About 25 years ago, First Free started a ministry in the city of Kazan in Tatarstan, a republic within Russia. Many Tatar people live in Kazan, which is culturally about 50% Muslim and 50% Russian Orthodox. In 1993, most people were not even aware of God after 70 years of atheistic communism. So First Free decided to partner with several other churches and the EFCA to plant a cross-cultural church.
Why the partnership?
After several initial short-term teams visited Kazan, it became clear that a continuous effort and a significant financial investment would be needed. Everyone involved knew that it would take a persistent, thoughtful, prayerful, and unhurried commitment to plant a self-sufficient church so a 20-year plan was established in 1997. First, relationships needed to be developed so that people could hear the Gospel and become Jesus-followers. Next, leaders among the followers needed to be identified and trained. Followers would then be gathered by the leaders to start the church. Next, a building needed to be built to provide a place to meet. Then, on-going training, support, and encouragement would be provided to this new church of Jesus followers.
Over the last 25 years, First Free sent 47 different teams as part of its commitment. Here are pictures of some of the first teams to go: Team 2, which spent two months in Kazan, and Team 3, both in 1994.
TEAM 2: Keith Jacobs, Karen Bergman, Marta Comas, Jeff Butler, Paul, Carol & Matt Stolwyk
TEAM 3: Bill & Nancy Craig, Heinz & Gisela Bockle, Max & Doris Loudenschlager, Nancy Williams, Alan & Diane Sampson, Pam Watson, Pat Chalk, Richard & Pam Schumacher
The teams have focused on evangelism, bible teaching, construction, Vacation Bible School (VBS) and summer camps for children, and teen and young adult winter camps.
In 2000, ground was broken to build a building, which was dedicated in 2004. Here is a link to a video of the dedication.
Two churches were planted, Biblical Free Church lead by Pastor Volodya and Transfiguration Church lead by Pastor Kostya. Both pastors are still leading today!
Pastor Kostya and Lena; Pastor Volodya and Irina; Team 44: Frank & Anne Agovino; Mike & Bobbie Proctor; Kim Underwood; Jen Loomis in 2015
Short-term teams from First Free have come along-side these churches and transitioned from leading to assisting to mentoring to releasing. We also had several people who have invested a year or more of their life in Kazan. We have had the privilege of seeing the Lord use First Free to grow these churches. At times, the church building has been a challenge to maintain and heat, but presently 8 different churches meet in the building.
As Paul Stolwyk shared recently, many of us “consider this the most significant thing we have done!” Anne and I agree. This ministry has taught us how to share the Gospel and put us out of our comfort zone where we have learned to depend more on the Lord and less on self.
Where do we go from here?
New laws in Russia have severely limited the freedom of the churches to share the Gospel. First Free helped the churches in Kazan purchase some land which can be developed into a retreat center. The land will give the churches a safe place to have conferences where the Gospel can be shared and God’s Word can be studied.