Welcome to Mongolia: a country with as many people as Wales, spread across an area four times the size of Germany and almost seven times the size of the UK!
Perhaps you’ve never noticed Mongolia on a map, enveloped by borders with Russia and China, and yet it’s time to start taking note of this often-ignored land.
While notions of Mongolia as a nation defined by its history are common (the Mongol empire being the largest connected land empire in history), change is afoot. Since the fall of communism and the peaceful revolution of 1990, scores of people have migrated to the cities in search of employment. Over half Mongolia’s population now live in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.
Approaching to land at the imaginatively named Chinggis Khan International Airport, the eyes are met with row upon row of cranes and half-built apartment blocks. The nomadic way of life is slowly dying out, and so up go the towers, as the city crawls up the hillsides and extends along the valley floors. This is a nation building for the future.
However, it’s not just apartments that need to be built. Indeed, society in Mongolia needs to be constructed from scratch. Deeply ingrained attitudes of self-interest have left many families broken, with children often suffering from neglect or abuse. An estimated one in four men are addicted to alcohol, and many struggle to find work.
Nevertheless, God is not absent, and his people are holding out hope to their nation. We met with a group offering ‘life skills’ classes in local schools, teaching children about their own value and their responsibilities to those around them, lessons which are shaping the attitudes not just of children, but of school teachers and parents as well. ‘Why did nobody teach us this?’ they ask.
We met a group who reach out to prostitutes in the most dangerous areas of the city, offering shelter, childcare and productive opportunities for safer employment, whether by looking after children or making items of clothing and jewellery.
We also met a group providing food to some of the city’s most vulnerable children, who live out on the city dump. Many are orphaned and have older siblings who spend their days sorting through rubbish to sell on, or recycle for a meagre wage. The centre we visited offered a hearty meal, as well as opportunities to sing and dance, to make friends, and to receive new clothes donated from abroad.
God’s people are working to change this nation, and the work goes beyond meeting immediate material needs. In each of these projects, and in many others, ministries of compassion are providing platforms for the gospel.
The life skills classes open up opportunities to invite children to Bible clubs. Around 200 children attended the most recent event, in a town called Nalaikh, where the government has enlisted life skills teachers for every school in its region.
One teenage boy told us he endures the long journey to church, alone in the freezing winters, because it’s his heart’s response to the salvation he’s found in Jesus.
Women from the street are given opportunities to read the Bible daily, to meet local pastors, and to get involved in churches. And those who live at the dump are regularly taught the Bible by a faithful pastor, who not only leads a church but lives on-site to minister to the children.
It’s not just apartments or a society that is being built, it’s the church. In 1990 there were perhaps four believers in this nation, with Buddhism, animism and shamanism all firmly established. Now there are estimated to be over 100,000 Christians.
What a testament to God’s grace that he would use his people (natives and missionaries alike) to reach a lost nation, and that the gospel would spread so far so quickly! Proud businessmen, despondent alcoholics and proselytising shamanists were among those who had found new life in Christ and who shared their testimonies with us.
Wonderfully, the gospel work continues today. A seven-hour coach ride out of the capital took us to Erdenet, a city built by the Russians to house workers for a copper mine. Here we visited the Mongolia Mission Centre.
In this unassuming building hundreds of new believers have been trained in discipleship, before going back to their hometowns to tell of God’s grace in their lives; and dozens of missionaries have come to be equipped for church-planting across the nation.
On the wall hangs a map, with a bright red dot highlighting every village yet to see a church established. What a joy it was to meet people passionate about peeling off every single dot from this map, as well as reaching across the borders to Mongol groups in Russia and China!
Amazingly, the previously obstructive national government is urging the centre to plant churches in the far west among the entirely Muslim Kazakh population, as well as encouraging outreach to the poor in the centre’s own locality. The growth of the church in this country is thrilling and the missionary zeal of the believers is a tonic to hearts discouraged by outreach closer to home.
And yet the church in Mongolia faces its own challenges. As one might expect from a church so young, there is a dearth of mature leaders, with arguments and church splits not uncommon. Then there’s the lack of financial giving. While the workers are many, the resources to send them are few. Many missionaries are queueing up to be sent out, only to find that the Mission Centre and their churches can’t support them.
As Mongolia builds for the future, God is using his people and building his church. Do pray for this nation, that many more would be saved and that the resources would be found to reach every corner of this vast land with the gospel.
Alex Hays works for AsiaLink, a Christian charity supporting and enabling work amongst the unreached people of Asia (www.asialink.org)