Editor’s Note: To find out how the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is affecting evangelicals in both countries, we posed some questions to someone (who will go by the name Andrew) who has a unique perspective on the situation. He has spent most of his adult life living in Belarus, Russia, and, most recently, Ukraine. His family maintains close ties with believers in all three countries.
As the tensions escalated a few weeks ago, Andrew’s family was relocated to another country in the region. His answers to the questions below help us know how to pray for fellow believers in Ukraine and Russia during these difficult days.
Based on your experience, what has the relationship been like between evangelical churches in Russia and those in Ukraine?
For the most part, there has been a strong tie between evangelicals in the two countries. When evangelicalism first began to spread in what was then the Russian Empire, Ukraine was one of the first real centers of the movement, especially among the common people. (Another center was St. Petersburg, where the gospel took root more among the elites.).
It was from Ukraine that the good news spread eastward, and many of the churches that were founded before communist times have Ukrainian roots. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine again was at the center of the new gospel movement. Many Ukrainians travelled east into Russia as missionaries, and entire associations of churches were founded by these pioneers. Evangelical leaders have frequently traveled between the two countries, conducting training events, visiting churches, and building partnerships.
Recently, however, tensions have appeared in the relationship. As Ukraine has become increasingly Ukrainian-speaking, they have lost the common tongue that once united them. Many Russians simply don’t understand this shift, since they have always viewed the two nations as part of one larger people. The growing divisions were highlighted in 2014-2015, when Ukrainians toppled their Russian-leaning president, and then Russia “annexed” Crimea and supported the rebellion of Eastern Ukrainian territories.
Ukrainian evangelicals were surprised to find many of their Russian counterparts silent, or, in some instances, in support of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Thankfully, that is not true in all cases. There remain strong and active partnerships in the gospel that cross the national and political lines.
How have you seen the current conflict affect the relationships between Russian and Ukrainian believers?
In God’s providence, when the conflict broke out, I was helping to lead a training for a group of potential Russian cross-cultural missionaries. Among the participants was one Ukrainian minister, whose city was hit during one of the first rounds of bombardment. Several other participants were born and raised in Ukraine and had come to Russia for the sake of the gospel. Their families were in the line of fire.
When we gathered that morning, there was a feeling of shock and solemnity among us all. The Russian brothers and sisters were horrified by what had taken place. Several times throughout the day, we gathered for intense times of prayer, especially for our Ukrainian brother and his family. There was no sense of national pride, no sense of division, just brothers and sisters interceding on behalf of other believers. It was a beautiful sight to behold.
In the days following, I have been encouraged by many more signs from believers in Russia and Belarus. Evangelicals in Russia have been pressured to toe the party line and bless the war, but several influential leaders have publicly decried the attacks, at great risk to themselves. Many Belarusian believers have been outspoken in their criticism of the use of their country to wage war on a neighbor.
One group of Belarusian believers, who themselves had to flee from oppression at home, is now organizing relief efforts for Ukrainians crossing into Poland. I am greatly encouraged by these displays of love and unity!
Many people have been concerned about Christians and churches in Ukraine, and rightly so. What might people be surprised to learn about how many Russian Christians view these recent events?
For years, Russian evangelicals have been under pressure from the state. The Russian Orthodox Church enjoys government support, and, for its part, supports the government (including the present conflict).
Evangelicals, on the other hand, are subjected to much greater regulation and restriction, and, at times, even direct government action. Other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been declared illegal and been stripped of all property. Evangelicals realize that they could be next, since the authorities view them in much the same light as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
With that in mind, believers in Russia are forced to wrestle with potentially serious consequences of their positions on any political actions. Public silence on the war should not be confused for complicity or support.
I spoke with one of the leaders of a major evangelical denomination who was to appear before a government committee for religious affairs. He knew that he was expected to give verbal support for the war, and that failure to do so could lead to punishment, now or in the future. His conscience would not allow him to bless aggression, but he longed for the wisdom to answer in such a way as to avoid the wrath of the authorities. He has come to mind frequently over the past few days as I have thought of the plight of Russian evangelicals. They are forced to walk a dangerous tightrope in speaking about what seems to be a straightforward issue.
There are obvious safety concerns for all citizens in Ukraine. However, when it comes to the church there, what’s your biggest concern about how it will be affected by the current conflict? What about missionaries in the country?
If Russia were to prevail and either directly or indirectly control Ukraine, I would be concerned about what it would mean for freedom of worship for Ukrainians. Since evangelicals typically have much stronger ties to the West, that would make them a specific target for control.
In any case, I am concerned about how the conflict will impact the burgeoning global vision of the Ukrainian church. Ukrainians are uniquely equipped to take the good news into many parts of the world, and a heart for the nations is so crucial for growth in maturity for the church.
Before the war, there were several exciting developments in missions in cities and churches around the country, like Kharkiv, Kherson, and Kyiv. In recent days, those same places have been turned to the most intense battlegrounds. Churches are now scattered throughout the country and abroad. When the doors open for people to return, they will (understandably) be focused on rebuilding and healing. Will that lead to a prolonged inward (or, at least, Ukraine-ward) focus? I hope not, but it is a cause for concern.
As far as missionary presence, I think that the outcome of the conflict will go a long way to determining what happens. Russian control would likely reduce the number of missionaries in the country. However, the present missionary force largely works in leadership development, theological education, training, and other more specialized spheres. Many have been in the country for years and will return at the first opportunity. The church will remain strong, regardless of the presence or absence of foreign Christian workers.
Despite the tragedy that’s unfolding right now, how have you seen God at work?
I see the Lord’s work in our church in Ukraine and in other fellowships that we have been told about. Our members have scattered to different corners of the country, although many have remained behind in the Kyiv area.
Those on the outskirts of the city have opened their homes to others in more dangerous areas. Several have offered financial aid to anyone in need. With air raid sirens going off around them, they are serving as volunteers, delivering food and medicine to hospitals and shelters. Those who have left report the incredible hospitality of other Ukrainian believers.
Our pastor and his family had a harrowing three-day drive across the country. One night, they were stuck with nowhere to stay. All hotels were closed. They dared not sleep in their car, for fear of what might happen in the night. Instead, they found the nearest evangelical church on Google, and there they were met with a warm, Christian welcome.
Throughout this crisis, we have seen the people of God act in a manner worthy of the gospel. Only the Lord can free people from fear so that they can serve others!