When we say “Central Asia,” I’ll be focusing on Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, though my reflections are largely applicable to Azerbaijan and slightly less to the Russian Republics of Tatarstan and Bashkirtostan. And while I’m not a foreign missionary in Central Asia, I serve as a pastor of a local church in Kazakhstan, and I’ve interacted with a number of missionaries in the past 16 years since my conversion from Islam.
Understanding Central Asian History
Central Asian history can be divided into four primary time periods. First, a period of various pagan religions. Second, the spread of Islam. Third, the Soviet era. Fourth, independence.
The ancient teaching of Nestorianism, a heresy that taught Christ as two distinct persons, made inroads into Central Asia, but biblical Christianity, with the one God-man dying for men, doesn’t have a lasting influence in the region.
In some parts of Central Asia, like Northern Kazakhstan, the Russian influence is much stronger, but the farther south you go and the more rural the area is, the less Russian is spoken.
This peculiar background of the region has affected everything, including our cultures, religions, architecture, and politics. Cities like Almaty and Astana feel like modern metropolitan cities with huge malls, Starbucks and Nike stores, but Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, has preserved much more of its Soviet architecture.
The Resurgence of Islam in Central Asia
Growing up in the 90’s right after the USSR’s collapse, I wasn’t taught much about Islam. However, after the Central Asian countries became independent, there was a resurgence of Islam, particularly among young men.
Islam appeals to young men for two main reasons. First, young men in Central Asia want to have an identity that’s not tied to the Soviet Union, and Islam offers that identity. Second, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have funneled significant funds into the construction of new mosques and into the education of young people in our region.
It’s good for any Christian who’s moving to Central Asia to become acquainted with the core teachings of Islam to know which questions or refutes may arise when sharing the gospel. As a starter, I recommend these 2 books: James White’s “What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an” and Thabiti Anyabwile’s “The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence.”
All Jesus, No Church
As a pastor, it can be incredibly difficult to minister to people who were brought to Christ by Western missionaries without a commitment to the church. At times it looks like they’ve been inoculated against submission to a local church. How could this have happened? In my experience, many of the missionaries who came to serve in Central Asia loved Jesus and knew the gospel, but didn’t value the local church.
These brothers and sisters boldly witnessed that Jesus is the only Savior and stressed the importance of a personal relationship with God. Unfortunately, they didn’t communicate the role of a local church in the life of a believer. If you’re a missionary and never join a local church, you can’t expect a person you disciple to join a church.
Thankfully, I’ve noticed that more missionaries coming to Central Asia these days, bring with them a much healthier understanding of the church. But in God’s grace, a better way is possible.
Find a Partnering Local Church
Your partnership will look different in different locations. In some places, you can and must join a local church to serve as its faithful member. In other places, a foreigner can’t join––or even associate with––a local church due to security reasons. But even in places where there are no healthy churches, you can find a like-minded church in a different city and establish a gospel partnership with them.
Labor for the Sake of the Name in a Local Church
Instead of starting “your own thing,” invest time to develop trusted relationships with the pastors of your local church to understand where they see the biggest needs and opportunities for the gospel work, and then work alongside them. As you witness to locals, start by inviting them to your church and encourage your fellow church members to evangelize with you. Let the non-believers see the compelling gospel community.
As a Kazakh pastor––and our situation definitely differs from others––our church’s biggest need is to simply have more “normal” mature Christian families and single people who would, at least for a season, join the ordinary ministry of our church: evangelism and discipling; teaching and training pastors at our internship program; taking part in short-term missions trips; and, Lord willing, in church planting.