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700-year-old challenge in Mongolia is answered

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (BP)–As the grip of communism was relaxing in Mongolia, messengers to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1990 heard a 700-year-old challenge for missionaries from the reign of Kublai Khan.

The Mongol empire — led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan — once stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean. In 1266, Kublai Khan sent a request by Marco Polo to the Christian church in Rome for 100 men to teach Christianity in his court.

But it was 28 years later before one, not 100, reached the court. By that time Khan’s interest had waned. “It is too late,” he said. “I have grown too old in my idolatry.”

With the Iron Curtain falling in the communist country 700 years later, it was a call that couldn’t be ignored again. In 1991, the first Southern Baptist workers to Mongolia moved to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, a place once rooted in Buddhism and shamanism.

They persevered in the coldest capital city on earth, using ration cards for scarce food supplies and drawing curiosity as the only non-Russian foreigners some Mongolians had ever seen.

“Living in Mongolia has had its challenges and adventures,” Lisa Sharpe* said of the 16 years she has served in Mongolia, first in Ulaanbaatar and then in the countryside. “This is a place where so many haven’t heard the news of Jesus before.”

The “Land of Blue Skies” has modernized since Sharpe first arrived. Today, instead of sheep, Land Cruisers populate the main road called Peace Avenue. Ulaanbaatar’s approximately 1 million people — among the more than 2.5 million in Mongolia — now dress in Western fashions rather than the traditional dels (long, coat-like garments) worn by those in the countryside.

In the land where the Khan empire once ruled, the number of Christians is increasing. Operation World estimated that in 1989 there were only four known Christians in Mongolia. Now that number has risen to approximately 10,000. Yet, while Mongols are more open to the Gospel, their responses sometimes are disheartening.

Christians sharing about Jesus once were greeted with a curious “Who is He?” Now they often hear “I used to believe.” Fear of disunity caused by competing religions has spread across Mongolia.

Combating the view of Christianity as a foreign religion, Mongolia team leader Jeffrey Dawes* has one main strategy — to see that every Mongolian has the opportunity to hear, understand and respond to the Gospel. Southern Baptists are going to Mongolia as English teachers, physicians, community developers and school volunteers. They find opportunities to share their faith while riding in taxis, fishing in icy streams and drinking milk tea in homes.

Their goal is to plant indigenous churches in gers (traditional nomadic homes) and by affinity groups. Since 2006, they have seen a Bible study start from friendships at a gym, the first ger church begin in a western region and approximately 150 medical workers attend an urban church start.

As Southern Baptists work in the city and countryside, and along the thousands of miles of bumpy roads in between, they are answering Kublai Khan’s ancient request by planting their lives on Mongolian soil.

Americans choosing to live in city apartments or rural gers still are a curiosity. Some Mongolians still ask them if they are Russian spies.

Daniel White* has made sacrifices to work among nomads — his home has no shower or toilet. When Mongolians ask, “Why do you live here?” he answers, “I’m here for you.”
*Name changed. Dea Davidson is a writer for the International Mission Board.

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  • Dea Davidson