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Protestant Theological Education in Central Asia: Embattled but Resilient

Insur Shamgunov

 Editor’s note: In 2007 Insur Shamgunov conducted in-depth interviews with 40 graduates and four principals of four theological colleges, two in Kazakhstan and two in Kyrgyzstan, for his dissertation on Protestant theological education in Central Asia. The author chose Kazakh and Kyrgyz institutions because of the relative ease of access compared to the other Central Asian nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Shamgunov carried out an earlier pilot study (August-September 2006) which involved interviews with four pastors from Tatarstan, Russia, who were graduates of three different theological colleges in Russia.

Interviewees, given pseudonyms in the text, were single and married, male and female (but mostly the former), predominantly recent graduates (the majority, three to six years out of school), and had prior education ranging from secondary and technical school diplomas to undergraduate and post-graduate university degrees. Shamgunov’s subjects ranged in age from 24 to 71, with most between their late 20s and early 50s; they represented ten nationalities (mostly Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Russian, and Korean, but also including some Tatars, and one Uzbek, Uigur, Armenian, Kurd, and Ethiopian each); in addition, they were all evangelical Christians, including Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Pentecostals, Korean Presbyterians, and members of independent churches. Graduates were leading both rural and urban churches; Central Asian, Russian, and mixed congregations; and traditional and cell churches, with regular attendance ranging from eight to over 1,000.

The first part of the article (in this issue) provides an overview of political and social issues affecting church growth in Central Asia; the following two issues (Winter and Spring 2010) will treat the internal challenges facing theological institutions and recommendations respectively.

Abstract

In summary, graduates gave generally positive appraisals of their training, but they noted little connection between their studies and the capabilities needed to succeed in ministry. Therefore, it can be argued that the Central Asian institutions under review have inherited the flaws of the “schooling” paradigm of theological education. Recommending a more integrated, context-specific, missional approach, this study also provides a useful starting point for the reformulation of curricula.

What Prompted the Research: Training Missing the Mark

Having worked in the region since 1999, both as a theological college principal and as a participant in the training track of a confidential Central Asian evangelical conference, I have been in close contact with many evangelical leaders of several Central Asian countries – primarily in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan – and have closely followed developments in theological education.

In general, I discovered that Central Asian church leaders perceive a disconnect between current theological training and real-life vocational skills that theological college graduates need in church ministry. A national leader of the major Tajik evangelical church association shared that his churches no longer intend to send students to theological colleges because their graduates “begin talking a strange language about strange problems, become useless in the ministry, and want to emigrate to the West.”1 A church leader in Uzbekistan wanted to start her own theological school and not let her people “get spoiled in these [other] colleges,” by which she meant that they became unfit for church leadership by the time they finished their education.2 Similarly, a leader of a major association of churches in Kazakhstan expressed the opinion that those who did not undergo theological training were more successful in ministry than those who did.3

Such comments prompted me to investigate further underlying issues affecting success and failure in theological education. First, what problems do graduates encounter in their professional practice and what enables them to successfully address them? Second, in what ways does their training contribute to, or fail to contribute to, their ability to minister effectively?

The Demographic Context

The current population of Kazakhstan is 15.4 million, with ethnic Kazakhs representing approximately 50 percent of the population; Slavs constitute around one third; Uzbeks, Uigurs (ethnic Turkic Muslims), and Tatars together – about 10 percent; Germans – 1.5 percent, and Jews – about one percent. The country’s demographics remain in flux as Slavs and Germans continue to emigrate.4 The Slavic population, which largely considers itself Orthodox, is served by 257 Orthodox churches. Approximately two percent of the population are Roman Catholic (mostly Germans and Ukrainians), with 82 registered organizations.

Kazakhstan also has 964 registered Protestant organizations, with 546 places of worship and 30,703 adherents.5 This figure for Protestants may be considered conservative because only about 50 percent of their churches submitted information for the above study, and it also omits unregistered and house churches. Protestants include charismatic congregations (450 in 2005); Evangelical Christians-Baptists (227 registered churches with an estimated 10,000 members); and other groups such as Presbyterians and Lutherans.

According to the 2007 National Statistics Committee, the population of Kyrgyzstan is 5.2 million, consisting of 67 percent Kyrgyz; 14.2 percent Uzbek; 10.3 percent Russian; 1.1 percent Dungan (ethnic Chinese Muslims); one percent Uigur; and six percent other nationalities.6 About 11 percent of the population are Russian Orthodox, although the number may be as low as eight percent, with only 44 churches. Roman Catholics have three churches. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan has 226 registered Protestant churches, including 49 Pentecostal, 48 Baptist, 43 Charismatic, 35 Presbyterian, 30 Seventh-day Adventist, and 21 Lutheran.

Government Harassment and Pressure

Evangelical churches in both countries currently are experiencing increased pressure from their governments and local communities. Thus, in Kyrgyzstan, under more restrictive legislation which took effect in January 2009, both local Muslim communities and government officials exhibit increasing intolerance and condone violence toward evangelicals and other non-traditional religious communities. For example, in August 2007 agents of the KNB (former KGB) raided Grace Protestant Church, seized documents and computers, harassed and interrogated church members, and charged several people with “treason.”7 In June 2008, Forum 18 reported that a Western missionary who served as principal of a Kyrgyz theological college was expelled from the country because he refused to open confidential student files for the national secret police.8

In Kazakhstan, Forum 18 reported that the government was frequently raiding church worship services,9 closing and threatening to confiscate churches,10 demanding that church leaders disclose personal information about church members, and imposing large fines on unregistered religious communities.11 In addition, Kazakh media publish stories criticizing Evangelicals, depicting them as dangerous sects.12 While “traditional” religious groups are considered to be more or less acceptable, “sects” – particularly those aided by foreign mission organizations that appeared after perestroika – are viewed as alien movements that “threaten social stability and challenge the independence of the republic.”13

One principal of a Kazakh theological college stated that political opposition to religious minorities began to escalate in 2008, developing into a major problem for his institution. The college was unexpectedly visited by various officials, including secret police. During this period the Kazakh government attempted to pass a law prohibiting religious institutions from functioning without a license. Since it was practically impossible for religious minorities to obtain one, the principal viewed this new law as a definite sign of the government’s tightening control over religion. His understanding was that only the Islamic University was licensed, and perhaps the Orthodox college would be given a license, too, but not Protestant schools. Several Protestant theological colleges had just been shut down. He felt that this recently increased pressure was the result of the growing influence of Islam on the government, which initially (after perestroika) had been more tolerant toward other religions. The government is also trying to make it impossible for his college to receive funding from abroad. He also fears that the government might change the laws even more radically and even confiscate the buildings of evangelical training institutions. Although the college legally purchased an unused kindergarten, a local TV station reported that “sectarians” had stolen the building.

Although the principal was concerned about what he felt was a real possibility of the government shutting down the college, he remained calm about it. He pointed out that his denomination was no novice to government persecution during Soviet times: “If we are forced to close, we will be educating people anyway.” Inspired by the success of the underground cell-church movement in Uzbekistan, he was considering opening a new department to train small group leaders. Besides, the college staff was discussing ways to make the college self-sustaining in case the government made it impossible for them to obtain Western funding.

A New God: “I Have No Time”

Fifteen of 40 graduates who were interviewed reported both decreased commitment by regular church members and a general decline in society’s interest in Christian spirituality in the last few years. Most graduates connected the lack of commitment with the rapid economic growth and dramatic increase in the cost of living taking place in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, especially the latter with its rich oil resources. The result was significantly increased busyness, skyrocketing prices, and rampant materialism, with unprecedented opportunities to reach a decent standard of living. As one pastor noted, a new god, “I Have No Time,” has appeared.

Financial Dependency

Two graduates living in poor areas of Kazakhstan, when discussing reasons for people’s decreased commitment to the church, linked it to the problem of financial dependency. One of them (Efrem) said his church was established by Korean missionaries who offered a generally poor population some material support, which resulted in people coming to church for material, rather than spiritual, reasons. After the missionaries left and he was ordained as pastor, some people lost interest in the church because it could not provide them with any more gifts.

In contrast, the growth of Islam was aided by immense resources that poured in from Muslim nations, compared with relatively few resources available for the church. Two other graduates working in villages added to these observations that secular people becoming committed Muslims often changed their attitude to Christianity from neutral to hostile, and it was becoming increasingly more dangerous for people to become Christians, particularly in smaller communities.

Ministering to “Wounded Hearts”

Nine graduates pointed out that one of the key problems they encountered in ministry concerned the immense social problems of post-Soviet Central Asia and the destruction of society’s moral fabric. Aida, a middle-aged, single-parent, female pastor in a major city, described the problem as follows: Kazakhstan “is morally destroyed – [we face] alcoholism, drug abuse, a lot of occult practices. The family is destroyed: no father, or often a father [who] does not take his due responsibility in the family. The wife and children suffer. There is a high divorce rate.”

One female pastor (Tatyana) in a small, predominantly Russian town, pointed to extreme alcohol abuse: “Some people who were coming to church in the early days are now dead – they were either frozen to death while drunk, or just drank themselves to death.” A female missionary (Malin) in a predominantly Kurdish town in Kazakhstan related a horrifying reality: high unemployment, illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, and widespread domestic physical and sexual abuse. “Theft and rape happen all the time.” Drug abuse is very common and is perceived to be normal. Women are treated as an inferior class to be used and abused by men who divorce their wives or simply throw them out on the street for reasons such as infertility. It is common for a man simply to snatch an adolescent girl, take her to his house, rape her, and force her to marry him.

Five pastors noted that for a significant number of people coming to church from such backgrounds, it was difficult to “grow spiritually” and to rid themselves of self-destructive behaviors because they themselves had been damaged so profoundly. Two graduates, independently of each other, used the term “wounded hearts” to describe this phenomenon: These people were wounded: a divorce, a wounded childhood – many were forsaken by parents or grew up in a family where their parents did not want them. God showed me – people can’t change because their hearts are wounded [emphasis hers] (Tatyana).

Pastor Gulnora also saw the emotional damage done to people as one of the roots of spiritual passivity. Moreover, she thought that the recent economic changes were contributing to the damage: There is so much rejection in our society – women are rejected by men, children by their parents. People were much wounded during Soviet times; but nowadays children are rejected because their parents are busy making money.

Pastor Tatyana described her “ministry of soul healing” that she practiced, both in one-on-one sessions and in a small group context in her church. At those meetings people recalled difficult emotional episodes in their lives and prayed for each other. This pastor shared that she had been concerned about “wounded souls” for a long time, even while studying at Bible college. F

Insur Shamgunov currently works as a management consultant for a human relations firm in London, England.

Editor’s note: The second portion of this three-part article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Winter 2010).

 Edited excerpts published with permission from Insur Shamgunov, “Listening to the Voice of the Graduate: An Analysis of Professional Practice and Training for Ministry in Central Asia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford University, 2009.

 Notes:

1 Conversation with “Artur,” March 2002.

2 Conversation with “Nazima,” February 2004.

3 Conference lecture by “Munir,” March 2002.

4 “Kazakhstan,” International Religious Freedom Report 2008 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; US Department of State, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/108501.htm; accessed 24 September 2009.

5 “EP”: 2007 Project Overview.

6 “Kyrgyz Republic,” International Religious Freedom Report 2008 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; US Department of State, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/108502.htm; accessed 24 September 2008.

7 Ibid.

8 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1145, accessed 1 July 2008.

9 “When Is a Raid Not a Raid?,” 30 May 2008, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1137; accessed 30 September 2008.

10 “Nationwide Religious Property Seizures Continue,” 20 August 2008, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1174; accessed 30 September 2008.

11 “Are Intrusive Questionnaires ‘a Simple Formality’?,” 25 February 2008, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1093; accessed 30 September 2008.

12 Thus, on 15 February 2008 a national newspaper published an interview with an anonymous KNB officer who claimed that foreign “sects” were foreign intelligence agents working undercover. He also equated new Christian and Buddhist organizations with Islamic extremists.

13 Sebastien Peyrouse, “The Relationship between Church and State in the Post-Soviet World: The Case of Christianity in Central Asia,” Journal of Church and State 49 (2007), 114