“For God so loved [Russia] that He gave His one and only son. That whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16
God loves Russia; God loves Moscow; and God loves me… I was born on September 26, 1968 in the small town of Omutinskiy in Tymenskaya Oblast which is in Siberia. However, my childhood was spent in Ulyanovskaya Oblast. My parents did everything they could to bring out the best in me so that I could continue my education at St. Petersburg University when I was 14. Not only did I study, but I worked as well. Sadly, I used my money on drugs, alcohol and the party life.
At 18 years old, I began to fulfill my military obligation to the USSR Army and served for two years. Afterward, I returned to St. Petersburg. It was at this point that I met some religious people and for the first time I studied the Scriptures. They challenged me to repent and “to pray Jesus into my heart.” I was able to stand on my own for about three months, but then I became consumed with making money. I grew more and more greedy, and started searching for ways to get money “fast and easy.” This led me to associate with the criminal element of the city. As the Russian Proverb says, “Who you choose for friends is who you learn from.” I am very ashamed to say that I became a liar and a thief.
The day that would change my life forever began when I robbed a woman, and immediately my friend and I were caught and thrown into jail. The uncle of the woman that I robbed was one of the highest ranking police officials in the city, so bribing my way out was impossible. That first day in jail, I believed that I would be there literally for years. This singular event broke me, and I turned to God “to save me.” I told God in tears that I would give Him my whole life if He would get me out of jail. Miraculously three days later, I believe in answer to my prayers, I was freed because the woman that I robbed interceded for me and forgave me. Frightened by a dream that she had the night before, she not only had me freed, but paid for my lawyer and my first month’s rent!
To fulfill my promise to God, I went back to the church that had originally reached out to me. I was so inspired by the Scriptures that I began to attend a Baptist Bible College. Later, I worked fulltime for a Pentecostal church in Moscow. However, I began to ask many questions about “speaking in tongues” and “denominationalism.” It was at this “exact time” that a coworker at the Pentecostal church where I was working was invited to the Moscow International Church of Christ (ICOC) that had just started three months before on July 14, 1991. (Acts 17:26-27) Though she came with me, she was not interested. But I was quite moved by the singing, the sermon and the fellowship. I quickly learned that this congregation was “non-denominational” with a focus on loving God and making disciples. I also discovered that the church was planted by a man named Kip McKean and the mission team of 17 was mostly composed of Americans who struggled immensely to speak Russian. Yet, this made me impressed all the more that these American Christians loved Russia more than their comfort or safety. Nevertheless, I left that Sunday without making any decisions and started to walk to the subway. It was then that one of the brothers ran up from behind me and asked me to study the Bible. After realizing I must place “the truth of God’s Word over my relationships” in the Pentecostal church, I was baptized one month later on November 3, 1991!
As a true disciple of Jesus Christ, I quickly saw that God was “able to do immeasurably more than all I asked or imagined!” (Ephesians 3:20) I asked God to be full time and three months later I was full time. I prayed to go on a mission team and one month later I was asked to be on the St. Petersburg Mission Team which was led by Kip in June 1992. (I still remember his Inaugural Service Sermon!) Later that summer, I was asked to help in Kyiv, Ukraine. After I arrived, the new Bible Talk that I led had 10 baptisms in one week, and so I was asked to stay!
A year and a half later, a decision was made to plant the church in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. I was overjoyed at the prospect that I might be chosen to lead this planting; however at first I was told that the position was only open for a “married man.” So I was encouraged to find a wife and was literally sent all over Russia to go on dates. That being said, I had already noticed a beautiful and spiritual woman named Aliona in the fellowship in Kyiv! No matter how awesome all the sisters were in other churches, I could not get Aliona out of my mind. So a month later we were dating and after six months we were leading the Kharkiv Church together as a dating couple! Then, having been blessed by God with a totally pure dating relationship, I married my best friend and partner in the gospel on February 25, 1995!
During the next ten years God used us to lead a Super Region of the Moscow Church, to lead the Kyiv Church, as well as to oversee the plantings of eleven other churches in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. During the time that we led the Kyiv Church it became the fastest growing ICOC Church in Eurasia reaching a membership of 3,500! These were great years and God blessed our life with our first daughter Sofiia and adopting our second daughter Lydiia. It saddened me in later years that many people would forget the good parts of the ICOC. Yet, I will always treasure our close knit unity which was manifested in disciples moving to churches in other countries but still having the same Biblical convictions, the same zeal for baptizing, and joyfully sharing the same dream of evangelizing the world in our generation. I have never found or even heard about such a unity in any other church group… that is until 2010!
That being said, arrogance and a competitive spirit with other church leaders began to grow in my heart. I also started to love comfort and wealth. My greatest sin was taking credit for my blessings and successes instead of giving glory to God. These sins and many others began to create a distance between myself and those I was leading and those who were leading me. I believe that because of these sins of mine and the sins of the other leaders, as well as the sins of the followers in the ICOC Movement, in 2002–2003 God punished us all by decimating His movement around the world. I want to take full responsibility and personally apologize to any and every one I hurt through my leadership. I hope you can forgive me and I am very willing to talk on the phone or in person with anyone who would like to hear all that the Spirit has placed on my heart.
By 2004, I began to understand how much damage was done to the fellowship that I loved so much. In fact, the doctrine had slipped enormously and consensus leadership had taken hold. Sadly, I stopped hearing the voice of God and began to work full time outside of the church. It was an extremely painful time as I watched us lose thousands of members throughout the 15 nations of the former Soviet Union. In fact in Kyiv alone, 2,000 fell away from God. Though I was successful in my secular job, my unhappiness continued to grow and I began to hear the voice of God again calling me back into the ministry in 2005. By 2006, Aliona & I were asked to lead the church in Zagreb, Croatia. Then in 2008, we returned to Russia to lead one of the four regions of the Moscow Church of Christ, which was earlier known as the Moscow International Church of Christ. At this point, I did not fully understand the great significance of the small name change.
In 2009, I was contacted by Aliona’s and my dear friends – Argo & Anu (Lipps) Arneson. They spent hours on the phone helping us to understand why there was such a great doctrinal drift in what was left of the ICOC; why the word “International” was eliminated from the “International Church of Christ” name; and why the churches were lukewarm. In essence, they shared that the ICOC returned to a “Mainline Church of Christ theology,” but Kip had opposed this and thus was persecuted, slandered and fired. That’s why God started a new movement which had the same Biblical convictions of my early days in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv. After hearing this I remembered Proverbs 18:17, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” I was shocked and surprised that when I called one of my fathers in the faith, he proudly confirmed with me that he was the leader of those who planned to put Kip & Elena out of the movement so that the ICOC could return to a “Mainline Church of Christ theology.” At Argo’s encouragement, Kip called me shortly after this conversation.
In early 2010, Aliona & I flew to LA to meet Elena & Kip, and we were amazed by their humility. As well, I was pleasantly overwhelmed to see the great City of Angels International Christian Church! I remember sharing with Aliona, “This is the church we were baptized in!” Now, I was faced with the decision on whether or not to join the new movement. After prayer and fasting, I realized that the decision to join the new movement was exactly the same for me to become a true Christian. I had to prioritize “the truth of God’s Word over my relationships!” Especially challenging was taking a stand with one of my “fathers in the faith,” because he now embraced “Mainline Church of Christ theology and government.” But since I still believed that God’s movement requires a central leader and that autonomy is sin; since I still believed that discipling is a command of God and not optional; and since I still believed in the dream to evangelize the nations in this generation, Aliona & I wholeheartedly joined God’s new SoldOut Movement!
While I have been in the new movement, I have had the opportunity to lead the Kyiv Remnant Group and then to bring my family to LA to “re-train” in the ministry. It is impossible to express the joy I feel being restored to my “first love” and once again being in “the church in which I was baptized!” (Revelation 2:4-5) As I reflect back on these last two years in Los Angeles, I am moved by everyone being as sold-out as we were in the 1990’s in the ICOC, but I also see that in the new movement there is so much more mercy, compassion and gentleness.
I am so thankful to the South Region of the City of Angels Church in LA who has patiently allowed Aliona & me to lead them even though our English is a “work in progress!” Thanks to the special “partners in the gospel” of the South Region – Lance, Connie, Anthony, Cassidy, Stacy, Lynette, Joe, Capil and too many others to list! I’m so thankful to Tony & Therese Untalan, who have given Aliona & me marriage discipling instilling in us the Scriptural convictions to help us grow in our love for one another. As well, I’m thankful for Tim & Lianne Kernan and Jason & Sarah Dimitry – former South Region Leaders – whom I strive to imitate as they imitate Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1) Also, I am so very thankful for the 11 Russian-speaking disciples who have come to LA self-supported to train in the South Region and to go back with Aliona & me on the Moscow Mission Team!
Now at the end of 2014 as I reflect on my 23 years as a true disciple of Jesus Christ, the five greatest honors and blessings that my Father in Heaven has graciously bestowed on me are: 1) God forgiving all my sins at baptism and making me His son; 2) Aliona pledging her life to me at our wedding; 3) God bringing Sofiia and Lydiia into my life; 4) having the privilege along with my wife to baptize our oldest daughter Sofiia into Christ while in LA; and 5) Kip asking me to become the World Sector Leader of the Russian Commonwealth!
I am dreaming of a very bright future of an evangelized Russian Commonwealth! I have been so looking forward to the Moscow Mission Team send-off today and even more so, the Inaugural Service of the Moscow International Christian Church on February 1, 2015! My prayer is for all of the disciples in the 11 nations of the Russian Commonwealth to know that they will be warmly welcomed into our fellowship, and if they have fallen away, they will be gently restored to their “first love.” If you would like to contact Aliona & me, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Please pray that through God’s “power that is at work within us” that both remnant and lost souls alike will see that God has sent us “to Russia with love!” And to God be all the glory!