For Sheika Shinetulga, Training Leaders InternationaI's (TLI's) national partner in Mongolia, Covid-19 has disrupted innumerable plans and ministry projects. It's even touched his family in a personal way. But that hasn't stopped him from gospel ministry. If anything, the global pandemic that closed his country's borders and limited his church's gatherings has also opened the door for unexpected evangelism and plowed the soil for future church planting.
Planning to Equip Pastors
Long before a novel coronavirus started ravaging nearby China, Sheika had a dream to start scores of churches through a ministry he began called Witness Mongolia. Church planting is something that's been on Sheika's heart almost since his conversion in the late 90s.
Thirty years ago when the Iron Curtain fell, there were fewer than ten believers in the entire country. Eventually, the gospel began to spread through outreach events and street preaching. Today, there are hundreds of churches in Mongolia as a result of those early evangelistic efforts. However, of the 360 towns and villages throughout the country, only half have a local church. That's why Sheika's ministry was planning to launch a program in 2020 to coach prospective church planters who would be sent out to unreached areas within Mongolia. As a first-generation believer in a country full of young Christians, Sheika wants to see leaders equipped for ministry. This is one reason why he invited TLI to come alongside his ministry in 2017.
But as we all know, by February 2020, Covid-19 was spreading throughout East Asia. In response, Mongolia took swift and decisive action to completely close their borders before there was an outbreak. They also, like most other countries, limited public gatherings to inhibit the virus's spread.
For Sheika, these restrictions meant the unravelling of many plans. Their urban church plant which meets in a hotel ballroom was not able to gather in person. Instead, they met in small home groups and over Facebook. Meanwhile, the disruption in travel and meetings meant the postponement of his program for church planter coaching. It also abruptly stopped the sequence of TLI training. And perhaps most difficult of all for the Shinetulgas, their eldest son, a student in Chicago, was unable to return home to visit his family over summer break. They haven't seen him in over a year.
Yet a closed border isn't necessarily a closed door for the gospel. And in this case, the disruption in Sheika's plans led to unexpected ministry opportunities. During the pandemic he's been spending more time visiting church members in their homes. They've delivered food packages to the poor. And Sheika's taken advantage of the time afforded by fewer gatherings and less training to pursue the spread of the gospel to some of the remotest corners of Mongolia. "This is the perfect time," he says, "to visit the countryside." So this summer, when church gatherings were completely cancelled, he took three trips to western Mongolia to do evangelism and encourage a few TLI students in their ministries.
“a closed border isn't necessarily a closed door for the gospel”
Mongolia is a vast country with 21 provinces. It's bordered by China to the south and east, Russia to the north, and Kazakhstan to the west. This summer on one of his evangelistic journeys during the shutdown, Sheika traveled 3,000 miles by car (1,000 of which was dirt road) to reach the far western edge of Mongolia, passing through ten provinces on the way to Bayan-Olgii, a city with a population of 100,000, 93% of whom are Kazak Muslims. He took with him a few others, new believers he's discipling. Together they went to strengthen the handful of believers in that region and bear witness to Christ along the way.
While in Olgii, they met a Kazak woman named Saragul. Saragul is a believer, and she worked with Sheika's group as a translator and guide, taking them from house to house to visit local families. As they went, they found that many of the families had previously heard the gospel from Saragul—but she wanted them to hear it again from Sheika. According to him, Saragul is a brave and bold evangelist, fearlessly telling others about Jesus.
One of the locals they met on the trip was a Muslim man who struggles with alcohol. He was very interested to learn about Christ. In particular, he expressed disgust toward his drinking and the ways it gets him in trouble. Even though Islam teaches that he shouldn't drink, it hasn't given him the power to stop. Allah has been no help to him, he said. So he asked Sheika's team to pray for him and his family. A man named Munkhuu, also a TLI trainee, has a similar history with alcoholism and a testimony of deliverance through Christ. He's now working with this man and others in the community, pointing them to the transforming power of the gospel.
After a few days in Olgii, the team traveled 150 miles to reach another people group, the Tuva, who live mostly in Siberia. There they met with a nomadic Christian couple, Ragchaa and Khandaa. The first evening after their arrival, the team stayed in their yurt. According to Sheika, his group cried all night listening to this couple's testimonies. They had come to faith in Christ five years ago, yet they have no church. They've maintained their testimony surrounded by Muslims, Buddhists, and Shamans in their community. While Sheika's team was there, one night—after the yaks were milked—they were able to invite some families from the village to Ragchaa's yurt. Sheika's team stayed up with them until midnight explaining the good news of Jesus. Next year, Sheika plans to return to follow up with them, encourage Ragchaa and Khandaa, and work toward establishing a church there.
While overseas travel has been limited throughout 2020, TLI's in-country partners continue to work for the sake of the gospel. Where one opportunity has closed, others have opened. "We have no big events or big programs," Sheika admits, "but we are visiting families and making disciples."
We rejoice in the ways God is using faithful servants like Sheika during this difficult year. His is a story of letting God lead through disappointments and disruptions. It's a story of making the most of what's possible. It's a story of rediscovering the value of evangelism during a pandemic—the kind of evangelism that sparked a church planting movement thirty years ago in Mongolia. And even though the training and church planter coaching that Sheika planned didn't happen in 2020, this year gospel seeds have been sown and new fields explored for kingdom work into the future.