ALMATY, Kazakhstan (BP)–Much has changed in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan since Gulia* was featured on The Commission magazine’s March 2001 cover. For starters, both she and her homeland have prospered. Kazakhs discovered oil, and Gulia found that her homemade roach repellent, produced as a desperate measure for her family, was a hit in local markets.
Kazakhstan’s proven oil reserves of 16 billion barrels and the possibility of another 60 billion barrels off its Caspian Sea coast, have pumped millions of dollars into the economy. On a smaller scale, Gulia’s business has moved from a makeshift effort into a family-wide enterprise with corporate contracts and pending patents. The nation’s newfound wealth launched a wave of materialism, while Gulia’s success has allowed her to proclaim Christ in wider circles.
“God redeemed my life long before this business became a success,” she said. “When I meet with someone new in my business, they learn about my Lord. That’s why I live.”
Gulia did not make the magazine’s cover in 2001 because of an emerging business. She made it because she was part of a young community of Kazakh Christians sold out to Christ, explains Jacob Parson*, IMB strategy associate for teams working in many of Central Asia’s former Soviet Union republics.
“In the early 1990s there was just a handful of Kazakh Christians,” he said. “Today, there are more than 13,000 Kazakh believers.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the IMB responded with an urgent focus to channel funds and personnel toward the historic opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. Most Southern Baptist workers in Kazakhstan point to a 1991 cultural exchange festival that brought more than 300 evangelicals to Kazakhstan, including many Southern Baptists.
“I can point to this believer or that believer and say they came from those beginnings,” Parson said. “A lot of things we started didn’t work. Some of the churches started way back are no longer around. And some of those first churches are still struggling, but they spawned churches and individuals who are Christian leaders with depth and commitment. It’s good to see how far we’ve come in just 15 years.
“There’s so much more to do, yet we, as Southern Baptists, should thank our Lord that He has allowed us to be part of a great expansion of His body. That’s worth celebrating. This should just be the beginning. So many cities still have no Christian presence.”
Yet evangelical growth in Kazakhstan has slowed. Parson is working with a number of Great Commission Christian (GCC) groups in Kazakhstan to conduct a nationwide church survey.
“The whole GCC community has seen growth level off,” he said. “And it is not just among Kazakhs. This plateau is a national issue affecting other people groups in Kazakhstan.”
Churches in Kazakhstan that work with Russian or Kyrgyz speakers also have seen their growth slow.
Parson counts on the survey to clearly understand this change, but he has his own observations. Oil money flowing into the society is part of the picture. New luxury cars and homes seem to spring up almost weekly.
“Life has sped up here as the nation chases new wealth, and our churches have not escaped this trend,” Parson continued. “We’ve seen believers deal with moral failure. This happens when some haven’t been grounded in character. It’s easy for us to think we can pump someone’s head with knowledge and it’s going to be enough. It never is.”
Southern Baptists are working with Kazakh Christian leaders for a special focus on developing character.
“When you work life-on-life, it’s slower,” Parson said. “Nevertheless, we now focus more on discipleship and models of one-on-one teaching. Character within the family matters. When we start seeing heads of households turn to the Lord, we will see whole generations turn to our Lord.”
This has proven true for Gulia. When she became a Christian, she was so overwhelmed with joy she began sharing with her whole family, yet they thought she was crazy.
“They told me, ‘Jesus is the Russian God.’ I said they were wrong. He’s not just the Russian God. He’s everyone’s God. We need to believe in Him.”
Over the last 15 years, her four grown children, her mother-in-law and her husband have come to the Lord.
That is business as usual for Gulia as she and her Southern Baptist friends work to see such growth return to Kazakhstan.
*Names changed for security reasons. Michael Logan is a writer for the International Mission Board. This story focuses on missionaries serving in the former Soviet Union as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.