According to Wikipedia, a Russian banya “is a small room or building designed as a place to experience dry or wet heat sessions.” That description sounds so innocent, almost like a place one goes to find inner peace. But I say Russian banyas are places of voluntary torture.
Allow me to walk you through my experience in one because, surprisingly, while there, I learned three lessons about the local church.
Full Exposure is Required
Upon entering a banya with some local friends, I went into a locker room and—in full cultural fashion—stripped down to a towel and bath sandals. Disrobing was a community event and the locker room was quite small. So, from the very beginning, there was no hiding our physical flaws.
From the locker room, we headed to the main bathing area where I draped my towel over a hook and rinsed off in the showers. Over the next four hours (you heard that right—four whole hours!), we were either totally nude or wrapped in nothing but our personal towels.
Sitting uncomfortably exposed in the presence of friends, I learned the first important lesson about church—the need for exposure—metaphorically, of course. The local church should offer a safe environment to reveal our spiritual deficiencies, no matter how uncomfortable.
Church leaders are sometimes the least inclined to admit that the process of sanctification does not end in this lifetime. Meanwhile, the people we lead may be attempting to cover their struggle with temptation or sin with whatever fig leaves they can locate. I suggest we live out the reality that we are all spiritually deficient apart from Christ, and the only clothes that effectively cover our sin are supplied by Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 3:22).
Shared Suffering Produces Endurance
After rinsing off in the showers, we picked up Russian felt hats and sitting mats. The head tends to heat up faster than the rest of the body, so the hat helps you regulate the misery of the sauna. Make no mistake, nothing sucks the joy of life right out of me quite like temperatures soaring over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The moment I walked into the sauna, I wanted to walk out, but I didn’t because an Afghan, a Russian, and three Americans were sitting with me. There is something about suffering together that provides energy to endure.”
After a few minutes of searing heat, we were supposed to walk over to a large vat of ice-cold water and plunge in until completely submerged. I tried easing my way down the steps of the pool the first time. I can assure you this is not the right strategy. You just have to jump in because then your screaming is muffled by the water. The encouragement of my companions was the only reason I eventually took the plunge.
Herein lies the second lesson: suffering is more manageable when you do it together. The moment I walked into the sauna, I wanted to walk out, but I didn’t because an Afghan, a Russian, and three Americans were sitting with me. There is something about suffering together that provides energy to endure. So, I stayed and rhythmically breathed in air that surely originated from the bellows of Hades itself.
On our third round to the ice bath, I was trying to avoid taking the plunge until one of my friends leaned over and asked, “Have you gone in yet?” For a fleeting moment, all kinds of dodgy responses filled my mind. Imagine how surprised I was when I replied honestly, “No, I’m going in right now!”
Even as I slipped off my bath shoes and made the ascent to the top of the vat, I thought that lying would have been the easy way out. But into the ice water I went. I endured to the end.
Cultivating endurance is a major job of the church—we want to help people endure the challenges of our faith so we all make it to the end together. I need people stronger than me to encourage, admonish, pray for, and model how to stay in the narrow way.
When I make it to the end, I long to hear those coveted words from our Master, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” But to get there, I often need to hear something similar along the way: “Keep going! Don’t give up! Let’s go together!”
Deeper Fellowship Follows Shared Experience
After we finished our ice-water plunges, we headed to a café area. There we sat wrapped in towels and ate and drank and talked. Fellowship is always more galvanizing when you have endured, nay suffered something together. Suffering seems to strip away the superficial topics and allows you to focus on weightier matters.
We listened as our Afghan and Russian friends shared their conversion stories. We snacked on mandarins, ate Uzbek plov (a rice dish) and nursed our chai for forty-five minutes until the gong rang. Then, we rose, bolstered by the goodness of fellowship and ready to go through the suffering cycle again.
If we’re not careful, sometimes Christian fellowship can feel contrived because we haven’t shared in Christ’s suffering or we’re not courageous enough to reveal our struggles. We’re reluctant to share our battles with temptation. We hide our intimidations in sharing our faith.
When we hesitate to share honestly with one another about suffering and struggle, we rob others of an opportunity to encourage us in faith and love. If we always stay in our comfort zones, masking temptation and veiling our sin, we’re not galvanized for ministry together in the world.
In all honesty, the experience in a Russian banya was good for me. The extreme heat and cold forced my will to tell my body that fellowship with Christian brothers is more important than atmospheric comfort. Churches should look more like Russian banyas in that we should be willing to embrace the discomfort that marks all true fellowship, stripping away pretenses, confessing sin and doubt, so that repentance, forgiveness, and restoration will follow.
Admittedly, this process is painful. But walking together through the sufferings of this world prepare us to experience the glories of Christ.
Andrew Bristol received his BA from Hardin-Simmons University and his MDiv and DMin from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has been serving in Central Asia since 2003. He and his wife have four children and one grandchild.