Kazakhstan at the crossroads
Today Kazakhstan enjoys the most freedom of all among the former Soviet republics. So much so that it is due to take the chairmanship of the OBSE (The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in 2010. However, there are attempts being made by political and religious leaders in Kazakhstan to restrict all religious activity apart from Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity.
A repressive law has already been passed by parliament, but the president is yet to sign it. Kazakhstan is a presidential republic and so the president has the final word regarding which laws make it onto the statute books.
Parliament has already approved this law three times, the first time as early as 2001, but not once has the president agreed to it. The church is praying that this time will be no different.
Evangelical Baptist Union
The only mainstream evangelical denomination in Kazakhstan is the Evangelical Baptist Union (EXB) – a denomination found across the whole of the CIS. At the present time it has just over 10,000 members in Kazakhstan. It is also at a crossroads, with vital decisions about its future under discussion.
Though the EXB was a reformed denomination during its infancy, it soon became consciously Arminian in its theology under the influence of American missionaries. Then, before there was opportunity for meaningful theological dialogue, the harsh Communist years made such discussions impossible and survival became the main aim.
However, it is now 18 years since Kazakhstan became independent and the initial widespread spiritual hunger following years behind the Iron Curtain has waned considerably.
Many ‘Western vices’ have come to this part of Central Asia. The opportunity to earn real money has brought in a thirst for material advancement that has replaced spiritual hunger.
The moral code imposed by Communism is also breaking down – marriage becomes less and less popular; abortion is widespread; TV broadcasts everything and anything at all times of day; the problems of alcoholism and drug addiction are in the open; and society begins to fracture at all levels.
Still the Baptist Union remains locked in the past. The same old arguments occupy its leadership and secondary issues cause splits. Meanwhile, the average believer has little grip on fundamental doctrines and the average non-believer no longer readily responds to church invitations.
Lately, there seems to be a move within the EXB to prevent what little change is taking place by imposing a more hierarchical structure on it – presumably so that churches can be more heavily influenced, even controlled, from a national or regional level. Talks regarding this and other crucial issues for the Baptist Union are due to take place soon at the annual church council.
The Evangelical Church in Kazakhstan has also had to cope with a mass emigration of its members. Over the past 15 years it has lost 20,000 members to Germany, Russia and the USA. Even now, Christians are still heading west.
Often those who left had important and valuable ministries. They were elders, deacons, young people’s leaders – the future generation of church leadership. Also, because of the pressures within the EXB on those not adhering to Arminian theology, reformed Christians who could leave have tended to do so.
Too much foreign support?
This, and the historical lack of theological training, has resulted in untaught congregations floundering for lack of ‘solid spiritual food’ and unable to answer the increasingly complex questions posed by non-Christian neighbours and colleagues.
Nor has the Western church’s interaction with Kazakhstan always been a blessing. Churches have become so used to financial support and humanitarian aid that, despite considerable economic improvements, Christians are reluctant to contribute to the running of their local church, and congregations do not even consider the possibility of supporting their own leaders financially.
Yet gospel opportunities are still more abundant here than in the UK. In smaller villages people still respond to general invitations to attend special Christian meetings, although in towns personal contact and trust needs to be built up over time. Many people still live with considerable material needs.
New birth church
Five years ago the first Reformed Evangelical Church in the Baptist Union began to gather as a handful of believers in the northern town of Kostanay. Today Vozrozhdeniya (new birth) church has nineteen members.
In 2007 Sergey Babenko, who was converted in Kazakhstan as a teenager, was set aside as its pastor. He and his wife, Beth (nee Heaps), had been living in Dewsbury, UK, for the previous five years with a view to returning to help the church in Kazakhstan.
At the request of Vozrozhdeniya, Dewsbury Evangelical Church agreed to send Sergey to work there. He arrived back in Kazakhstan in May 2007 and has been pastoring the church since.
Vozrozhdeniya remains in the Baptist Union, despite theological differences and initial friction with it; and a good working relationship has been established with other local EXB churches. Part of Sergey’s work involves preaching at the church from which the initial church planters for Vozrozhdeniya originated, as well as contributing to regional and national discussions.
Sergey also travels roughly 50 miles from Kostanay every week to contribute to a village church Bible study. Although Vozrozhdeniya is Kazakhstan’s only reformed church, there are considerable numbers of reformed Christians within other churches.
There is great need for solid teaching and Christians are keen to benefit from the experience of clear expository preaching Sergey received during his time in England.
Sergey & Beth Babenko