EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Dec. 4-11 Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention has focused on the theme of “His heart, His hands, His voice — I am Southern Baptist missions” from Acts 1:8. Each year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supplements Cooperative Program giving to support Southern Baptists’ 5,000 international missionaries’ initiatives in sharing the Gospel. This year’s offering goal is $175 million. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org.
KYIV, Ukraine (BP) — Kyiv (Kiev) gives new meaning to the term “opposites attract.”
Ukraine’s capital, with nearly 3 million people, is one of the oldest in Europe, yet it is a mixture of former Soviet architecture and highly developed transportation systems; traditional Slavic mindsets and modern Western European culture; and Orthodox religion and mystic, occultist beliefs.
Home to the first large Slavic kingdom centuries ago, it is where Slavic people first became Orthodox. Ukraine later became part of the Russian empire and consequently the Soviet Union but gained its independence after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
“[Slavic people] can easily hold two ideas in their head that radically conflict with each other and see no problem,” said Dan Upchurch, a Southern Baptist missionary who serves in Kyiv with his wife Lori. “It’s not hard for them to deal with the fact that they are Orthodox by tradition but atheist by practice.”
This dichotomous mindset is a major challenge in the Upchurches’ ministry work. They and another International Mission Board couple, Joel and Mary Ellen Ragains, teach church planting at Kyiv Theological Seminary. The four-year undergraduate program requires students to attend classes four times each year for 10 days at a time.
People think in two distinct categories in Ukrainian culture — knowledge and practice, Upchurch said, noting that they love to gain knowledge, but “they have no idea what to do with it.”
“Their default setting would be to put theological education in the knowledge category but not in the practice category,” he said.
The seminary’s church-planting program, however, pushes students to put knowledge into practice. Not only do they take classes about theological subjects, but students also must be involved in planting a church in order to earn their diploma.
Students from across Eurasia — including Russia, Belarus, Romania, Azerbaijan and Lithuania — have come to learn the church-planting methods taught at Kyiv Theological Seminary.
“Our goal is to get students from as many of the countries as we can so that they can go back home and start church planting,” Lori Upchurch said.
“Nationals are the ones that are going to get the job done,” Dan Upchurch noted. “Americans in Eastern Europe, unless trends change, are going to directly be able to do less and less, but nationals have the capability and the freedoms still in many places where we can’t do anything in terms of direct church planting and mass evangelism — they can still do that. They are the heartbeat.”
Though the seminary’s church-planting program is only about six years old, the Upchurches are encouraged by the progress they’ve seen. More than 30 graduates have started 30-plus new churches; these graduates also have baptized approximately 600 new believers. In addition, current seminary students are planting an additional 30 churches.
The Upchurches and Ragainses ask prayer that Ukrainians will see Jesus as the only truth; that students from Kyiv Theological Seminary and their families will put their knowledge into practice as they plant churches; that students and financial resources will continue to come to the seminary; and that they will see fruitful results in mentoring and discipling the students who will spread the Gospel across Eurasia.
Laura Fielding is a former intern with the International Mission Board.