Church Growth in Mongolia

A Possibly Historic Breakthrough


Has something significant happened in Mongolia?


M o s c o w -- At least in terms of percentages, Protestant mission in what may be the world’s coldest and sunniest country qualifies as an incredible success story. Starting with between four and 40 believers in 1990 (numbers vary), Protestants in Mongolia are now said to number at least 50.000 in 500 local congregations. The “Mongolian Evangelical Alliance” reports of a heady “vision and strategy to see 10% of the population come to faith in Jesus Christ by the year 2020”. That would be slightly more than 300.000 believers. From the 7th until the 14th centuries, Nestorian, Eastern-Rite Christendom had a foothold in the country. It could be claimed that now for the first time in 700 years Mongolia possesses a sizeable Christian minority: nearly 2% of the population. The Orthodox and Roman Catholics are also present, but number less than 1.000 members each. Mormon numbers run significantly higher at nearly 8.000 members.


Yet success is not without its shortcomings: Iran-sized Mongolia is also said to be the world’s most sparsely-populated country. Unofficially, Moscow has over five times more residents than Mongolia’s 2,7 to 3,1 million (numbers vary). Because of the distances involved, one mission society concludes that “cost-effectiveness in terms of people reached is very poor”. Mission coverage appears spotty: Seventeen of Mongolia’s 20 people groups are considered unreached and only 40% of Mongolia’s 315 counties have any church at all.


Tibetan Buddhism was not officially recognized in the country until 1578. The present Tibetan Buddhist and Animist population is sometimes listed as 53%. Amazingly, up until Josef Stalin’s Great Terror in the late 1930s, a third of the country’s male citizens qualified as Buddhist monks. A Russian source reports that of the 747 monasteries the country featured in 1921, only one remained open during the 1980s.


The (Sunni) Muslim segment is listed as high as 5%. Yet over the last two decades, thousands of ethnic Kazakhs in the West of the country have returned to their historic homeland.


The second highly-unique feature of Mongolian Christianity is its non-denominational (more correct than “inter-denominational”) character. Protestant affairs in the country are overseen by two non-denominational bodies - “the Mongolian Evangelical Alliance” (MEA) and the Geneva-related “National Council of Churches” (NCC) - in cooperation with a service agency,“Joint Christian Services International” (JCS). The MEA unites 60-70% of the country’s congregations under its umbrella. The NCC, which is less than three years old, focuses on church work in the narrow sense and serves an additional 10% of the congregations. These groups overlap with the 20-year-old JCS, which is the practical service arm of 15 mission agencies dealing in ministries as diverse as veterinarian and dairy services, orphanages, food-for-work and job creation programmes. A “National Pastor’s Association” works under the MEA umbrella. Relationships are generally not adversarial: There are churches which belong to both the MEA and NCC and the NCC’s Executive Director is an advisor to the MEA. The MEA is regarding as the country’s leading church body. Its advisory board has the highest political standing and its Executive Director, Pastor M. Batbold from the historically charismatic “Living Word Church”, is the person who relates to the highest government officials. Another person named “Batbold” (many Mongolians use only a single name) is also a Living Word pastor and serves as the NCC’s Executive Director. The NCC is supported primarily by indigenous, Mongolian churches.


Even the South Koreans, who are reputed to be among the world’s most separatist Protestants, began to cooperate in time and its Presbyterian groups have formed their own “Korean Missionary Fellowship”. Laura Schlabach, a Mennonite from Texas and JCS worker since 1993, reports that both the JCS and the “Union Bible Theological Centre” “have helped the Koreans see and experience unity”. She adds that the Seventh-Day Adventists would like to join the MEA, but have until now been kept at arm’s length because of theological differences.


Most interesting is the fact that the issues dividing evangelicals in the ex-USSR tend to be non-issues in Mongolia. Pastor Mojic of Ulan Bator (or “Ulaanbaatar”) states that Charismatic matters only “used to be an issue. When certain foreigners left, they became less of an issue.” Without imposing on others, the use of the Charismatic gifts is “widely accepted by most of the churches”. Only theologically-educated Mongolians are aware that Calvinists and Arminians even exist.


Mojic reports that the MEA ordains women as pastors. “However, some Mongolians involved in churches with very traditional Korean influence do not agree that this is a good thing – especially for single women.” Paul, a missionary from England, describes Mongolia as a matriarchy: “It is the women who are the doers and leaders. Even on road maintenance teams, the supervisors are usually women. This carries over into church life as well.” JCS has had a female Executive Director since 2008: the long-term Malaysian, “OMF International”-missionary Dr. Kwai Lin Stephens.


According to many estimates, big-neighbour Russia would also qualify as a matriarchy. Yet Protestantism started out with a blank sheet in Mongolia – it was not encumbered with the centuries-old Christian traditions of its northern neighbour. Mongolia’s starting point was the Protestant world’s status quo of 1990 – not 1850.


Reasons for non-denominationalism

Mongolian Protestants deny that their non-denominational approach was in any way inspired by China’s state-enforced, 1951-founded “Patriotic Three-Self Movement”. Church contacts with its southern neighbour are limited and usually consist of delegating missionaries to serve ethnic-Mongolian minorities.


Western missionaries like to point out that Mongolians are very committed to evangelism and church growth; they and their Western mentors tend to see denominationalism as an impediment. Many young believers are not even aware of the existence of Christian denominations. Laura Schlabach reports that after explaining what a “denomination” was, the women responded: “Why would they want to do that?  Don’t they all worship the same God?” Schlabach, who lives in Bayanhongor (central Mongolia), describes the Mongolian position as: “We are part of the Kingdom of God and worship the one true God.” Koreans and Westerners may speak of their local congregations in denominational terms - a fact which Mongolians usually miss. Mongolian non-denominationalism is clearly here to stay: Even those groups which pull back from the MEA pick generic names. They do not as a rule revert to traditional denominational ones.


The author assumes that Mongolian practice is also reflects the fact that Western denominations have “farmed out” foreign mission to specialised, inter-denominational mission societies over the last century. Those planting non-denominational congregations in Mongolia were themselves already members of non-denominational missions.


In addition, Schlabach, who happens to be part of a denominational mission, describes the non-denominational approach as clearly intentional: “In order to get the Mongolian church planted, watered and growing, we had to work together.” The author would describe Protestant mission as a highly-fractured and diverse enterprise: If for ex. 50 missions each send three missionaries to Mongolia, they will obviously need to cooperate.


But as stated at the outset, not all missions and churches in the country accept the non-denominational approach. Schlabach points out that some Assemblies of God, Baptist, Evangelical Free and Korean groups have chosen to go it alone. “Some groups are very hard to work with”, she concedes. “But there is movement towards a greater willingness to work together.”


A group such as the conservative “Lutheran Church Missouri Synod” is very committed to forming only Lutheran congregations. Some denominational groups have chosen to leave: The Southern Baptist “International Mission Board” is no longer registered in the country.


Not surprisingly, controversies have emerged among the very diverse groups in this country. Particularly vocal has been a dispute concerning the Mongolian word for “God”. The Brit John Gibbens has been struggling to keep Mongolian believers from using the Buddhist word “Burhan”. Gibbens formed his own “Bible Society of Mongolia” in 1990 and later broke with the “United Bible Societies”. On his webpage he insists: “BSM does not cooperate with organisations which choose to refer to God in Mongolian using traditional terms which conflict with his character as shown in the Bible.”


Things are getting lonely for Gibbens: The missionary “Paul” maintains that 99% of the congregations use the word “Burhan”, which he describes as pre-Buddhist terminology. The first complete Mongolian Bible, which was published in 2000, uses precisely this term.


Obviously, a church non-existent prior to 1990 and forced to “get up to speed” within record time, is facing incredible challenges. Economic growth is around 17% per annum and one missionary describes Mongolia as a setting where “pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism all co-exist and clash”. One result of that challenge is that which Westerners define as corruption. Mongolians have no historic experience with non-profit organisations and one missionary laments that proper practice on financial issues is rarely taught. He reports on a church leader who used church property as collateral when taking out a private loan. When the loan “went bad”, the bank took over the property and the ministry ended. Another leader, knowing that his employment would be terminated, transferred ministry assets to his family. “Designated giving” is a tough practice to comprehend: “Do you not trust us?” is a common response when foreign donations are not used as stipulated.


Using Protestant churches as a shortcut to a new life in the West is a practice by no means restricted to Mongolia. John Gibbens complains on his webpage that “many who a few years ago had been heralded as Christian leaders of the future are now living in the USA and working in secular jobs”. Indeed, there are more Mongolians living outside of than within the state of Mongolia – China alone is home to more Mongols than Mongolia itself.


Opponents of the Protestant awakening like to claim that not only Mormons use significant amounts of cash to encourage conversion – an accusation difficult to verify. Missionaries report that government and Buddhist opposition to the Protestant presence remains relatively modest. Laura Schlabach explains that government “resistance always seems strongest around election time”.


Have the Mongolians achieved something significant; have they broken through to a new frontier reaching beyond traditional denominational divisions? “Yes!” insists Laura Schlabach. “Mongolians stick to the basic Gospel truth: God loved us so much that He sent His only son to die for us. We are one in Christ.”


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Berlin, 23 April 2013


This is a journalistic release funded by “Presbyterian News Service”, Louisville/USA, “www.pcusa.org”. It is informational in character and does not express any official position of PNS. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #13-08, 1.703 words, 11.097 keystrokes and spaces.