Home, mission field and the Great Commission

Ukrainian evangelicals between political and missional responsibilities.

15 MARCH 2022 · 10:19 CET

The Kyiv metro train in the Dnipro station, before the war. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="https://unsplash.com/@rostikarts">Rostislav Artov</a>, Unsplash, CC0.,
The Kyiv metro train in the Dnipro station, before the war. / Photo: Rostislav Artov, Unsplash, CC0.

Ukraine under attack

The 24th of February 2022 will forever mark one of the most important historic dates for Ukraine. On this day Russia invaded Ukraine with more then 100,000 troops and started an evil war against her Slavic neighbor with whom they share a millennium of common history.

Now people are dying - soldiers, women and children. This war is unjustifiable, evil and unjust, regardless how deep the Russian feelings might be hurt by the European Community and NATO. You do not punish a weaker neighbor for its desire to join another party.

Let’s be clear on this – in my article I am far from any justification of Putin’s madness to attack Ukraine. In my article, I am seeking to encourage my fellow Ukrainians to think in the future, a future which Russia is trying to destroy.

And no, I am not a political scientist, I am rather a missiologist and my task is to interpret history in the light of God’s mission in the world, the missio Dei. In this mission the Church is given a central role to convey the Gospel of God’s kingdom to all nations of the Earth (Mt. 28:19-20).

One might think: what a misplaced article. Who would think of mission in the very midst of a war? Aren’t there other issues we have to address first? Yes, there are many issues of outmost importance. But for us, Christians, there is never any issue more central than God’s mission in the world. For he is the Lord and history of mankind is in his hands. This is no different to Ukraine and the Ukrainian church, Her ecclesial destiny is marked by mission, or else she will have no destiny. My article is, therefore, very timely.

And I am writing the article as a person who grew up in the former Soviet Union. My family lost their home four times. Both of my grandfathers were killed by the Soviets. And I, myself, spent years in a Soviet labor camp. Now here in Germany I cannot say where my home is.

I do understand and feel with the millions of Ukrainians fleeing their country after Putin’s army has bombed their homes and killed their deer ones. As Christians they have all rights to mourn and to lament. And I do join in such lament. And yet, wars are not forever, and the Ukrainian church will remain. What will be her task then? How will she work through this horrible time slot in her history?


A sending country par excellence

The Ukrainian Evangelical church has been the most missionary minded church in the former USSR comparable maybe with the Moldavian. Thousands of missionaries send by Ukrainian churches flooded the vast territories of Russia and Central Asia soon after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Soon Ukrainian missionaries appeared in North India, Nepal, Vietnam and in countries of Africa. I have never seen such an exiting mission spirit produced by a church who just left a horrible persecution during the 70 years of the Soviet rule. Mission, Evangelism, Church planting in Ukraine and abroad dominated the day-to-day conversation in many churches. I do vividly remember a conversation with a pastor of an Independent Baptist church in Irpin near Kjiv, who called the missionary movement spreading through the Ukrainian churches an “historic chance for our churches”. “Mission is our destiny”, he concluded.

As Ukrainian Christians they have all rights to mourn. And I do join in such lament. And yet, wars are not forever, and the Ukrainian church will remain. What will be her task then?

In fact, Ukraine sent numerous missionaries to many countries of the world. Some of them went to the extreme North of Russia. One day I asked such a missionary whether they missed their home in Ukraine. He replied: “Our home, brother is the mission field and beyond that – heaven. We have left Ukraine. Sure, this is the place we were born and raised and people there speak our mother´s tongue. A place we love. But as Christians we follow Jesus, who did not know where to lay dawn his head. And we follow apostle Paul, who aimed towards the heavenly home, knowing that his citizenship was in heaven (Phil. 3:20)”.

This missionary was by far not the only one who thought and acted that way. Some of them even pointed to Abraham, whom God commissioned to leave his home and go to a place He, the Lord, would show him. “Abraham was promised to be blessed and become a blessing to many nations” (Gen. 12:1-3), they said. “And we are blessed too by fulfilling his Great Commission. And, no question, Ukrainians on the mission field, whether in countries of the former Soviet Union, or further abroad were and are a blessing. You find them in leadership of large denominations, for instance Eduard Grabovenko, the lead bishop of the Russian Pentecostal Church and many others.

Home, mission field and the Great Commission

  A bridge in Kyiv before the war. / Photo: Serj Tyaglovsky , Unsplash, CC0

The unexpected invitation – party politics to build a nation

With the independence of Ukraine another movement occupied many Protestants and Protestant leaders in Ukraine. Totally unexpected Protestants were invited by politically active people to join their parties and start to work towards building up an independent and strong national state of Ukraine.

Needless to say, this invitation came by surprise. No Ukrainian protestant was actually prepared to accept political responsibility. But encouraged by Western, predominantly American Evangelicals, they started to join different political parties. The vast majority of the churches at that time were traditionally pacifistically minded and nonconformist to the state, similar to all Evangelicals in all the former Soviet Union. But more and more individuals followed the invitation and soon Protestants started to take over influential positions.

The Baptist Oleksandr V. Turchynov is excellent example of an Evangelical carrier in the moody waters of Ukrainian politics. He was elected to the Ukrainian parliament 1998 and started an amazing political carrier, which took him to the position of Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine (2007-2010), acting President of Ukraine (2014), President of the Ukrainian parliament - the Rada (2014), Secretary of National Security and Defense Council (2014-2019), and so on. His political carrier made Turchynov not only politically famous, but also economically rich. His family owns numerous companies in Ukraine and in other European countries.

Turchynov is by far not the only Evangelical who made it into politics. Christianity Today reports of more than 500 of them involved on different levels in party politics.  Their political positions vary and most of them live in tension between the dirty reality of Ukrainian politics and their conservative beliefs. Often the churches they belong to criticize their work. In general, however, most of the Ukrainian denominations support the move into politics expecting a proper transformation of society towards rather conservative values.

Ukrainians on the mission field, whether in countries of the former Soviet Union, or further abroad are a blessing

One expression of this acceptance is the foundation of the so-called conservative movement around the politician Pavel Unguryan, who sees the high acceptance of Protestant politicians in the general population as a chance for a transformation of the Ukrainian society. Protestants, who constitute only 1.8% of the Ukrainian population, indeed enjoy trust in society. They are generally less corrupt and still care for their communities.

The Ukrainian state soon after independence declared its willingness to join Europe and NATO. Almost all political parties established themselves as pro-European. And at the same time working towards creation of a national Ukrainian identity. This proved to be difficult since Ukraine is a multiethnic society. A decision to declare Ukrainian as the only national language started a growing tension to those minority groups like Russians in the East, or Hungarians in the West. There were suggestions to restructure Ukraine as federal republic following the Swiss model, but the parliament rejected any such ideas pushing a national pro-Ukrainian agenda.

Even after some of the Russian-speaking areas in the Donbass separated and a war against the separatists began, the agenda remained unchanged. Though clearly stated in the Minsk II treaty, the Ukrainians did not establish any federation. As a result, the relationship to the neighboring Russia became unbearably tense.

The Russian government started to support the separatists in the Donbass and Crimea and lastly annexed Crimea in 2014. Without any doubt, this was against all international law and was rightly condemned by the international community. The Ukrainian government and also the majority of Protestants in Ukraine demanded more than a simple condemnation and some harmless sanctions. The West and particularly NATO should intervene and demand Crimea back.

This in turn fostered tensions between the Ukrainian and Russian Evangelicals after the annexation of Crimea and the war for independence in Lugansk and Donetsk. The traditionally good relationships between the sister churches as well as their joint missionary work became questioned. Ukrainian missionaries, who worked and lived in Russia were accused in having become pro-Russian. “Your home is Ukraine”, Ukrainian leaders demanded, “come home and defend your country under attack of Russians”. Only a few, to my knowledge, did, however. They still lived with a missionary paradigm in their heart that home is where your mission field is and heaven the actual citizenship.


All honor to Ukraine or is there more?

Here we are in Ukraine today. The vast majority of Ukrainian Christians are torn between a missional agenda, which works for the kingdom of God, not denying their loyalty to their country of origin, but putting their hearts into God’s mission and a patriotic national agenda. The question is to whom all glory is given – the national state of Ukraine or rather God, who works far beyond any state and nation. How will they decide?

The war with Russia, started by Putin’s army on 24 February 2022 does not make the issue easier. Seeing the unprecedented brutality of the aggressor, Christians join the armed forces and fight against those sinners whom they were missionizing just years before. Killing the enemy is for them in no way a sin any longer.

It is right for a Christian to be a patriot of one’s nation and work for the glory of your nation, but it is dangerous to lose sight of God’s glory in doing so

This seemed impossible only few years before. Ukrainians rejected military service and to accept a gun in their hands. Many of them went to prison for their attitude. And now this? How did that happen? A church with strong pacifistic convictions turns into an active agent of war? Is this a just war? Yes, reply many Evangelical leaders and strongly oppose other opinions. Any meaningful conversation on their justification of the war, seems blocked and those who attempt to enroll with the Ukrainians in such conversations are quickly put aside as irrelevant and even dangerous. “In the current situation we need more weapons and not bibles”, a good friend of mine declared to me just days ago. It is clear, the political agenda has taken over him and his church.

The only explanation I find for this historic change in the minds of Ukrainian Evangelicals is due to years of intensive involvement in party politics driven by an ideological, often European rather than missional agenda. It is right for a Christian to be a patriot of one’s nation and work for the glory of your nation, but it is dangerous to lose sight of God’s glory in doing so.

Some Ukrainians, it seems, follow the path of other Christians in the world, who seem to be guided by a similar excitement for their nation being first. White Americans, for instance. Or some Russians. This attitude does not pay in raising God’s kingdom and the glory of one’s nation is often just a matter of a glimpse of time. May our good Lord beware both Russia and Ukraine from this.


Back to the agenda of mission

Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians have left Ukraine. Most of them women and small children. Among those refugees many Evangelical Christians. They flee for life. Their homes are destroyed, their homeland in ashes and under the control of a hated enemy. In the world outside of Ukraine they expect to find security and comfort.

“May be this become my new home”, a recently arrived refugee tells me in my hometown in Germany. I do hope he and his like may find a way to settle in Germany. And, as German Christians, we will do everything to assist them. But even more than that I wish the Ukrainian Christians, who have escaped Putin’s hell in their country, would find the way back to the missionary agenda of God. Here and only here they will find rest for their wounded hearts. Here and only here they will be enabled to overcome hatred and become reconcilers. Here and only here they will understand that our war is never against flesh and blood, but rather demonic powers (Eph. 6:12). Offering sinners a home at the cross of Jesus, they will find home themselves. On the mission field, regardless of where this field may be.

I wish the Ukrainian Christians, who have escaped Putin’s hell in their country, would find the way back to the missionary agenda of God, being enabled to become reconcilers

Does this mean the church must consequently leave all political involvement and concentrate on evangelism only? Of course not! The missio Dei is always also a missio politica. And the church is God´s salt and light in and for the society (Mat. 5:13-16), his chosen people, called out of the world in order to accept responsibility for the world (Mat. 16:18). This is wat ecclesia lastly stands for. She will never leave the world, since Jesus has sent her into the world. The world is her mission field.

What then is her political involvement practically speaking? Surely not party politics. She is called to proclaim God’s kingdom and work for transformation of nations into a disciple of Christ (Mat. 28:19-20). This excludes killing the enemy, but rather loving them as Jesus did. And surely this includes community building, but not under the banner of ideological programs be they Western or Eastern, but under the banner of God´s kingdom. Not the world sets the agenda for our evangelical political involvement, but God in his revelation! The church is sent as Jesus was sent (John 20:21). His mission was to reconcile the broken world with God (2 Cor. 5:18), a mission of peace to those near and those afar (Eph. 2:17). And no other intention does the mission of His church have. She has been entrusted with the word of reconciliation (2Cor. 5:18-19).

I am impressed by some of the Ukrainian churches, who have decided to stay in Ukraine in the midst of the war. Vasyl Ostryi, Pastor of the Irpin Grace church and professor in Kyiv Theological Seminary writes:

“ …while the church may not fight like the nation, we still believe we have a role to play in this struggle. We will shelter the weak, serve the suffering, and mend the broken. And as we do, we offer the unshakable hope of Christ and his gospel. While we may feel helpless in the face of such a crisis, we can pray like Esther. Ukraine is not God’s covenant people, but like Israel, our hope is that the Lord will remove the danger as he did for his ancient people. And as we stay, we pray the church in Ukraine will faithfully trust the Lord and serve our neighbors.”

And Ostryi and his church perform miracles day-by-day offering their fellow neighbor’s shelter, first aid, a hand of friendship, counselling and spiritual support. And some of them regain hope, find peace in God and join hands with the church. And no, they do not pick up arms, their most important weapon is still prayer and the bible as foundation all their mission and action. And yet they are politically involved and yes, they build community in the midst of crisis – the Jesus way! This might cost them all their live, but did Jesus ever promise us anything else?! Their testimony is the biggest encouragement for me and my people.

Johannes Reimer, professor of Mission Studies and Intercultural Theology and Global director of the Department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). He is author of numerous publications in the area of mission.



See more in my book: Johannes Reimer: Missio Politica: The Mission of Church and Politics. Carliste: Langham Global Library 2017.



Published in: Evangelical Focus - Features - Home, mission field and the Great Commission