Leaders see hope underneath crisis in Ukraine

A man dressed as an old-time Ukrainian evangelist challenges the audience to preach the gospel at the Mission Ukraine kickoff.

A man dressed as an old-time Ukrainian evangelist challenges the audience to preach the gospel at the Mission Ukraine kickoff.

KIEV, Ukraine – As snow falls outside, most of the people milling inside Central Baptist Church keep their winter coats on.

The parkas testify to the financial crunch that Ukraine has suffered with its recent civil strife and the concurrent economic slump. As tensions with Russian-backed separatists in two eastern provinces have heated up, churches like Central Baptist have turned the heat down to save money.

Today’s crowd of about 120 people has come to help kick off Mission Ukraine, a yearlong evangelism training effort organized by leaders of several Ukrainian Protestant denominations and Minneapolis-based GoodWORD Partnership. The goal: Train leaders across Ukraine in evangelism and discipleship. Those leaders then will teach people in their churches how to share their faith and, in turn, help the anticipated new believers to follow Christ and share their faith.

Mission Ukraine organizers hope to train people in as many of Ukraine’s 10,600 Protestant churches as possible before next fall. This in a country that began 2014 in relative peace but ends it mourning more than 4,700 deaths and more than 500,000 internally displaced people, the result of fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Harsh economy

Alexei Ivanshuk

Alexei Ivanshuk

As peace in the east disappeared, so did jobs. The small brick factory in Krasnogorovka, a town about 25 km (15.5 miles) west of the city of Donetsk, closed this year. If that had been the only business interruption, the town might have been OK. Most people in Krasnogorovka worked in Donetsk, anyway. The real financial crisis started when crossfire between rebels and the Ukrainian army made roads between the two communities impassable, says Alexei Ivanshuk, a minister who recently pastored a small church there.

“There is a big need for simple stuff – food, all kinds of everyday supplies,” Ivanshuk, 46, said through an interpreter at a Pentecostal church in Kiev, where his new employer is based. “We have a situation right now where some organizations or missions bring humanitarian help, and people are staying from 5 a.m. until the evening just to receive some food bag or some clothes, because there’s no food or anything there.”

After a yearlong search for better-paying work than pastoring, Ivanshuk landed a job in March running an excavator for a construction company in Kiev, about 670 km (416 miles) away. He and his wife moved their five children out that month. They now live three hours from Kiev by train, but the new job was God’s mercy to him and his family, he said.

“Because of the situation, I needed to move from there,” Ivanshuk said. “Each day there is shooting.

“I traveled twice to my hometown, and it was hard for me to see that all the factories are closed,” he recalled. “All the gas stations were destroyed, homes were destroyed, and a lot of destruction was around it.”

Crisis opens hearts and minds

Ministers from the battleground regions hope the unrest will mobilize their churches and awaken people to their need for Christ.

Sergiy Demydovych, left, translates for evangelist Ravi Zacharias at the Mission Ukraine kickoff.

Fyodor Raychynets, left, translates for evangelist Ravi Zacharias at the Mission Ukraine kickoff.

“This crisis, it can be positive,” said Sergiy Demydovych, pastor of a church of about 700 regular attenders in Slovyansk, a city about 135 km north of Donetsk city. “It can be a chance to do something.”

Demydovych, who spoke at the Mission Ukraine kickoff, said a lot of people have come to his church recently full of depression and fear. Many have seen their homes and businesses destroyed in the shelling. Church members have helped to rebuild many of those homes.

About 70 church members have left town because of the fighting – but 70 new people have taken their place as they’ve noticed the church’s heart for the city, Demydovych said.

“We help them to rebuild their houses; we calm them down and say, ‘God will help you,’” Demydovych, 48, said through an interpreter during a break at Mission Ukraine. “They have open hearts for this. They see the church is good people who just help.”

Ivanshuk said he’s seen at least two positive developments in Krasnogorovka: Many of his friends there have accepted Christ because of the troubles, and many Christians he knew who were living a tepid faith have come back to church. Those two movements are strengthening churches as they reach out to the community.

“And now, some churches, when they’re showing their love and spreading some humanitarian help, people see it and start coming back to church again,” he said.

At the Mission Ukraine conference, where the theme was “Do not be silent,” Demydovych joined a chorus of people who are optimistic that the temporary troubles will lead to spiritual gain for the entire country.

“This conflict in Ukraine is a spiritual conflict,” Demydovych said. “The main problem is people – they have to be changed from inside. Without these distortions and these struggles, they will never be changed. So we accept these troubles as a possibility.”