March 2

Thoughts on Ukraine

Daniel Watts

We have all been horrified by the footage from Ukraine.

Watching people killed, homes destroyed and an entire country ravaged is almost unimaginable in the 21st Century. And of course, most painful of all is to see children suffer.

Having traveled many times in Ukraine and seeing a ministry organization established there has caused my heart to ache for those experiencing such ache and sorrow.

As I have prayed for the many Ukrainians that I have served with, God has impressed two things on my heart.

The church in Ukraine has operated on a war footing for decades. During the rise and fall of the Soviet Union (1917-1991) the church faced waves of horrible persecution. At various times the government was extremely hostile to Christianity, including burning of church buildings, confiscation of church property, imprisonment, Bible burnings and the like.

The Siberian gulags were home to many persecuted Christians. Several years ago, a government run television posted video footage of a beautiful church service where young people had their hands raised in praise and worship. Juxtaposed next to it was footage of the Nazi Nuremberg rallies with young Germans with the raised hand of the Nazi salute. The story was about the Christians being a foreign cult akin to Naziism.

For our part, we have not experienced widespread persecution. Our grandparents were not arrested and sent to prison camps in Alaska for following Christ. We have not had our Bibles confiscated and burned. Regarding spiritual warfare, the Ukrainians are like the Green Berets, and I feel like a cook in the mess hall.

The church in Ukraine has always lived with a keen sense of spiritual warfare. They have shown themselves to be faithful and God has been mighty to save.

One leader shared with me about their experiences as children when secret worship services were held in his parent’s flat with Sunday School in the kitchen for the children.

The KGB got wind of it and raided the apartment and “arrested” the children, dragging them out of the house with parents screaming and crying. They drove the group of 8-10 children about 2 miles out of the village in January in six feet of snow and dropped them off on the side of the road. They told the children that since they believed in God, they should “let Him help you home” and then they left.

The children began walking back towards the village in the freezing cold with some already crying. A few moments into the trek, an old white-haired man came upon them, comforted them, and led them back to the village. After walking for over an hour they arrived at the edge of their village and split up to make their way to their homes.

At that moment the old white-haired man walked away and was gone. As they all found their way home, they realized that when they were walking with him, they had felt strangely warm. The children and parents were convinced that it was an angel of the LORD and that God had heard the KGB officers and answered.

This is not an isolated story but the kind I have heard repeatedly over the last thirty years. God is powerful and mighty, mightier than any army or power of humanity. So much so that not even the gates of hell will prevail. (Matthew 16:18).

While it is true that a war has broken out with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian church would remind us that they have been fighting a spiritual war for some time. They are veterans of warfare, and they know that the real crisis is regarding the spiritual eternal life of boys and girls in their country.

There are material needs in the family of God and Christians around the world are called to step into that gap (I Corinthians 16:1-4). As we give materially to those needs, we can also take a posture of humility and receive the insights and hard-earned spiritual lessons that Ukrainian Christians have learned in the crucible of suffering and persecution.

These insights did not begin just this last week. There are godly and gifted Christ followers who have so many lessons to teach us regarding following Christ by faith in difficult circumstances. Which leads to my final thoughts.

In the 1991-1992, I had the opportunity to meet with Christian leaders in Russia and Ukraine. To be honest they were a bit worn and flustered. One pastor in Kiev told me that it was like the Wild, Wild West in Ukraine.

The “wall had come down” and Americans were rushing into their country through the “door of opportunity” bringing the Gospel. Another Pastor in St. Petersburg told me it was like a Jack-in-the-Box, with Americans popping in and out through the “open door.”

These two leaders and so many others gently reminded me that they had been serving Christ faithfully and fruitfully for decades in the face of severe persecution. For them, there was no “open door” or “closed door” because they lived inside the house. They spoke Russian or Ukrainian and knew the needs of their children and their families. They were gifted Bible teachers and had years of effective ministry experience.

These experiences were formative in EGM’s ministry approach that focused on establishing a national ministry that was governed, staffed, and funded by national Christian leaders. Those teams provide innovative training for children’s workers in local churches and create culturally appropriate Bible teaching materials.

This principle is true today. The best people to do ministry during this time of war in Ukraine are Ukrainian Christians. They are gifted, committed, and courageous Christ followers with years of experience in real spiritual warfare. They speak the language, understand the situation and have shown themselves to be amazing ministry servants.

Our call is not only to meet the material needs that have arisen, but to join our family members who are serving on the front lines of the spiritual war. For my part, it is both a privilege and an honor.

The basement of a Baptist Church I visited had the history of the church, decade by decade, wrapped around the walls. A pastor, in his late seventies, was giving us the tour. At the end of the tour, we found two pictures side-by-side.

One was black and white with about two hundred people and had about five faces circled. The other was a color photo of an enormous crowd of several thousand people in front of a large stage. I asked about the pictures.

The first was from the 1960’s. The church had a “secret” sunrise service in the field pictured because their building had been confiscated and any meetings were prohibited.

The photo was of the congregation taken minutes before the KGB raided them. Many were arrested and the leaders were imprisoned. The pastor, in his early twenties at the time, was sent to Siberia for three years. The circled faces were KGB infiltrators that reported the illegal meeting that led to the arrests.

The second photo was taken in the mid 1990’s. Communism had collapsed, and the church asked permission to hold a large outdoor evangelistic that same field.

The permit was approved, and the police even helped with parking, crowd safety and graciously distributed free water. Over 5,000 attended. The pastor, then in his sixties, preached the gospel freely and boldly with several hundred coming to Christ and being baptized.

God is a powerful and mighty God and will not suffer defeat. He has an army of gifted and committed warriors fighting in Ukraine. It is our honor to support them materially and spiritually. They know the real spiritual issues at stake and the opportunities for courageous followers of Jesus.

God Almighty, during this time of war and conflict in Ukraine, we pray for peace. Not only between nations but in those who are in rebellion against you, our Creator. We ask you to grant courage, strength, wisdom and discernment to our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. We pray that during this conflict you might gain the victory in drawing the children you love so dearly into your eternal family. We ask for your Holy Spirit to guide and protect your church and fortify their hearts as they offer the peace of Christ in their country at war.

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