At least in terms of percentages, Protestant mission in what may be the world’s coldest — and sunniest — country qualifies as an incredible success story. Starting with less than 40 believers in 1990, Protestants in Mongolia are now said to number at least 50,000 in 500 congregations.
The Mongolian Evangelical Alliance, a nondenominational body, hopes to see 10 percent of the population (about 300,000 people) “come to faith in Jesus Christ” by 2020.
From the 7th-14th centuries, Nestorian, Eastern-Rite Christendom had a foothold in the country. Now, for the first time in 700 years, Mongolia possesses a sizeable Protestant minority: nearly 2 percent of the population. Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers are also present but number less than 1,000 members each. Mormon numbers run significantly higher, at nearly 8,000 members. The Tibetan Buddhist and Animist population is sometimes listed as 53 percent, with (Sunni) Muslims making up 5 percent.
But success is not without its shortcomings: Iran-sized Mongolia is also said to be the world’s most sparsely populated country. Because of the great distances, mission coverage appears spotty: 17 of Mongolia’s 20 ethnic groups are considered unreached and only 40 percent of Mongolia’s 315 counties have any church at all.
The second unique feature of Mongolian Christianity is its non-denominational character. Protestant affairs in the country are overseen by two non-denominational bodies — the Mongolian Evangelical Alliance (MEA) and the Geneva-related National Council of Churches (NCC) — in cooperation with a service agency, Joint Christian Services International (JCS).
The MEA unites 60-70 percent of the country’s congregations. The NCC focuses on church work in the narrow sense and serves 10 percent of congregations. These groups overlap with the 20-year-old JCS, which is the practical service arm of 15 mission agencies dealing in ministries as diverse as veterinarian and dairy services, orphanages, food-for-work and job creation programs.
Relationships are generally not adversarial; some churches belong to both the MEA and the NCC.
South Korean Presbyterians in Mongolia have formed the Korean Missionary Fellowship, which works with the JCS to bring unity.
Perhaps most interesting is that the issues dividing evangelicals in the ex-USSR tend to be non-issues in Mongolia. Pastor Mojic of Ulan Bator said that charismatic matters only “used to be an issue. When certain foreigners left, they became less of an issue.” Without imposing on others, the use of the charismatic gifts is “widely accepted by most of the churches.” Only theologically educated Mongolians are aware that Calvinists and Arminians even exist.
Reasons for non-denominationalism
Western missionaries point out that Mongolians are very committed to evangelism and church growth; they and their Western mentors tend to see denominationalism as an impediment. Many young believers are not even aware of the existence of Christian denominations.
Laura Schlabach, a Mennonite from Texas and JCS worker since 1993, reports that after explaining what a denomination was, the women responded: “Why would they want to do that? Don’t they all worship the same God?” Schlabach, who lives in Bayanhongor (central Mongolia), described the Mongolian position as: “We are part of the Kingdom of God and worship the one true God.”
Koreans and Westerners may speak of their local congregations in denominational terms — a distinction that Mongolians usually miss. Mongolian non-denominationalism is clearly here to stay: Even the groups that pull back from the MEA or other national agencies pick generic names. They do not as a rule revert to traditional denominational ones.
Mongolian practice also reflects the fact that Western denominations have “farmed out” foreign mission to specialized, inter-denominational mission societies during the past century. Those planting non-denominational congregations in Mongolia were themselves already members of non-denominational missions.
Schlabach, who happens to be part of a denominational mission, describes the non-denominational approach as clearly intentional: “In order to get the Mongolian church planted, watered and growing, we had to work together.”
But not all missions and churches in the country accept the non-denominational approach. Some groups have chosen to go it alone, while other denominational groups have left the country.
Challenges in the Mongolian church
A church that was nonexistent until 1990 and forced to “get up to speed” within record time faces incredible challenges. Economic growth is around 17 percent a year, and one missionary described Mongolia as a setting where “pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism all co-exist and clash.”
One result of that challenge is what Westerners call corruption. Mongolians have no historic experience with non-profit organizations, and one missionary lamented that proper practice on financial issues is rarely taught. He reported on a church leader who used church property as collateral when taking out a private loan. When he defaulted on the loan, the bank took over the property and the ministry ended. Another leader, knowing that his employment would be terminated, transferred ministry assets to his family. Designated giving is a tough practice to comprehend: “Do you not trust us?” is a common response when foreign donations are not used as stipulated.
Opponents of the Protestant awakening claim that it is not only Mormons who use significant amounts of cash to encourage conversion, an accusation that is difficult to verify. Missionaries report that government and Buddhist opposition to the Protestant presence remains relatively modest. Government “resistance always seems strongest around election time,” Schlabach said.
Have the Mongolians achieved something significant? Have they broken through to a new frontier reaching beyond traditional denominational divisions?
“Yes!” said Schlabach. “Mongolians stick to the basic Gospel truth: God loved us so much that He sent His only son to die for us. We are one in Christ.”
William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.