William Yoder on the Newly Found Vitality of Christianity in Mongolia

Mongolian Christians

NOTE: A few years ago, more precisely in November 2006 I had the privilege to visit Mongolia together with one of my dear colleagues in World Vision, for doing my seminar on a Christian view on communism and post-communism (more details HERE – in Romanian). I did my presentation for two full days with about 70 church leaders and I was very impressed with the vitality of this very young church. What you can read below is one of the most consistent analysis of contemporary Mongolian Christianity, done from a Protestant perspective. I hope you will find it as interesting and informative as I did.

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Has Something Significant Happened in Mongolia?

At least in terms of percentages, Protestant mission in what may be the world’s  coldest and sunniest country qualifies as an incredible success story. Starting  with between four and 40 believers in 1990 (numbers vary), Protestants in  Mongolia are now said to number at  least 50.000 in 500 local congregations. The “Mongolian Evangelical Alliance”  reports of a heady “vision and strategy to see 10% of the population come to  faith in Jesus Christ by the year 2020”. That would be slightly more than  300.000 believers. From the 7th until the 14th centuries,  Nestorian, Eastern-Rite Christendom had a foothold in the country. It could be  claimed that now for the first time in 700 years Mongolia possesses a sizeable Christian minority: nearly 2% of the population. The  Orthodox and Roman Catholics are also present, but number less than 1.000  members each. Mormon numbers run significantly higher at nearly 8.000 members. 

Yet success is not without its  shortcomings: Iran-sized Mongolia is also said to be the  world’s most sparsely-populated country. Unofficially, Moscow has over five times  more residents than Mongolia’s 2,7 to 3,1 million (numbers vary). Because of the  distances involved, one mission society concludes that “cost-effectiveness in terms of people reached is very  poor”. Mission coverage appears spotty: Seventeen of Mongolia’s  20 people groups are considered unreached and only 40% of Mongolia’s 315  counties have any church at all.

Tibetan Buddhism was  not officially recognized in the country until 1578. The  present Tibetan Buddhist and Animist population is sometimes listed as 53%.  Amazingly, up until Josef Stalin’s Great Terror in the late 1930s, a  third of the country’s male citizens qualified as Buddhist monks. A Russian  source reports that of the 747 monasteries the country featured in 1921, only  one remained open during the 1980s.

The (Sunni) Muslim  segment is listed as high as 5%. Yet over the last two decades, thousands of  ethnic Kazakhs in the West of the country have returned to their historic  homeland.

The second  highly-unique feature of Mongolian Christianity is its non-denominational (more  correct than “inter-denominational”) character. Protestant affairs in the  country are overseen by two non-denominational bodies – “the Mongolian  Evangelical Alliance” (MEA) and the Geneva-related “National Council of  Churches” (NCC) – in cooperation with a service agency,

“Joint Christian Services  International” (JCS). The MEA unites 60-70% of the country’s congregations under  its umbrella. The NCC, which is less than three years old, focuses on church  work in the narrow sense and serves an additional 10% of the congregations.  These groups overlap with the 20-year-old JCS, which is the practical service  arm of 15 mission agencies dealing in ministries as diverse as veterinarian and  dairy services, orphanages, food-for-work and job creation programmes. A  “National Pastor’s Association” works under the MEA umbrella. Relationships are  generally not adversarial: There are churches which belong to both the MEA and  NCC and the NCC’s Executive Director is an advisor to the MEA. The MEA is  regarding as the country’s leading church body. Its advisory board has the  highest political standing and its Executive Director, Pastor M. Batbold from the historically charismatic “Living Word Church”, is the person who relates to the  highest government officials. Another person named “Batbold” (many Mongolians  use only a single name) is also a Living Word pastor and serves as the NCC’s  Executive Director. The NCC is supported primarily by indigenous, Mongolian  churches.

Even the South Koreans, who are  reputed to be among the world’s most separatist Protestants, began to cooperate  in time and its Presbyterian groups have formed their own “Korean Missionary Fellowship”. Laura Schlabach, a Mennonite from  Texasand JCS  worker since 1993, reports that both the JCS and the “Union Bible Theological  Centre” “have helped the Koreans see and experience unity”. She adds that the  Seventh-Day Adventists would like to join the MEA, but have until now been kept  at arm’s length because of theological differences.

Most interesting is the fact that  the issues dividing evangelicals in the ex-USSR tend to be non-issues in  Mongolia. Pastor Mojic of Ulan Bator  (or “Ulaanbaatar”) states that Charismatic matters only “used to be an issue. When  certain foreigners left, they became less of an issue.” Without imposing on  others, the use of the Charismatic gifts is “widely accepted by most of the  churches”. Only theologically-educated Mongolians are aware that Calvinists and  Arminians even exist.

Mojic reports that the MEA  ordains women as pastors. “However, some Mongolians involved in  churches with very traditional Korean influence do not agree that this is a good  thing – especially for single women.” Paul, a missionary from England, describes  Mongolia as a matriarchy: “It is the women who are the doers and leaders. Even on road  maintenance teams, the supervisors are usually women. This carries over into  church life as well.” JCS has had a female Executive Director since 2008: the  long-term Malaysian, “OMF International”-missionary Dr. Kwai Lin Stephens.

According to many  estimates, big neighbour Russia would also qualify as a  matriarchy. Yet Protestantism started out with a blank sheet in  Mongolia– it was not encumbered with  the centuries-old Christian traditions of its northern neighbour.  Mongolia’s starting point was the  Protestant world’s status quo of 1990 – not 1850.

Reasons for  non-denominationalism

Mongolian Protestants  deny that their non-denominational approach was in any way inspired by  China’s state-enforced, 1951-founded  “Patriotic Three-Self Movement”. Church contacts with its southern neighbour are  limited and usually consist of delegating missionaries to serve ethnic-Mongolian  minorities.

Western missionaries  like to point out that Mongolians are very committed to evangelism and church  growth; they and their Western mentors tend to see denominationalism as an  impediment. Many young believers are not even aware of the existence of  Christian denominations. Laura Schlabach reports that after explaining what a  “denomination” was, the women responded: “Why would they want to do that?  Don’t they all worship the same God?”  Schlabach, who lives in Bayanhongor (central Mongolia), describes the Mongolian position as: “We are part of the Kingdom of God and worship the one true God.” Koreans  and Westerners may speak of their local congregations in denominational terms –  a fact which Mongolians usually miss. Mongolian non-denominationalism is  clearly here to stay: Even those groups which pull back from the MEA pick  generic names. They do not as a rule revert to traditional denominational  ones.

The author assumes that  Mongolian practice is also reflects the fact that Western denominations have  “farmed out” foreign mission to specialised, inter-denominational mission societies over the last century.  Those planting non-denominational congregations in Mongolia were  themselves already members of non-denominational  missions.

In addition, Schlabach,  who happens to be part of a denominational mission, describes the  non-denominational approach as clearly intentional: “In order to get the  Mongolian church planted, watered and growing, we had to work together.” The  author would describe Protestant mission as a highly-fractured and diverse  enterprise: If for ex. 50 missions each send three missionaries to  Mongolia, they will obviously need to  cooperate.

But as stated  at the outset, not all missions and churches in the country accept the  non-denominational approach. Schlabach points out that some Assemblies of God,  Baptist, Evangelical Free and Korean groups have chosen to go it alone.  “Some groups are very hard to work with”, she concedes. “But there is  movement towards a greater willingness to work  together.”

A group such as the conservative “Lutheran Church  Missouri Synod” is very committed to forming only Lutheran congregations. Some  denominational groups have chosen to leave: The Southern Baptist “International  Mission Board” is no longer registered in the  country.

Not  surprisingly, controversies have emerged among the very diverse groups in this  country. Particularly vocal has been a dispute concerning the Mongolian word for  “God”. The Brit John Gibbens has been struggling to keep Mongolian believers  from using the Buddhist word “Burhan”. Gibbens formed his own “Bible Society of  Mongolia” in 1990 and later broke with the “United Bible Societies”. On his  webpage he insists: “BSM does not cooperate with organisations which choose to refer to  God in Mongolian using traditional terms which conflict with his character as  shown in the Bible.”

Things are getting lonely for Gibbens: The missionary “Paul” maintains  that 99% of the congregations use the word “Burhan”, which he describes as  pre-Buddhist terminology. The first complete Mongolian Bible, which was  published in 2000, uses precisely this term.

Obviously, a  church non-existent prior to 1990 and forced to “get up to speed” within record  time, is facing incredible challenges. Economic growth is around 17% per annum  and one missionary describes Mongoliaas a setting where  “pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism all co-exist and clash”.  One result of that challenge is that which Westerners define as  corruption. Mongolians have no historic experience with non-profit organisations  and one missionary laments that proper practice on financial issues is rarely  taught. He reports on a church leader who used church property as collateral  when taking out a private loan. When the loan “went bad”, the bank took over the  property and the ministry ended. Another leader, knowing that his employment  would be terminated, transferred ministry assets to his family. “Designated  giving” is a tough practice to comprehend: “Do you not trust us?” is a common  response when foreign donations are not used as stipulated.

Using Protestant  churches  as a shortcut to a new life in the West is a practice by no means restricted to  Mongolia. John  Gibbens complains on his webpage that “many who a few years ago had been  heralded as Christian leaders of the future are now living in the  USA and working in secular jobs”.  Indeed, there are more Mongolians living outside of than within the state of  Mongolia– China alone is  home to more Mongols than Mongolia itself.

Opponents of  the Protestant awakening like to claim that not only Mormons use significant  amounts of cash to encourage conversion – an accusation difficult to verify.  Missionaries report that government and Buddhist opposition to the Protestant  presence remains relatively modest. Laura Schlabach explains that government  “resistance always seems strongest around election time”.

Have the Mongolians achieved something significant; have  they broken through to a new frontier reaching beyond traditional denominational  divisions? “Yes!” insists Laura Schlabach. “Mongolians stick to the basic Gospel  truth: God loved us so much that He sent His only son to die for us. We are one  in Christ.”

William Yoder, Ph.D.

Berlin, 23 April 2013

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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