As a People Movement to Christ Emerges, What Lessons Can We Learn?
Like a land outside of time, Mongolia was one of the last political countries in the world to gain a Christian church of any kind. It is hard to imagine an entire nation as late as 1990, complete with membership in the United Nations, whose people had no knowledge that Jesus Christ had ever lived and walked on the earth. Mongolia was a closed country. It knew very little of the rest of the world, and the rest of the world knew very little of it.
James Gilmore of the London Missionary Society went to Mongolia in 1872, and died there 21 years later. He could count his converts on one hand. The Mongols had nothing to count on but Buddhism and their own indigenous shaman. Yet, in some ways it was the most religious country in the world with the eldest son of every family being given to the monastery, just as Christians often did in the middle ages.
Swedish missionaries came to Mongolia at the turn of the century, a number of them paying the ultimate price when over 100 missionaries were slaughtered during the Boxer Rebellion. In 1921 Mongolia became the second Communist country in the world. All missionaries were expelled, and for the next 70 years the nation was sealed off from the rest of the world. But on January 27, 1987, diplomatic relations with the United States were established and then on March 11, 1990, Mongolia followed the way of freedom which Eastern Europe had taken a few months earlier as the people threw off the Russian yoke. The Mongols were free for the first time since the days of the great Khans. Unfortunately though, as Mongolia had been at the bottom of the Soviet Empire, it was left a social disaster and totally impoverished.
Three months after the democratic revolution, a Christian group whose members included four different tribes of Native Americans entered Mongolia as tourists. Having been isolated from the world for so long, the Mongols were eager to learn about anything from the outside world, even things of which they had never heard. It was this cultural bridge with the Native Americans which helped to open the door for the preaching of the Gospel. A number of Mongols responded, and then on June 10, 1990, two Mongolian believers were baptized.
Ten months later in April of 1991, an evangelistic team from America was heading out the door of the Ulaanbaatar Hotel when they were stopped by two people who identified themselves as reporters for the Associated Press. "Are you the guys getting ready to conduct a baptism?" enquired the reporters. Affirmative. "Would it be all right if we came to this baptism? Everywhere we go in this city people are talking about you." The seven-man evangelistic team had been in the country for two weeks and would be leaving the next day. They could not guess how many of the Mongols who had been following them for the last two weeks and had made a profession of faith in Christ would actually come forward publicly to be baptized. And they certainly did not know that what was about to happen would become history.
Thirty-four Mongols stepped into the waters of baptism that day as a mixture of people gathered around the pool. One Mongol journalist was present with a video camera and the people from the Associated Press took pictures like there was no tomorrow, as if they couldn't believe what they were seeing. An article appeared in a Minneapolis newspaper a few weeks later describing the event. And so began one aspect of the Christian movement in Mongolia.
By August of that year, the number of Christians had grown to 70, and by Christmas there were more than 200 new born Mongolian believers! That number would multiply in the next year of 1992 to over one thousand, and seven years later, by April of 1998 the conservative estimate is that there are some 10,000 Mongolian followers of Jesus Christ congregating in more than 60 churches! It is without question the kairos moment for Mongolia. How are the missionaries working together with God to bring in this harvest? Obviously, some things were done right and, no doubt, some things were done wrong. What has happened in Mongolia offers the mission world some insightful case studies for penetrating into territory previously held by the enemy.
Much of the early growth of the church in Mongolia can be attributed to missionaries who came to Mongolia to teach English. Like young divers going off the high dive for the first time, they came and took the plunge; for though Mongolia is a nice place to visit, it is not an easy place to live. These teachers came with good organizations which trained and equipped them in the basics of cross-cultural communication. But more than just teach, it was clear that these missionaries really came to love. After a full day in the classroom, the teachers would also make themselves available to their students after class; and many found their way to their teachers' homes where they were treated for who they were, the chosen of the Lord.
The young people began to flock to the church services at the invitation of their teachers and brought their friends who were equally eager to learn English as the sermons were being translated from English into Mongolian. Here, thousands of young people heard the Gospel for the first time and found that the eternity they felt in their hearts could be filled by the person of Jesus Christ. The three churches that had been started were filled with zeal and a sense of awe as the Holy Spirit moved in the Mongols' hearts.
By 1992, the word was out that Mongolia was open and missionaries began pouring into Mongolia from all over the globe. Long-term and short-term missionaries from major denominations and small independent organizations came to Mongolia to help bring in the harvest. Some taught English, others came as students, some brought in aid or engaged in development and other forms of social work as formal missionary visas were not being granted. For most of the missionaries, this was their first time on a mission field, and there was a strong sense of urgency in the mission community. Some came and went but many came and stayed as they sensed Mongolia was a place where God was at work in a marvelous way.
In spite of the difficulties of the social dysfunction and the general chaos of the new government trying to find its way into democracy and freedom, there was a vigor in the air and a keen excitement in all those who had answered God's call to come where few believers had been before. The Mongols were fighting for their lives. It was a privilege to join them and try to be of help during the time of transition in which they now found themselves.
A mission agency in Germany began to send in short-term evangelistic teams to go into the Mongolian countryside. They worked together with Mongol Christians who had learned to speak English or German and served as translators. In a little over three years, having brought in well over 1,300 people for short-term ministry, they had been to every province and covered much of the country, preaching and praying and handing out the Gospels of John or Mark which had been translated.
Another organization began sending Mongol evangelists on the train route that ran from China to Russia. The Mongols proved to be natural evangelists and for 18 months from the capitol of Ulaanbaatar, they boarded the trains, one week going south, the next week going north, and sowed the word up and down the railroad line giving their testimony and passing out tracts and gospels.
During all of this evangelistic activity, the government which was democratic in name only, opposed the church with harsh propaganda in all of their state-run radio, television, and newspapers. Though the missionaries were aware this was happening, they couldn't actually understand it due to the language barrier--so it was the young Mongol believers who had to withstand the barrage of criticism from the state. But this actually promoted the Gospel!
Then came the Parliamentary elections of 1996. The Communist party at the time held 73 of the 75 seats in Parliament and the "Democrats" were expected to gain only a dozen or so seats in the election. Weekly prayer meetings numbering upwards of 300 began, and were held each Sunday night for ten weeks leading up to the election. They heard a message of faith: that things can change; that God can call into being things that are not. And the people prayed accordingly. The meetings culminated the evening before the election in the large square in the center of the city. As this final prayer meeting began a rainbow broke out right over the square. The next day, June 30, 1996, the Mongolian people voted 50 "Democrats" into the Parliament and Mongolia made world headlines. "Behold how good and how pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity...for there the Lord commands a blessing" (Ps. 133: 1,3).
The Church in Erdenet
The strongest and largest church in Mongolia is not in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (pop. 700,000) but in the 3rd largest city of Erdenet (pop. 70,000). The church there was begun in February of 1993, with the baptism of 14 teenage girls (not a likely beginning). Yet from this small beginning, there is a church today of over 800 people of all ages and levels of society. Though there are many success stories in Mongolia, no other church started before or after this has grown as much, nor has touched the mainstream of the Mongol society like this church. Why not? What do we have to learn from Erdenet?
First of all, the missionary team which planted the church understood who they were and what their goal was, namely keeping the Great Commandment to love their neighbor. Many missionaries come to the field with church planting as their main goal. But church planting can fail. Love never fails. The missionary must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. In Mongolia, as missionaries have loved people, then people have come to Christ and churches have been started. Having a good understanding of this priority is essential to laying the proper foundation for a church, and this has fortunately happened in many of the churches in Mongolia today.
Second, the missionary team in Erdenet had a good start in missiology and church growth principles. They began by learning the language and trying to blend into the Mongolian culture as much as possible. From the beginning they had a vision of the day they would be turning the church over to the Mongols. And so, from the very first, they trained Mongols for leadership, not just leadership to preach and lead singing, etc, but they taught the Mongol leaders how to deal with sin. Here was a big difference in the church in Erdenet from some of the churches in Ulaanbaatar. The missionaries in Ulaanbaatar, though they taught against sin, were weak in teaching their Mongol leaders how to deal with sin. As a result, many churches in Mongolia today continue to have various members of their leadership fall into sin, usually sexual immorality.
In Erdenet when this happened, one of the missionary team would talk to the person in question to ascertain whether the allegation was true. If so, a larger meeting with the Mongolian leadership of the church would be called, the offence explained, and then the missionaries would ASK the group, "Now what does the Bible say about this?" Too often the tendency is for a missionary to tell a group what the Bible says. But if the missionary understands his role of discipler correctly, and can keep his presence of mind to ask the question instead of making the statement, two things immediately begin to happen. One, the national leaders are forced to search the Scriptures for their answers, thus establishing God as the authority and not the missionary. Here the missionary's job, like herding sheep through the gate into the sheepfold, is to keep them searching until they find the gate. Second, at the same time, a pattern is now being established for how to deal with sin in the future.
The group of Mongol leaders would then decide what steps of discipline should be taken. The brother or sister who had fallen was informed by the leadership team that they would have to step down from leadership for a period of time, but not out of fellowship. The goal as taught from Scripture by the missionary team was to love and restore, but would have to step down from leadership. It is one thing to teach young national believers how to lead a service; it is quite another thing to teach them how to lead a church and keep sin out of it. Today the church in Erdenet has leaders who have been on both sides of this issue and know the value of keeping the church pure. This is strong leadership.
Third, the church in Erdenet was begun with a vision to be a cell group church. The believers were trained to understand that the cell is the church and not the large gathering for celebration. This allowed for new people to see that the ministry of the church was carried on by the laity and that they could move into positions of leadership without going through years of formal study. Baptisms were conducted by the Mongolian leadership, and the young Mongol leaders were taught to serve communion to their brethren in the cells. The church began to take on a Mongolian identity and consequently, to spread into the mainstream of the society in Erdenet. By contrast, in Ulanbaatar the dynamics which allowed the church in Erdenet to be perceived as Mongolian rather than foreign, were not applied to the same degree.
From the beginning, it was the desire of the missionary team in Erdenet to plant an indigenous church, and so the Mongol believers were encouraged to contextualize the Gospel as much as possible. Missionaries taught the believers in the skills of drama, and the Mongols immediately began to develop their own skits which were presented on Sunday mornings. The everyday life of a Mongol was portrayed juxtaposed with the teachings of Christ. The watching Mongols could easily identify with the themes that were presented and the answers to life that a relationship with God offered.
Music is always important, and so the missionaries in Erdenet encouraged the Mongols to begin writing their own songs. These were composed mostly in a modern style because the writers were young. Once these songs were learned by the congregation, the church began to grow powerfully in its worship. With the vitality of the youth leading the way, it was common to see hundreds of people exuberantly praising the Lord.
True to their word, the missionary team turned the church over to the Mongols in the spring of 1996. At that time the clusters of cell groups included upwards of 400 people. Now under complete Mongolian leadership, the believing fellowship continued to grow and by Christmas had reached 550. In February of 1998, they gathered to celebrate their fifth anniversary and what God had done. The first 14 girls from 1993 were asked to stand, and then the others who had been saved year by year. Suddenly everyone was looking around at an auditorium completely filled with people standing, praising and worshipping God!
By 1993, a number of missionaries began to feel that a translation of the New Testament which had been printed in 1990 had severe flaws. It did not seem to be sufficiently literal.
As a consequence, a group of missionaries on the field started anew with a fresh translation of Scripture. A committee was formed of German, Korean, Japanese, and American missionaries who worked together with Mongolian translators.
It took three years to produce a new New Testament which was published in November of 1996. This new translation was received enthusiastically by the Mongolian believers. The first 10,000 copies sold out in just one month. It has become the standard Bible in Mongolia today.
In March of 1998, the same committee published 14 books of the Old Testament. This should greatly impact the church in the next year as Mongols begin to read Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Daniel, etc., for the first time. The hope is to have the complete Bible ready by the year 2000.
The approach taken in translation was to have Mongolian believers write the rough draft from whatever second language in which they were most proficient and then have their work checked by missionaries. The manuscript was then checked again by Mongols many times and, finally, proof read by a team of both Mongols and missionaries working together.
If care is taken to make sure a translation is both accurate and easy to read, this method of writing the first draft using nationals who know a second language, could be used in pioneer situations to speed up the translation process, and is the newest approach to Bible Translation around the world. Along with God's love, getting God's word to the people is our most important task. Once the people have key portions of the Bible, then disciples can be made, lives sanctified, and proper doctrine will emerge in the church.
[Editor's note: There is probably no task missionaries undertake that throws up more complexities and contradicts more of the earnest intuition of foreign missionaries than Bible translation. The case of the two Mongolian translations is not yet resolved.]
Ironically, outside money has often hurt rather than helped the Christian movement in Mongolia. One agency poured thousands of dollars into Mongolia during a 12-month period and saw little fruit. At the very same time, a seasoned missionary took a Bible study group of five and poured himself out in love to build a church. In ten months, the church numbered 350 and gave birth to a daughter church. All this didn't cost a dime...only the blood of Jesus and missionaries who were willing to pick up their crosses and follow Him.
At other times, someone would arrive in Mongolia from agency X in America and be introduced to a young Mongol pastor who was already being discipled by a resident missionary. Though disciple-making is a rather delicate task, the man from agency X somehow figured he could do it better by remote control from the United States. He placed a couple of one hundred dollar bills into the young Mongol's hand to prove it. Agency X continues to send the young Mongol money, and advertises that it is planting churches while asking people in America to send money to the address printed in its glossy magazine.
Though this agency's motives may be pure, it seems it did not understand the nature of discipleship, accountability, or teaching national leaders how to obey God's word. Sad to say, not only has the ewe been taken from the resident missionary who had answered God's call to come to Mongolia, but a difficult stumbling block has been placed in the way of a promising leader of God's church. He is no longer a young shepherd learning to care for God's people and establish a self-supporting, indigenous church. He has now been made a hireling of outsiders, thereby sowing the seeds of dependency among the Mongol people.
More than one self-styled emissary with a bone to pick with most other believers has come to Mongolia and told the young Mongols that they don't need to listen to missionaries but should just do their own thing and God will guide them. This advice has proven deadly as it has not only brought confusion to young believers, but for those who listened, it has left them like lambs in the wilderness to be devoured by wolves. Some good men and women were lost.
What do people find when they come to Mongolia? A tourist sees buildings, streets, buses, hotels, hot water, museums, etc. But just under the surface of this 20th Century facade, lie the gates of hell. And what we find at the gates of hell is Satan at his best, disguised as an angel of light as the stories above indicate.
But in spite of all of Satan's efforts to destroy the church in Mongolia, it continues to grow. The phenomenal wave of missionaries coming out of Korea, for example, has played a significant role in Mongolia due to the fact that the Korean and Mongolian languages are structured similarly. To some extent the Korean missionary must simply substitute new vocabulary and they are often preaching within a year. These Korean missionaries are highly consecrated and very focused. They bring a discipline to their work and a zeal in prayer that is absolutely amazing.
However, though the Korean missionaries are usually well trained theologically, they tend not to be well trained missiologically. They seem to possess little understanding of contextualization and have exhibited no real desire to plant indigenous churches in Mongolia. They are of the mind that what has worked well in Korea will work all over the world if only everyone would follow suit. But that is not the way God is working.
The Koreans are exceptionally dear brethren and have been greatly used by God in Mongolia, but their mono-cultural ways are beginning to frustrate the emerging Mongol leadership. Bringing white gloves, ecclesiastical robes, and a golden chalice from Korea to serve communion is not sitting well with Mongol leadership who would like to see the church become more Mongolian.
There is great interest at the grassroots level to hear more about this Man who rose from the dead, but with the Gospel being packaged as it is in such a foreign way with Western rather than Mongolian music being sung for the most part, the message is presently obscured to the average Mongolian adult.
What can be done? Could a people movement still happen in Mongolia? Absolutely! Only now are the Mongols beginning to understand that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom--and that it is all right to worship Christ through their own cultural forms.
Recently at an evangelism seminar, Mongol church leaders heard for the first time one of their country's most famous melodies put to Scripture. They sat completely spellbound as the music and the words penetrated deeply into their hearts. Mongol believers have written Christian songs, but usually with a Western form and beat. These are popular. However, it was obvious that none of them had really thought that their own national folk music could be used in the Church. This recent revelation could put the Gospel into a medium through which many more Mongols will be able to hear the message as happened in Europe in the 16th century.
Another example is that every morning throughout Mongolia tens of thousands of women milk their cows and throw an offering of the milk into the sky to God. It is their understanding of God which needs fine tuning, not their form of worship. Should the Mongol women throw the milk in Jesus' name (with good understanding of who He is) since this is a form of worship already in place all across the country?
The Gospel must become contextual, and evangelism needs to begin to take place in the homes, as well as in church services. Discipleship must continue to take place in homes, not in some other place away from the family. The "go" of the Gospel must not stop with gaining access into the country and just expecting people to "come." No, it must follow through into the homes and lives of the people. The Mongolian ger, which is a round tent, is an ideal setting for a house church. But in order to grow big we must think small, i.e., many small churches all over the country serving the Lord's supper in gers where two or three or twenty are gathered in His name. The Mongols are egalitarian in their social structure and the priesthood of the believer will find ready rails to run on once equipped. These are a people who like to GO. It appears they have been uniquely created by God this way. Pray for them. They once rode for the devil. Now it is the living Christ who is calling them to His side.
But if they are to ride with Jesus, the young Mongol church must come to hate sin as Christ Himself hates sin. The present attitude toward sin is far too lax. Here is where the Church worldwide can help through prayer, asking God to give the Mongols a holy and godly hatred of sin. Many of the Mongol leaders are young but zealous and have great potential as they yield to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Three Bible schools have been started to help prepare the saints for the work of the ministry and each is filled to capacity with young men and women eager to grow in Christ. They are gaining more and more maturity with each passing day. The phase of development now in Mongolia is that of discipleship. The initial evangelism has produced a church that is fully capable of reaching the rest of the nation once it is discipled. What the Mongol church needs now are people who will come and live with them, learn their language and train them in the ways of Jesus Christ by word and example. This will require a true acceptance of one another, as the Mongols prefer unity to superfulous divisions. Inter-denominational prayer meetings and leadership partnerships are fairly common in Mongolia resulting in most churches working together.
In closing, it is necessary to step back from the various critiques which this article presents and simply praise the Lord for what He is doing in Mongolia! Ten years ago Mongolia was an unreached people posing an almost impossible challenge to the Church. Today the Christian movement is very much alive; and, in the spiritual dimension, one could say that Mongolia is actually being turned upside down to the glory of God.
RL is a veteran missionary who has worked in Mongolia since 1990 when he helped bring Native Americans to Mongolia to witness to them.