From the Worldwide Faith News archives

A challenge beyond extra miles for Kazakhstan church

Date 20 Apr 2000 10:05:59


ALMA-ATA, Kazakhstan/GENEVA, 20 April 2000 (lwi) - For Bishop Robert
Moser, a visit to congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
the Republic of Kazakhstan (ELKRK), involves traveling several thousand

The distance between congregations--up to 2,000 km from south to north
and 2,500 km across east and west--in a country of which the
geographical area covers some 2.7 million kmę, about a quarter the size
of Europe, is one of the realities that the man who has been bishop
since 1996 must contend with.

Moser prefers to talk about the number of congregations in the church
than give the membership figures. Ten years ago the ELKRK had an
estimated 200 congregations in Kazakhstan, today there are about eighty.
The bishop attributes the decrease to emigration in the early nineties.

After the forced resettlement of several ethnic groups, among them the
Wolga Germans, during and after the Second World War, Germans made up
about six percent of the population. Before that period, there were
hardly any Christians in the traditionally Muslim nation. Following more
settlement programs, the percentage of Russians among the population
rose steadily and by the time Kazakhstan became independent in 1991,
they were the majority. However, the rigid religious policy of the then
Soviet government had outlawed all congregational life for decades
including the construction of churches and training theologians. Until
1997, the only church building in Kazakhstan was the Orthodox cathedral
in the capital Alma-Ata.

In 1992, there were some 960,000 Russians of German origin officially
living in Kazakhstan. But by 1997 more than 600,000 had emigrated to
Germany, Russia, Siberia and Ukraine among other states. The Lutheran
congregations are gradually decreasing in size, and in places where a
few years ago hundreds of Christians met for church services, today one
only finds a handful of families. Their small prayer houses (mainly made
of mud) that were built during the communist rule in the former Soviet
Union cannot be maintained. The congregations either have to restore the
houses or give them away, often to other confessions or denominations.
Very small congregations continue meeting in private houses or flats.

For Moser, a former agricultural technician, parish pastor and church
superintendent before his election as bishop, such difficulties are no
reason for despair. He currently focuses on big settlements and towns to
ensure the survival of churches at least in the district centers. He
acknowledges the effort needed to build up a congregation.

In May 1993 the constituent synod of the "Eparchy of the Evangelical
Lutheran Congregations in the State of Kazakhstan" took place in
Alma-Ata, the second synod was held in May 1994. The ELKRK is a regional
church and as such it is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
Russia and Other States (ELKRAS), which is a member of the Lutheran
World Federation (LWF) and has a membership of 250,000.

The ELKRK has 13 full-time pastors equipped with a basic theological
education that focuses on practical training. Since 1996 the formation
of deacons, catechists and preachers has been going on under a six-week
course, and Moser now plans the creation of a biblical college in
Astana, the new state capital, which is also the seat of the bishop.

Last February, Moser accompanied the archbishop of the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States (ELKRAS), Prof. Georg
Kretschmar and the president of the general synod, Alexander Pastor, on
a visit to the LWF secretariat in Geneva. Among the issues discussed
between the LWF representatives and the delegation members was support
for the training project in Astana. Apart from the estimated building
costs of about 150,000 - 200,000 USD in the next four years, between
70,000 and 80,000 USD is needed per year to cover operational costs.

Archbishop Kretschmar, who expressed satisfaction following discussions
during the Geneva visit emphasized that to have the "theological
training in Kazakhstan sponsored as a specific project was the utmost
that could have happened in view of the circumstances." He added that
the success of the visit was in the fact that his delegation was able to
illustrate that ELKRAS consists of various regional churches with their
individual problems and concerns. So far, the LWF mainly supports the
theological seminary in Novosaratovka, but in future ELKRAS wants
support for training centers of the other regional churches.

Kretschmar sees the LWF as a patron for his church. "The LWF has
supported us from the very beginning. Since we have been able to
congregate again, it has taken notice of us." Now he hopes that his
church will be seen as an association of eight regional churches, each
of which has its own distinctive characters.

Moser, who sees the main task for his church as "inner mission"
expressed the hope that in a few years the biblical college will send
out "young people with a good missionary education". He anticipates a
training center not only for "theological formation, but also for social
church work, church workers including pastors." He envisions having
students not only from Kazakhstan but also from allover Central Asia.

While the German speaking congregations diminish in size, Moser seeks to
establish new congregations that conduct their services in Russian. He
hopes that Lutheran congregations survive in Kazakhstan, but he knows
that they can only be maintained with assistance from the outside.
Support must aim at "help for self-help". In Geneva Moser also
emphasized that "there are Lutherans in Kazakhstan who need help now.
The child has been born but it now needs to grow." The bishop prays for
a strong lively church even though it may be small. According to him,
the training of pastors is "the main task".

Whereas the Kazakhstan bishop has to deal with dwindling congregations
the trend is the opposite in the part of Russia neighboring Europe. In
the last few years, formerly scattered congregations have become more
than 150 growing Lutheran congregations, and new ones are added all the
time. Overall ELKRAS has not become smaller, but its focus has shifted.
Members migrating from the east have revitalized the congregations in
the west. Kretschmar compares the present situation with the one before
the persecution of churches, when there was a Lutheran church in every
large Russian town or city. Since the mid-nineties, Lutheran
congregations have managed to claim their buildings. New congregations
have formed around these churches, a factor that has resulted in "a
certain awakening", according to the archbishop.

For Ekaterina Woropanowa, the 26-year-old personal secretary and
interpreter of the archbishop, who was also part of the delegation to
the LWF secretariat last February, the awakening of congregations in the
west influenced her membership in the church. Five years ago,
Woropanowa, who studied German, was employed by the congregation as a
secretary, a year later she was christened and has since been elected a
member of the church council. She describes her congregation in St.
Petersburg, which was given back the St. Peter's church, as a "big city
congregation, which is intellectually oriented and very active." For a
few years now she has looked after and visited a voluntary social work
group for the old and sick people.

In spite of numerous organizational worries and start-up difficulties,
Alexander Pastor, president of the ELKRAS General Synod, recognizes a
slowly evolving administrative structure. The original "chaos" is giving
way to order. Pastor, a physicist and lecturer at the University of St.
Petersburg, has been a member of this congregation since 1991. He has
noticed that all congregations in the part of Russia neighboring Europe
have become more active. He hopes that in a few years his church will
have become "a normal Lutheran church just as those in Austria or in one
of the German states." He sees potential for growth in the "millions of
people who are neither Muslims nor Orthodox or Lutherans, but simply
people searching for something."

Kretschmar considers the people without any religious affiliation a
major challenge and an incredible opportunity. Before the changes in
Europe in the last decade, Lutheran congregations had a certain
attraction for the intellectuals of the country. Now Kretschmar observes
that the people in towns and cities of European-Russia, Siberia and
Ukraine show renewed interest and he is of the opinion that they may
perhaps "come to us as well". However, he insists on the fact that "we
are a missionary church, but we do not fish in others' ponds. That is a
recognized fact." He explains that this approach is true of the
relationship between ELKRAS and the Orthodox Church in Russia, an
understanding, which according to the archbishop is "flawless" on the
official church level.

Kretschmar hopes that his church will gradually succeed in standing on
its own feet, and that the number of people who willingly work in the
church will increase.

(The LWF is a global communion of 128 member churches in 70 countries
representing 59 5 million of the world's 63.1 million Lutherans. Its
highest decision-making body is the Assembly, held every six or seven
years. Between Assemblies, the LWF is governed by a 49-member Council
which meets annually, and by its Executive Committee. The LWF
secretariat is located in Geneva, Switzerland.)

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Lutheran World Information
Assistant Editor, English: Pauline Mumia

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