The Central Asian Consultation has become a colorful gathering of Christians from literally all ethnic groups. Uzbek mix with Karakalpak, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tadzhik, Azeri, Turkmen, Tatar and others.
The Central Asian Consultation (CAC) of Evangelical leaders from Central Asia and representatives of Mission agencies active in Central Asia is meanwhile a traditional event. Once a year, in March, leaders of different denominations and agencies gather outside of Central Asia to discuss urgent matters of mission and evangelism.
I have attended CAC from the first years of its existence and observe year after year how this gathering changed its people and content. Very Russian in the beginning, it has become a colorful gathering of Christians from literally all ethnic groups of Central Asia. Uzbek mix with Karakalpak, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tadzhik, Azeri, Turkmen, Tatar and others.
“Christianity in Central Asia is becoming more and more native”, states Petr Kremeruk, the General Secretary of the Central Asian Evangelical Alliance, one of the organizers of CAC. “The time when Christians in Central Asia were predominantly Russian speaking is gone forever”, he says. It is easy to see how true his words are by observing the delegates of CAC 2022.
It was my joy and privilege to dive into this colorful Central Asian mix of people, listen to their voices and dreams, plans and spiritual realities. No question – I came back home extraordinary blessed and encouraged to continue my ministry for the kingdom. What was so special about CAC 2022? Let me underline the following: (1) the fact that Muslim people turn their face to Jesus everywhere in Central Asia; (2) the level of commitment of the new converts to Jesus; (3) the creativity with which the Central Asians proclaim Jesus to their own people; (4) the eschatological awareness for possible things to come. Let me explain in detail.
Asked why Central Asians convert to Christianity, people reply: “God, the Almighty and Jesus, our Savior, speaks to us in the language of our heart. Jesus appears to dedicate Muslims in a dream, they hear Him in their own language, using words of the most intimate communication, comforting their hearts, and inviting them to trust his love and power”.
“There are many challenges our people face, be that economic, health related or even ideological. The breakdown of the Soviet Union left us with a deep void and the traditional Islam could not satisfy. In fact, islamisation led to various conflicts between the nations, wars, and horrible killings. Especially the more intellectual turn away from Islam and search for alternatives. And Christianity seems to present a perfect alternative”, one of the leaders from Uzbekistan explains.
And he goes on saying: “The Soviets wanted us to follow their doctrine, the Muslim Arabs convince us to stay obedient to what they believe the right way of life is, Christ is the only one who comes to us and is interested solely in us. We have never even had anyone who so much loves cares for us, as He does. Our people turn to Jesus because with Him we feel being at the center of universe. He means us, He really does”.
“The day I gave my life to Jesus marks an existential turn in my life. I was all in inferiority complexes”, Ahmad, a young Kazakh tells me. “My family is poor, my father dominant, I did not know how to live a life in fullness. And, honestly, if someone asked me, about such a life, I clearly denied even the possibility of it. And then I met Christians and consequently Jesus. He gave me dignity. Today I do know who I am and my family marvels my development. Jesus promoted me and still does and, therefore, I follow Him”.
Ahmads' words are typical for many young people like him. In a world of total submission under the rule of Islam, they find the freedom Jesus offers to them a great blessing. “It is like being restarted again”, Ahmad says. “Isn't this what becoming born again exactly means – a marvelous restart, a new creation as Apostle Paul states in 2 Cor. 5:17. I was a suppressed Kazakh Muslim before, now after meeting Jesus, I am a human being full of dignity, a person of my own. And as such I am ready to commit my whole life to Jesus. Submission under His authority does not enslave me but sets me free to live a live according to God´s great plan.”
It is fascinating to hear young Central Asians talk like this. Following Jesus in every aspect of life is their major interest and consequently discipleship was one of the central themes of CAC 2022.
Listening to the stories of my Central Asian friends I am excited to see the colorful creativity they apply when sharing the gospel with their people at home. “In our cultures everything communicates”, Gulnara explains to me. “Words are usually the last means we use in sharing our love. The way we great each other, serve each other, dress, and cook – all of this and much more speaks to people. The right cup of well-prepared green tee may say more than a sermon”.
It is obvious how different proclamation has become since most of the Russian-speaking Evangelicals have left the area. The Russian-speaking were aggressively preaching to the people and most of them turned their back to them. The new national Christians serve their neighbors, pray for them, assist them wherever assistance is needed and become friends even across the boundaries of religion.
Mustafa, an older Karakalpak, organizes for instance funerals for his Muslim neighbors. Such a funeral can easily ruin a family financially since the tradition prescribes to invite all relatives and friends, feed them a meal and celebrate. Mustafa finds a way to support his suffering neighbors and organizes the community to celebrate together. “Sometimes people ask me weeks after the event, why I helped them. 'You are a Christian, no Muslim would do to Christians what you have done for us', they say. And then I tell them how much I love them and how much Jesus loves them and promise to be there whenever they may need me. It takes time, but one day, they ask me to lead them to Jesus. It has already happened many times”.
At the conference the Central Asians exchanged their experience. This year Covid-19 was one of the predominant themes, which the believers used to serve their neighbors. “Our women´s group decided to compile at least 30 live-saving food and medicine packages for families in need”, Zamira from Kyrgyzstan tells us. “We invited the community to join hands with us. And a miracle happened – soon we were serving more then 2,000 families. And often our prayers for the sick were answered by God with a healing miracle. The pandemic gave us an open door to so many people. God is good!”
Another mark of the vivid young Central Asian church is their strong expectation of second coming of Christ. Nearly everyone talks about it. The Corona pandemic, the Afghanistan crisis or the war between Russia and Ukraine, for instance, were discussed under the premises of the end times at CAC 2022. And with it the urgency to evangelize those who do not know Jesus yet.
“Jesus is coming soon, we need to intensify our missionary activity”, the Central Asians say. An attitude which reminds me of the time in the beginning of the 20th century Europe when thousands of Evangelicals where actively engaging in mission to promote the return of Christ in their generation. “We are asked to go, who else”, my friends say.
Surprised by such convictions I have asked them where this missional orientation came from. And again, an unusual answer followed: “The Holy Spirit teaches us when we pray together”. Yes, I have been to the prayer conferences the Central Asians conduct annually in Alma-Aty, Kazakhstan. And yes, such conferences are amazing. “The Holy Spirit teaches us!” What a great decision to follow Him, who can lead us Christians into all truth (John. 16:12).
Names in this article have been changed due to security issues.
Johannes Reimer, professor of Mission Studies and Intercultural Theology and Global director of the Department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). He is author of numerous publications in the area of mission.