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Ukraine: The Bible belt of the CIS

By Ken Horn

A bustling city, Kiev, Ukraine, is full of color, its roads choked with vehicles, many of them new. Crowds of people prowl the windows of thriving businesses, looking for a place to spend their money. Chain stores and state-of-the-art shopping malls, as nice as anywhere in the United States, line the streets. Less than two decades ago, this modern, prosperous looking city was gray, spare and somber — a typical large Soviet city.

When the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine subsequently declared its independence in 1991, the change was far from immediate. Progress and prosperity have taken hold in just the past few years. Those few years have been remarkable, at least in Kiev, the nation’s capital. Many outlying areas remain largely unchanged.

Something else has changed in Ukraine … dramatically.

Ukraine has a history of suffering. In the 1920s and ’30s, more than 8 million people died in Soviet-engineered famines. Some 7 to 8 million more perished in World War II, caught between the Allied and Axis powers. Christians suffered greatly during the Soviet era.

Michailo Panochko, superintendent of the All-Ukraine Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith Pentecostals (also known as the Pentecostal Union), the partner fellowship of the Assemblies of God, remembers ministers being sentenced to concentration camps and prisons. They were mocked, ridiculed in the media and tortured.

“I personally was threatened many times,” Panochko says. “I paid various fines and was ridiculed for my faith. I had no opportunity to study at a university because I was not a member of a communist youth organization. Many believers were denied jobs.”

At age 18, Panochko was secretly baptized in water, an illegal practice at the time. Six years later, in 1976, he became pastor of a village church, where he remained for 22 years. The state limited the activity of churches, forbidding them from building and doing charitable work. Despite the restrictions, people came to the Lord and the church grew every year, flourishing with undercover evangelism and help for the poor.

The Pentecostal Union, established in 1926, existed underground for many years. When Ukraine’s independence came, the spiritual floodgates opened and revival drenched the land — despite the nation’s growing pains and the corruption that eventually spawned a peaceful mass protest called the Orange Revolution in 2004.

With the spiritual awakening, churches began springing up. A de facto leadership vacuum resulted, leaving many churches without pastors. From 1990 to 2006, the Pentecostal Union grew from 400 churches to 1,427. In addition, 90 church plants are not yet registered, with many others planned. Some 20 percent of congregations need pastors. They are planting churches faster than they can find pastors for them.

Because of this ministry growth, some have called Ukraine the Bible Belt of the Commonwealth of Independent States (12 republics of the former Soviet Union). The runaway growth makes the preparation of new ministers indispensable. The Pentecostal Union — with more than 20 educational institutes and one seminary — is making great strides in supplying needed leaders.

Evangelical Theological Seminary
Sunday is a busy day on the Evangelical Theological Seminary campus in Kiev. Upstairs in the large sanctuary, Filadelfia Church, the historic mother church of the Pentecostal movement in Ukraine, meets. A graduate of the seminary serves as pastor. Downstairs, International Christian Assembly occupies the chapel. Its pastor, AG missionary Paul Pierquet, and his wife, Christine, recently moved to Kiev from Odessa, Ukraine. Seven congregations now meet on the campus.

ETS is the heartbeat of the Pentecostal movement in Ukraine. All students at the seminary hold Bachelor of Arts degrees or equivalents and have at least two years of ministry experience. In 1999 missionary Gerald Dollar and his family moved from Israel to Ukraine to build the seminary structures. Dollar learned construction from his father. By the time he was 12, he knew he wanted to be a missionary and build churches. As the building neared completion, missions leaders asked him to stay in an administrative capacity as director of operations.

At one point the building almost ground to a halt from lack of funding. Frank Martin, the seminary’s first president, turned to ActioNow, a missions funding organization led by Pastor Tom Paino in Indianapolis, Indiana, for help. Within months the work was completed, and classes began in September 2000.

As the students gather for one of the first chapel services of the new school year, missionary David Nelson, ETS president, tells them, “This seminary is a miracle of God,” and explains why.

In Soviet times the neighborhood surrounding the school was a notorious crime center. The president of Ukraine and the mayor of Kiev offered the location to the Pentecostal Union, and God miraculously provided the needed funds. Since then, the seminary has been a ministry center, sending workers throughout Ukraine and the CIS. In six years, 90 graduates have spread out to minister in 12 countries.

Courses taught at ETS emphasize missions and encourage ministry expansion into under-reached areas. ETS not only sends Ukrainians to other countries, but also trains ministers who commute from other CIS nations.

Alexander Purshaga traveled weekly from Moscow to the Kiev campus, a 10-hour trip. Today he pastors a church of 600. Another student, already a pastor in St. Petersburg, Russia, took the train to Moscow and rode with other students to Kiev. One student made a weekly trip to the neighboring nation of Belarus to pastor.

To minimize such rigid commutes, the seminary holds extension classes throughout the CIS — in Moldova, Armenia and Georgia, with one planned for Moscow. Currently students from 10 countries attend the seminary.

A sending nation
Many Ukrainian missionaries serve in other countries. One couple, 2003 graduates of ETS, are ministering in a recently opened Bible school in Central Eurasia. Aleks Kvinikadze, a 2005 ETS graduate, is academic dean of the Bible school in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Ukrainian missionaries have opened 170 churches in Russia and established ministries of compassion and prison outreaches. They regularly go to 47 prisons, and hundreds of prisoners have come to the Lord.

Young people are the great potential of the church in Ukraine. “Last Sunday I visited a village church with 350 members, 170 of whom are youth with an additional 330 children,” Panochko says. “There’s a large army of young people, ages 18 to 30, moving the Pentecostal Union forward. They will go into a town with no church, hold street meetings, erect tents, go door to door and actively evangelize. As a result, many churches are planted.”

One church, composed of 700 members and 1,000 children, has planted 11 churches. “We expect more. There are a lot of unbelievers,” Panochko says. Some 960 churches have been bought or built in the last 50 years, with the growth rate currently at its highest yet.

Kiev Bible Institute
At Kiev Bible Institute, the undergraduate training school of the Pentecostal Union, the staff is engaged in fervent prayer. One member of the prayer circle is Alla Nechytoruk, academic dean.

“When we were young we had no opportunity to study anywhere,” Nechytoruk tells me. “The Bible institute is the answer to the prayers of elders over many years.” Nechytoruk enrolled in the school’s first class in 1993. That year, every teacher was a U.S. missionary. Two years later the first Ukrainian joined the faculty. Today only a few American missionaries teach among a faculty that is mostly Ukrainian.

This school year the student body numbers 76 and includes students from Central Eurasia, Armenia and remote areas of Siberia. Two American Slavs also are enrolled. More than 400 graduates have put their education to work in ministry. All current students are involved in evangelism as well. Teams of students participate in regular outreaches in 13 of Ukraine’s 26 provinces.

Christians from the United States have mobilized to help fulfill this far-reaching vision. Twenty American students will arrive soon to help KBI students plant and strengthen churches in 11 target locations. A group of Slavs from the United States planted four churches last year. This year their goal is to help students plant six more.

A wealth of ministries
Adding to Ukraine’s Bible Belt depiction is a vast array of specialized ministries, often combining efforts of Ukrainians and U.S. missionaries. Here are a few:

Reaching the elderly
After World War II, Ukraine faced a sudden demographic aberration. Because of the staggering number of male deaths, the ratio of women to men rose to 19 to 1. As a result, many women now have no one to care for them in their old age.

To address this need, missionary Sandy Allison, a registered nurse, started Light for the Lonely, a ministry to provide elderly day care and adoption. A center is under construction in the town of Gogolev that will offer hospice care and many amenities. Allison affectionately refers to the elderly women as “grannies.”

When the new facilities are completed, the number of elderly receiving care will triple to 150. How effective is the ministry spiritually? “One hundred percent of the grannies have accepted Christ,” says Allison.

The outreach includes 300 Mercy Ladies, a related ministry led by Dr. Irina Vlacenko, an ophthalmologist. Today Vlacenko is in Lugansk, a 10-hour trip by train, on an outreach to distribute hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses to less fortunate people. This kind of compassion ministry opens many doors in the country.

Rehabilitation centers and Teen Challenge
Drug addicts regularly accept Christ at Ukraine’s 80-plus Christian rehabilitation centers.

“Everywhere in the former Soviet Union there is a great tragedy of alcoholism, drug addiction and the problems associated with them,” missionary Kevin Tyler says. Since 2004, Tyler has worked with the network of rehab centers in behalf of Global Teen Challenge.

Recently, some of the centers have decided to align officially with Teen Challenge. The rehabilitation ministries have a combined 4,000 beds. Last summer, 86 percent of those ministered to were HIV-positive.

“The association [of rehab centers] has been very helpful in presenting a Christian approach to addiction,” Tyler says. “Workers have been granted documentation allowing them to go into all of Ukraine’s schools with a drug prevention program. To this point, 100,000 students have attended prevention programs and received literature.”

The rehab centers also provide a great source of energy for church planting. Ex-addicts become effective evangelists and hard workers in building the Kingdom.

Medical outreach
Missionaries Tom and Nancy Wespetal, both medical doctors, came to Kiev from Russia. Tom, who also holds a Ph.D., teaches at ETS. Nancy got involved in Hope in Action, a medical outreach directed by Kevin Tyler.

A typical Hope in Action outreach mobilizes numerous medical professionals, most of them Ukrainian. It provides medical benefits, such as cardiograms and ultrasounds, which most attendees cannot afford.

“Hope in Action really opens doors for evangelism,” says Nancy. “Ninety percent of the people want to hear more about the gospel.”

Since Hope in Action began in 2002, 88 outreaches have cared for 22,760 people. More than 2,000 people have come to Christ. Nancy finds it personally fulfilling to touch lives both medically and spiritually. Today she is president of Hope in Action and looks forward to the next outreach — to a Romanian area in Ukraine where an ETS graduate is ministering.

Ministry to children
As many as 150,000 street children live in Ukraine, 30 percent of them in Kiev. Nicolay Kuleba, a former drug addict who did time in prison, runs a ministry that reaches many of them. A member of Filadelfia Church, he does his best to see street children saved and delivered from glue sniffing, HIV infection, and the psychological and spiritual problems that stalk them. He and other believers have found favor with the government because of this ministry.

Calling Ukraine the Bible Belt of the CIS might seem a stretch. But the Bible’s influence in this nation, even among political leaders and in public schools, is undeniable.

Kiev’s newfound prosperity cannot erase the nation’s tragic history, but it offers hope of better opportunities ahead. Greater still is the hope offered by the spiritual prosperity moving across the city and into Ukraine’s countryside. Christians who stood firm in their faith at great cost, new believers and visionary missionaries are combining their resources to ride a wave of revival that has not yet crested in the Bible Belt of the CIS.

Ken Horn is the editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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