Praise God for the church that He established 2000 years ago! Since then, the church has grown slowly, facing many challenges, such as false teachers teaching false doctrine, persecution, divisions, and strife. Even though the Bible teaches that “many will seek the kingdom but few will enter” what we do see we can rejoice in, and we can rejoice knowing that God’s will will be done.
The church in Ukraine has been greatly blessed by God. I have never witnessed the amount of Christians in one country like I have seen in Ukraine. The amount of congregations in the Ukraine is higher than every country in Europe, and this is surprising. If you know much about the state of the church in Ukraine, you would know that this is a resistant area in the world. Many would call Europe a “post-Christian” society because many of the Christian morals have largely left, and the church of Christ is not thriving like in other parts of the world. I mentioned that God has blessed the church in Ukraine, which is true. After the fall of communism, the Ukrainian people were hungry for the gospel, and our brothers and sisters went to spread the word of God there. The president of the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver, Denny Petrillo, went in the late 90s, and he has mentioned to me that he would have hundreds of Bible studies set up in the short time of his visit. Those Bible studies would then have crowds of people in small apartments because people were so hungry! The east was the most receptive, and many congregations were planted. Today, there are many congregations in the east, but if you look at a map, you would see that Ukraine is not a small country. Without counting the whole of Russia, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe. It takes a night train to make it from the capital to most locations within the country. So even though there are many congregations in Ukraine, in comparison to the size of the country, it is not much.
The structure of this update, I will give what I did in Ukraine in more detail than my monthly updates, the influences of the Bear Valley Bible Institute in Ukraine, camp Amerikraine, what the church needs in Ukraine, and some information on two young ministers that need help in their funding in order to work more efficiently.
Click on these links to jump to the sections as needed:
- My Time in Ukraine
- Bear Valley’s Influence in Ukraine
- Camp Amerikraine
- What the Church in Ukraine Needs
- Nazar Semikoz and Bogan Antipenko
My Time in Ukraine
Upon arrrival, I was greeted by the director of the Bear Valley extension school in Bila Tserka, Dennis Sopelnik. He had told me weeks afterward that everyone in Ukraine that I contacted did not know if I was a real person. They thought I was likely a scammer trying to contract them on Facebook! This is largely why I had a tough time trying to communicate with them about including me in camp. Once we left the airport, Dennis called Alexander Rodichev (Sasha) the organizer of Camp Amerikraine to tell him I was a real person and that they can squeeze me into the camp. Officially the camp had 360 people, but unofficially it was 360!
During my week before the camp, Dennis invited me to preach at the church in Bila Tserka. My lesson was over the Parable of the Mustard Seed and how we must nurture the kingdom seed in our hearts in order to keep God being king in our lives. I had not preached with translation before, so I had accidently fell into being more monotone in my delivery. I asked Dennis and he had agreed! So I worked on it for the next time I preached. I had another opportunity to teach later in that week. Dennis helps out a church plant around an hour away from Bila Tserka. The minister at the church there and another Bear Valley Ukraine graduate have been trying to out reach in the community, and one way he has done that is by having youth groups where he invites the children and teens of the town a to a lesson and pizza afterward. I had a good amount of interaction from them in my lesson, and afterward we had pizza. A lot of the kids did come from bad home lives, but having this youth group every week is a good time for them to spend.
Outside of these ministry events, Dennis took me around the town to show me more about the history of Ukraine and what might life look like for a missionary in the Ukraine. We went to different stores to give me a better idea of prices. The walking easily equaled over 13 miles a day, which was a challenge for him as well! This was an informative time as I was able to see prices, how much I would need to live here, and what are the difference between American life and Ukrainian. On top of being with Dennis, the preacher for the church in Bila Tserkva, Kostya Kysilenko, took me around town to do errands for the church like working with the town on their new water system. He also introduced me to the local food.
I figured out that I would not be able to go to Hungary after camp or to the Czech Republic. Pandemic restrictions caused me to not be allowed in Hungary and also to need to do a long quarantine in order to do anything in Czechia. So instead, I planned on staying in Ukraine and buying a flight from Kiev to Munich to catch the connecting flight.
Directly after camp, I went to Kramatorsk, which is not far from where the camp was held. Kramatorsk became sort of the capital of the Donesk region after Donesk had a rebellion by pro-Russian terrorists and became occupied by Russia. This is where a large portion of the church fled to after the terrorists attacked. Dennis mentions to me that the day the war started, they were in worship. The church was stormed and an AK-47 was aimed at his head while they were yelling at the church that they only had 15 minutes to leave the church. There was no time for the church to take anything and the school lost a lot of material. Today, the church building and school are under rubble.
In Kramatorsk, Nazar Semikoz and I rented an apartment to stay in during our week there. He is a minister of a youth group at a congregation just north of Kramatorsk. We attended the Vacation Bible School at the congregation there. The group of Americans from Camp Amerikraine also were there helping out with the VBS. It was morning event that ended at around 12 each day. Later in the evening, the church would come together for singing and a devotional. Just like the camp, there were many classes for kids and adults alike. They used the camp as an evangelistic tool by having the kids invite their friends. There would be a prize for the child that invited the most friends each day. Puppet shows would as well be a part of the VBS very much like our churches.
Odessa Youth Camp
After Kramatorsk, I stayed in Kiev for a few days. I was invited to preach at a congregation there, and it was very uplifting for me. The church had about 20 members and from all parts of life. There were senior members that could not speak a bit of English, but they still tried to talk to me with the use of a younger member translating. She told me about how in the USSR religion was discouraged, and she was not able to find the truth until missionaries came after the fall of communism. She encouraged me to continue to be a light to my family as they are not in the church.
After those few days, I tagged along with a group going to Odessa to do a youth camp. The camp was in next to the beach on the black sea, and it was a great experience for these teens. There were multiple lessons each day that would be led by the preacher from a church close to Kiev, and a few older men from the church I preached at in Kiev. I also had an opportunity to teach, and I taught a lesson from Ezekiel showing them what they might expect to learn by going to Bear Valley. They saw from Ezekiel how God is patient and still warns people even though He knows that they are rebellious and will not listen. These students were being given lessons with topics that I was impressed about – waiting until marriage, finances, what they will do in their future. These youth were so mature in their faith, and their knowledge of the Bible very high. During the whole camp, and at Camp Amerikraine, I would hear them often talking about spiritual topics. I do think their knowledge of God’s word that is not watered down or shallow has greatly made the faith of these students quite mature.
These opportunities outside of the large Camp Amerikraine camp are largely what has inspired me to make Ukraine be part of the ultimate plan for my mission work.
Bear Valley’s Influence in Ukraine
It would be an understatement to say that Bear Valley is influential to the state of the church in Ukraine. The largest reason why the church all over Ukraine is mostly sound is because of the school in Ukraine. Praise God for this. The other main reason why there are so many congregations in Ukraine is largely for the same reason. Bear Valley graduates are responsible for the majority of the church plants in the country. When going to Camp Amerikraine, I met a lot of brothers and sisters that have gone through the program. Before our America vs Ukraine soccer game, the director of the Ukrainian Bear Valley got up to make a presentation about Bear Valley and how they are looking for more students. In it, Dennis asked all the people that have gone through the program at Bear Valley to stand up, which led to over a quarter of those in attendance to stand up. All of these people have taken two intensive years to learn about the Bible, and they are largely why the churches will not budge to teachers that tickle their ears.
In America, it is sad to say, that we are becoming post-Christian. The state of the church throughout America has seen better days. The North and the West sparsely have congregations like they do in the South, and even those in the South are succumbing to teachings that are not Biblical. I think that we largely have a knowledge problem as many of our brethren have put Biblical authority on the backburner and we have neglected to really want to learn what the Bible has to say. In Ukraine, the congregations are not shying away from teaching their members the full council of God, which includes the issues that are socially unacceptable. The ministers make sure that the word of God is their sole authority on how Christians should live and add more Christians. Bear Valley’s influence is they have helped teach many men and women from throughout the country the tools and resources to then teach their church members. This is why I was so shocked with how much everyone knew. So I praise God for how this school has become a tool for the Lord to grow the church in Ukraine, but also to keep them pleasing to Him.
The only concern I do have is that there is one other brotherhood school in Ukraine, and that school is not a sound school. It has incorrect teachings that have ramifications of causing others to live in sin, to disregard the inspiration of scripture, and to ultimately fall away from the church that God designed. Bear Valley being in Ukraine has attracted students each year, but sometimes the school there struggles with getting students. At the moment, the pandemic has led to less people interested in going. The church has struggled to grow, which growth would then lead to people being interested in wanting to pursue a life of ministry. This year, the school almost had to pause their session for a year because there were not enough students interested. I do not know whether or not I was able to influence the those new students that did decide to go this year, but I definitely am proud that they are inspired to take this intense two year program so they may be effective ministers in God’s kingdom.
The fear of the school not being open is that people might go to another program to thinking they are going to learn the simple truth in the Bible, when in reality, they might be misled to false teaching. That would then drag along to them going to congregations and teaching what God had not authorized, or what is not correct. This is why I want to be involved with the church in the Ukraine.
The camp in Ukraine is the largest Christian gathering in all of Europe. This is not just a youth summer camp. No, this camp is for Christians of all ages. To give you an idea of the state of the church in Europe, we have congregations that have as many members as the camp for the whole country. My congregation here at Bear Valley is just under the amount I saw at camp. Most people at camp were Christians apart from some visitors that were invited by Christians and the children too young to be baptized. The camp is helped each year by a group of Americans, and this year was the largest group that used a youth group with parents from Huntsville, Alabama. Brother Jeff Abrams gets everything set up here on the American side.
This camp is probably the largest event of the year for many of the Christians in Ukraine. It is crazy how I saw Christians from different congregations far away all interact. It was like hundreds of miles could not separate their friendliness and love for one another! Everyone there was excited to be there, meeting with people they might not have known, and to continue building relationships that they made in previous years.
The camp consisted of many different classes and sessions. There was plenty of classes for all ages. Men and women were separated in a few sessions per day with both men and women from the church in Alabama to teach them. Some classes focused on topics like having a better marriage and others over evangelism. Cooking classes were also present along with plenty of sport opportunities for the children. A good portion of the classes were led by the group from Alabama and their parents, and it gave them a great international mission opportunity. I got to know them personally, and they were an encouragement to me.
Every evening there were activities for the whole camp to do, or a lesson to hear. Midway through the week, there was an American vs. Ukrainian soccer and volleyball game. I am sad to say that America lost both sessions by a good amount too. The Ukrainians had quite the time cheering, even to the point of Stas, a BV instructor, losing his voice after chanting “Ukrania” so many times!
At the end of the week, there was a talent show. There were many acts, including myself being part of an act where we all said “Hello. I love God, and I am here at camp Amerikraine” in different languages. There were different languages from German, to Spanish, to Japanese, Armenian, and a few more. People of all ages performed, including a few little kids that sang their best even though they were very shy!
Next year, there will not be a whole youth group to go to help in Camp Amerikraine and I hope to get a few of our students here in Denver to go and help out. Next year, they want to have even more people! Please pray for those in the Ukraine that put together this even for all those Christians. It most definitely a great blessing for them, and a great work being done. Please pray for those that were baptized at the camp as well since they are starting their new walk with God.
What the Church in Ukraine Needs
To this point, I have probably made Ukraine seem like there is no need for outside influence to help them. It is true that there are many congregations in Ukraine, but the caveat is that those churches are very small the vast majority of ministers are supported by Americans because the congregations are not large enough to support them. I praise God for generous supporters in America to help the work in Ukraine.
The large reason why there are many small congregations in Ukraine is because of the war. The churches were larger in the east, but when the war started so did the persecutions and they fled. These churches are the result of Christians fleeing from persecution. Dennis Sopelnik mentioned to me that he likens the spread of Christianity in Ukraine to the persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem from the 1st century. It is crazy how a bad situation, God can use for good.
The church in Ukraine is struggling to grow at the moment. Even though there are active church plants going on, many of the members of the churches are struggling to be evangelistic. The church as I have mentioned already is quite sound, but they struggle to have passion with their knowledge. God wants people to have knowledge so they can have passion to spread that knowledge. It is dangerous and even unscriptural to have passion without knowledge (Proverbs 19:2; Romans 10:2). So I do ask for prayers that the members there might be more willing to be part of the evangelism process, whether it is by inviting people, welcoming people, or teaching people. There are souls out there without Christ and we need to reach them. I hope that in my future with Ukraine, that I will help encourage the brothers to be more evangelistic and teach them that they can be part of evangelism!
Nazar Semikoz and Bogan Antipenko
I met two recent graduates of BV Ukraine this year. They were the one of the main reason I wanted to go to Ukraine. I would see their pictures on Facebook and videos of them preaching in classes. This last year they have graduated and are now working in churches as youth ministers. As I have mentioned before, the vast majority of ministers in Ukraine are not able to be supported by their congregations, so they depend on being supported by Americans. They then must work in secular jobs, which make them have to not put their full effort in ministry. If you would like to see more about how to support these young ministers, please click here or go to http://www.theponderzone.com/nazar-semikoz-and-bogdan-antipenko