The Gospel in the heart of Central Asia

The Church is growing in Kazakhstan.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia in terms of its territory and it ranks 9th largest by landmass in the world. It is considered a Muslim majority country. The population of 20 million people is very multicultural, tolerant, multi-religious and open. Politically neutral Kazakhstan is proud that the almost 100 different ethnicities coexist peacefully. Among them, Kazakhs represent approximately 75 per cent of the total population. In addition, Slavic peoples, such as Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Poles comprise 20 per cent.

While a previously large German minority has almost entirely moved to Germany, the Chinese diaspora is growing by the day. There are also large communities of Koreans.

Kazakhstan is strategically and geopolitically very well positioned between China, Europe and the Middle East, with a growing and vibrant evangelical church to influence this part of the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today almost 30 per cent of the population in Kazakhstan is Christian. While the majority of them are still from a non-Kazakh background, the number of Kazakhs who confess to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord is growing.

In the past, the Kazakhs were to a large extent Christian and carried the Gospel as far as China and Mongolia. Only slowly, Islam spread through the majority of the population. Later, in Soviet times atheism became the dominant ideology of the country.

The new start of evangelical Christianity among the Kazakh tribes goes back to the 1990s. Indeed, there were no indigenous Kazakh-speaking churches at that time and only a very few Kazakhs who came to faith in the Russian speaking churches.

The first Kazakh-speaking church was started in 1992. As the very first Kazakh-speaking church pastor, Malik started the Rakhim (Mercy) church in Alma-Aty with a small group of Kazakh believers. And then the evangelical Christian Baptists began to work with the Kazakh population, and the Kutkaruly Zholy church (translated as the Way of Salvation) was started.

After that missionaries began to come from Europe, North America and South Korea and from other countries. From 1993 to 1998, many Kazakh congregations were planted with the help of foreign missionaries. Those years are considered the most fruitful years for Kazakhstan, and revival and church growth soared.

Development, growth and alliances

The number of evangelical registered churches in Kazakhstan today stands at approximately 400, including all Russian-speaking and Kazakh-speaking churches. The vast majority of them belong to the Evangelical Alliance of Kazakhstan (EAK). You will find ethnic Kazakhs in almost all of the evangelical churches today, about 100 of which are registered Kazakh churches.

Most of those churches are located in the south and south-eastern part of Kazakhstan. There are difficulties in organizing Kazakh-speaking churches in the north, east and western parts of the country since the majority of Kazakhs living in the north and east are Russian-speaking, while the West is remote and more resistant to the Gospel.

Not all Kazakh-speaking churches are registered yet due to their size or political circumstances. There are about 150 Kazakh-speaking evangelical churches in Kazakhstan today, including registered churches and unregistered house churches. Kazakh churches are typically not very numerous, with usually about 50 church members on average. But there are also a few large ones, numbering approximately 600-800 members.

Kazakh believers have formed their own association called Kurultay - 'convention' in English. The main goal of the Kurultay is to foster and bring unity to all of the Kazakh evangelical churches and remove denominational barriers, thus serving as one Body of Jesus Christ and expanding the Kingdom of God in all the regions of Kazakhstan.

The Kurultay was started in 1999 with the help of the Kazakh partnership, a Kazakhstan-based association of foreign missionaries. In the beginning only the pastors of Almaty gathered for the monthly prayer meetings. And in 2000, the first conference of Kurultay was organized in Almaty. From the very beginning, Kurultay was closely connected with the Evangelical Alliance of Kazakhstan, building a nucleus of unity among Christians of the country.

Today the Kurultay includes churches from almost all evangelical or Protestant denominations represented in the country. That includes Pentecostals, Evangelical Christian Baptists, Independent Baptists, Charismatics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other independent Protestant churches.

The Kurultay of Kazakh pastors is one of the most important annual meetings in Kazakhstan. Here they come together to fellowship with each other and discuss the most important current issues among the Kazakh-speaking population. And they share with each other the problems that hinder the growth of God's Kingdom in the country. The steering committee of the Kurultay consists of 12 pastors from various parts of Kazakhstan. The current president is Yerkinbeck Serikbaev.

He wrote to me: "All participants openly share in a friendly atmosphere about pressing problems, pray together and look for ways to cooperate. We try to involve as many pastors from different churches and denominations as possible. Of course, there are pastors who would like to be part of the Kurultay but there are some denomination leaders that do not allow pastors from their denomination to join.

"We believe that now is the time to pray together and unite like never before. One of the main challenges in our country is to reach Muslim Kazakhs and other minority Muslim people groups. Even though we come from different church backgrounds and have differences in the ways and approaches to evangelize the Muslims, we get together to discuss and find better ways to do that.

"We annually convene pastors and leaders from all regions of Kazakhstan. This is a platform for all pastors to get to know each other, pray together to share their experience, expertise and make plans and strategies for the future."

Working together for the kingdom

The list of missionary activity motivated by the Kurultay is long. Kurultay holds outreaches during the biggest national holiday called Navruz (the Central Asian new year celebrated in the spring), with the goal of sharing the Gospel. Unsaved friends, relatives and acquaintances are invited and the name of the Lord is proclaimed.

Special conferences and training seminars for leaders, youth and women as well as summer camps for children and teenagers are organized by the Kurultay. But the most exciting ministry is their mission outreach.

Serikbaev states: "We believe that God has positioned us strategically and given us, the Christians of Kazakhstan, a missionary calling to take the good news to Muslim peoples living near and far. Kurultay organizes short-term missionary trips and sends long-term missionaries.

"This happens not only within Kazakhstan, but also outside of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstani pastors and missionaries go to other countries of the Turkic world because of our cultural affinity and religious background to plant churches."

For example, a group of pastors and other brothers and sisters, went to the Bayan-Ulgi region in western Mongolia, where mainly Kazakh people reside.

"On the last missionary trip there was a group of 30 of us travelling on a bus there," reports Serkinbaev. "We conducted a three-day seminar for believers. And, also shared the Gospel with the locals. And both Mongolian Christians as well as listeners to our evangelistic preaching, expressed their deep gratitude. Hearing the Gospel proclaimed in their mother tongue is special to them and the acceptance of the truth was overwhelming."

Today Kurultay is in the process of registering with the Kazakhstan government. The leadership has already submitted all the documents for registration to the state authorities and hopes to get the official registration by the end of 2022.

Basic needs – a conference centre in the city of Almaty

With a growing and aspiring evangelical population Kurultay needs a center to grow and organize more ministries and serve the wider body of Christ in Kazakhstan and in the surrounding countries. The centre will be tailor-made for all kinds of ministries in the churches at home and beyond. The leaders of Kurultay envision a mission training centre for training Kazakhs in their own language to send missionaries, ministers and workers to countries and places in Kazakhstan, the wider Turkic world and beyond.

Kurultay plans to organize outreach trips to different regions three to four times a year inside of Kazakhstan, especially to regions where help is urgently needed, such as the northern, western and eastern regions where there are fewer churches and Christians. And they plan to organize missionary trips to Mongolia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and other countries where the churches are rare and missionaries are welcomed. The potential missionaries will need training and the proposed centre will serve them well.

But the centre could host many other ministries. Kurultay hopes to establish a studio for audio-video recording, internet media ministries, a printing press, television and radio broadcasting studio, prayer centre, dormitories and a hall for holding mass events.

They are also praying to organize a Christian school through Kurultay. For this they already have concrete plans and partners that can help. This will give the children of Kazakh believers a higher Christian education and help prepare a new generation of followers of Jesus.

In a letter to the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) the leadership of Kurultay urgently pleaded for the support and assistance of the global church.

"Brothers and sisters in Christ, we hope for your support and prayers. We believe that we will overcome all our difficulties and needs together," said the president of Kurultay.

"We have two options. The first is to purchase a building with a conference hall and bedrooms etc., which we could use for various meetings and seminars. That type of a building approximate costs in the city of Almaty 2 to 3 million US dollars. There is a second option, to buy a plot of land and build a Turkic center ourselves. And it costs approximately 2.5 million to 3 million US dollars. For this, we have plans and projects for construction. This will be the centre for Turkic-speaking churches of our country and wider Central Asia. At this point we have raised 100,000 US dollars. Of course, this amount is not enough to buy a suitable place or to buy property and build. Thank you very much! May the Lord bless you and your churches, ministries!"

As the evangelical family in the world we rejoice with the Kazakh believers and thank God for the amazing growth of their churches in Kazakhstan. And we should respond to their plea for support in prayer and giving. There has never been a better time for this.