Happy New Year! As we enter 2023, Talant recounts how God has preserved His Church in Qazaqstan despite persecution, mistranslations, and poverty. Together, let us anticipate how Christ may multiply the gifts offered by His faithful witnesses in Qazaqstan and throughout the world.
By area, Qazaqstan is the world’s largest landlocked country. In ancient times, Scythian and Turkic nomads inhabited Qazaqstan’s vast steppes. Due to its rich mineral and oil reserves, Qazaqstan also has the largest economy in Central Asia. Translated from Turkish and Persian roots, Qazaqstan’s name means “land of the wanderers.” Once part of the Mongol Empire, Russian Empire, and Soviet Union, Qazaqstan is officially a secular democratic republic today. However, it is internationally regarded as an authoritarian regime with a poor human rights record. Around 70% of Qazaqstan’s 19 million people are Muslims, over 17% are Christians, and another 13% are irreligious.
Talant is pursuing a PhD in World Religions (Islamic Studies) at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Kentucky, USA). His research investigates how religious and Qazaq ethnic identities intersect, in order to strengthen the Church’s witness and ministry in his context. Talant seeks to train Christian leaders and produce theological resources for Qazaq-speaking ethnic Qazaqs, among whom the need for Christian outreach and discipleship is especially great.
Although Qazaqstan has the largest Christian population in Central Asia, most Christians are ethnically Russian and part of the Russian Orthodox Church. Available Christian materials, already scarce, are usually in Russian. Upon graduation, Talant will be among only three people in Qazaqstan with a seminary doctorate, and the only person with a theological PhD who can speak and write fluently in Qazaq.
Talant shares the following devotional and prayer requests:
Perseverance and Promise
When someone says “Christmas,” people usually think of a cozy environment, a happy family in a bright living room, a fireplace, and a decorated Christmas tree in the corner. Somewhere on the wall is a Bible verse or a picture of wise men from the East, shepherds and sheep, and Joseph and Mary looking at the baby Jesus in a manger. Everything – the decorations, music, mood, and apparel – all seem to reflect the famous song lyric, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
Looking back at my childhood, I remember how our Church, the first generation of modern Christians in Qazaqstan, celebrated Christmas. In every aspect, we wanted to replicate the picture described above. Western missionaries had taught us how Christmas is supposed to be celebrated. So, Qazaqs have Christmas songs translated from English, and the Church and every Christian’s house is decorated in the manner learned from American friends. Since 1991, Qazaqs have been celebrating Christmas.
But something was lacking then and is still absent now. In the Qazaq language, we do not have a word for Christmas. We simply say, “the birthday of Jesus Christ.” Isn’t it awkward to greet each other with the words, “I congratulate you on the birthday of Jesus Christ”?
The first Christological controversy in the life of the modern Qazaq Church arose around the Christmas song lyrics, “the baby was born a King” and “the baby was born miraculously.” One party attempted to change the word “born” to “created.” That was rejected quickly since everyone realized that Jesus Christ is eternal, just like the Father – it is impossible to create Him. The debate was settled as early as 1996 when the Qazaq Church was in its infancy.
In Qazaqstan, attacks on how we interpret the person of Jesus Christ remind us of how Herod wanted to kill the infant Jesus. Today, we celebrate the birth of Christ with feasts, but Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt while many mothers of Bethlehem wailed over their babies murdered by Herod’s soldiers. Christ’s name has always endured vicious persecution or the most cunning misrepresentation. The mistranslation of Bible verses to the Qazaq language that cast Jesus as the “Spiritual Son of God” is another endeavor to distort His identity.
Jesus came into this world to save people, but people (Joseph and Mary) had to save His life first. The Good News of Jesus Christ came to the Qazaqs a little over 30 years ago, but today we, like Joseph and Mary, are fighting to save His unaltered portrayal as revealed in the Bible. Vicious enemies of our faith seek to demolish the Church, some through physical means and others by distorting the image of Christ.
The soldiers of Rome succeeded eventually – they killed Jesus Christ. But their celebration of victory did not last long. Jesus came alive from the dead. God had planned Christ’s death before His birth, and He had also planned Christ’s ultimate triumph over death. Perhaps the enemies of the Qazaq Church, too, will succeed. Maybe churches in Qazaqstan will be banned altogether, and we will lose our precarious freedom to follow Christ.
We can’t imagine a wealthy Qazaq Church anytime soon, with buildings that can accommodate thousands of people for Christmas celebrations. Most likely, we won’t ever come up with a one-word term like “Christmas” for this precious holiday. Coziness remains unaffordable for the average Qazaq Christian family. And Christ among Qazaqs is under constant attack.
Today, the life of the Qazaq Church resembles the life of Jesus Christ – poor, persecuted, and neglected. Pastors with inadequate training often look like the Apostles at the beginning of their journey with the Teacher. Resources in our possession do not correlate with the need. We are like that boy with five loaves and two fish before 5,000 hungry people.
But is it imperative for the Qazaq Church to replicate Western forms of Church? I don’t think so. Christ came for all men and women, wealthy and needy, healthy and ill. Everyone can approach His throne and present their gifts.
Although the Qazaq Church does not have much, we have the most important treasure – our Lord Jesus Christ. These days, we celebrate His birth with all our brothers and sisters around the world, singing of the same Gospel and directing our prayers to the Triune God.
Please pray for my dissertation writing. I hope to submit in February or March, defend in April, and graduate in May.
Please pray for a smooth transition as I move back to Qazaqstan in June.