Over the last 30 years Russia continues to change with modern times, but significant traces of the past can still be found. This is particularly evident within the sports community where the drive for athletic excellence fostered a culture that often ignores the need for healthy relationships. But, God is opening doors and using FCA to bring coaches, athletes and churches together in Russia.
Russia’s history led to the dynamic that created a longstanding barrier for sports ministry within the powerful Eastern European nation.
“Churches in Russia were persecuted for many years,” Mark Hull, the international trainer of 3D Coaching explained. “The Russian government used sport as its trophy that it would hold up as validation for their national pride. So sports ministries came in to do their thing but never really connected to the churches.” The disunity led to a lack of vision for Russia’s sports ministry.
To help break down the longstanding barriers, a few sports ministry leaders in the region have been working diligently for many years to engage Christian coaches and churches. St. Petersburg Area Director Stanislav Agafonov and Andriy Kravtsov, FCA North Global Divisional Vice President, led the charge.
A historic conference
Agafonov and Kravtsov’s hard work paid off in late October and early November 2019 during a historic, three-day conference for coaches, sports ministers and church leaders in St. Petersburg.
The event began taking shape nearly one year prior when Agafonov met a Christian businessman who was dissatisfied with the way his son, a youth hockey athlete, was being coached. After Agafonov explained to him FCA’s vision of leading coaches and athletes into a growing relationship with Christ, the man was immediately intrigued and began working with the local FCA staff to bring churches and coaches together. The idea of a conference was born.
Another key relationship with a well-respected Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) affiliate in St. Petersburg and its executive director Yan Volkov, helped conference plans get set.
“We came partnered together and served the coaches,” Hull explained.
The FCA-led conference, held in partnership with the Evangelical Church Association, consisted of a coaching track taught by Hull and a chaplaincy track taught by Roger Lipe, FCA Collegiate Representative in Southern Illinois. Dan Britton, FCA chief field officer, also gave a presentation on leadership development.
According to Hull, some of the most meaningful moments took place when the FCA staff interacted with influential hockey coaches from the area. Among that group was Kirill Safronov, a former first-round NHL draft pick who is now part-owner of the world-famous Red Star Hockey Academy. Safronov invited the FCA staff to speak to his coaches at the academy.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect the openness we encountered,” Hull said. “They were so appreciative and they were open to engage us in conversation about the spiritual dimension of sport.”
One of Hull’s most powerful conference opportunities came as he connected with a young Red Star coach named Ivan who showed a deep hunger for coaching his players in each of the three dimensions of 3D Coaching—body, mind and spirit—despite strong cultural opposition.
“He’s passionate man with a sensitive heart and does some unique things with his players,” Hull explained. “There’s no swearing on his team. They offer words of encouragement. He wants his players to encourage each other. But that’s not how they typically coach in Russia and he’s been labeled an idiot. He’s been pretty discouraged, but in God’s sovereignty, he and his wife came to the conference and it was so life affirming for him.”
On the second day of the conference, perhaps the most unexpected miracle took place when one of the coaches accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
“We were shocked,” Kravtsov said. “The Lord was present in the conference. It was just amazing.”
God is opening doors
While in St. Petersburg, Britton, Hull and Lipe recorded interviews at the TBN station for international distribution. They were also invited to preach at a church where the pastor has taken a proactive approach to bridging the gap between Russian churches and sports ministry.
“The church needs people like you,” the pastor shared during the conference. “We need FCA. Help the church to continue to move forward. Help the church to continue to grow. Help the church to reach coaches and athletes. We want that.”
With the 3D Coaching materials now translated into Russian, there is even more opportunity to expand FCA’s influence in St. Petersburg and beyond. Hull has already been invited to return to Russia in March and the summer of 2020 where he will give presentations at a hockey training facility run by a fellow believer.
“Just like other regions of the world, we want to help identify where sports culture is broken and give them a vision of what it can be,” Hull said.
According to Kravtsov, this means exciting times in Russia are right around the corner.
“This conference had a huge impact,” he said. “We now have churches that want to do sports ministry through FCA. We’re forming a leadership board. We also have greater access to promote coach’s ministry, Huddles, Camps and coach’s marriage retreats. More people in the church know who we are now and they are open to using our tools for sports ministry.”