It was a hot late spring day in the small railway town of Sainshand in the Gobi desert. The sky was clear and blue as it is for much of the year.
Inside the small church building, not much larger than a large garden shed, about 25 people were listening intently to a Mongolian man giving his testimony.
Our friend Tsengelmaa, a 19-year-old local girl, was sweating profusely, not because of the heat, but out of fear.
The man giving his testimony came from another Mongolian town hundreds of miles to the west – Dalanzadgad, in a region made famous in the 1920s for its dinosaur excavations.
The speaker was formerly in the Mongolian secret police, trained by the KGB in Moscow and, by his own admission, responsible for some terrible acts. He was converted as he lay critically ill on a hospital bed.
Since then he has devoted his life to serving God. Within two years the church in Dalanzadgad grew from virtually nothing to seventy strong.
He was touring the Gobi to tell his story and testify that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. He had bumped into one of his old friends in Sainshand, a policeman, and invited him to the meeting.
This is how the most feared and violent policeman in Sainshand came to be sitting in church (and why Tsengelmaa sat trembling). He and his wife sat and listened intently to the gospel message.
In a later discussion it emerged that his wife was a believer, but he had many questions and objections to religion, stemming from his KGB training.
Mongolia has come a long way since the end of the communist state in 1990. Buddhism was reinstated as the national religion, but new religious freedom has enabled the Christian church to grow.
At that time there were only a handful of Mongolian Christians and the New Testament had just been translated into Mongolian.
Now, twelve years on, the whole Bible has been translated and there are 6,000-10,000 professing Christians across the country, with churches in nearly every province.
The church in Sainshand had its beginnings in the mid-1990s. By the time we arrived in 1999 there were half a dozen or so local believers and two other missionary families.
Today the church has about 25 adults and 50 children attending regularly.
Along with Bible study, prayer is a key factor in the growth of the church. The church meets regularly for prayer, daily in the summertime and every other day in the chill Siberian winter.
With prayer came deepened fellowship and honesty concerning the struggle with sin. The Mongolians shared their faith spontaneously in a natural way and organised house-to-house visiting as well as occasional services in the local old-people’s home.
There is a striking contrast between Christianity and Buddhism. In Buddhism the holy writings are in Tibetan and ‘ordinary’ people are neither expected nor required to read them – everything is hidden and subject to interpretation by Lamas (monks).
Mongolians bring their problems and requests to Lamas who, for a fee, will read Tibetan prayers on their behalf or give them some duty to perform in order to gain merit.
It is remarkable, therefore, for the Mongolian who becomes a Christian, to have a personal relationship with God, to read God’s revealed Word himself, in his own language, and to understand it without help from a ‘specialist’.
It is even more remarkable that ordinary people can pray to the one true God, in their own language – and see those prayers answered.
A milestone in the life of the church in Sainshand, and in the faith of all its believers, came with God’s answer to a year and a half of persistent prayer.
The church needed a place to meet in and become legally registered. With a tiny income each week, this seemed an impossible leap of faith.
Although it would have been an easy course to take, bringing in financial help from outside was an idea resisted by the missionaries.
Then God graciously moved the father of a believer to gift to the church a plot of land and a small building near the centre of town – exactly what we had been praying for! Within a couple of weeks the church was granted legal registration.
For weeks people were recounting to each other the amazing story of how God had answered their prayers. The believers took great delight in renovating their new church building and preparing it for use.
Importantly, every time they use the building they are reminded of God’s faithfulness – more important than the generosity of foreigners!
God is faithful and generous. ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32).
Before we returned to the UK in 2001 the church leadership had to face a tough crisis concerning one of its leaders.
While disappointed with the individual concerned, we were encouraged by the way in which the leadership dealt with issue.
Their reaction was to avoid a ‘knee jerk response’ but instead look to God in prayer, searching the Scriptures for guidance. Their resolution of the problem was both biblical and full of grace.
As we left we felt confident that God would continue to bless the church and honour those who were honouring him.