The Spirit answers these questions, so we need to listen attentively. “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 2:7)
We need to think about how we can better listen to the Spirit, and be attentive to God’s plan for missions. Let’s seek Him and find ourselves in Him.

The gospel can’t be confined
The gospel is a gift, but those who serve Christ may suffer consequences for their faith. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that all of his sufferings are connected to the gospel and because of the gospel – “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained.” (2 Timothy 2:8-9)
Although it is hard, this kind of suffering allows the gospel to spread. The chains on the hands of the apostle help the gospel to triumph and overcome the Roman Empire.
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.” All of us living in the XXI century need to pay attention to this exhortation of the Apostle Timothy. If death could not contain Christ, how will iron chains and prison walls, or boarders, or security services hold back the gospel? If Christ had to die, we should endure suffering, knowing with full certainty that resurrection and victory is what He has in store for us.

So, what is this Good News that no chains can bind? It is not just knowledge about God and salvation, but rather it is Jesus Christ Himself. I really enjoy the testimony of Anthony of Sourozh. He tried to “eliminate the gospel” by showing that it wasn’t worth believing. But when he opened the gospel, he met Christ: “I was sitting and reading, and somewhere between the beginning of the first chapter and the beginning of the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark…when all of a sudden, I felt Jesus’ presence right next to me! It was such a powerful and marvelous feeling that I had to stop reading and look up. I looked for a long time, but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t hear anything, and I didn’t feel anything. But even as I was looking right in front of me at the place where nobody was, I still had the same vivid awareness that Christ was there, and there could be doubt about it. And I remember how I leaned back and thought, ‘If Christ is alive and standing here then it must be the resurrected Christ. And if I know for certain based on my own personal, first-hand experience that Christ rose from the dead, that means that everything that they say about Him is true.’ This is the same kind of logic that was used by the early Christians who came to faith in Him, not through a story, but through a personal encounter with the living Christ. Thus, since the crucified Christ truly was all that had been spoken about Him, the rest of the story made sense.”
If we preach the gospel and it doesn’t help people to meet Christ, then nothing else we say will make a difference.
I would like to suggest four important things we need to be aware of when we share the gospel with others:

Accessibility. It’s very important for us to be accessible, but we can’t be accessible to everyone at once. There is no one specific way to reach people’s hearts with the gospel. We can’t reach everyone, but we can reach the audience God has given us. For example, if I am a professor, then I should be available for University students and professors. But accessibility is not necessarily about simplicity, but rather being relevant to your audience. In the case of University, since it’s a highly intellectual culture, you will also need to share the gospel in an intellectual way to reach people.
If you work with youth, then you can’t try to reach them intellectually, because this tactic won’t be relatable for them.
We always should speak appropriately, but we must never distort the Gospel or change what Christ says.
We must make sure that the people we talk to understand that the gospel is for everyone, from professors to 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 by heavy burdens, and in need of 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 the gospel as an integral part of each sphere of our lives. We should not only preach the gospel from our pulpits and in our Bible study groups, but also through all of our service and ministry efforts. We need to connect all of these things to show the beauty and gentleness of God’s truth. And also to show the integrity and fullness of the gospel that penetrates our entire lives, because it IS new life (Acts 5:20). The apostles didn’t limit themselves to only preaching the gospel during their small meetings, but rather they shared the gospel everywhere with everyone. The gospel should fill every area of our lives, and if our preaching doesn’t convey the wholeness of God’s message of new life in Christ, then we are limiting the gospel and sinning against its Author.

Authenticity. This means that we must not manipulate or change anything in the gospel. This can happen when we focus on our own eloquence, intellectuality, desire for attention, and effectiveness. The Apostle Paul knew how to impress people to the extent that Governer Festus “said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!’” And 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 the full Gospel, but it’s time for us to understand that it is also authentic, genuine, and natural. The real gospel is not artificial, aggressive, boring, or glamorous.
I still remember the embarrassment I felt when I invited my music teacher to my church when I was younger. “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. Whether someone is bored or entertained at church doesn’t really matter, because music and the way the church looks are not the gospel. These things are just decorations. Shouldn’t the gospel be exciting enough on its own?
Although the Apostle John was a theologian, he still spoke about the gospel as Life, not just some theory or glamorous story. He only shared what he had seen and experienced. This is a real testimony, because it is personal! “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) John personally experienced Christ, 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 that we focus on being authentic, rather than just appearing smart. We must still proclaim the truth, but we must also live according to what it teaches. We can’t just talk the talk. We need to actually walk the walk. We don’t need to pretend. We need to be.

Abundance. The same Apostle Paul speaks about Christ as the one who gives abundant life, and contrasts Him with those who only take for themselves. “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 so deceived that they question when someone wants to give them something without wanting something in return. Even Christians have been known to manipulate and mislead. If we take more than we give, then we are as good as thieves.
And if we only ever mention the gospel, but don’t ever share its richness and abundance with others, then we are keeping something from them that could transform their entire lives or all eternity.
If we want to impress people, then we should do it by showing our generosity, goodness, and kindness, which can only come from the gospel.
Atheism was a zero. It was faith in emptiness. So, what must true faith be? It must be abundance.

The Good News is the only truth that is accessible, integral, authentic, and abundant, and God has entrusted it to us so that we can share it with others. There are no chains or limitations for the gospel. It is bursting with joy, light, and life. Who could possibly hold it down? Who could impede it? Who could question it? Who would dare to put it to the test?
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