Bruce from Bila Tserkva, Ukraine
Ah, but those times when we can meet together are comforting, refreshing, and wonderful! We are reassured and fortified from God’s Word. We rejoice in opportunities to fellowship and to express that joy in affectionate and exuberant greetings. We jubilantly sing songs of praise to the God who is our Rock, our Fortress, our Shelter from the storm, our Shield . . .! We observe the return of some who have wandered away and perhaps been disciplined from the flock. We see unbelievers attending and have been excited to see folks respond to the Gospel and find unassailable and eternal peace and joy in Christ!
Believers are helping to convey those who flee to Ukraine’s borders. We have been feeding and housing folks who stop for a night in transit. Mostly, these are believers, but we have been aiding unbelievers too, as you should expect. We move funds (as well as we can) to those who are displaced into other locations. We take provisions to folks who are shut-ins; one of my students carries such tasks throughout the week. Another student has driven multitudes to western areas and borders. Another, displaced with his young family to the Carpathian mountains, is filling a temporary ministry as a youth leader in a Baptist church there. We all wonder when we may return to our former ministries; it is a constant request to God.
Surely my personal feelings and meditations (such as the following) are not unique. Maybe 2 weeks ago, when Ukraine’s refugees were then estimated at over 2 million, I remembered Luke’s report in Acts 8:4. The early church’s activities had been centered in Jerusalem but persecution after Stephen’s martyrdom thrust them out from Jerusalem and they went everywhere, preaching the Word. Ukraine has been the best evangelized of all the former Soviet republics. As such, and as the largest country in Europe (apart from Russia), Ukraine likely has more believers than any country in Europe. Isn’t it likely that God’s plan for these refugees – the ones who are genuinely His – is that they be His messengers of the Gospel to the spiritually cold countries of Western Europe? It must be so; I plead with you to pray that the eyes and hearts of every one of those believers would recognize their opportunity and responsibility and would be up-and-active! Just imagine, if even 1% of the now more than 3 million refugees are true believers, it would mean that over 30,000 potential missionaries have been “let loose” upon those nations! Doesn’t that stir something in your heart?
I’ve been curious from the start of this violence that any fears I’ve had were experienced before the invasion. Once underway, an inexplicable peace and calm has guarded my heart, almost without interruption. And when that peace and sense of security is jeopardized, I run back to the Scriptures for the sweetness of God’s comforts. The Psalms have assumed a new life for me. I read cries for help and attestations of faith that echo the very cries and convictions of my own heart! My heart cries, “O God, how I thank you! You must have written this passage for me; for us who would hide ourselves under your loving and mighty wing today!” I read so many of these psalms . . . I melt into tears of wonder and joy! God’s Word is for me—for us! He knows where we are and what we are experiencing and feeling; He cares! He won’t leave us nor forsake us!
Though I have prayed often for His protection and for further opportunities to serve Him in this life, I fully realize that it may not be in His plan that I re-emerge, alive. As a child of God and as His servant, it isn’t of primary importance that I live. What is of primary and compelling importance is that God be glorified! Paul has said it . . . “by life or by death.”
If God arranges that the Ukrainian forces continue to stymie and push back the aggressor, the shout from we who belong to Him will not be (as we hear around us even now), “Slava Ukraini!” (that is, “Glory to Ukraine”). Rather, let it be, “Slava Christu” . . . “Slava Bogu” (that is, “Glory to Christ” . . . “Glory to God”)!
I will give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with all my heart,
and will glorify Your name forever.
(Psalm 86:12 – NASB)
Bruce from Bila Tserkva, Ukraine
The world as we have known it has been significantly altered for believers in Ukraine! It would be accurate to say that it has been turned “upside-down.” But, even if all else be reduced to chaos and calamity, a firm foundation endures for us in the character and promises of our God!
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world witnessed an enormous buildup of troops and military hardware on our borders. The world watched with an unsettled, curious fascination; we watched with uneasiness and apprehension. However, what I heard from most Ukrainians was denial that the invasion would ever take place. The oft-repeated “theory” was that this was a different kind of war, one of mere words and intimidation.
When the invasion began, it apparently took many by surprise. I had been slowly, gradually accumulating some staple foods and water in the event of such an invasion. I had purchased for a pastor-friend a 7-kilowatt electrical generator. Thus, if we would be besieged and denied natural gas, electricity, and water, the generator would allow us to pump water from a well in a nearby village or to power electrical heaters. To my surprise, it seemed that my Ukrainian acquaintances were making no similar preparations.
At the outset, we began to hear the sporadic wail of sirens both day and night. We made provision to take cover, if necessary, in a rough and inhospitable root cellar under a corner of my house. “We” includes 6 others who moved from their apartments closer to the city’s center, supposing that my home afforded a better possibility of safety. There were a few times that we resorted to that cellar when sirens sounded, but soon began to wait until we heard explosions seemingly close enough to alarm us. One time, it was an enormous “boom” that turned out to be a bomb within a 20-minute walk, powerful enough to destroy 30 homes. The bomb missed its probable target, a military hospital about 500 meters from where it landed.
We have often heard explosions, sometimes violent enough to cause the house to tremble. Only 2 or 3 fell within the city. Recently, we have climbed in the darkness to my attic in order to listen to explosions and see flashes and areas of glowing light in the distance. Sometimes the lights were apparently rockets, or perhaps anti-aircraft fire. Those attacks were about 50 miles distant; it is difficult for us to judge distances in these attacks, or to get accurate information as they occur.
One day, Russian subversives dressed as civilians were arrested nearby. They had been seen attempting to plant missile-guiding devices on a hospital around the corner from my house.
Soon after the invasion began, stores began to be closed and secured. Many folks are now without work and incomes. Far fewer pedestrians and vehicles are seen on the streets. Instead, we see an increasing number of armed soldiers. We see barricades of sandbags, logs, concrete, and tank traps in and on the outskirts of our city. The checkpoints at city entrances are increasingly fortified. Soldiers have dug trenches alongside the roads and have made underground rooms in which to take a few hours of rest.
Families are separated, as multitudes of mostly women and children are now displaced into western parts of Ukraine or to other parts of Europe. But, what of life there? They have no way to earn an income, and they are among strangers (even if hospitable and caring strangers). Many sense that they are already wearing out their welcome, and they are longing to return home. They yearn to be reunited with their loved ones and friends, and to return to the life from which they have been so suddenly and rudely dispatched. They long for home and for peace!
God has been answering the prayers of many; He has been shielding us from the violent brutality that far less fortunate people have been experiencing in cities such as Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, and Chernihiv. Here it seems that we live with at least a sub-conscious tension, never knowing what is coming, what will happen next, or when it may be our turn to experience the fury of that disoriented, humiliated, and thus vengeful enemy.
We conduct services: prayer meetings throughout the week, youth meetings, and Sunday worship. Sunday evening services haven’t been possible due to the evening curfew. In some churches, believers who have remained are critical toward those who have fled; the unity of believers is threatened. Fewer attend when a church meets, as many have left the area and some who remain are fearful of venturing out.
To be continued...
Ministry During COVID in Japan
Takayuki Hayashi, BJU Alumnus (Uchinada Bible Church)
My wife and I are 2010 and 2011 alumni of Bob Jones University and Bob Jones Seminary. Since 2011, we have been serving in ministry in an established church in Canada, a church plant in Canada, and now as missionaries in Japan for the last three years at Uchinada Bible Church.
God has called us to be missionaries in a very difficult field. Japan is called the graveyard for foreign missionaries. According to Operation World, Japan is the country where Christianity is in second greatest decline. However, “returnees”— Japanese who became Christians abroad and are now returning to their home country—are having a substantial witness. We have the benefit of both understanding our home culture and having a native understanding of the most difficult language in the world (many foreign missionaries take up to 10 or 20 years to become conversant and still have difficulty in communication). Our children were already fluently bilingual in both Japanese and English prior to moving to Japan, which has allowed us to seamlessly adjust to daily life and school with limited challenges. My wife also continually studies Japanese and has had ongoing Bible studies and witnessing opportunities with English-speaking Japanese mothers she has met.
God has permitted us to reach many people in the last two years. We had further plans to reach the Japanese people in 2020 during the Olympics, but similar to the majority of missionaries, our plans changed because of COVID-19.
The peak of COVID-19 in Japan was towards the end of March into April. However, Japan never shutdown—the government just gave advisories to wear masks and practice social distancing. There were also advisories to restaurants, etc. to close earlier, and schools were closed April until May. Churches were never asked to close, but attendance dropped from 30-130 to around 10 people in each of the 2 services in April. We had to cancel regular ministries including the public library English time, nursing home ministry, and medical hospital Bible studies, due to restrictions on sizes of gathering and limited access to medical facilities. We also had to cancel large outreaches that gathered over a hundred people.
On the other hand, there are three new ministries which God providentially brought to churches through COVID-19. First, meetings and gatherings are online. Second, we can use sports to reach the lost during this pandemic. Third, small and suffering churches in Japan are coming together to help one another. Let me explain these three points in detail.
First, online services are benefiting a greater number of people. For example, we did a Biblical Counseling training seminar in Japanese through Zoom rather than in person, and as a result we had 462 people register across Japan and from the USA. We had six different teachers from the United States teach six different topics. Compared to last year, there were 4 times more people who attended and benefited from the Biblical Counseling Seminar.
Another example is our Bible Conference. We usually have about 200 people attend our yearly Bible conference, but in 2020 we only had about 60 people who attended the conference in person. We were disappointed with the small number of attendees, but the video of the conference has over 700 views on YouTube now. Believers and pastors from all over Japan are watching the Biblical Counseling Seminar, Bible Conference, and weekly Sunday Services. We praise the Lord for the larger reach.
Other ministries we are doing online are the Children’s Sunday School and Awana Club meetings. Several new children are attending the weekly meetings over Zoom. These children were never able to attend in the past because of their parents’ work. We also have people from the other side of Japan attending our regular Bible studies online. God is good!
The second area we are able to minister through is sports. Despite all the changes in Japan due to COVID-19, one area that seems to be immune is athletics. This may be because people know the benefits that come from physical exercise or because athletes must train for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Most gyms and sports facilities allow people to take their masks off during the exercise. Playing sports and eating together are the few times when people can get together without wearing a mask. The government does not force us to wear masks, but it has become socially acceptable to do so since the SARS outbreak of 2003.
Young adults and children are still able to get together to play sports. We have met a lot of new people through playing a variety of sports this year—badminton, basketball, ultimate frisbee, soccer, tennis, and table tennis. Through these times, we have had some good spiritual conversations. One mother started to share her marriage problems with a Christian lady after 30 minutes of a walking class. The camaraderie that playing sports creates allows us to build relationships with people very quickly.
I would like to share one example of how we used sports to reach many people during this pandemic. In November, we organized an Olympic Sports Festival Outreach. Even though the COVID-19 cases were a record high for the week of the festival, we believed God wanted us to proceed with the plan. The city gave us permits, and several other large athletic events were held on the same day, which helped us to make the decision. We invited a Christian Taekwondo bronze medalist to the event. The city leaders were very excited to be part of this sports festival because so many large events were canceled this year for children. The Board of Education in our town handed out the festival flyers to all the children in the town for us. One city recommended the event to all the elementary schools, and over 9,000 flyers were handed out directly to the children by public school teachers. There were over 760 people who registered for the sports festival, but we had to limit the number to 600 people and spread them over two sessions outdoors in order to avoid crowding.
The bronze medalist, Yoriko Okamoto, shared her life story in two elementary schools, two middle schools, and one kindergarten. After teaching Tae Kwon Do to the children, she shared with more than 300 students that believing in Jesus was much more rewarding than receiving the bronze medal. One student asked her what she dreamed of doing after being a third-time Olympian and receiving an Olympic medal. Yoriko Okamoto told the children her dream is to tell other people about Jesus.
The goal of the sports partnership is to have about 500 sports festival outreaches around Japan. We would like to have about 20 sports festival outreaches for different local churches in our area to connect people to the local churches.
The third way God has used COVID-19 in our ministry is bringing small and discouraged churches together to help one another. The average church congregation in Japan is about 30 people, and 89% of the congregation is said to be over the age of 50 years old in Japan. Churches have very few physically capable adults to volunteer for outreaches or ministry. Even though there are fewer people attending churches and less outreaches happening because of COVID-19, we have been meeting with other church pastors to pray for one another and encourage one another. We also gathered young adults from different churches to conduct the Sports Festival Outreach. About 10 evangelical Bible churches came together, and we had about 60 volunteers for the sports festival outreach. Other churches are now also interested in taking part in sport outreaches next year.
Christianity has been decreasing in Japan at a rapid rate, but we believe God can bring a revival to Japan even through COVID-19. One final testimony: in the beginning of December, I was contacted by a man who had recently become a Christian and desired discipleship. He is a well-known, former athlete and owns several gyms. He found out that all the staff members of one of his gyms were also interested in Bible study. So, we have done numerous studies in the last number of weeks. All seven of the staff members had individually purchased their own personal Bible and were seeking on their own. When I asked one staff member at the gym, “Who do you believe is Jesus?” the staff member responded, “Jesus is the Son of God. I want to know more about him.”
Pray for these people in Japan, who are thirsting after righteousness, that God would bring them unto salvation.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.