Finding common ground

A couple weeks ago, one of our teams came back from a trip to Russia that was special in many ways. What made it so special and in some ways unusual? I thank Lise S, the team leader, for explaining it so well! "I’ve traveled to Russia many times now to visit the Ministry Centers and the orphans that frequent them.  We come alongside the staff to help them minister to these students and young families, physically, emotionally, socially, etc.  But I must admit that when it comes to the spiritual, I have always felt limited because I just didn’t know the Russian Orthodox faith well enough.  Back home I would encourage young people to get involved with a church ministry, outreach, and bible study to grow in their faith.  But what about in Russia?  Some of the things I would teach and suggest to them, might even be offensive in their church and culture!  And what good it is to “convert” and introduce these folks to American Protestantism, and then leave?

What do you think of, when you think of Russian Orthodoxy?  Tradition and history?   Liturgy and icons?  The Trinity and the saints.  Priests…rituals…domed church buildings?  What would you say if I told you that Russian Orthodoxy also includes…children’s ministries….Sunday School…small groups…bible study…outreach…social ministries?

Just last month we decided to dedicate a trip to Russia just to learning about the Russian Orthodox Church.  We met with six different priests who taught us about everything from icons and traditions, to theology and the practical life of faith.  We were amazed at how much we have in common and that there seems to be a more progressive movement in the Church.  We were, more often than not, welcomed with open arms… free to ask questions…take pictures…engage in discussion with these priests.

Our trip included visiting the Impativ Monastery in Kostroma, urban and rural churches in the Ivanovo region, and the town of Suzdal in Vladimir (where there are more churches than there are people to attend them!) on our way back to Moscow and Red Square.  Along the way, we met with priests informally, but also attended a Russian Orthodox worship service and actually understood what was going on!  Symbolism and the “wholeness” of worship (engaging all the senses and the whole person) were subjects that we came to experience and understand more deeply throughout our time there.

And what is their feeling about the American Protestants?  How do we fit in there?  Surely there is a wide variety of acceptance, which produces its own concerns and challenges.  But Father Macarios in Ivanovo put it this way:

Russia is a multi-religious nation. While the principal place in our past and present belongs to the Orthodox Church, there are other religious groups in this country, including Protestants, who have long been contributing, spiritually, mentally, culturally, to our common realm and participating in our common life.


We are grateful for what we learned on this trip because of what it means for the future.  Now we understand where those “sensitive” lines are between Orthodox and Protestant, that we might be careful not to come across in any offensive way.  But greater still is our appreciation for the wide expanse of common ground that we can share and celebrate.  What does this mean for future trips?  For personal conversation and group programs that we bring to the Ministry Centers?  What will become of the relationships (many were graciously affirmed as “friendships”) with these priests now, local to the Centers?

Often, in the parting words of the priests, we found they were grateful “…to have this time of mutual understanding.”  For us, this great “mutual understanding” that we have gained is only the beginning of what we are thankful for, and we can’t wait to see what God has in store for this next chapter…."