06 March 2006

Evangelicals in Central Asia

There have been a few more articles and blogs recently criticizing Christian evangelicals in Central Asia. I always feel a bit torn when I read things like this because, while I think many of the concerns voiced in these types of articles are valid, I also happen to be a member of a church (Mormon/LDS) that actively proselytize in most of the world- basically, where it's legal. However, I am not in Kyrgyzstan for any kind of religious reason. The US government is paying for us to be here.

I would like to see my church recognized in Kyrgyzstan. I'd like to see missionaries from my church here. But I'd also like to see it legally and respectfully done. I've heard plenty of horror stories about insensitive and downright offensive missionaries. I cannot tell you how many missionaries have told me they are here (or wherever they are) illegally. I don't think that is the right way to go about proselytizing. Regulations are clearly needed in this matter because there are problems and people who go too far in what they try to do to get converts. There are some scary stories out there.

Christian converts from Muslim countries, even Central Asia, are usually in a very difficult position. Christian churches have responsibilities when they go into a new country. Converts must be supported- and I'm not talking about financial support. As these articles point out, it can be very difficult to be a Christian in Central Asia. I don't think it's appropriate for a group of independent missionaries to go into a country, convert a group of people, and then go somewhere else. A support system needs to be set up, established members need to be there, and good contact needs to be maintained with members in other countries. Many churches do a good job of this, but some don't. Supporting the members is a vital part of missionary work.

A major complaint about evangelicals is that they entice members with all sorts of financial assistance. This is a tricky one to deal with. While I don't necessarily feel a greater obligation to people of my own church, many Christians do, and I don't think that's unreasonable. I wish there were a greater sense that this issue needs to be handled carefully because so many people have this negative perception of Christian churches. But financial enticements should never be used to get converts. It's beyond me why any church would want to do this anyway.

There aren't any easy solutions. My church hasn't always done things perfectly. Missionaries aren't perfect. There are going to be people who do stupid things. I am sorry that happens. I wish it didn't. But because of this, I think some regulation is reasonable, but scare tactics aren't (on either side).

What I'd really like to see is more respect and understanding on both sides. Proselytizing should not be done illegally. It should unquestionably done respectfully when it's legal, and Christians have a lot of room for improvement in this area.

But I'd also like people to not assume that there is some ulterior motive in my desire (or most Christians' desire) to have Christianity in this or any country. There is no eternal scorecard in the heavens. I personally think the gospel should (it doesn't always, but it hopefully should) bring greater happiness to people of any country. It does not require losing one's culture or heritage. And I'd like to be able to legally and respectfully talk about my beliefs, and for a variety of reasons from scare tactics to illegalities, I'm not able to do that.


  1. Thank you for voicing your concerns in this area! I too share many of the same concerns as I am a Christian who was a missionary to Kyrgyzstan (returning soon) and shared my faith there, but only in a legal fashion. Somebody actually has to ask what you believe for this to happen or say that it is ok for you to share your religious beliefs. This is a good legal rule of thumb because these people did not ask for me to come into their country spreading what I believe to every person that I run into. But the people I develop relationships with over time (usually a few months) care enough about me to want to know truly what I believe and why I would come all of the way to Central Asia just to be with them as much as I truly care why they believe what they believe. And if they want to here more they ask and if not that is ok -- I still continue the relationship with them because at this point they are really a very good friend.

    A support system is so important as many are physically and emotionally abused for believing something that is not traditional. When I was there with four others in Karakol during the last four months of our time there believers from Bishkek were brought in to start taking over where we left off so that others would not be left all alone. Having nationals take over our ministry was even better because they can relate in ways that I couldn't and helped them to maintain their cultural heritage.

    How are evangelicals enticing them with financial assistance? Wouldn't they want to help anyone regardless of what they believe? I guess I don't understand.

  2. Exactly, Jamie. Thanks for your comments. I noticed that you had a training program for some of your members and I thought that was a good idea.

    The financial assistance thing is a very common accusation (for example, this post http://iwpr.gn.apc.org/?s=f&o=174903&apc_state=henirca2003 and others at IWPR and the comments at this post http://blog.neweurasia.net/?p=242#comments). I really don't understand it either. Why would you want members who were only in it for the money? And why wouldn't you help people in need no matter what they believe?

    Of course, it's hard to know if these are just the worst cases getting reported on, or if this is truly widespread. I'm not really involved with any kind of missionary work, so I have no idea.

  3. Trying to see if the comment above will appear if I post another comment...

  4. This is in reponse to your post and the links you provided:
    I think it's possible for Christian groups to help people without forcing people to convert. If groups do this, and the person receiving help becomes interested in their programs and belief system, then that is a natural progression and nothing is forced. If the Christian group requires people to attend services before receiving help (slightly controversial) or forces them to renounce their beliefs and traditions (very controversial), that is when the Christian organization needs to be careful about how they deliver aid. I think there is a connection between conversion and aid, but overtly or passively coercing people to be religious so they can gain access to the aid is reprehensible.
    That being said, I don't see how missionaries could spread the gospel without also wanting to address the material and financial needs of the local people.
    How to avoid the appearance of coercion?
    My suggestion: Just get the recipients to sign waivers!
    (just joking)

  5. I agree Brian. Except I'd call requiring someone to attend services before getting help very controversial too. But that point aside, that's one of the things I wish there more understanding about.

    It's too often a no-win situation. We're criticized for helping too much, and not for helping enough.

  6. Oh dear .. I'm afraid I am much too cynical for this group. :-) At least you all sound like very decent and honorable people. However, I personally feel that the historic Christian act of conversion of people from other faiths and cultures has largely been self-serving to the church itself.

  7. W. Shedd, I can certainly see why a person would be cynical. There's plenty of reason for it. I have met self-serving Christians (and self-serving people of ohter faiths and no faith at all). All I can say is that I'd like people to not assume that I want to share my beliefs for self-serving purposes. While I believe there are many, many Christians who feel the same way, I can't speak for them.