Despite the troubling times we are living through, the Eurasian Missionary College in Kazan, Tatarstan, is poised to refocus its vision and increase its reach to train more missionaries and church planters for Muslim areas in Russia and Central Asia. Tim McMahon shares his hopes and aspirations as he prepares for a new season of involvement in the College’s ministry, stepping into the role of Training and Foreign Development Director in October (if the current virus crisis abates). Marcus interviews Tim to find out what might lie ahead…

M: Tim, I detect a bit of a ‘twang’ in your accent. Where are you from originally?

T: I’m from Sydney, Australia. I trained as a civil engineer and worked as a management consultant in the construction industry for several years, and then retrained for Christian ministry in the early-1990’s. I came to the UK in 1995.

M: What brought you here?

T: I came to help a church in the East End of London reach out with the gospel to the community of Pakistani Muslims on their doorstep. I had been praying about involvement in evangelism among Muslim people since my university days.

M: So how did your focus shift from doing work amongst Muslims in London in the UK to training missionaries in Kazan, Tatarstan in Russia?

T: In the summer of 2000, I met the founder of the Eurasian Missionary College, Insur, at a preacher training conference I was helping at here in London. Insur was over from Russia to study for a master’s degree in theology, having just completed delivering the inaugural year of the College’s full-time training course. He shared with me that the first cohort of students had recently left the College to go to various cities in Tatarstan and to other Central Asian nations in order to share the gospel with Muslims. He said that the College’s training intentionally addressed students’ “head, heart, and hands” so that the gospel would transform their lives, and through them, the lives of those they reached out to. I told him I’d like to see the work “up close and personal”. So Insur invited me to teach at the College the following winter.

What’s so special about Tatarstan?

43% of the population in Tatarstan are ethnically Tatar – the majority culturally Muslim – and so Tatarstan is considered part of Central Asia.  Because Tatarstan is a state within the Russian Federation, and freedom of religion is written into the Russian constitution, Christian organisations such as the Eurasian Missionary College can operate in Tatarstan.  Here Christian missionaries from and to Central Asian nations can be trained in a culturally Muslim context. Tatarstan’s strong regional ties to other Central Asian nations means it is uniquely placed to provide missionary training for the region.

M: Was it what you expected?

T: To be honest, I’m not sure I knew what to expect. I was expecting the weather to be cold, of course, and I was not disappointed – it never got above -15⁰C the whole time I was there! But the staff and students were anything but cold. They burned with passion to reach their peoples with the good news of Jesus, and were willing to endure considerable hardship to give or receive the training they felt was needed to be effective in this. I remember helping lug a 50kg bag of potatoes up nine flights of stairs to the apartment of the couple I was staying with. When I asked them why they needed such a big bag of potatoes, they looked at me as though it was blindingly obvious. They said, “that’s our food for the winter, of course.” Well, it was blindingly obvious to me that my church in the UK could significantly help this fledgling training work by providing the modest funds necessary to feed the students and staff more nutritious food during the winter! When I shared the story of the College with other churches in the UK, many asked if they too could help support the work. Eurasian Ministries UK was formed in September 2004 to enable this.

M; Did you intend to go to Tatarstan and work there as a missionary yourself?

T: I did. But other missionaries’ experience gave me pause for thought. Every Western missionary that I had met in Kazan in 2001 had not been able to get their visa renewed after their initial term of language learning. It seemed obvious to me that I would likely be able to serve the College for much longer if I remained based in the UK and applied for an annual multiple entry religious worker’s visa each year. Though not as immersed as a residential missionary, at least I would not get kicked out of Russia after three or four years! Nearly 20 years later, I am still getting that type of visa! The downside is that I have not been able to pick up much of the Russian language because I am not immersed in it.

M: But I understand that is changing now.

T: Yes! I have just started 10 hours per week of Russian language learning with an online tutor based in Kazan. The enforced “confinement to barracks” caused by the coronavirus crisis has given me opportunity to get some Russian language under my belt.

M: Does that mean that you plan to serve in Tatarstan in the future?

T: Yes – God-willing. The College received official registration as an education institution a few years ago. It is now able to employ foreign workers if there is no Russian citizen with the required skills to do an advertised job. The next stage of development for the College’s ministry requires someone with my experience, background, and skillset. The College put the word out through churches in Tatarstan and other Central Asian nations, and placed advertisements as part of a formal recruitment process, but could not find anyone suitable for the role. In February this year the College Board invited me to take up the role of Training and Foreign Development Director from April of this year. That is obviously on hold now until the travel restrictions required to deal with the coronavirus crisis are lifted.

M: What will the role involve you doing?

T: Reviewing and reshaping (if necessary) every aspect of the College’s training! The College has always been about equipping gospel workers to serve in Muslim regions. But in recent years the College has accepted students with broader training needs – such as those seeking to be equipped for pastoral ministry or youth ministry in their churches. Now these ministries are valuable, of course, and training at the Eurasian Missionary College has been good for these students because it has instilled in them a commitment to mission as a key component of their future church-based ministries. But we want to equip more workers specifically aiming to reach Muslims in Central Asia with the gospel.

M: What will the role of Training & Foreign Development Director involve then?

T: It will involve simultaneously narrowing the focus of the College’s training, and broadening its reach!

The “Training” part of the role will require me to review every course we offer, and sharpen the focus where needed. The aim will be to ensure that the content of every course is specifically geared to help a church planter or evangelist engage people from a Muslim background with the gospel. I will review theological content and the cultural appropriateness of communication in each course. We will review what courses we offer, including the balance of academic study, character-forming mentoring, and practical learning. I will aim to work with every teacher – including visiting lecturers – to ensure that this focus is achieved.

The “Foreign Development” aspect of the role is to make training at the College even more widely known and coveted among Central Asian churches, and to be more accessible to them. I also want to look at ways that we can provide further training for church planters in Tatarstan. Many of the church planters in Tatarstan who trained at the College in its first years have not had any further formal ministry training since then. It is not practical for them to leave their churches for an extended period to do more residential training. We will be looking to develop different forms and timings of training delivery to increase its accessibility across the region. We may even look into getting the College’s courses accredited. Russia is a country where having the right paperwork is essential if you want permission to operate in the public square. A number of Western education institutions offer courses translated into Russian that pastors and church planters can do and receive formally accredited awards, but in almost all cases such training is not well attuned to the gospel and cultural context of workers seeking training to serve in Tatarstan and Central Asia. To my mind, the College is still the best institution in the region to equip Christian workers for this context, yet is often passed over by potential Christian workers because it does not offer any formally accredited awards. I would like to change that. I also expect to spend a significant chunk of my time visiting pastors throughout Central Asia to find out ways the College could better serve their need for culturally appropriate and accessible training for gospel workers for the region. I will be doing some fundraising in the UK to this end.

M: What is it about your background that fits you to fulfil this role?

T: It’s not my ability in the Russian language, obviously – though I now have opportunity to improve that. The College is blessed with capable translators, so we can work around my limitations in that area, at least initially. What has most equipped me for this role are the things I have had to do in the last seven or eight years on the back of the tragedy of the break-up of my marriage in 2011 – though at the time I had no idea that those things would be valuable for future ministry. I trained as a secondary and further education teacher, and worked as a science teacher in an FE college for a couple of years. This training was particularly useful because it taught me current best practice in educational methods and philosophy, as well as developing my skills in curriculum development and the assessment of educational effectiveness. I then worked for a few years as the Operations Vice Principal of a theological college in London. This showed me the inner workings of a large ministry-training college, and in particular showed me the ins and outs of getting vocational and mentoring aspects of ministry-training accredited in the Higher Education sector. In the last couple of years, I have been working for the mission agency Serving In Mission (SIM), learning what’s involved to properly mobilise missionaries and support them once they are on the field. All these skills will come together in the role the College want me to take up.

M: Obviously the coronavirus crisis has put a bit of a spanner in the works on the timing of these plans. How do you see the future panning out?

T: The delay to my departure has been a blessing in disguise, in many ways. Because the possibility of the post was only raised with me quite late last year, I have not had time to get all the financial support in place that will be needed for me to commence the role in April. Having said that, the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis on an individual’s ability to support charitable and mission causes such as this, and on church mission budgets, means that there is still a significant fundraising challenge ahead.  But I have more time to put this opportunity before individuals and churches now. SIM offered me a missions training role until the end of September which I have taken, so I am not without an income for this next six months. The delay in going is also giving me the opportunity to do some Russian language study.

M: Despite the bleak backdrop of the world pandemic, this opportunity sounds like it could result in a significant expansion of the College’s training ministry, and lead to more effective training of gospel workers for Central Asia. I am sure Eurasian Ministries supporters will uphold you in prayer, and some may be able to help financially (drop us a line initially at admin@eurasian-ministries.org).

Tim McMahon is currently a serving on the staff of SIM UK, but God-willing will be seconded to Eurasian Ministries UK Trust to undertake the Training and Foreign Development Director role at the Eurasian Missionary College from October 2020.

Please pray for Tim

  • For successful completion of the stalled visa application process so that he can serve on the staff of the Eurasian College in Kazan after the summer
  • For wisdom in reviewing the College’s current training offerings, and careful discernment of the how best to address the training needs and expand the training opportunities that the College can provide for Central Asia in the future
  • That the logistic and financial impacts of the coronavirus crisis will not prevent him from contributing to the next stage of development of the Eurasian Missionary College’s training ministry in and from Kazan