Joy of the familiar and joy of the new marked the seventh annual Russia Mission Network conference recently concluded here with the theme “Sharing Faith, Expanding Horizons.”

The Sept. 22-24 gathering included partners from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of the Russian Federation, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The familiar came in the faces of mission network members who faithfully represent their congregations each year at the conference.  Most attendees came from Presbyterian churches which have a “twinning” or church partnership with a church or parish in Russia or Belarus. 

Special attendees included four Russian Baptists representing three “twinned” congregations and invited by their PC(USA) partner.  The familiar also came from the panels on “best practices” dealing with the practical challenges of cross-cultural Christian relationship-building.  Voices and views of the Russian participants added greatly to the tips shared from several PCUSA congregations.

The joy of the new came in multiple ways. 

Alex Krutov, author of Infinitely More, shared his personal experiences with the challenges of the Russian orphanage system and ministries of addressing the obstacles. He was orphaned in Russia at three-days-old and raised in Russian orphanages. Krutov co-founded The Harbor, a ministry to young adults who have “aged out” of the system. He titled his talk “From Orphan to Advocate.”

Marina Shishova, the first Russian Orthodox participant in the annual conferences, addressed “The Challenges of Modern Times (in Russia) and the Christian Response.” She is vice-president of the Interchurch Partnership in St. Petersburg and a 2011 Presbyterian Peacemaking Program International Peacemaker. Her organization promotes Christian education and peacemaking and engages in research, publishing and social projects.

Recently concluding five years as a mission co-worker and pastor of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy (MPC), the Rev. Bob Bronkema provided an overview to the critical ministries of compassion of MPC. “Sometimes You Only Have a Band Aid” addressed worship, soup kitchens, the medical clinic, supplemental food distribution, outreach to bi-racial children and families, and much more.

With Presbyterian groups regularly traveling through Moscow to meet with their church partners, Bronkema urged participants to find ways to visit MPC en route to or from their “twinned” congregation.

A highlight of this year’s network conference was the lively panel “Technology in Partnership.” Demonstrating one way to remain connected, the image and joyful greetings of Pastor Leonid Ignatenkov beamed in via Skype from Gnezdova, Russia.  He shared greetings and laughter with all his Presbyterian friends. 

Ignatenkov was originally scheduled to attend the event, but was denied a visa by U.S. embassy officials in Moscow. 

Adding to the panel were sharings about the effectiveness of Google Translate, World Mission’s social media tool Mission Crossroads, and the photo sharing website Shutterfly.

Though the Russian Mission Network conference is annually filled with information, at its core is the shared call to participate in God’s mission as churches continue to renew themselves in the Russian Federation. Personal relationships are at the heart of this network, with a growing number of Russian and PC(USA) participants, all seeking improved ways to share the love of Christ.