I spent the summer of 2002 serving as a missionary in Belarus, a former republic of the Soviet Union. While there, I worked at a camp that sought to alleviate the suffering of children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Though the tragedy occurred on April 26, 1986, the children still bore the effects of this radioactive nightmare in their bodies. It had blighted their entire lives, so the last thing they needed was to hear a terrifying sermon about the torments of hell.
An American pastor preached one nevertheless.
I was a graduate student and a public speaking teacher at Missouri State University when the Missouri Baptist Convention selected me to serve at this camp, which was located in the city of Kobryn in southwestern Belarus. I had never flown and relished the thought of soaring over the Atlantic in a Lufthansa plane. In fact, I confess that before leaving America, I thought of this mission as an exotic holiday abroad almost as much as I thought of it as an opportunity to serve Christ.
In addition to flying for the first time, I was also formally introduced to what is commonly referred to as a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. Whether eyebrow-singeing sermons have any merit or can be theologically justified is not something I wish to debate here. I only know that the message was far harsher than the gruff, gritty sounds of the Slavic language I was learning. After hearing his words, the campers wept openly—out of fear rather than gratitude for God’s extravagant love.
The children who heard him that day had already become acquainted with a kind of hell on earth.
As a public speaking instructor, I understood the importance of the relationship between a speaker and his audience. As far as I could tell, this pastor had never considered that the children who heard him that day had already become acquainted with a kind of hell on earth. They were descendants of Adam, yes, but they were children of the atom, too. In failing to recognize this, he missed an opportunity to relate to the children in a manner that might have been more successful in touching their hearts.
During my seven weeks in Belarus, I learned a great deal about the little ones who heard this pastor’s sermon. One child in particular comes to mind: a boy named Yaroslav, who had endured multiple intestinal surgeries. Like the others, he came to the camp to fellowship with children like him, to utilize the camp’s medical facilities, and to learn about God. That sermon met none of Yaroslav’s needs that I knew of—he certainly had no need for more fear in his life. As I interacted with him and the other boys and girls, it seemed to me that they needed attention, encouragement, and what 1 John 4:18 describes as “perfect love [that] casts out fear.”
I also became acquainted with the local workers who ministered to the children. While the MBC advised me not to eat Belarusian produce because it might be contaminated by fallout, the fruit of the Spirit demonstrated by the Bible study leaders was utterly unaffected by radiation. When these people taught, they spoke with such tenderness that I rejoiced to call them brothers and sisters in Christ. Although their messages were meant for the campers, their words nourished me as well.
The visiting pastor’s caustic lesson, by contrast, did not make me think about my relationships, either with those around me or with God. Countless campers professed faith in Christ after hearing it, of course—but how could they respond otherwise to the turn-or-burn message presented that day?
Outwardly, the pastor seemed to have succeeded in achieving the desired result. But I wonder if he could have been persuaded to reconsider his approach if he’d known what I had learned about his audience. Instead of emphasizing the consequences of man’s rejection of Christ, he might have spoken about what it means to trust in the Savior and to be accepted by Him. In particular, I am thinking of John 1:12, which says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.”
The children of Kobryn needed to know that God longs to have a familial relationship with them. Those boys and girls, who were already brothers and sisters in the aftermath of Chernobyl, needed to know to that they could be children of God, too.