Starving for Spiritual Reality: An American Family’s Mission to Feed Russian Souls

By Nancy Flory Published on February 16, 2019

On March 25-26 LIFE Today will host Rick Renner, author and pastor of a church in Russia, to talk about what it looks like to live in the “Combat Zone” of spiritual warfare and how to walk in victory in Christ no matter what battle is faced. The Stream’s Nancy Flory recently sat down with Renner to talk about his Russian ministry and the spiritual hunger of the Russian people.

Renner contrasts life in Russia with that of the American people. It’s difficult to talk with Americans about what it’s like to live in Russia. “[I]t’s like apples and oranges,” he said. “I just know they’re never going to get it even if I try to tell them.”

“A week ago my wife and I were having dinner with people in Tulsa and they were all talking about cheesecake and Key Lime pie. ‘Oh, it’s better to have cheesecake here.’ ‘Well, I really like the Key Lime pie.’ And this talk went on and on about different desserts and where the rolls and the biscuits are best,” Rick Renner told The Stream. “And I sat there and thought, only in America would people sit around the table and talk for 30 minutes about where’s the best place in town to buy a pie. Other parts of the world just want a piece of bread.”

In 1991, Renner, his wife and their three sons met that reality head-on when they moved to the former Soviet Union. It was a journey that had begun several months before.

‘Welcome to Your New Home’

Renner had been asked to speak at a mission’s conference in Florida — something he really didn’t want to do. As he prepared to speak, he stumbled upon a Russian Bible. It fascinated him. As he looked at the words, he realized he could phonetically read it. His background in the Greek language helped. God was preparing him for his next mission.

Months went by. A pastor asked him to speak at a new Bible school in Russia. “When I arrived in the Soviet Union, I could not believe how totally dilapidated it was. … It was beyond what any fiction writer could have ever written. It’s so collapsed. … Everything [was] broken. The streets broken, everything just broken.” But when he opened his Bible to speak to the group, he heard the Holy Spirit. “Welcome to your new home.” He knew at that moment that God was calling his family to ministry in Russia.

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The transition wasn’t easy. Renner described the desperation of the Russian people. Pharmacies were empty. “There was no medication because the system was so collapsed, there was not even aspirin. People couldn’t even buy aspirin. … [T]he shelves would be completely vacant.” Doctors could diagnose patients, but there were no medications. “People become pretty desperate.” 

Renner and his wife began to advertise their church services. “As part of the advertisement, we said that there would be healing. Well, you know what? The Gospel’s good news. And when there’s no medications and hospitals can’t help you, healing is really good news. People began showing up in droves.” Ushers had to hold back the crowds when the Renners began to pray for the sick. 

A Spiritual Hunger 

The people also welcomed the Renners because they’d been deprived of spiritual food for decades. For 70 years God had been outlawed. “There was such a spiritual hunger because communism had vacated the human heart. They were starving for spiritual reality.”

Around 32,000 people showed up at an auditorium that only held 8,000. It was wonderful. “When we would give the invitation for the lost, they would rush … . It was like floods of people streaming to the front. When you would lead them in prayer, to receive Christ, you could hear demons coming out of people … . [We’d call] Jesus Lord and you could hear people shrieking as demons were leaving.”

Other miracles occurred — in front of the crowds. One man who had been paralyzed for 19 years walked. Renner and others prayed for 30 days over a little girl who was brain-dead. She sat up and began to talk. She’s perfectly healthy now.

Worship at the Kremlin

It wasn’t just the downtrodden who made a place for Christianity in their community. High-ranking officials welcomed Renner into the Kremlin — something he notes wouldn’t have happened when they first arrived in the Soviet Union. “We’ve gone all the way from the church being persecuted and believers being imprisoned, until now. We are invited to the Kremlin for high level meetings,” Renner explained.

Last fall he attended a meeting at the Kremlin. “I just pinched myself. Is this really happening? I mean, what a turn of history. I’m sitting in one of the Kremlin palaces. We’re celebrating the 500th [anniversary of the] protestant reformation with all these governmental members that are there.” Members of Putin’s administration were there. He continued:

A choir came out with a full orchestra. From where I was sitting, I was looking out the window at the towers of the Kremlin, the snow was falling, it already was surreal. And then, the choir begins singing A Mighty Fortress is our God. I thought “What? We’re singing A Mighty Fortress is Our God in the Kremlin?” I mean, we would’ve gone to jail for that 30 years ago. And here we are. It will go down in the annuals of modern church history, what’s taken place.

In addition, the Renners have seen former communists get saved through their senior citizens ministry. So many people want to come that the church has to schedule their visits. “We have seen so many senior citizens come to Christ and their lives changed. It’s just wonderful. I love those old communists.”

Strong in the Faith

Russians, and those in countries where they are persecuted for being Christians, have invested a lot in their faith. They’re strong in the Lord. “That’s why they’ve seen amazing results.” On the other hand, Americans have a tough time because it’s too easy in the States.

“I don’t think there’s a place in the world harder to be a committed Christian than the United States,” said Renner. “It’s tougher here than anywhere in the world. Not because of religious persecution, but because people are just being cooked in the middle of complacency. … Where life is easy, where there’s not a cost involved, cost to your faith, it’s really easy to just kind of backslide.” America is so blessed, but she doesn’t recognize it. “It’s sad to me, to be honest.”

Since moving to Russia, the Renners have planted three churches, established a Christian television network, founded a Bible school, a seminary and a ministerial association that serves pastors. Renner’s wife, Denise, developed a massive women’s ministry. They have around 4,000 members in their Moscow church, a record number when in all of Moscow there are only 25,000 protestants. 

Living the Book of Acts

As for Renner, his life has been one just out of the New Testament. “I have lived the book of Acts. The birth of a church, the birth of the church in that region of the world. Signs and wonders, I mean, we’ve seen the demons cast out, I’ve seen the dead raised, we have just seen a phenomenal faith. And we lost nothing when we left America. We gained everything.”

People don’t have to go to Russia to make an impact for the Kingdom of God. “Anybody can do what God calls them to do, whether it’s America or somewhere else,” Renner pointed out. “And when you obey God and go where God tells you to go, you never lose. You always gain. You always gain.”

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