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Post-Soviet Protestant Missions in Central Asia
Andrew Christian van Gorder
Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 17 (Spring 2009): 3-4.
Outreach through Education
In addition to humanitarian and medical ministry, another focus of mission organizations working in Central Asia has been education. In 1990, the Southern Baptist International Service Corps (ISC) began placing church volunteers in two-year teaching assignments in Central Asia. Some groups, such as Open Doors International, have organized training seminars examining the nature and history of Muslim- Christian interaction. Others have organized short-term educational programs (S.T.E.P. seminars) addressing such themes as leadership training, biblical studies, the Qur’an, and theological education for parishioners. In addition, Bible Mission International (BMI) sponsors a Missionaries in Training (MIT) Program which enables Central Asians to establish their own mission organizations to other Central Asian republics. Missionaries have also established schools for both their own and local children. The Association of Christian Schools in Central Asia (ACSA) has opened elementary and primary schools, educational summer camps, educational clubs, and after-school programs, along with children’s homes and orphanages. The major concentration of efforts has been in northern Kyrgyzstan, but these educational programs are also underway in other parts of Kyrgyzstan, as well as in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.1 U.S.-based Teach Overseas.org also works in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, providing English language teachers who use their instruction as a “starting point for deeper conversations about life and faith.”2
Some universities and other educational programs within Central Asia are designed to host visitors who are learning various Central Asian languages. Missionaries have been instrumental in either organizing or participating in a host of linguistic study centers designed for the study of Central Asian languages.
Outreach through Economic Development
In addition to growing educational resources, increasing global economic interdependence is also creating new business opportunities in Central Asia. Kazakhstan, for example, is working extensively with a number of large, multinational oil companies such as Chevron to develop the enormous Tengiz oil fields. A number of Protestant missionary organizations in North America and the United Kingdom – including Frontiers, People International, and Interserve – are involved in job-placement programs for “tentmaker” missionaries willing to serve in Central Asia.
A pressing need exists for business educators who will assist Central Asian nations in economic development. Related to this are opportunities for teachers of English, the international language of business. After 1991, one of the first acts of newly independent Uzbekistan was to encourage the widespread teaching of English.
Outreach through Christian Media
Christian media also have been a means of outreach in Central Asia. Christian television programming is broadcast into the region via satellite. In October 2002, Finnish-based International Religious Radio and Television (IRR/ TV), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Russia, and Campus Crusade for Christ jointly launched a Christian Radio and Television Association in Central Asia. IRR/TV sponsored a media mission conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which included over 80 missionaries from across Central Asia.3 In addition, a number of Central Asians have received further training in media evangelism in Moscow. Radio traditionally has been a major means of Christian outreach to restricted access countries. Producers of Christian programming in Central Asian languages include the Far Eastern Broadcasting Company (FEBC), Evangeliums Rundfunk/TransWorld Radio (TWR), and HCJB World Radio. Many Central Asians who would never read a Christian book or attend a Christian service will listen to a Christian broadcast. Christian radio ministries report that they receive many letters asking for follow-up literature. These requests are forwarded to Christians living in Central Asia who mail personal responses to each inquirer.4
Some missionaries have shown the Jesus Film produced by Campus Crusade for Christ. Other evangelistic productions as well have been translated into the major languages of Central Asia.5 Such films have been aired on some local television stations which suffer from a shortage of programming in given language. Television stations within Central Asia have, at times, benefited from technical assistance provided by expatriate Christians. Certain Churches have established video libraries as a way to encourage their congregants. In addition, pastors have distributed cassette tapes and videos for training.
Outreach through Christian Literature
Christian literature is not abundantly available in the various languages of Central Asia. And the distribution of this material, when it is available, is not always done in a systematic way. For example, 10,000 copies of a Tajik translation of the Bible were printed, but only handfuls were distributed. Some evangelical groups organize programs in Central Asia in which individuals, often in response to radio programs, come to churches or neutral sites to participate in simple evangelistic Bible studies.6Some Central Asian Christians may still not have Bibles available in their own languages. Organizations like Open Doors International remain active in distributing Bibles and other Christian materials in Central Asia. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, a host of Central Asian countries shifted from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet, which has affected the publication
and distribution of the Bible and other religious literature. To this day, some specific dialects remain without their own written language. This is the reason that a number of Bible translation organizations are active in Central Asia, including Slaviska Missionen (Bromma, Sweden), People International (Tunbridge Wells, England), the International Bible Society (Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Stockholm, Sweden), and Wycliffe Bible Translators (Dallas, Texas). A long tradition of Bible translation characterizes Christian mission efforts within the region. Uzbeks gained access to a translation of the Bible in their own language in1913, but it was in an Arabic script that was not used under Soviet rule. A recent translation of the Bible into Tajik improves on an earlier version, while revisions to translations of the Bible continue in both the major and minor languages of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
A number of Western ministries sponsor short term missions in Central Asia. One group that works exclusively in this region, People International, organizes short-term programs that focus on evangelism or service projects.7 Open Doors International (Whitney, Oxon, England), Youth With a Mission (Amsterdam, The Netherlands),and U.S. Southern Baptists also sponsor short-term missions in Central Asia. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives do not adhere to the Lausanne mandate to exercise cultural sensitivity and do not link such efforts with long-term, indigenous programs and objectives. Some short-term ventures barge into the situation offering answers, instead of humbly listening and asking questions. Other groups distribute money, physical goods, and resources in ways that are indiscriminate and inappropriate.
Several Protestant mission organizations working in Central Asia are active in linking Eastern and Western congregations in sister-church partnerships. First Baptist Church of Wood way, a mega church in Waco, Texas, has developed prayer groups within its congregation which not only pray for Central Asian Christians, but also have organized repeated visits to the region, with some members even moving to Central Asia and living there for years at a time.8
Christians in Central Asia continue to adapt to changing social context. In spite of difficulties andlarge-scale out-migration, Christianity remains visible presence in contemporary Central Asia. AsChristians become increasingly adept at relating to the questions their Muslim neighbors have about their presence in society, they will become better able not only to maintain but also to increase their level of influence. Toward this goal, Christians from around the world can offer encouragement without imposing their own critical expectations on Central Asians. F
Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from A. Christian van Gorder, Muslim-Christian Relations in Central Asia (London: Routledge, 2008).
A. Christian van Gorder is professor of religion, arts, and sciences, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
2 http://www.teachoverseas.org/locations kazakhstan.html.
4 http://www.twr.org/index.php?option=content & task=view&id=59&Itemid=77.
5Campus Crusade for Chirst; Gospel Recordings International.
6 More information is available from the Bible League, http://www.bibleleague.org/persecuted/ asiapers.php.
8 Erich Bridges, “Pioneering Path for Others – Church Sends Nucleus to Central Asia, “Baptist
Press News, 13 October 2005; http://www.bpnews. net/bpnews.asp?ID=21847