Reflections on persevering in Central Asia
We often tell the stories of the places where student ministry is thriving — where conversions are common, where groups are growing, where communities are being transformed. But there are plenty of places where that’s not the reality. Prayers are prayed, events are planned, invitations are given — but month after month, the response is disappointing. Students just don’t seem interested, or don’t stay interested for long. What are we to make of that?
We spoke to a staff member of an IFES movement in Central Asia, about keeping going when the ground is hard.
“The 90s were exciting times in Central Asia. The Soviet Union was no more, and for the next decade or so, foreign missionaries brought the gospel to the streets, founded churches, and raised up locals for Christian ministry. Churches were planted and filled with worshippers.
Student movements grew too. Over the years, the staff team changed from expats with a couple of nationals, to nationals with a few expats.
Over time things became more difficult. Governments believed that expats were threatening peace by trying to introduce democracy, so visas became more difficult to obtain. In some cases, missionaries were given 72 hours to leave. More recently, religious extremism was seen to be a threat which led to a clampdown on almost all forms of non-state-sanctioned religion. Many churches lost their registration. As I write, the government is revising the religion laws again. This could lead to another wave of restrictions.
Ten years ago, the church I attend would have 200 worshippers on Sunday; our IFES group involved over 40 students. Our morning congregation is now around 40; our national student conference had fewer than ten students. One local pastor recently commented:
“I am so glad there are still at least a few missionaries here. I admire them for keeping going when it’s so hard and many have left. We still need them. I wouldn’t say we’ve arrived yet as a national church; not even 1% of our population is Christian.”
For the few Christians, keeping going is hard. A faith that was new and dynamic and exciting, now feels difficult and demanding.
Legalism through the centuries
It’s not just the government restrictions that can make the Christian life feel demanding: there’s also a strong tendency towards legalism here. Christians face a real danger of treating the Christian faith as a set of practices that you do to ensure God’s approval. Historically the worldview has been built on underlying legalistic attitudes.
Before the 9th century, the people believed strongly in the spirit world and the need to perform rituals and sacrifices to placate spirits. Later, when Arabs invaded, this was morphed into a kind of Islam where you performed rituals to keep Allah happy. The Soviet mentality also puts a lot of emphasis on following regulated patterns and tasks diligently.
Sadly, there can be a tendency for Christians here to be really clear on the gospel of grace in their evangelism, but then to teach their Christian youth to obey a lot of rules. Grace is never denied, but sometimes it is put on the shelf and only brought out at the next evangelistic event. The need for on-going grace-steeped discipleship is critical.
What keeps us going
In this political and cultural context, the task remains enormous: in our country there are seven staff, not all full time; there are 18 university cities and 350,000 full time students. Widening out over Central Asia, there are still countries with no IFES witness at all, and others where the work is even smaller than our own. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, disheartened and discouraged.
At our recent national staff conference, we worked through the book of Galatians together. We were reminded that we must not deviate from the gospel of grace: it is revealed by God, and it has the power to transform — as it did in Paul’s life. We must keep preaching this gospel, and not try to change it for a message that might work ‘better’. One local pastor recently said to us:
“Thank you for founding your ministry on scripture, and not on strategy or marketing.”
We left the conference with a renewed desire to stand for the pure gospel and not let legalism slip in. We left challenged by Paul’s example of not trying to please men, but please Christ in all that we do. We left encouraged that the gospel is still able to save and transform. And so we keep going, preaching the gospel as you help us by your prayers.”
Please join us in praying that the Christian students and staff in this country would not lose heart. Pray that God would strengthen them to keep going joyfully. Pray that he would keep them trusting in his faithfulness, sovereignty and goodness when the ground is hard. Pray that breakthrough would come.