How does the church respond in a time of war? Will it step up to the challenge of being a light to the world inside of one of the darkest times that civilization knows? Is the structure of the church one of the factors that will help it in meeting that challenge? These are questions that Anton Kaluzhny answered during a visit to the Ames-Des Moines CityChurch Network/BILD International to give a report on the church in Ukraine.
Anton is the pastor of New Life Church Ukraine and has been a partner with BILD International since 2017, when he attended his first BILD International Summit. Anton began to grasp the bigger vision of the work in the city of Kiev that he and his church are engaged in. Partnering with BILD International helped him form a vision and a plan for seeing Kiev become a strategic global city with a church network that has a passion for the progress of the gospel, not only in Kiev, but globally. Growth occurs there as Anton works with experienced leaders like Steve Galegor, a BILD coworker, who can come alongside to help with training and guidance.
Anton has been working through the BILD resources, and over the last four years he has felt the impact of his growth. The resource The Story helped him think clearly about his role in his life and the role that the church he leads would have during the war in Ukraine. The Story is the resource that walks a person through the metanarrative of the biblical story; God's story as revealed in the scriptures as interpreted by Jesus and His Apostles.
The Story helped Anton and the team put the war into a bigger context. Anton said, “I don't believe in accidents, so in 2021 we just translated The Story, and I took all my key cohort (leaders through it) …we spent actually (a) whole year studying and translating.”
“And then we saw that the situation in Ukraine is more and more serious and two months before war, all of us had the understanding that actually it will start, war will start.” In February of 2022, the war started as Russia invaded Ukraine and began a war that continues today. As a result, the world has witnessed a devastation of lives, buildings, and infrastructures. The world has seen 7 million people displaced, the largest number of people since World War II.
Anton continued, “And that was the moment when we almost finished teaching The Story, and my brother brought up the idea that now we understand our Biblical metanarrative; it helps us to understand our role in our place in the faith, in the church, in the kingdom coming. But then he started to say, ‘Russians are destroying our national narrative, and if we lose, we lose our backstory, and without backstory, actually, Ukrainians cannot understand what we are doing and what our identity is.’ We had a really deep conversation, and we started thinking that without the national narrative we cannot understand our national heritage, and as believers, as Christians, we have to know the metanarrative or we cannot understand (God’s) story and both are needed to understand.” Using The Story created more and more clarity between biblical metanarrative and national narrative to understand their specific role during the war.
Steve Galegor also helped. He was in contact with Anton every day as things ramped up to the war including the night before the bombs started to drop. Steve explained, “...technology becomes a huge tool in this, and the fact that we had an internet connection to stay in contact was important to the idea of a global family and a global team.” Steve was also able to travel to Ukraine and saw Anton and his church as they experienced war first hand. Steve traveled by train overnight, after a bombing had occurred the night before. It was a 12-hour train ride, in the dark, with orders for no light in the train of any kind in order to keep passengers safe. Steve said his visit to Ukraine was important because he has a deeper partnership with Anton and his church. They are family. Steve mentioned that visiting them in this time of crisis created a strong sense of, “Hey, this is family, how are they doing in this hard time? We stand with you. We are family. We share these ideas, and these identities, and purposes and that right now is so very important.” And what Steve saw when he got there was that Anton’s church was acting like a family to those in the community, and that family, the church, were doing all they could to help.
The idea of church operating like a family was a consistent theme from Anton and was how he claimed the church should respond to all times, including times of war. “I think after studying The Story…I saw this line from the beginning (of God’s story) and it was very useful. Coming back to the church idea. What I see now in Ukraine (is) all (the) institutional churches during the war mess up. All institutional churches fall down. We see more clarity that (the church) is a community, and family churches can face war and help others walk through the war. And we see that the church is like a family in The Story and the book of Acts.” Anton said we see in God’s Story the importance of family, “through Abraham’s family, Jacob’s family, and Israel's family. So you understand that it's (church) more about family. And when we remember the first week of war and I observed all institutional mechanisms stopped working. But the family models kept moving. It's more like a family.”
Anton went on to give an example of how institutional church thought was different, in his opinion, to how guidance from a church acting like a family would be. “As a pastor I need to send people to help transport others. As an organizational leader it's too dangerous to send them. But looking from a family perspective we can talk and we understand it's too important to not support our family, so we ask ‘who is ready?’ These are our brothers and sisters, we have to go. It's risky, but we have to go.”
“Continuation of this problem is why a lot of churches died because the churches had positional leadership. Many of those pastors ran away. A lot of churches in Kiev and Ukraine just closed up. They did not feel the responsibility to be in the role of being with their people in the darkest of times.”
Anton also went on to explain the importance and need for a biblical church to exist during wartime. “During war it is easy to become like one more NGO or one more social organization. Every day you can distribute food, help people and try to help with the bad. It's very important to have this connection with The Story because…you know you have to do more and bigger things. You have to make disciples; you have to establish the church. Get the people involved into the families.”
Anton then described how war accelerates all things. “War is a huge accelerator for all processes. It has accelerated paradigm shifts. It has accelerated more weddings.” More weddings have happened in Ukraine since the war than in the last two years. It has also accelerated church growth.
The church in the town Sumy grew from 300 members to 600 members. Steve told a story about a 72-year-old neighbor woman who noticed something was happening at Anton’s house where the church was meeting. She had no family left in the city as all of her children had left. She determined that what she was witnessing at Anton's house was a family and joined them daily, declaring that she wanted to be a part of what they were doing. She began to volunteer and now helps in the kitchen and with weeding flower boxes outside the church area.
Anton also reflected on how the attractiveness of this church expressing itself as a family got the attention of some local criminals, who also wanted to help. “Maybe in the third week (of war), locals started to understand that something is going on in our place. We have church in our home and people begin to wonder what is going on because we bring in a few hundred refugees and every night they send three or four buses of people out. Criminals come to us and say, ‘If you need any help with unloading some food or other chores, we will help you.’”
Anton mentions that he does not feel alone as his church survives in the war. He has support and care from Steve and the BILD network, who have come around them to help meet financial needs and to uphold them in prayer and encouragement. He also has been strengthened by the relationships that occurred as he participated in BILD Executive Education via ZOOM with leaders of church networks from all over the globe. Anton feels supported by prayer and by knowing that others in the world are engaged in the same learning and battles as he is.
Anton asked that we all would continue to pray for the church in Ukraine as the war continues on. He gave some updates that many members in his church have been mobilized and put into active service including all four of the church's Sunday school teachers. Russia has also attacked the Ukrainian infrastructure causing power outages and blackouts making it a very stressful winter.
When asked after the war, what does the future hold for the churches in the Ukraine? He replied that he wasn't sure because it's hard to see the future while in this war situation. He does believe God is at work. “In a war you need to do some theology in culture to find solutions to problems you have never experienced before. So all of these ideas of justice and exile come to the forefront of thought during these times. He also requested prayers. “We need your prayers, and we thank you for remembering us and keeping us in your hearts. Please pray for our leadership to have wisdom and make the right decisions.”
Anton also explained that you have to be linked to something bigger than yourself during a time of war. Things like God’s kingdom and knowing he has a family across the world who prays and cares for him. Anton ended by proclaiming, “God is Good.”