The history of Word of Grace Bible church is closely intertwined with the fate of the fourth wave of Russian immigration to the United States. The majority of the first immigrants from the former Soviet Union in 1990 moved to Vancouver, a few families that would form the backbone of the future church. This core group consisted of: Alexander and Valentina Shkarovsky, Benjamin and Irina Portansky, Victor and Natalia Paliy, and others.
At that time, the small town had only one Russian-speaking Pentecostal church. For the first few months the new immigrants gathered together. When the group numbered about 40, the brothers were surprised to learn of another small group of Baptists. The Pastor of the 14 members was Mikhail Leontiev, who arrived in the U. S. during the third wave of immigration. At the end of 1991 they began to hold meetings together in Portland, renting a room at Hinson Baptist Church at 1137 SE 20th Avenue. In 1994, when the number of members exceeded 200 people, about half of the members separated from the church residing in Vancouver. The move was motivated by the desire to have a body of believers in the neighboring state across the river, where many large families lived at the time.
From 1994 to 1997 the community was going through a particularly turbulent time due to problems common to most immigrant churches. In a short time, the suburbs around Portland were filled with hundreds of Christians, each with their own ideas about what the church should be. Traditions established in Siberia, differed from that of the families from Moscow, the Caucasus, Central Asia or Ukraine. The unique development of each subculture, made their ideas of what a good church should be so different from one other. This created tension between the subgroups, often resulting in conflicts. The absence of strong and mature ministers who could resolve disputes complicated the situation even more. Because of the lack of a common platform that was sufficiently understandable, robust, and flexible to accommodate the different subgroups of Christians, the churches experienced many splits, uniting around a more or less influential leaders. Slavic Baptist Church originated in June 1997, as a result of one of these quarrels.
Practically from its start and up until the day of the consecration of the present church building, the church gathered at the People’s Church located in the city at the corner of Mill Plain and Andresen. The senior pastor of these 89 members was Sergei Petrovich Elchaninov supported by nine brothers of the church council. They were united by a desire not just to survive after immigration, but to build a church strong enough to become the basis of the spiritual development of their children and youth.
The church grew rapidly, due both to the continuing immigration, and those who would join through baptism. Soon a choir, orchestra, children’s ministry, Russian school, and regular youth meetings were established. At first glance, it seemed that everything was developing no worse than any other church. However, key ministers soon began to see a serious strategic problem, a solution to which they did not know.
Church tradition formed in the former Soviet Union, was natural for the older generation but was completely incomprehensible to those who grew up after immigration. The misters saw how the church gradually lost its influence on the next generation. Some went to American churches, some joined pro-charismatic communities, and other just defended their independence within the church. So for the first three years no one leader was able to stick with the youth. Young people were more likely respond to an invitation to play volleyball or go to the mountains than to spend an hour with an open Bible. At some point, rebellion became an end in itself. Frustrated with strange traditions, and the conflicting statements from the pulpit, while under constant fire from skirmishes between the different church groups, young people, if not embittered at least lost interest in what their parents called faith. However, even at this stage there were people whose true love and involvement ignited these souls.
Today many representing that youth who turned to God are with gratitude recalling the participation of Tim Supin and Andrey Drokin in their lives.
Ministers intuitively understood that holding people in church by participation in choir, orchestra and other activities does not have a long lasting effect. But on the other hand, what could be an alternative capable of changing the hearts of these people? Of course theoretically everyone acknowledged the importance of the Holy Scriptures and sermons, but in reality a mere handful of people was capable of bringing biblical truths to young people clearly, practically and with conviction.
During this time God was preparing an amazing way of leading the church out of spiritual crisis. On the other side of U. S., in one of Los Angeles suburbs during a regular pastors retreat, ministers of Grace Community Church decided to take their annual conference to a totally different level. That is, to make it an instrument of serving pastors across the world.
However, there wasn’t much time until the start of the next conference. Speakers were already invited, and the schedule confirmed. This late reorientation of the course did not allow to change much in the upcoming event, so it was decided to cancel the conference. After sharing this in one of quick conversations with a Masters Seminary student Alexey Kolomiytsev, brethren of Grace Community church received unexpected but a wise suggestion: use already available opportunities for a special pastors conference. And so the almost-complete pastoral team of the church in Vancouver attended the conference especially organized for Russian-speaking brethren, which is now known across the world as "Shepherd’s Conference".
The event became well known. Soon after, in Samara, a now well known center for minister training was established; and in USA a small group of ministers from the Vancouver church began to seriously think about guiding their church in a new direction. At the center of it all should not be cultural religious traditions, but the authority of the Word, worship from the heart, and a pastoral style of leadership. The only thing left to do was to find a man who would understand the Russian mentality well and able to formulate the new course, taking into consideration the intricacies of an immigrant church. In private conversations Alexey Kolomiytsev was nominated as one of the first candidates for this role. Their choice was based on several reasons. First of all, Alexey was soon to finish the Masters Seminary, whose base church became so dear to the Russian brethren. On top of that at least once a year he visited their church and the congregation was familiar with him. But, what is not of the least importance, this was the only man whom the youth was ready to follow. The only problem was that Alexey already had plans for ministry in Russia. That is why he refused an offer to accept the ministry as a pastor in Vancouver.
The only thing he could help with at that moment was to become the middleman in organizing a school for preachers. In January of 2001 the Biblical Institute "Word Of Grace" at Slavic Baptist Church based in Vancouver began its work. Men from Masters Seminary conducted monthly sessions, inviting church ministers from Oregon and Washington states.
However, expected breakthrough in church development did not happen. Infrequent meetings could hardly change anything in a deeply rooted traditional approach to ministry. Growing caution towards changes that was inevitably caused by the education totally put an end to the attendance of the school.
But already in September 2001 God began to radically change what seemed to have been determined for years to come. During Alexey and Tatyana’s preparation trip before returning to Russia it became clear, that circumstances where they planned to serve have changed, making it basically impossible. Considering a few more possibilities and not finding an appropriate one, they returned to Los Angeles to ask God for guidance in their next ministry during their last year at the seminary. At this time they decided to reconsider the Vancouver church offer of taking leadership of the congregation.
As a response to that, four months later Aleksey submitted a detailed vision of the future of the immigrant church to the church council. Each of the elements was quite radical. This gave almost complete confidence to Aleksey that his candidacy will be rejected. What was in that plan? First, it offered a specific purpose and defined philosophy of ministry, which supposed to determine everything that happens in the church. Second, the sermon had to be the centerpiece of the church service, which would require the switch to the pastoral ministry. And finally, the church should be governed by the Board of Elders leaving only the approval to church members.
It sounded quite new, and therefore suspicious. But to Aleksey’s surprise, the church council, and all the brothers and members approved the proposed plan. And at the end of May 2002, immediately after graduating from seminary, Alexey and Tatiana migrated to Vancouver to take service in the Slavic Baptist Church.
Resuscitation of the church was much more difficult than the pastor and the brother’s advice envisioned in the beginning. Fortunately, one of the stipulations of Alexey’s service was an agreement that for three years, no matter how hard; neither he nor the church would remove him from the pastorate. This condition has become a kind of anchor in the first 18 rough months.
When the change in the ministry moved from paper to practice some people began to demand to return to old ways. When it became clear that the church will stay the chosen course, dissenters started to leave to other churches. It was the most difficult time for the elders, when even the most dedicated people started to doubt the suitability of the chosen strategy. When Aleksey became a pastor, the church had 264 members. During the first year and a half it declined by about 90 people. Often they were those who have been there from the beginning, which made the situation even more difficult emotionally.
Almost simultaneously, began the reverse process. Many people were drawn to the clear sermon, emanating from the Holy Scriptures and demanding changes in life. The brothers understood that all those who were accustomed to the traditional course of ministry and life, will inevitably leave the church. Just as they were aware that the church will grow by those who accustomed themselves to think rationally and who are devoted to the practical nature of the transformation of own character. Thus, by the end of the second year of ministry the situation began to stabilize. In addition to preaching, the intelligibility of the church’s course, the ordered structure of the leadership, clear development prospects in the American context began to attract others. And what is particularly valuable to many, people were attracted by the serious attention to youth.
Working with young brothers and potential leaders has become one of the Pastor Aleksey’s priorities. In August 2002 he started special classes, which in various forms continue to this day. By the end of 2003 Eugene Shkarovsky, who was one of the most active members of the group, became the leader of the youth, and later, the youth pastor. During his involvement in the youth the ministry began to have a huge influx of people into the church aged from 14 to 30 years old who did not know God. At this time Paul Mikhalenko, Vitaly Pelikhaty, Arkady Dorokhov, Jimmy Mikhailenko and other brothers repented and later became the leaders of various departments of the ministry.
The second factor which allowed the church to have a stable development, was ongoing effort to improve the quality of its leadership. In the framework of "The Word of Grace Bible Institute" which was already functioning at that time, special courses: "The School of Biblical preaching," "School of Spiritual Leadership," "Effective pastorate," and "Counseling" were conducted for ministers. These studies have noticeably contributed to a visible increase in spiritual ministry. This goal was also pursued by Aleksey’s many years of personal work with individual brothers, as well as numerous workshops and church-wide teaching.
The development of leaders allowed to expand the scope of service in the church. The brothers, who were the leadership of the church from the beginning, played an important role in it. First and foremost these men were Sergey Petrovich Elchaninov, Benjamin Portansky, Andrey Drokin and Aleksey Ivanovich Kolomiytsev. They and some others bore the main burden the church, helping the main pastor in a constantly evolving ministry.
After the construction of the new building came to a close at the end of 2005, it became evident to the brothers that the quantitative growth of the church will continue. This growth demanded a new and more effective approach towards ministry and church leadership. At this time Alexey suggested to the elder’s council to bring Vitaliy Rozhko on board as a candidate for the second pastor. In a year, in January of 2007, Vitaliy joined the church team, having become a blessing for the whole church as well as a reliable friend and helper for Alexey.
The general progress of forming in leadership allowed for the necessary time to produce structural changes. At the end of 2007 the Elder’s Council was converted into the Board of Elders. Special groups of qualified and trained brothers were prepared for leading every block of ministry. In 2008, when the number of members was above 600 persons, the small groups ministry was reorganized. In January of 2009 the council of pastoral care, whose aim is to coordinate the whole progress of spiritual growth in the church, progress in small groups, counseling, and church discipline.
Besides preaching and shepherding, one of the most important areas of ministry in the church is worship. Thanks to the emphasis on everyone’s growth in maturity, God allowed us to avoid the typical self-establishing and competing tendencies in the music world. In the beginning Alexander Shkarovskiy was head of the worship ministry. In 2004, out of personal initiative, he gave the ministry to the more capable choir director – Pavel Antonyuk, continuing to faithfully help him. Nickolai Kolesnik played and especially important role for an extent of the next few years when He provided pastoral care for the whole department. In 2010 the worship ministry was handed down to the young brother Paul Mikhailenko. With the sacrifices of many singers and musicians and the support of the music board, Paul was able to take it to a new level, making it better musically better and spiritually inspiring. Besides the leaders of the music ministry, soloists Nickolai Kolesnik, Elena Regeza, Olga Zavorotnaya, Elijah and Tatiana Yelchaninov, Inna Shkarovskiy, Peter Sklyarov and others played a special role in the growth of this area of church life. Their faithfulness and spirit of ministry allows a thousand believers to deeply and consciously to worship God with singing of great quality
The church’s influence in the world became one of the many priorities at WGBC. From the very beginning of pastor Alexey’s ministry of the Word, his sermons were recorded and distributed within the limits of the church. Through some members, these sermons were passed on to friends and family outside of the church, making their way around the world and back to their native land. Soon after, the church website was launched, becoming a source of spiritual food for numerous hungry souls. In 2007, a live stream recording of the church service was broadcasted for the first time. After two years, websites such as: www.islovo.org containing audio and video recordings of sermons, www.slovostore.org an online store, www.blog.islovo.org the church’s blog, and www.slovoradio.org an internet-radio, were all launched. These resources became strong instruments that God has used to spread Biblical influence throughout the world.
Leaning on God’s faithfulness, the church is approaching its 15 year anniversary having experienced an innumerable amount of blessings. In the past 10 years, approximately 250 people were baptized. The amount of members grew from 264 to 900 members. A clear identity within the church has been formed. The majority of the congregation attending the church, genuinely love the church, value its Biblical sermons, seek discipleship, and are willing to commit themselves to the edification of the Body. Members of the church are characterized by their generosity in supporting the church financially. Throughout these 10 years, the church has grown three and a half times its original size. At the same time, the financial support of the church has grown more than 10 times its original donations. Besides that, the church has established a warm attitude in connection between the generations of the elderly and youth. After having done strategic planning in the beginning of 2012, the church has decided that, in a few decades, it will gradually move towards becoming an English speaking church. However, before officially transitioning, services will continue being led in Russian.
Besides numerous blessings and successes experienced within the church, there have been challenges and struggles. The mistakes and lack of maturity of the leaders, weaknesses of the members, lack of qualification in ministers, deficit of commitment, modern cultural influence seeping in (including Christian), laziness, and the desire to live for oneself are just several of the many challenges the church has faced and is facing today. All this is naturally brought into the church by our sinful nature and bodies. However, it is for this purpose that the church exists- to overcome challenges and grow in maturity in Jesus Christ "from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love." (Ephesians 4:16 ESV)