By Michael Cherenkov, Mission Eurasia
Thursday, June 14, the World Soccer Cup (or FIFA) began in Russia. Why should this interest not only football fans but also all Christians around the world? Is this political controversy or an unprecedented opportunity for the national church? Why should we pray for the World Cup?
You might be surprised by the title of this article that is written by a Ukrainian and addressed to the global evangelical community.
Russia wages wars in Ukraine and Syria and continues acts of sabotage in Europe and the U.S. But its major war is waged against its own people, who are being held captive in fear and oppression.
That is why for many people, myself included, the World Cup triggers mixed feelings, although it promises to be a grand event. Many people compare it to the 1936 Olympic Games hosted in Berlin. In both cases, guests from all around the world traveled to massive sporting events hosted by countries that violated international agreements and human rights and committed offenses against other countries, their own people and against humanity and decency.
Currently, all the tickets to the World Cup have been sold out, and the tournament attendees are already on their way to the games. As for the Christians in Russia who pay attention to the crimes of the regime, they choose to quietly pray about better times for Russia, for the freedom to share the gospel and for a spiritual revival. Many people don’t want to miss the games, while many others don’t want to be accomplices to the crimes of the Kremlin regime.
I understand both impulses but would like to share a third perspective that is available to Christians around the world, in both the West and Russia: We should regard this huge sporting event as a unique opportunity for evangelism. What if this is the last open door for openly preaching the gospel in Russia?
Russia is currently on the path of global isolation and hostility and is actively restricting freedoms for non-Orthodox Christians and other religious minorities. It’s possible that this door of opportunity will close soon, but it is still open today. The words of the Apostle Paul come to my mind, “… For a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Corinthians 16:9, ESV).
The situation in Russia is very much the same. Bishop Sergey Ryakhovskiy, the spokesperson for all Russian Protestants and who, in addition to leading the biggest evangelical association of Russia, is also a member of the Civic Chamber of Russian Federation and the Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations, is encouraging all churches to join a national day of fasting and prayer “to chasten the adversaries” on June 17.
He writes, “Today we are witnessing evangelical churches in different regions of the country being put under pressure. According to the information from the lawyers of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, in the last two years there have been more than 600 cases [of religious freedom violations]! Basically, today we are talking about discrimination and impediments to freely professing one’s faith and worshiping the Lord in a number of Russian regions…. We believe that it is not only our legal right, but also that the blessing of our land and prosperity of the people directly depends on how much the country and the people are open to preaching the gospel .”
I don’t know to whom the bishop is referring when he speaks of “adversaries,” but fasting and prayer are very timely for the current situation in Russia.
While many churches in Russia will be fasting and praying on June 17 for the freedom to share the gospel, the 2018 World Cup will be in full swing. (The matches take place from June 14 to July 15.)
It’s a rare window of opportunity that we have to use public events for sharing the gospel. Sergey Rakhuba, the president of Mission Eurasia, says, “At a time when the Russian government is increasing its restrictions on religious freedom, we see this World Cup outreach as a strategic moment to equip the evangelical church in Russia for potentially reaching millions of lost men, women and children. We believe that God is holding open this door for us in the West to partner with faithful Christian churches in Russia to help those who suffer under the darkness of sin and despair. I know from my own experience that dozens of people can be reached through just one Bible” (https://www.christianpost.com/voice/a-different-kind-of-goal-for-the-2018-world-cup-in-russia.html).
Isn’t the World Cup a “wide door”? Couldn’t our prayers bring the victory of the gospel through the World Cup? Will the fact that there are “adversaries” make us scared?
We know from the church history of the former Soviet Union that persecutions from the government fueled the churches’ fervor for missions, and external challenges motivated young leaders to be even more creative in sharing the gospel. I remember that during the Soviet regime, believers used all events for spreading the gospel and even turned wedding ceremonies and funeral processions into massive opportunities for evangelism.
Why can’t we follow in their footsteps? This is exactly what Russian churches are planning to do during the World Cup. They will open their church doors, establish fan zones and offer refreshments and hospitality to the guests while sharing the gospel and the Word of God with them.
Believers from other countries will not be able to physically participate in the World Cup outreach due to how strictly Russia limits the activity of foreign missionaries, but we can pray for and support this large-scale evangelistic initiative in other ways. Without condoning Kremlin policy, we can support local churches and ordinary Russian as they are reached with the gospel. This is the reason we should care about the World Cup and pray for Russian churches and Russian people.
The World Cup presents us with a “wide door” of opportunity for witnessing to millions. And although there are “many adversaries,” there are even more friends and supporters of this gospel movement. I am sure you are among our friends.
Will you help provide prayer and support in furthering the gospel cause in Russia? Will you show Christian solidarity with those who—without fear of reprisal—are fully capitalizing on whatever opportunities for evangelism still exist in this vast country?
I don’t play soccer and am not rooting for individual soccer teams, but this World Cup is still a very special event. I will be rooting for the gospel and its ministers. Are you with me?
Michael Cherenkov is the executive field director for Mission Eurasia. Mission Eurasia trains and mobilizes in-country Christian leaders in 13 countries of the former Soviet Union to transform their nations for Christ. They also work in Israel, due to the large Russian-speaking population that emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. The ministry is headquartered in Wheaton, Illinois.
Read more in this Christianity Today article: World Cup evangelism evades Russia’s ban