What Should Christians Call God in Mongolian?
Something significant has 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 now number at least 50.000 in 500 local congregations. Four years ago the “Mongolian Evangelical Alliance” gave themselves a “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 again possesses a sizeable Christian minority: nearly 2% of the population. The Orthodox and Roman Catholics are also present and number at least 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. Moscow has over five times more residents than Mongolia’s three million. 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 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 moved across the border to present-day Kazakhstan.
The second highly-unique feature of Mongolian Christianity is its non-denominational character. Protestant affairs in the country are overseen by three non-denominational bodies: “the Mongolian Evangelical Alliance” (MEA), the Geneva-related “National Council of Churches” (NCC) and the “National Pastors’ Association”. These three cooperate with several service agencies. The MEA unites more than 80% of the country’s congregations under its umbrella. The NCC, which is less than seven years old, focuses on church work in the narrow sense and serves some congregations outside of the MEA as well as many within it. The “National Pastors’ Association also provides pastoral support and guidance. Relationships are generally not adversarial; some churches belong to both the MEA and NCC and the NCC’s Executive Director is an advisor to the MEA.
These groups overlap with the 25-year-old “JCS International”, which is the practical service arm of 15 mission agencies dealing in ministries as diverse as veterinarian and dairy services, orphanages, food-for-work, job creation and leadership development. The MEA is regarding as the country’s leading church body. Its advisory board has the highest political standing and its Executive Director, G. Ariunbold, relates to the highest government officials
Even the South Koreans, reputed to be among the world’s most separatist Protestants, began to cooperate in time and its Presbyterian groups have formed their own joint fellowship. One report states that both JCS and the “Union Bible Theological Centre” “have helped the Koreans see and experience unity”.
Most interesting is the fact that the issues dividing evangelicals in the ex-USSR tend to be non-issues in Mongolia. One pastor in 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 Charismatic gifts is accepted by most of the churches. Only theologically-educated Mongolians are aware that Calvinists and Arminians even exist.
The Pastors’ Association may ordain women. However, one leader reports: “Some Mongolians involved in churches with very traditional Korean influence do not agree that this is a good thing – especially for single women.” An expatriate 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.
According to many estimates, big-neighbor 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 neighbor. 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 inspired by China’s 1951-founded “Patriotic Three-Self Movement”. Church contacts with its southern neighbor are limited and usually consist of sending persons 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 friends tend to see denominationalism as an impediment. Many young believers are not even aware of the existence of Christian denominations. One foreign worker 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?” The Mongolian position can be described 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 names.
Mongolian practice probably also reflects the fact that Western denominations have “farmed out” foreign mission to specialized, inter-denominational mission societies over the last half-century. Those planting non-denominational congregations in Mongolia were themselves already members of non-denominational missions.
But not all missions and churches in the country accept the non-denominational approach. Some Assemblies of God, Baptist, Evangelical Free and Korean groups have chosen to go it alone. “Some groups are very hard to work with”, one worker concedes. “But there is movement towards a greater willingness to work together.”
Not surprisingly, controversies have emerged among the very diverse groups. Particularly vocal has been a dispute concerning the Mongolian word for “God”. An Englishman has been struggling to keep Mongolian believers from using the Buddhist word “Burhan”. He 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 organizations which choose to refer to God in Mongolian using traditional terms which conflict with his character as shown in the Bible.”
But one worker 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 challenges. Until 2013, economic growth was as high as 17% per annum and one foreigner 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 organizations and one missionary laments that proper practice on financial issues is rarely taught. “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. One foreigner 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 Mongols living outside of than within the state of Mongolia. China alone is home to more Mongols than Mongolia itself.
Have the Mongolians achieved something significant; have they broken through to a new frontier reaching beyond traditional denominational divisions? “Yes!” insists one worker. “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.
Gvardeysk/Russia, 17 August 2017
Release #17-11, 1.394 words