|Theology / Church
The story of the church in one of the most repressive Central Asia countries, by Gulzoda, one of the first local believers.
1991 was a year of confusion and panic for people in my country. The largest nation in the world, the Soviet Union, was dividing and no one was sure what the end result would be. I had grown up believing in the Soviet system and was ready to give my life for it even as a local Central Asian. That is how my classmates and I had been taught. Then, one day, we saw everything we thought we were living for collapse around us. All systems of society, banks, schools, government, healthcare, and even transport came to a halt. When all of these systems stopped another work began.
With the government preoccupied people were able to come in and out of the country without problems. Just as our perception of the Soviet Union was crushed our view of the religion of our ancestors also began to wither. When I first learned that the Soviet Union had dissolved I began to look into Islam as a new source of hope and belief. In this religion I couldn’t find answers to my questions. Right away Russian Christians came down to us and began sharing the Good News. At this time I had just entered the university and a woman came to the university where her cousin worked and began preaching in classes with up to 200 students. About 5 or 6 of us students became believers after hearing her share for just a few minutes. In the brief conversation with the woman from Moscow I received all the answers I needed and walked away with a changed heart.
For the next several years many foreigners came and helped to grow the seeds that had been planted. The presence of foreigners also brought jobs, training and education for many. We had a time of rapid growth and saw believers raised up in many cities around the country. We were taught what “church” is and how we are to live as a body. Since we had no background in the Christian life we learned how to understand scripture and teach it to others. At one point I was leading 11 small groups in one week.
These years were not free of persecution as all of us who joined were attacked by family and society. Many of us also lost our jobs. As the new government began to form the number of restrictions also increased. These restrictions also applied to the foreigners, 80% of whom, after more than 10 years of open doors, were forced to leave. This was a difficult time as we saw many close friends and mentors leave as well as losing jobs and support for countless people.
All was not lost. After this the church began to grow increasingly underground. Since there were only allowed to be two official places of worship in each city these were inevitably used by the majority religion. Networks formed between cities and groups that helped connect the small pockets of believers around the country. An increase in unity has also taken place as denominational differences mattered less. People stepped up into leadership roles that had long been held by foreigners. Though it is still a struggle, leaders are being developed to multiply home groups, in essence seeing each person as a potential leader of a new group.
Challenges still persist in our very controlled environment. Like all developing countries unemployment is very high and a pastor who can live on the giving of his group is virtually non-existent. For believers, particularly in smaller cities, it is very hard to find work. Many educated leaders are leaving to go to other countries to find work because they can’t provide for their families here. Almost all pastors need to have a second job to help cover expenses which takes them away from full-time mission work.
Persecution continues to grow, making some stronger and others fearful. One fellow leader lost his job three times when his bosses found out about his faith. By the third time the police told him that if they caught him again they would plant drugs on him and he would go to jail for the rest of his life. Every week we hear about homes being raided and large fines or even jail time given to those present. In order to protect ourselves, times, locations and days of meetings are regularly changed. Unfortunately for some it became so bad they were forced to leave the country.
The need for outside support is still very strong. A new small group of foreigners has recently arrived bringing business models and ideas for income generating activities. This is helpful because instead of just giving salaries we are developing businesses that will remain even if foreigners leave and which also help to support the leaders of the churches. Since it has become very difficult to get training and education in the country many mission workers are now working and offering training in neighboring countries which we can travel to for short periods of time. This helps meet an important need in spiritual maturity as resources and information are very limited here.
As we look to the future of the church here we see lots of potential. Still young, less than 20 years old, with a country which looks increasingly outwards for help, there are many ways for the larger body to serve a group of believers making up less than 1% of the population. Finding ways to invest in the leaders both financially and educationally is crucial for multiplication. They need encouragement from the larger body to remind them that they are not alone. I have had the opportunity, along with many others, to travel to neighbouring countries to bring the good news. This type of effort has been very effective as our cultures and languages are very similar. In order to continue this and other efforts we need more and more people around us. Just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “this service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God, (2 Cor. 9:12)”.