A Picture of Dependency

When I arrived in Central Asia a decade ago the church association I was to work with had already existed for eight years. At that time our mission paid salaries to 25 pastors. Earlier, 32 pastors had been supported, but seven had left our association. The reasons for departure included joining another association, corruption, theft, and no longer sensing God’s call to ministry. Of the remaining 25 pastors some had been given property for housing and worship while others received monthly allowances to rent space for worship. In addition, we were providing transportation and food for weekly pastors’ meetings in Almaty and monthly pastors’ meetings in southern Kazakhstan. We also covered expenses for two training events per year and seminary education which included free tuition, room, and board. Our pastors joyfully sent their church members to receive a free education. Unfortunately, our sole resident missionary in Kazakhstan was not able to visit our widely scattered pastors regularly. This was the picture of dependency I encountered when I arrived in Kazakhstan.

Mission leaders told me they had explained to local pastors that their salaries would eventually end, and that they could not depend indefinitely on foreign missionary support. In January 2007 my mission advised me to communicate the news to association pastors that their mission-funded salaries would end in 12 months. At that time they would become bi-vocational (combining outside jobs with pastoral responsibilities) or they would depend solely on local church support. From my previous study of dependency, I understood that the moment outside support ceases, reactions can be extreme. Therefore, I braced myself for the worst and wondered if I would ever experience a day of fruitful ministry in Kazakhstan.

Today, 2012, our association has nine worship groups. Some pastors have quit the ministry and taken their donated houses with them. A few pastors left to join the Russian Orthodox Church and now receive a salary from that source. One pastor moved to the city where she now leads Bible studies from her son’s home. A few pastors moved with their congregations to other denominations and now receive salaries from their new affiliations. Even among the nine missionaries who remain in our association, at least one receives a salary from an independent missionary, while two more receive salaries from parachurch organizations. Finding out from whom pastors receive salaries is an elusive if not impossible task because most people will not divulge such information.

None of our association churches have grown since pastors’ salaries ceased. In fact, stagnant church attendance figures were the case long before our mission discontinued salaries. Once salaries stopped, one immediate consequence was that pastors stopped submitting monthly ministry reports.

A House Church Strategy

As I considered the state of our association, I wondered what might be the way forward. Our mission had recently adopted Church Planting Movements (CPM) as a new policy for church planting. I thought a CPM training conference would equip our pastors in their transition from dependent lifestyles to fruitful ministries and economic stability. Thus we prepared a thorough ten-day training seminar and invited all our pastors, their spouses, and seminary students. By this time our seminary had already adopted CPM teaching in its curriculum.

While the conference was very informative, participants did not implement CPM principles. Those in attendance did come to understand CPM, but they simply did not like the house church concept which is an integral part of CPM. Their minds were set on a traditional church worldview, and they could not conceive of anything different. From their perspective CPM offered only the hard work of evangelism and no economic rewards.

By design, house churches reduce costs and increase lay participation for rapid church growth and reproduction. However, when missionaries provide all the costs of ministry, local pastors feel no need to reduce costs, and church members feel no passion for evangelism. Their only concern is to make sure missionary support continues. Therefore house churches do not appeal economically to national workers who are accustomed to receiving foreign support.

CPM strategies are gaining traction in Central Asia, with Southern Baptist missionaries leading the way in terms of vision and training. A house church network that began in 2012 for the purpose of communication among house church leaders continues to grow. However, Western support for salaries still plays a role in some cases and at this stage new house churches are often made up of people who formerly attended traditional churches. It may be too early to properly evaluate house church success in this country because second- and third-generation house churches have yet to be produced in any measurable quantity.

Hurdles in Overcoming Dependency

Various hurdles must be overcome by local Kazakh leaders in order to produce independent, healthy, reproducing house churches. One difficulty is the financial burden of hospitality. Kazakh culture expects hosts to prepare lavishly for guests, with shame involved if a meager table is set. As a result, Kazakhs fear inviting others into their homes except on special occasions. The first question Kazakh church leaders ask about house church viability is the hospitality question: How will we afford tea-time?

Another hurdle is the question of authority. Leaders of house churches command neither the status nor the financial rewards of traditional church pastors. In addition, in a culture that expects religious activity to take place in religious buildings, the new house church phenomenon may be seen as alien. The current concern over terrorism and new, more restrictive religious legislation (requiring a minimum of 50 members for legal registration) also puts worship in homes at a disadvantage. On the other hand, since house churches emphasize biblical content in a familiar setting, usually tea-time or a meal, a well-planned informal approach has the potential to reach people who otherwise would never visit a church building.

One key to building independent churches is local financial support. House churches have an advantage here because their costs are low. Local support for church pastors ought to be stronger, but the Kazakh concept of giving usually relates to emergencies among friends and family members. Tithing is a behavioral issue, and not a conversion issue. Because converts do not think of themselves as tithers after they have prayed the sinner’s prayer, generous giving must be taught and learned. Westerners often advocate tithing, but it appears that few actually practice it. Many missionaries do not even believe that tithing is required by scripture. Therefore, stewardship teaching is weak and giving is weak.

Another house church challenge involves young people who often do not find worship in homes attractive. Youth tend to gravitate to large gatherings. If house churches do not provide some degree of youth networking, young people will instead attend larger traditional churches with youth activities and dynamic music.

Finally, a successful method of theological training for house churches must be developed. Traditional seminary models do not work well with house church strategies, primarily because of the priority placed on developing lay leadership. House church leader training mostly involves on-the-job experience rather than classroom study. Since state repression closed all traditional seminaries in Central Asia in 2008 except the Russian Baptist Union Seminary, churches must find practical ways to train their leaders. Thankfully, many unofficial church-based seminaries still function.

Korean Missionary Leadership Style

Any discussion of building independent churches in Central Asia must include observations of Korean missionaries and the churches they plant. Korean missionary church plants account for a large majority of all missionary-led churches in Kazakhstan. Korean missionaries, who in Central Asia engage primarily in church planting, hold to an authoritarian concept of pastoral leadership not unlike Central Asian concepts of authority. This Korean-Kazakh parallel tends to facilitate the traditional church model utilized by Koreans. Yet, Jesus was both authoritative and a servant to all, whereas Kazakh culture has virtually no understanding of the concept of servanthood. Therefore, Korean pastors who willingly demonstrate sacrificial love will have many opportunities to teach servanthood to their Kazakh church members.

Korean pastors also emphasize lively worship, aggressive evangelism, and intense prayer, principles that, interestingly, also exist as church planting movement standards. Both Korean traditional churches and house churches tend to multiply when the above principles are employed. These similarities bring to light the fact that building independent churches has little to do with church form and much more to do with biblical principles and faithful people.

New Restrictions

The current situation in Central Asia challenges Korean missionaries to focus on preparing local leaders. As a result of new restrictive Kazakh legislation on religion, many Korean missionaries are temporarily unable to preach in their churches. In addition, Kazakh government officials presently are not honoring the law that gives foreigners permission to engage in religious work. If these restrictions prevail long term, Korean pastors will have to turn over more leadership responsibility to local disciples.

Russian Koreans

One phenomenon of Korean missions in Central Asia involves ethnic Koreans born and raised in Central Asia whose grandparents Stalin forcibly deported from the Russian Far East in the 1930s. Many local Koreans either know the Korean language well or can learn it quickly because they have heard it spoken as children. Korean missionary pastors who prefer to employ translators inevitably hire local Koreans for the job. Some of these local Koreans have even become pastors. They communicate as native Central Asians, and they have a strong work ethic and strong faith, factors desperately needed in the region.

The largest Kazakh church in Almaty has a Korean pastor who recently adopted a cell group model. Korean churches that seek to develop cell groups differ in form from church planting movement house churches. House churches train lay people in biblical knowledge and practical ministry with the goal of multiplication: starting new house churches. In contrast, Korean church cell groups focus more on building relationships and shepherding rather than multiplication.

Comparing Traditional and House Churches

Ideological differences exist between traditional and house churches. House churches seek to follow a pattern found in Acts where believers typically met in homes as the infant church spread across the Roman Empire. By following that biblical pattern, house churches expect to multiply rapidly, requiring less financing in the process. On the other hand, traditional churches seek to guard sound doctrine through the use of well-trained, full-time leaders, large group gatherings, and facilities that symbolize the church in community. Both church forms have benefits and challenges, but I maintain that church form is not the key to creating independent churches.

Independence is more a matter of personal ownership than economic ability. The idea that foreign funds must provide for a church until that church can provide for itself is misguided. Rather, local believers must be willing to sacrifice for their believing community and accept a church form that fits the context, rather than an imported form. Items thought to be necessities, such as church buildings, full-time, paid pastors, periodic conferences, and cars for ministry, are in fact luxuries and not necessities.

The Origins of Dependency

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, many people in Central Asia were impoverished, minimally educated, and looking to the developed world for answers. New religious freedom permitted many evangelists to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in public. Missionaries drew others into churches and seminaries with free education, free transportation, free meals for church attendance, and even jobs. Short-term groups brought free medical treatment and free clothing. Missionaries provided all of these material attractions along with the gospel. At that time unemployment was very high and $100/month salaries were common. Houses could be purchased for less than $10,000. An understanding arose from these circumstances that churches must have a building in order to be a church and pastors should never be bi-vocational. They should devote themselves to ministry fulltime. Russian Orthodox and Muslim leaders traditionally followed that pattern, but it was flawed. It presupposed that money would always be available from missionaries and that salaries and house prices would always be easily affordable for foreign donors, assumptions that proved false. In a sense, missionaries had replaced the Soviet Union as nanny.

In Central Asia believers must overcome Soviet-style, learned dependency. But rather than counter that trend, missionary methods seem to have encouraged it. As many people were attracted to the church, the number of decisions for Christ increased. Those decisions were surely genuine, but they may have been limited in scope. Some people started to believe that the gospel provided not only eternal life, but a job, a house, a car, etc. This dependency trend developed an attitude of selfish faith, always thinking about what God can do for new believers instead of the more biblical concept of what God can do in the life of new believers to change them. The important need of personal character change was overlooked in the quest for material possessions.

The Role of Kazakh Culture in Dependency

In order for independent churches to exist and proliferate, believers must address various aspects of Kazakh culture. A stereotype today is that Kazakhs are lazy and love money. Surely this is not true in all cases, but enough examples can be found that even Kazakhs will agree with this assessment. Therefore, Kazakhs must overcome both the lax work ethic propagated by their nomadic culture and the legacy of communism that ensured equal poverty for all. These sociological factors have served either to introduce or to reinforce unhealthy attitudes, including an obsession with material prosperity. Abai Kunanbaev (1854-1904), beloved Kazakh poet and philosopher, put this longstanding outlook as follows: “It is not learning and knowledge, nor peace and justice, that the Kazakh holds dear—his sole concern is how to get rich.” Further, “I have yet to see a person who, having acquired wealth by dishonest means, has put it to good use” (Abai: Book of Words [Almaty: EL Bureau, 1995], 107 and 119).

Titus 1:5-16 discusses the problem of laziness. It evidently hindered the faith of believers on the island of Crete, corrupting their minds, promoting a desire for dishonest financial gain among pastors, leading many into heresy and promoting hypocrisy. A case can be made that laziness has had similar effects in Kazakh believers. Kazakh culture embodies many positive characteristics including hospitality, but lack of industriousness will need to be overcome if the country and if new church fellowships are to flourish. Without new attitudes toward work and money, church dependency will continue to be a problem, stunting the spiritual growth of many.

The Health and Wealth Gospel

Building independent churches is more a matter of consistent, systematic Bible study than watching popular Bible teachers on TV and DVDs. Kenneth Hagen and Joyce Meyers are very well known in Central Asia. Church-going people often mention their names in religious conversations, primarily because of their health and prosperity messages. These uplifting and encouraging themes touch the hearts of many people world-wide who are hoping for better days to come. However, prosperity gospel teaching poses very real concerns for the church. First, people who do not know the Bible well watch these messages. The sad result is that poor Central Asians actually think that by faith they can achieve the same lifestyle as the preachers on TV. Faith then becomes focused on material goods or a lifestyle rather than on the Word of God.

The Need for Biblical Literacy

Dependence upon TV preachers rather than personal study of the Bible parallels how most Kazakhs previously came to understand Islam. Many Muslims do not read the Koran because the Kazakh translation is considered inferior to the Arabic Koran and most Kazakhs do not read Arabic. Therefore, many Kazakhs simply accepted what the Mullah told them was the truth. Upon conversion to Christ, Kazakhs therefore do not automatically become students of the Bible. They must, of course, read and study in order to know God’s Word, yet, sadly, most churches lack mid-week Bible studies.

Central Asian believers must overcome biblical illiteracy. Thankfully, the first complete Kazakh Bible translation appeared in 2011. Audio versions of the Bible in Russian and Kazakh are also available. These resources assist believers who genuinely desire to know God and do His will. Those who depend on popular TV preachers may experience some blessings, but they ultimately will focus on material goals rather than on God’s kingdom and honor. Churches that emphasize comprehensive Bible knowledge and application will increase biblical literacy and promote greater knowledge of God. One can only hope that whole churches seeking a greater knowledge of God will promote dependence upon God rather than dependence on foreign help.

The Issue of Leadership

A Kazakh proverb on leadership says, “A fish rots from the head.” Bearing this axiom in mind, changes in leadership that promote church independence in Central Asia will be essential. Unfortunately, a style of leadership exists in Kazakhstan that stresses authority more than responsibility, a phenomenon that is rampant at all levels of society. Corruption runs very deep and is widely accepted. Government officials require bribes to perform basic services. University professors expect students to pay for their diplomas. Police seek bribes rather than compliance with the law, and many businesses expect to receive bribes from job applicants.

Sadly, cases abound of pastors who have left the ministry with golden parachutes they themselves had fashioned. Too many pastors borrowed large sums from their churches with no intention of ever repaying the money. Some took houses; others took money. Missionaries have had to learn not to make loans to pastors.

Most local church leaders have now been believers for at least ten years. Those who accept responsibility gain the respect and trust of their members by reporting ministry activity, disclosing use of church funds, training members to obey the Bible, setting an example by regular fasting, daily Bible reading and prayer, tithing, sharing the gospel, and visiting the sick. Members who observe leaders acting in such responsible ways will respond by following their example. Unfortunately, this type of leadership is rare among Kazakhs.

Kazakh believers must overcome secular forms of leadership in order to build independent churches. We find three forms of leadership in Kazakh churches. The most common can be described as dictatorial, stemming from power that comes from having more money than anyone else. The vast majority of Kazakh church leaders fit this description. Such leaders feel little need to disclose their use of money because it often comes from foreign sources. They may inflate their evangelism activity when making reports. They generally teach their people to tithe and pray, though their lack of transparency in these areas is a serious problem. They may shine in other areas of leadership, but their churches will never become independent until their obedience is transparently demonstrated in these critical areas. A second type of leader is the facilitator who tends to negotiate in order to set ministry goals and activities. This form of leadership is growing in acceptance and ought to produce more leader transparency, but the goals of its practitioners are usually personal or organizational rather than biblical. A third form of leadership is the servant leader. This form comes from the Bible and is rare. Those who take on this role will go against the current of society and culture, but with perseverance they set a powerful example for their members.

Believers Marrying Believers

Another key to building independent churches in Central Asia is for believers to marry believers. This need may seem obvious, but Kazakh believers often marry non-believers. In Kazakh churches young women outnumber young men by such a large percentage that congregations face crisis as a result. Young men often look outside the churches for a marriage partner. Young women begin praying for a believing husband, but if one does not appear after years of prayer, they marry non-believers. Many factors are at work in this process and the solutions are not easy, but progress must be made. Marriage between believers and non-believers severely hinders church growth. Every aspect of church activity suffers because the unbeliever holds back the believer in faith and church participation.

Kazakh believers must overcome selfish desires for marriage and trust God either to help them find a believing spouse, or to find joy in singleness. Biblical teaching on this subject is undeniably clear (Genesis 24:3; Exodus 34:16; Nehemiah 13:25; 2 Corinthians 6:14), yet personal desire and weak faith stand in the way. Legalism is not the answer but clear teaching, focused prayer, and gentle persuasion from parents and churches.

A Season of Testing at Hand

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, when churches came into being in Kazakhstan, few could have imagined that within 20 years the government would pass legislation restricting freedom of religion. In October 2011 a new era of religious discrimination came into being in Kazakhstan. Harsh restrictions now exist on Christian literature publication and importation, public preaching, and holding religious meetings. Churches with fewer than 50 members cannot legally be registered. The government has withdrawn educational licenses for seminaries and Bible schools. Now is the time when followers of Jesus must be wise, biblically literate, and willing to sacrifice in order to advance the gospel.

By contrast, dependence on foreign support does not produce the kind of spiritual strength needed for the days ahead. Local church independence must be a paramount goal if the church is to survive in the new, more restrictive environment. In 2012-13 believers expect government officials to close many churches that do not meet the minimum requirement of 50 members. They also expect that some churches will be refused registration during the mandatory re-registration process. The beginning of a season of testing for the young evangelical community in Kazakhstan clearly is at hand. The people of God in all likelihood will rise to the occasion, showing themselves to be faithful followers of Christ. However, many will have to make changes in their lives in order to stand fast in the midst of the trials of this new era.♦