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When pastors get angry

How one IFES movement is investing in relationships with local churches in Central Asia

Ben* was sitting in a meeting of senior church pastors, in a country in Central Asia. He was the odd-one out. The only foreigner, the only non-pastor. What a huge privilege it is to be trusted by these men, he thought.

As the meeting progressed, someone raised a suggestion: how about the church youth leaders work together to put on an inter-church event for their young people? In most contexts, this idea would be well received. But certainly not here. Several pastors, particularly the senior pastors, spoke up. They were angry.

A bitter history

They had seen it happen so many times before: these kinds of events (often organised by outside organisations) might be stimulating at first, but led to their youth becoming dissatisfied with their own church youth ministries… they would end up leaving their churches to form a new group, but this would soon collapse because of their lack of maturity. The final result? The youth would be lost. This was the country’s first generation of Christian young people. They were too precious to lose. They had seen it before, and they didn’t want to see it again.

In this context, how can IFES work? If the pastors said ‘no’ to their own youth leaders, how would they ever trust IFES to do anything to unite students?

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Slow work towards a long-term dream

Over the last few years, Ben and his co-workers have worked very hard to re-build trust with church leaders, where it has been broken. They have decided that they will only work in the space churches give them. They approach the pastor, before they approach students from the church. They start by offering to run a conference in their church for their students, to encourage and equip them for evangelism. They insist that students belong to their churches, and their participation in IFES must not undermine this.

Ben’s hope is that, as the pastors see their Bible-based, gospel-centred training and their missional focus, they will begin to trust them.

Ben’s dream is to see students from different churches gathering to pray on and for their campus, encouraging each other to reach their friends with the gospel. But this process will take years of building trust. Student ministry in this context is not quick and dynamic as it is elsewhere. But that kind of model would not produce a long-lasting, stable movement which is a blessing to the local church.

An encouraging end to the story

So how did the tense meeting finish? One influential pastor, with whom Ben had recently met and outlined their plans for ministry, stood up and quietened the room. “Yes”, he said, “we have seen this before, and it is not helpful. What we need is organisations like IFES”. He pointed to Ben: “They come and talk to us. They come into our churches and work with our young people without extracting them from context of the church. This is the right approach.”

*name changed

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