"WE WERE TAUGHT THAT SCIENCE HAD ALL THE ANSWERS—AND THOSE ANSWERS WOULD LEAD US TOWARD A BRIGHT FUTURE OF COMMUNISM."
Andrey Kravtsev, like many who grew up in the Soviet Union in the 80s, was educated in atheism and nationalism. At age 19, he witnessed the decline of the Soviet Union and the revelation of government crimes against the people, many of which were exposed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or “openness.” Kravtsev was a soldier in the Soviet army at the time and quickly grew disillusioned. “I found a page from the New Testament—just one page from John 18 that included the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate says to Jesus, ‘Are you a king?’ and Jesus responds, ‘You say so. I came into the world to testify about the truth.’ Pilate says, ‘What is truth?’ ”
“That passage struck my heart because I was also asking myself, ‘What is truth?’ ” Eventually Kravtsev approached a Christian in his army division and asked to borrow a Bible. But when he opened it to pages of Old Testament genealogies, he promptly decided he was not interested in the Bible after all. “The next day he gave me a Gideon New Testament.” By the time Kravtsev finished reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke and began reading the Gospel of John, he says, “I was no longer a skeptic or a seeker; I was a believer. I went into a big Orthodox cathedral and asked Jesus to show me the way to live.”
That chance encounter with a single page of Scripture would shape Kravtsev’s path—taking him from Soviet soldier to seminary president.
Service First, Calling Second
After finishing his military service, Kravtsev found a small Baptist community and joined his new pastor in sharing the gospel with people on the streets. “People stopped, and we had conversations. We visited student dormitories and hospitals, and we showed The Jesus Film. There were so few new believers in our community that our pastor worked to involve everyone in serving. Perhaps he gave me tasks because he saw leadership potential in me, but I started serving first, and later on God confirmed his call.”
This early experience of serving God and the church shaped Kravtsev’s developing philosophy of ministry, which he describes as a partnership between God and people. “I go back to the passage in Matthew 14 where Jesus feeds the 5,000. The people were hungry, it was late, and the night was approaching. The disciples saw their need. They approached Jesus and were surprised when he told them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ You see Jesus sending them to serve the people. They expect him to do something, but he says, ‘What can you do?’ They respond that they have only a few resources. ‘That’s okay. Give them to me.’ So they give up their meager resources, and Jesus blesses them and multiplies them.”
Kravtsev remembers the first time he felt the need for this type of partnership: “I was evangelizing in a Muslim village, and I was really discouraged. It seemed I could not do anything there, so I prayed, ‘Jesus, do something with these people’s hearts.’ ” Whenever Kravtsev struggles to see success in his ministry, he reminds himself to give his gifts and service to God, trusting that God himself will do the work.
Serious Learning and Prayerful Openness
Since his days as a new convert, Kravtsev has left behind the practice of opening the Bible at random in hopes of finding God’s message for him. Back then, “If I didn’t have any specific emotional or personal revelation, I didn’t consider my time with the Bible well spent. But as time went on, I began to see that I needed to balance serious learning with prayerful openness. I needed to understand when and why this text was spoken. When I started doing that, I found much more joy in reading the Bible than I had before.”
“After a historical and grammatical look at a passage, I just pray—sometimes literally over every verse. I ask that God would help me to understand how this relates to my life today. How can I apply this? What is the lesson that I need to take from this text for my life—for my family life, my personal life, my ministry, and my friendships? Study and prayer inform each other and enrich each other.”
Ministry in the Caucasus
In 2001 Kravtsev accepted a position at the North Caucasus Bible Institute of Russia, where he is now president. The Caucasus, a mountainous strip of land wedged between the Black and Caspian seas, is internationally known for its internal conflicts. The staunchly independent countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are south of the Russian territory that includes the volatile regions of Chechnya and Dagestan. The Caucasus is a confluence of Russian, Turkish, Persian, and indigenous minority cultures. Islam is the dominant religion; the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest minority.
“I first came here as visiting faculty, and immediately liked the area. Many of the students are already in full-time ministry, so they come for classes several weeks a year. They ask questions that relate practically to their ministry. People lose interest in reading the Bible or learning about it when they do not see how it relates to their everyday life. Familiarity with the Bible on its own doesn’t mean anything unless there’s an application—unless there’s a way you see it changing your life. I think this kind of integration of education into church life is important.”
“When I finished my seminary master’s degree in New Testament, I preached a lot on the historical contexts of passages, the Lord’s historical circumstances. But most people in the pews were struggling—moms who had a drug addict in the family, or people who were struggling with unemployment or relationships and so on. When they came to church, they wanted to hear what the Word of God was saying to their specific circumstances, not what it was saying to a first-century Jew in Ephesus.”
Kravtsev still encounters people who haven’t heard of Jesus. “There are 48 unreached Muslim people groups in the remote areas of the Caucasus, and there is almost no church presence here.”
Christianity across Cultures
To help him share about Jesus, Kravtsev chose to pursue a doctoral program in how to communicate the gospel in an Islamic context. “In preaching, worship, church planting, and church leadership, we need to learn from the ethnic culture as we try to find new parallels. For example, let’s look at the Chechen ethnic group. In the 1940s, the whole people group was deported by Stalin to Central Asia. It was 20 years before they returned to their homeland, and the memory of that deportation is still very strong.”
“The Bible has a lot to say about deportation. It is full of terms like ‘exile,’ ‘exodus,’ and ‘return.’ There’s the idea of being a stranger in a strange land, and admonitions to be kind to sojourners. These are all ideas that bridge the first century and the 21st century. We can go to the Bible and show people how these principles work in their lives. This will encourage people to learn more about the Bible; we can build on that to begin sharing the gospel with someone who is of Chechen ethnicity.”
Future of the Church in Russia
When training his students for ministry, Kravtsev recalls his early days serving the church, before he felt any sense of God’s calling to leadership. “In Russian, the word for minister is the same as the word for ‘serve.’ If anyone doesn’t know how to serve, he cannot learn how to minister, because they are the same thing. You start serving in small things, serving people where they are and doing whatever is needed for your church or community. Then, when the time comes, God gives faithful servers more responsibility—and then more responsibility. But it all starts with humble readiness and availability to serve wherever you are.”
Despite his years as a student and teacher, Kravtsev has come to understand that “information alone doesn’t make good ministers. Jesus himself didn’t have students; he had disciples. That’s an important distinction, because it’s more comprehensive. They walked alongside Jesus. They were there when he prayed, when he traveled, when he healed people. They were there for everything he did.”
To this end, North Caucasus Bible Institute strives to involve students to serve with local ministries, providing them with more experienced pastors who can mentor them in ministry work. Together they face the difficult task of telling people about Jesus.
ScholarsLeaders International, a ministry devoted to equipping leaders in the Majority World, supported Kravtsev as he pursued his PhD in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.