By Kirk Matthews
Mongolia is at a crossroads both geographically and metaphorically. Landlocked between China and Russia, this once sleepy post-socialist country has been described as “the wolf of Asia” for its fast-growing economy (due mainly to a mining boom). An increasing number of countries and companies are trying to improve trade ties, contracts, roads and rail links to and within the land where Genghis Khan was born.
In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, gleaming Hummers growl in the traffic jams, passing new hotels, European style restaurants and even a Louis Vuitton near Sukhbaatar Square, site of massive democratic protests two decades ago to end one-party Communist rule. Just a few blocks north of Sukhbaatar Square are narrow dirt roads crisscrossing passed wooden fences guarding yurts or houses where people live without running water.
Outside of Ulaanbaatar in the countryside, nomadic herders live in yurts much the way they have lived for centuries. Yet they text and talk on cell phones as they watch horses, cows, yaks, sheep, goats and camels grazing free on open-range land, rugged land without title deeds.
Pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism co-exist and clash in this land dominated by the revered “Blue Sky.” On mountain tops people worship nature deities and Buddha as they circle sacred cairns of rock. In the valleys below lay 20th century Soviet architecture, where a workers’ paradise was never realized. In these modern square uniform buildings, some seek new spiritualties as they also seek to get rich. People may seek the guidance of an Indian guru or feng shui, or they may see what new gadgets they can buy from home shopping on TV.
The sudden transition two decades ago from communism to democracy hit many Mongolians hard. But Gerelmaa and her husband, nomadic herders who had lived in a herders collective, fared well. The new freedoms allowed them to increase their livestock and they became rich. Then Gerelmaa’s husband suddenly left her. Distraught, Gerelmaa was walking on the open steppe by herself when she heard a voice saying “I will save you.” She turned around to see who was talking to her, but nobody was there. Scared, she thought she was going crazy. Then she heard the voice again: “I will save you.” She did not know what to think.
Later she moved to a town and a friend invited her to a Christian church. She did not know what to expect, but she went. In the church she discerned that there was a connection between the God she was hearing about and the voice she had heard before. She put her faith in Jesus.
Miraculous stories in the beginnings of Mongolian Christianity were common, with healings, sudden rains in response to Christians praying in drought-stricken regions or other supernatural encounters, like Gerelmaa’s. Today, those stories are fewer. Some might say that Mongolian Christians’ faith or passion is diminishing. Or perhaps God in his sovereignty performed miracles in frontier, pioneer situations, where Christ was unknown, to get people’s attention.
Indeed, the present-day church of Mongolia is rapidly maturing. In 1990 there were fewer than 10 known Christians in Mongolia. Today there are more than 50,000. Childlike faith that once embraced miracles is deepening through trials. Along with their Buddhist, Shamanist, agnostic or Muslim neighbors, Christians in Mongolia face health problems, the death of children and other disappointments and temptations.
Baatar recently walked into church drunk. He was apologetic, however, and asked for forgiveness from God and the people. Years ago, Baatar had been a heavy drinker, but he gave up drinking after Christians prayed for him after a serious work accident in which the doctor told his family to prepare for his death. Baatar recovered—astonishing the hospital staff—and he found new life in Christ. Later, he married a Christian wife, and the two of them have served as short-term missionaries in a restrictive Asian country.
Recently, however, Baatar’s brother died. Looking for a scapegoat, the family blamed Bataar and disowned him for being a Christian. In his despair, Baatar briefly took numbing comfort from vodka. The following week he was praising God in church with a clear mind. The vibrant, growing faith in Mongolia is not without its heart-wrenching hardships, backslidings and uncertainties in relating to the wider society.
OMF International workers, aiming to see indigenous, biblical church movements throughout East Asia, serve with Joint Christian Services (JCS International) in Mongolia, a consortium of more than a dozen agencies “to see Mongolians building and restoring families, churches and communities.” JCS members witness through and outside of work, teaching English, running sports programs, teaching in medical colleges, working with agricultural projects or helping with business start-ups. JCS members partner with Mongolian government and non-government agencies and churches so that Mongolians can find the way in a changing land.
People ask if missionaries are needed for Mongolia. What is needed are men and women willing to walk alongside Mongolian Christians, growing along with them as we seek to love our neighbors here and proclaim the gospel there in regions beyond. As the Lord is raising up Mongolian Christian leaders, what is needed is men and women willing with servant hearts.
Kirk Matthews has served in East Asia with OMF International for nearly two decades.