How congregations in the former Soviet Union are responding to the coronavirus challenge can help the global church think better about buildings, young professionals, and persecution
Focus on Eurasia: How the Evangelical Church is responding to the challenge of the pandemic, and what lessons it can offer the global Christian community
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has put the entire world to the test, including the global Christian community. It also provided new opportunities for increasing global Christian unity. One of the challenges for us as Christians is to care not just for ourselves and our families, churches and countries, but for Christians in other parts of the world. If we know more about them and pray for them more, if we learn from them and help them, it will strengthen not only our communities, but the entire global Christian family.
For many Western Christians, Eurasia is uncharted territory, and no less so during this pandemic. In the midst of troubling news from Europe and the USA, we do not hear much about what is happening in Eurasia, and even less about how churches are responding to the pandemic. But in this case no news is not good news. It simply means that we have little accurate information. The problem also lies in the fact that we have very little interest in what is happening, despite the fact that post-Soviet Eurasia is a strategically important region, situated with Europe to its west, China to its southeast, and the Islamic world to its south. And the way local Evangelical churches respond to the challenge of the pandemic speaks volumes about their way of life and ministry, as well as their future missions potential.
National leaders testify that the situation in Eurasia is alarming. Health systems, economies, transportation, and security systems are on the verge of total collapse. Mass testing is not happening. Governments deny access to reliable information. And all the while the war in Ukraine continues, and restrictions on religious freedom and human rights increase in Russia and Central Asia.
The former Soviet Union is a gray zone, where, in the wake of the Soviet Empire, strange hybrid systems have emerged, which imitate the developed world while using talk of democracy, free markets, rule of law, independent media, freedom, and human rights to mask their absence. Given these circumstances Evangelical churches are under constant pressure both from government authorities and society, which are dominated by either aggressive Orthodoxy, Islamism, or a secular Soviet mindset.
The challenge of the pandemic has lit a spark, which cast light on the little-noticed but active and essential role of the Evangelical Church in this gray zone. Below I will share five simple lessons that the global Christian community can learn from the Church in post-Soviet Eurasia.
1. Lesson One. When the government is helpless and all other public institutions are paralyzed, the Church finds itself on the front lines. Under the circumstances, people have no one to turn to other than the Church and volunteers. And this creates unprecedented opportunities for sharing the Gospel beyond church walls. Regular church members serve as agents or angels of hope for thousands of people paralyzed by fear and poverty. When regular church activities come to a halt, it prompts many young Christians to begin thinking about what they can do for others.
Sergey, a young pastor from Buryatia (a region of Siberia bordering Mongolia), shares his experience: “Jesus said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations,’ and our government said, ‘Stay home.’ We were faced with the question of how to help people without breaking the law. Our team registered as volunteers and received special volunteer movement permits. Some of us sewed masks, others collected and distributed food donations to those in need, and others answered calls to a hotline, offering much-needed counseling and encouragement. One day we were asked to visit a woman who had been severely beaten by her husband. She had gone blind and was alone. We expected her to have a lot of questions about how God could have allowed this to happen to her, but instead she eagerly listened as we told her about Jesus and she prayed to accept Him as her Lord and Savior. We prayed for her, for healing for her soul, spirit, and, of course, her eyes. She is very lonely and would like us to visit more often to tell her about God. After encounters like that you begin to appreciate things you almost didn’t notice before and took for granted – your ability to see, hear, walk, live.”
These positive examples serve to introduce many people to the Church and change their attitude towards it. Sergey continues, “As you know, all non-Orthodox churches are considered illegitimate in Russia. However now a lot of good things are being written about us online and on TV. While before the Evangelical Church was considered a sect, now we are practically heroes!”
2. Lesson Two. In addition to formal church structures it is important to have a parallel network of informal leaders. In critical moments, when church structures are paralyzed, these field (not office) leaders can take the lead. In 2004 Mission Eurasia began training young leaders from 14 countries of Eurasia through the School Without Walls program, which put an accent on serving outside church walls. Over the years we have trained and equipped an entire army of young leaders. It is an invaluable resource for churches to have relationship-based networks of young leaders with experience working together, especially during a crisis of large institutions and structures.
Another extremely important network of leaders is our young professionals network. Normally churches don’t notice them, however now churches are praying for doctors and teachers. Now that churches are closed, everyone understands that it is Christian professionals out on the front lines. They have become visible. And this experience should change us forever. We should not wait for the next crisis, we should be mobilizing the Church now through young professionals ministry, through training, caring for and supporting them. If they are the avant-garde of the church, then they deserve better treatment and better resources. In the coming years we should focus on helping those professional communities which are critically important to the life of our whole society — groups that could be called to the front lines at any moment. In Eurasia we call this movement “Mission in Profession.” It is a new, fresh initiative, which could change our way of thinking about missions, profession, the Church, and young professionals’ place in it.
3. Lesson Three. When the whole world is in crisis, we need to count, first and foremost, on local resources. When borders are closed, and giving to global missions is declining with each day, it is important to use the opportunity to encourage communities to develop their own internal culture of generosity. I remember back in 2005 when the Russian government refused to recognize Samaritan’s Purse’s Operation Christmas Child gifts as humanitarian aid. Authorities claimed that, “Russia is rich and can take care of its own children.” That same year, Russian Evangelical churches began their own Christmas gift distribution project called Gift of Hope. It turned out that churches were glad to give and put together gifts for orphans and children from needy families. Since then the ministry has continued to grow. It is not well-known in the West, but it is well-known in Eurasia, and has been met by a generous response among churches. As a result many have even developed their own similar initiatives, and the idea has become contagious. Today, as the lockdown continues, instead of Gifts of Hope for children, churches are putting together “iCare” grocery packages for hungry families.
All this is not to say that churches in Eurasia do not need help. Help is needed more than ever, especially in the dark corners of Eurasia such as the Russian-controlled separatist regions of Ukraine or far-flung regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia. However I am convinced that when we know the breadth of local generosity, we will be happier to support churches in Eurasia, adding our international assistance to their sacrificial giving, thereby sharing in their needs and blessings.
4. Lesson Four. Churches that did not have comfortable, well-equipped buildings turned out to be more flexible and creative in missions outreach. In Russia and many countries of Eurasia, the government can easily confiscate, bulldoze, or shut down an Evangelical church’s building. Therefore a majority of churches have faced difficult choices, weighing the risks of continuing to actively reach out to their community or calmly enjoy a comfortable church life in a well-equipped location with no external outreach activity. During the pandemic, churches without buildings responded more quickly, because they lost less. They were able to mobilize to serve others instead of grieving over their empty building.
Media attention has been fixated on the Orthodox Churches, which continued public services during lockdown in defiance of government restrictions. In the Orthodox tradition the temple is everything, and without the temple and sacraments there is no Church. In contrast, Evangelical churches, which have learned to live and serve “without walls,” are in a much better position. While Orthodox churches fight for their traditional liturgy formats, Evangelical churches are reaching new missions fields – online and in homes. Many call themselves “Church Without Walls,” putting an accent on their flexible format and missional nature. Igor, pastor of one of these churches, says that the quarantine has not in any way limited their activity: “We were not tied to a particular location or ministry format, therefore we do not feel that we have less work or fellowship. In fact, the opposite has occurred, because during lockdown everyone wants to hear about God and no one refuses assistance or prayer.”
5. Lesson Five. Ministry during lockdown can serve not just as a test, but also as a valuable lesson for future periods of repression and persecution. This is not the first time the Church in post-Soviet Eurasia has been in lockdown. It survived seventy years of aggressive atheism, when almost all churches were closed. While Soviet communism feels like the distant past, the lessons of that history, learned through underground ministry, personal evangelism, and a battle for freedom, are still relevant today. Pastor Sergey serves in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine, and he says that when church services were forbidden, he wasn’t discouraged – he still remembered church services in Soviet times. “I realized that now was the time for individual meetings and family visits, for speaking without a pulpit or microphone, but rather heart to heart. In the very first week of lockdown two people confessed their sin and made peace with God. They had never attended church before the lockdown. But God found them. I am grateful for the new opportunities created by this situation.”
These and many other lessons from the ministry of the Evangelical Church in Eurasia during the ongoing pandemic serve as a reminder that in times of external difficulties and limitations, God renews the Church, activating its young and creative powers, focusing them on missions “without walls.” The Church of post-Soviet Eurasia was cleansed through trial by fire, and the current challenges are unlikely to limit its ministry. More likely the opposite will happen – this challenge will become a powerful stimulus to renew its mission and grow in leadership, generosity and creativity.