FRESNO – “My big brothers stood in front of me so that no one could see who was playing the organ,” Ivan Mileyev recalled. “That is kind of funny! I was 12-years old and playing the organ in a Baptist church in the Ukraine. Playing the organ or being involved in ministry at that age was not allowed in the Soviet Union.”
Ivan Mileyev joined the California Southern Baptist Convention (CSBC) Church Starting Group as church planting catalyst in January 2007. His primary area of responsibility is the planting of churches for California’s Slavic speakers, which includes those speaking Belarusian, Moldavian, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, and other Indo-European languages.
His family’s journey from the Ukraine to California is a compelling story of God’s providence.
Ivan was born into a Ukrainian Christian family, and was involved in music ministry from an early age. When he was 16, Ivan realized that there was more to being a Christian than coming from a Christian family, being religious, or being involved in church ministry. He repented, accepted Jesus as his Lord, and was baptized.
“I finished music college in Kiev,” Ivan said. “Then I attended the Odessa State Conservatory of Music for five years to earn my master’s degree in music. I studied music for nine or more years, and I was a choir and orchestra director and responsible for special music among all Ukrainian Baptist churches in Kiev, Ukraine.”
Ivan married his wife, Yelena, in 1985, and they immigrated with their two daughters and one son to Hollywood, California, in 1992. God led them to join the Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church of Hollywood where they learned about Southern Baptist life and mission.
“I never thought that God had a different plan for my ministry,” Ivan stated. “I was a musician and I thought that would be my ministry; however, in 1994, God led me to organize a new Slavic church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I realized that I had the spiritual gifts of teaching and preaching, and that God was calling me to be a church planter. For me, it was all a surprise!”
Ivan became the ordained pastor of the Slavic Baptist Church of Transfiguration that he planted in Minneapolis. He grew spiritually as its minister, and experienced the challenges and joys of the pastorate. As a Southern Baptist pastor, Ivan participated in pastoral meetings with the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention, and the congregation enjoyed the fellowship of other churches in the Twin Cities Metro Baptist Association.
“That experience was a benefit for me,” Ivan said. “You must have this experience if you are to work and help other pastors. You understand what they face and what they believe.”
Anthony Ahaev, leader, Church Starting group, formerly the language church starting specialist for CSBC, visited Ivan’s church. After a period of time, Ahaev invited Ivan to return to California as a CSBC church planter strategist responsible for planting churches for Slavic people.
“After 13 years living in cold, snowy weather, God moved us back to California,” Ivan stated. “The way God led us to this ministry was like a miracle, and it is a big challenge. California has a large concentration of Russian speakers, and I believe that it is time for Southern Baptists to be more involved in the Slavic population.
“In California, the Russian and Slavic people are spread around, and sometimes it is hard to reach them,” Ivan continued. “It is a challenge for us to reach the people for Christ, especially Russian Jews. We have a lot of Russian Jews living in California, and they resent all Christians. Another challenge for me is to help Russian pastors be more kingdom-focused.”
Ivan continues to use his music background as a church planter.
“I am really glad to have my musical background because it always helps me when I start a new church. If I do not have musicians, I play the piano or a keyboard, which can sound like an orchestra playing. I remember when I started the Slavic Church of the Open Door in Fresno. It was like a one-family team. I played the keyboard, sang, and preached while my wife and kids interacted with the people.”
Ivan’s message to California Southern Baptists:
“It is an honor to be part of the ministry of planting churches. I believe that God wants to grow His kingdom by opening new churches everywhere, but especially here in California. All of the nationalities have come here to us, and we need to meet this challenge by reaching them right here on California soil.
“We must stay focused and be faithful and not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. It does not matter where we live or how popular we are. When we unite in Christ, we can do more and be more effective than we can be separately.”
The Great Commission calls all Christians to be missionaries wherever they are; however, many believers feel that they lack skills to witness effectively. Ivan Mileyev recommends these books to equip Christians for intentional evangelism: Share Jesus Without Fear, by William Fay, and Becoming a Contagious Christian, by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg.
Pray that God open doors for new church planting possibilities in Mid-Valley Association among different language groups.
Pray that God will raise up church planters who are willing to work with Russian-speaking people who are unchurched or unbelievers.
Pray that Russian Jews will by open and accept the witness of Jewish Christians.
I thank God for His faithfulness to me and my family.
I thank God for the honor of serving on CSBC’s church planting team.
I thank God for CSBC’s leadership team in Fresno.
I thank God for the spiritual blessings, wisdom, and strength that He has poured out on this ministry.
I thank God for the musical talent that He has given to me.
Did you know?
Approximately 5 million Russian speakers live in the United States; one-fifth of them live in California with the largest concentrations being in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. Russian-Americans have a median annual income of $50,500, with many pursuing higher education in colleges and universities. They are a largely secular population needing access to Slavic church plants. Contact Ivan Mileyev for more information about ministering to California’s Slavic population. (–www.csbc.com)
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