How Do You Change a Nation? Lessons from Mongolia

I’m in the last few days of an extensive trip to Asia. This morning I’m writing from a third floor apartment in the heart of Ulaanbaatar–the capital city of Mongolia.

If you’re having trouble picturing where Mongolia is located, think of China to the south and Russia to the north with Mongolia sandwiched in between. I’m actually only a couple hundred miles from the Russian border and Lake Baikal–the world’s biggest freshwater lake that contains one-quarter of the earth’s fresh water supplies.

Everything is big in this part of the world. Big sky; Biggest population in China; Largest land mass in Russia. Today I’m surrounded by rising apartment buildings and commercial structures, exploding across the landscape of a city that didn’t exist one hundred years ago.

Mongolia is on the front lines of change in the world. How do you change a nation from a land of poor nomads to the highest GDP on earth?

A Bit of History

I first came to this fascinating land in 1997, invited by my former pastor and his wife, Steve and Donna Watkins,  who were part of the first wave of Christian missionaries who came to serve in this land after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

What I found in 1997 was five cities that the Russians had created to help control the population after both the Bolshevik Revolution of the 1920s and the dividing up of the spoils of World War II in the late forties. In 1921, the Russians armed the Mongols to kick out the Chinese–their historic enemies. After the Second World War, China absorbed two-thirds of the Mongolian population into its borders–now nearly six million people in what is now called Inner Mongolia.

The rest of the Mongol population–now three million people–were left to Russian influences in the north. When I was in school, the nation was called Outer Mongolia. Today, Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar contains nearly half of the country’s population, a quarter live in the other cities, and a quarter live in the “countryside” where they still dwell in gers and herd sheep, goats, cattle, and horses.

When I first set foot in UB in 1997 (Mongol shorthand for Ulaanbaatar), the streets were empty of cars, the only colors were the paint of the Russian buildings, and taxis were dirt cheap and plentiful.

The people were very poor. At that time the average Mongol made $20 a month.

Actually, it’s amazing that Mongolia even existed in 1997. In 1904, some European journalists visited the nation and concluded that Mongolia would cease to exist  in twenty years.” Why? Because at that time they were extremely destitute, a Buddhist nation, and 40% of the Buddhist monks were homosexuals with rampant venereal diseases stalking the land and birthrates plummeting.

Then the Russians swooped in, destroyed most of the Buddhist temples, dismantled the monasteries, and created the first Mongol cities. They also installed communism as the new religion.

Due to that latter fact, when I arrived  in the late nineties, I often spoke against what the communists had done. Atrocities had been committed. But one day a Mongol pastor pulled me aside and told me that my perspective was too narrow. He believed that God had used the Russians to bring the people into cities and civilization where they could hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.

It’s hard to evangelize a nation of nomads.

So I humbled myself, did so more homework, and continued to serve in this nation that seemed to be rising from the dead.

Mongolia is going through vast changes as are many other developing nations around the world. How do you change a nation? Here are some of my observations.

Encourage Liberty

The first thing that changed in Mongolia was a birth of freedom–in government, economics, religion, family life and many other areas. It has not been an easy road, and for years the governing powers swung back and forth between the upstart “Democrats” and the “Reformed Communists.” But over twenty years now, the forces of freedom are becoming more and more established.

The current leaders of the nation are “Democrats.” Just last month, the people once again held elections and more freedom-loving people were elected to guide Mongolia into the future. There are many pitfalls ahead–and nations can always return to bondage. But Mongolia stands a chance of becoming a long-standing free and thriving nation.

Last week we transported two hundred kids to a camp in the mountains–a beautiful place called Shonkhor–a camp to which we had brought a team in 1997. The roads are so bad that you have to travel the final 10 kilometers by military truck, which nearly got stuck in the mud and swells. I told the kids that this final leg to the camp was a “10K Indiana Jones ride times ten for free!”

Fifteen years ago we were not able to share the Gospel openly at Shonkhor because the communists still controlled the facilities. In 2012, the general over all the camps welcomed me profusely and gladly took our money (!) to hold a totally open camp. We preached the Good News and young people gave their lives to Christ.

What a difference freedom makes.

Support Free Enterprise

Mongolia was very backward only thirty years ago. When freedom came, people began to start businesses and large corporations began to form. As in all entrepreneurial exercises, especially when you have no experience or history, there have been many false starts and steps forward and backward.

But twenty years into liberty, Mongolia is a changing nation. The colorful signs of free enterprise are everywhere and shops and malls and businesses have burst forth across the country. Today, many Mongols can rise out of poverty to live a prosperous life. Some are being left behind, but there is still hope to raise the entire nation out of economic misery into the blessings of freedom.

I have many friends here, who in the 1990s, had no water, heat, apartment, a refrigerator, or even the basics that we take for granted in the developed nations. That has now changed for many of them. It is unbelievable  how many apartments are being built and how many cars now clog the streets (another problem they need to solve ).

Right outside my apartment window sits a huge crane where another modern apartment building is going up. I think “cranes” are the greatest landmark in Ulaanbaatar right now! They are everywhere because a backward nation is moving into modern life.

Mongolia’s GDP in 2010 was an exceptional 6.4 percent. In 2011 it astonishingly rose to 17.3 percent and in the first quarter of 2012, it still stood at 16.7 percent–one of the highest in the world. Mining companies are now thriving in the nation where vast amounts of resources have always existed but were never used for the people. The couple I’m staying with have a daughter who will be given a piece of land by the government (which happens for all newborns here). They will use the land to build a summer house.

Mongolia could become a thriving industrial nation in the 21st century. Free enterprise can raise many boats in a nation that allows it to flourish.

The Growth of the Church

I know I’m biased, but the greatest engine of change in Mongolia is people coming into a living relationship with Christ which expands their faith, hope, love and character. In 1980 there were no followers of Jesus in the nation. Zero. Today, there are nearly 150,000 (five percent of the population) in hundreds of churches.

I spoke in the largest church in Mongolia last Sunday on the Fourth Wave of Missions–the great tsunami of love that God is bringing to the world. The Mongolians shouted out at the end of the message, “We are the Fourth Wave.” It was a beautiful sight.

The next week we took hundreds of kids to camp. Days later, a team left from the church to do missions work in the western side of the nation. The Mongolian Church has set a goal to grow to 10% of the population by 2020. After that, we are encouraging them to raise their vision to one-third of the population by 2050.

South Korea did it–and so can Mongolia.

Much of the growth is simply answered prayer. The Mongolians are a praying people. As I write, a group from the church is spending hours praying at a Korean retreat center. In 2012 the Mongol churches have committed to 24/7 prayer for the nation for the entire year. God will not disappoint them.

And they are catching a vision to share their faith in other nations. At our various events we hosted believers from other Central Asian countries including a team of fourteen from Inner Mongolia. They realize this is the first time in history they are a part of the global mission force. At the present time, Mongolia is in the top ten worldwide of missionary sending nations per capita. The Mongol Church is growing its world vision.

The followers of Christ are also doing a number of things that are crucial to changing a nation:

  • They have a solid vision for discipleship. People are not just “saved” and left on their own to figure it out. In many churches they have good structures of follow-up, cell groups, and personal discipleship that help new believers grow in their faith.
  • Family life is becoming more Christ-centered as they learn to apply the teachings of Jesus to every area–marriage, raising children, and ministering to extended families. Many people in Mongolia are alcoholics (left-over baggage from the communist era). Through the Church, people are finding freedom in Christ as family members point the way out of bondage.
  • Most of the Mongol churches have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit which has created vibrant and culturally relevant worship forms, gifts of healing and other miracles, and a trust in God’s power. In many cases, the missionaries did not bring this emphasis to Mongolia. But the Holy Spirit did. A nation filled with shamans and demonic powers needed the power of God to overcome them. He is giving it in abundance.
  • For the first time in their history, Mongol believers are learning to take their faith into all the arenas of life: government, education, business, the media, the arts and sports, and science and technology. They are understanding that the principles and ways of God bring blessing to all of life. For example, when you run a business with Christ-like integrity, honesty, and service, then that business can flourish more than one filled with corruption and greed. I know Mongol believers in sports, business, and industry that are rising to “disciple the nation.” This is one of the great hopes for Mongolia’s future.

I leave Mongolia in a few days, but I am excited about what lies ahead. Many people still live in poverty and despair compared to other nations on earth. The road before them will not be easy.

But nations can be changed when freedom comes through the Good News of Jesus.

Please pray for Mongolia to rise to greatness in Christ. And work to see the same results in the nation where God has placed you.

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