Ukraine

by Viacheslav Lytvynenko

Few people in the West know much about Ukraine beyond the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 26 years ago. Perhaps more will be aware of the 2004 Orange Revolution, when opposition groups claimed that the presidential election was rigged. But how many know that Ukraine is home to the fastest-growing church in Europe?

WHO are the Ukrainian People?
UkraineUkraine's geography and history have played an important role in the country's search for identity. For centuries Western Ukraine was European, while Eastern Ukraine belonged to the Russian Empire. The Soviets encouraged these different regions to be suspicious of one another, undermining Ukraine's unity as a nation. The result was not only different languages - Russian in the East and Ukrainian in the West - but adivergent political sympathies and visions for the future. In 2004, the Orange Revolution saw the run-off vote between leading candidates Viktor Yushchenko (from the West) and Viktor Yanukovych (from the East) rigged in favour of Yanukovych. However, a second run-off election showed a clear victory for Yushchenko. Five years later, Yanukovych, who is pro-Russian and upholds an old Soviet-style government, won the presidential election and holds office today.

Ukraine is struggling in its transition to capitalism and democracy. Known as the 'breadbasket of Europe' and the former Soviet Union, it is facing severe economic and social problems. The government no longer promises lifetime employment, pensions are virtually worthless and people are often unpaid for months. Unfortunately it is increasingly common to hear Ukrainians express a desire to return to Communism. The question is now raised. "In which direction do we integrate: towards the East or West, Russia or Europe?" Some claim that the direction does not matter as long as Ukrainians are determined to live as one nation. Others claim that the choice is crucial for a democratic future.

No less complicated is the tension over religious matters. In AD 988, Prince Volodymyr of Kiev made Christianity the state religion for what is now Ukraine. Ukraine has three Orthodox churches: two of Ukrainian origin which are pro-European, and one that belongs to the Russian Moscow Patriarchate. To complicate matters, Ukraine also has a large Greek Catholic church. This complex religious landscape reflects the historical search for identity in the East versus West confrontation.

With the above as background, what sets Ukraine apart from other post-Soviet countries is that the Evangelical Church represents a dynamic and growing Christian minority.

It went from being heavily persecuted by the state to becoming completely legal. Evangelical Christian-Baptists (the largest evangelical denomination), together with other traditional Protestant churches, are identified as a Bible Belt,1 making their presence known through church life, education and missions. Today, in addition to an intensified search for national identity, Ukrainian Evangelicals find themselves facing  increasing secularism and nominal Christianity among churchgoers. However,  many Evangelical leaders see this as an opportune time to express Christian unity through the gospel to a country that is culturally divided.

WHAT is the Present State of Ukrainian Evangelicals in their Historical Context?
Secularism is nothing new in the Ukraine. The USSR instituted the Soviet model of an atheistic state with its focus on progress and industrialisation. Russian efforts to secularise all societies under their umbrella were part of a broader strategy to implement Marxist ideology: exercise total control, suppress opposition and eliminate religion. The state was committed to the destruction of churches, temples and mosques. It harassed and executed religious leaders and spread atheistic propaganda throughout the media. However, after perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) from the mid-1980s, Communism fell and Ukraine was free to develop as an independent country.

Unfortunately, the aftermath of intense Sovietisation, combined with an unleashed but immature free-market economy, runaway inflation was triggered which left the national currency, the hryvnia, worthless. The privatisation of businesses and the opportunity to buy state-owned properties fell prey to organised crime and widespread corruption. During these difficult times citizens were sensitive to the Christian message of hope and salvation. There was large-scale evangelism and many Ukrainians became Christians.

In her dissertation, Identity in Evangelical Ukraine, Esther Long reports the words of the Evangelical church leader, Sergei Nikolev: 'When Communism fell and the door was opened, we thought we needed only a few years to convert Russia for Christ. We started very intensive evangelisation. We preached to hundreds of thousands, started missions and Bible studies, distributed millions of Bibles and other Christian literature and planted a lot of churches."2 Since then times have changed. Evangelical leaders see those early years as the most fruitful period of their churches' outreach efforts.

In the current environment Evangelicals feel that Ukraine is in danger of being pulled into a whirlpool of new post-Soviet ideologies competing for its soul. The old form of Soviet secularisation in Ukraine has given way to religious pluralism and  nominal Christianity with its vague beliefs and no firm commitment. The old ways of Christian life and evangelisation seem irrelevant for the current situation, and Evangelical Christians are asking, "How do we do missions today?"

HOW can Ukrainian Evangelicals be Successful in their Mission?
Ukrainian Christians have two primary vehicles through which they can  push forward in evangelism: education and charity.

Historically, the church lived on the social margins, and higher education was unaccessible to believers. Despite tremendous evangelism, church planting and social ministry, the Evangelical Church has been unable to penetrate education with the gospel.  The time is ripe for a new generation of Evangelical leaders to legally teach Christian ethics in public schools, The opportunities for Christian education are there, but the need for indigenous Evangelical scholars who can provide theological training to help men and women become more effective in ministry is unmet. In order to impact the broader intellectual community, theologically sound Christian education is at the top of the list and Western support is critically needed.

Ukrainian Evangelicals are striving to be 'salt and light' in society through social services and charity ministries. Extensive poverty, a growing AIDS epidemic, large numbers of orphans and frightening statistics of drug and alcohol addiction among young people, are the primary social problems. Opportunities are endless for Evangelicals to demonstrate God's love through gracious action. Lacking experience and resources, Ukrainian Evangelicals would benefit from the help of Western Christian doctors and other professionals willing to serve on short-term mission trips or projects. Synergy would be generated if such efforts were combined with Bible camps for children, teens and the handicapped.

God has blessed Ukraine with freedom and opportunities not seen in many decades, and these new times call for Evangelicals to reach out through more effective education and social ministries. The number of unreached people in Ukraine has increased, and as Jesus said to His disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest" (Matt. 9:37,38). Who will come and participate in the harvest?

1  William Fletcher, The Soviet Bible Belt: World War II's Impact on Religion, in The Impact of World War II on the Soviet Union, edited by Susan J. Linz (New York: Rowan and Allanheld, 1985), 91
2  Long, Esther Grace, Identity in Evangelical Ukraine: Negotiating Regionalism, Nationalism, and Transnationalism (2005). Doctoral Dissertations paper 87-88

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