Will the COVID-19 pandemic result in a long-term barrier to effective church life? For close to two years, public worship has been curtailed in various ways, from complete shutdowns to masking and social distancing. Now an important question is rattling around in conversations among pastors and church leaders: will people return to church? While for millions, Zoom has helped in filling in the gap, worshiping together is critical to being Christian. Even as new forms of patterns of church life are certain to emerge, my recent time in Ukraine gave indications that in a post-pandemic period, passion for worship and church life is alive and well.
In late November, I met with Ukrainian church leaders to discuss matters of unity and public witness among evangelicals. On a Sunday morning, I walked into a sun-filled sanctuary, alive with a surprisingly young crowd—the average age was probably around the mid-thirties. Worship at the Salvation Church in Kiev was enthusiastic, unabashed, and joyful, led by a worship team and band.
Trouble on the eastern front
This was the very day on which we heard that Ukraine’s neighbor to the east had expanded its military presence, heightening fears of an imminent invasion. Yet in this country where Evangelicals represent about 4% of the nation’s population of 41 million, neither the geopolitical uncertainty nor the pandemic seemed to negatively impact church attendance (that is, once government regulations had allowed gatherings to occur again). Following the service, we were taken to the construction site that will soon become a 4,500-seat sanctuary. That’s not exactly a sign that the church is about to go into hibernation or close its doors.
Ukraine, with the largest land area of any European country, is a petri dish in which we can observe what might happen whenever this pandemic loosens its hold. For much of the 20th century, it lived under tight Soviet political, economic, and ideological control. Churches were closed and pastors killed; many spent years in prison; congregations were driven apart by intimidation and spy networks.
The Stalin purge is most clearly depicted by the Holodomor (meaning hunger extermination) Memorial in Kiev. In 1932 and 1933, Stalin’s oppressive policies caused a famine, by enforcing the taking of food so as to buy armaments, resulting in over three million Ukrainians starving to death. In September 1944, it was the Nazis’ turn to pummel Ukraine. Nazi troops stripped and killed over 33,000 Jews, and a few weeks later they slaughtered another 100,000. These memories are still alive among today’s older Ukrainians, and they are not lost among subsequent generations.
As the Soviet empire crumbled and freedom seeped in, Evangelicals seized the opportunity to witness and provide Bible training. But here is what surprised me: Evangelicals in Ukraine care deeply about maintaining biblical orthodoxy but they also know that working constructively with the Orthodox, Catholics, Jews and Muslims matters. Twenty-five years ago, they formed the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO). In the aftermath of decades of subjugation, they had the courage and creativity to work with all religious groups, at a time when the Evangelical presence was ascending. Their aim is “to unite the efforts of various denominations to focus on the spiritual revival of Ukraine, coordination of interconfessional dialogue in Ukraine and abroad, participation in a legislative process on church-state issues, and the implementation of comprehensive charitable actions.”
I’ve traveled to scores of countries, working among Evangelicals and other Christian communities, but I’ve not often seen anything parallel to this. When they are a minority, Evangelicals tend to keep an arm’s length from other Christian communities and other religions, due to concerns over dilution of theology and waning of witness. While biblical orthodoxy is central to Evangelical church life here, they also understand the importance of working with other Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, wrestling with national issues and concerns.
I’m writing this because it is a reminder of what spiritual resilience can accomplish. I observed two dynamics at work: they are driven by a desire to celebrate their faith together with gusto, and their leaders with foresight, have constructed a national means of working with others. Though distressed by their recent past and though living today under a notoriously corrupt government and in a country made nervous by geopolitical rumblings, Ukrainian Evangelicals are more than surviving. Their fervent faith, evangelistic outreach and energetic worship could offer a positive example as new mutations of the coronavirus wind their way from region to region.
This, of course, is but one example. I do not wish to overlook the great damage that COVID-19 has caused to the church globally. In many cases, it is hard to obtain good statistics because the medical community has been unable to maintain accurate records and some governments have done their best to hide the numbers. Indeed, when I met with the leaders from 22 Latin American National Evangelical Alliances, they estimated that in their region, among Evangelical churches alone, some 6,000 pastors have died from COVID-19.
When we finally reach a point when new variants don’t shut down the world and this pandemic becomes endemic, and as life assumes some kind of a relative normalcy, the example of Christians in Ukraine is a worthy model for all of us.
Brian C. Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance
Author: Brian Stiller