I have just returned from my latest trip to Latvia.
20th May 2023 was the 30th anniversary of my first trip there.
So many things have changed since then.
The country has been transformed by reconstruction of its ageing Soviet infrastructure. EU membership has helped fund some of this and opened up a marketplace for its tiny economy. I have seen three changes of currency during this time from the Russian rouble to the Transitional Latvian Rouble (that looked rather like Monopoly money), the Lat and finally the Euro.
Exposure to the wider world through the presence of many Western visitors, international businesspeople and students has broadened the outlook and worldview of many in Latvia.
One of the ways in which this is demonstrated among our students is the way they ask questions. 30 years ago people were looking for a definitive, correct answer from the teacher. Now the questions tend to be more wide-ranging. They tend to open up a conversation rather than seek a set answer.
Technology and communication have changed too. Latvia was one of the first post-Soviet countries to have a cable telecommunications system and it boasts high-speed internet connectivity. Technology has had an impact on the way we deliver education at the Latvian Biblical Centre. 30 years ago, in-person in-class teaching was the only option. Now we have a variety of hybrid options for students to join us remotely or to catch up with the lectures at a later point.
Technology has also changed the way I operate while in Riga. In the past I made fairly intensive short trips to teach and preach then leave. My trips tend to be a bit longer now, which leaves space to develop a range of friendships and partnerships in Latvia.
Greater connectivity also means that I can carry on with some of my UK work while in Riga.
During this trip I conducted two interviews about fatherlessness, one online and the other in person. One interviewee was Latvian, the other British. I was interested both by the differences and the similarities of their responses.
Another interview I did online was with Dan Strange of Crosslands Forum about a book by the Dutch missiologist JH Bavinck, entitled The Church between the Temple and the Mosque. Bavinck advocates the importance of listening carefully to those we are seeking to reach before we launch out in seeking to tell them the Gospel. He identifies what he calls five magnetic points that exist in the heart of every human being. These five points are:
Totality — a way to connect? Norm — a way to live? Deliverance — a way out? Destiny — a way we control? Higher power — a way beyond?
These five magnetic points build a bridge between the common longings of every human being to the gospel realities to which they point. Bavinck’s suggestion is that if our witness and preaching goes with the grain of people’s basic longings we are more likely to make a connection with them.
Think this week about how you could make more effective connections in your preaching this Sunday.