Remembering Mongolia

I traced the railway line 30,000 feet below me, two silver hairs lying across the Spring-greening Mongolian steppe. I’d amused myself with this challenge 23 years previously when I first flew to Ulaanbaatar, via Beijing, in 1992. Now I could get a flight from Hong Kong, a new convenience serving those from the South Asia and Pacific context.

I found the railway tracks again, signposts pointing to a city that still echoed its 70 years of socialist planning, but was now subsumed in a speedily growing population, new glass towers, traffic congestion and all the trappings of a financial boom financed by Korean, Chinese, and Japanese investment. I
arrived Thursday 21st May, 2015: there was an air of cautious optimism for the future, for Rio Tinto, the global mining company had signed another contract with the Mongolian government the day before. Mongolia’s wealth had been its grasslands, but in the last 20-odd years, what is under those grasslands – gold and copper, mainly – has been of more interest. Mongolian Christians were cautious, for did not an economic boom result in yet more poor?

It was for the Mongolian Christians that I had returned to Mongolia, not to celebrate Mongolia’s new-found wealth, but to reflect again on being Christian in their particular and unique context. My wife, Karen, and I along with our children, had lived in Ulaanbaatar from August 1992 to July 1996, as Interserve Partners seconded to JCS International, then an infant umbrella organisation through which several mission agencies accessed Mongolia. I had returned five times from 1996 to 2002 – a sort of non-residential commuting consultant missionary – teaching at the Bible School, and advising Mongolia Theological Education by Extension (MTEE). But now the gap had been 13 years!

On Saturday 23rd May, 2015, MTEE held its 20th anniversary celebrations. This was the reason I had returned. I had founded the MTEE in 1995. TEE, by using a tried and educationally sound methodology of workbook and well-trained tutor, was a proven way of training Christians in discipleship, Bible knowledge, Christian leadership, and ministry formation, all in the students’ contexts of home and church. Now I was the guest of honour – invited back by MTEE’s Director, Naranbaatar, and the Mongolian leadership team – and I was to experience a deeply moving two days of celebrations.

On being picked up at the airport, I was taken immediately to a tutor training event that was in full progress. Because many tutors were going to be in Ulaanbaatar for the big celebrations on 23rd May, an ‘added value’ training had been arranged for them. Fifty-five of the best tutors from all over the country – some now with 20 years of experience in leading dozens of TEE groups – were gathered around tables, practising their leadership of small groups, encouraging and critiquing, praying, worshipping and learning together. They were being introduced to a new course on the book of Proverbs, as well as hearing reports from TEE movements around the world.

“Do you remember me?” asked one woman. With some prompting, I did. “I am Urnaa. I was in the very first field trial group of the very first course, in the summer of 1996. The course was Abundant Life. I have been tutoring TEE groups ever since.”

Mongolia is an event-orientated culture, so I took my watch off. Also, I had mistakenly left my camera battery charging back at the flat. The only thing I could do then was to soak up the event, not distracted by time or picture. The 20th anniversary celebrations were a typically Mongolian moment: a banquet with traditional music (one of the pastors is a skilled musician of traditional Mongolian genres), a big worship service with speeches and entertainment (including more traditional Mongolian music, a Korean worship dance, and Cossack dancing). About 200 attended: the founding employees, current employees, board members, tutors, past students, local pastors, teachers from the Bible College. Testimonies were told and vision was shared. I was simply overwhelmed by what God had done over those 20 years, and what the ongoing hopes and dreams were for the future.

MTEE had been set up originally as a joint project between JCS International and a donor agency. Current JCS and donor agency leaders were able to attend the celebrations. The celebrations were a true salad bowl of all those who had given so much to developing the programme over 20 years. As I looked out over this assembly when I had to make my speech, I was overcome with emotion: a simple seed of an idea in 1995 had grown to become a dynamic movement extending to the remotest nomad family in Mongolia’s farthest provinces, equipping disciples throughout Mongolia’s cities, and even penetrating into Mongolia’s prisons. Today, at any given time, there are about 600 TEE students throughout Mongolia, studying at foundation, certificate and diploma level. The Asia Theological Association has accredited the four-year Certificate in Christian Ministry programme, and this has inspired and cross-pollinated with TEE projects in other Asian countries. We give credit to our God, and also to the hard- working employees of the project over the years, and the current team under director Naranbaatar’s leadership!

As part of the celebrations, the MTEE hosted an academic symposium at which five academics presented papers on various aspects of Mongolian Christian history. During our residence in Mongolia, I had come to understand that Mongolians were passionate about their history; I myself had made it a project to research and publish for them. At this symposium I discovered a movement had started. Others now – all Mongolian – were researching uniquely Christian history of Mongolia. And MTEE was seen to be able to move amongst the academics of Mongolia, something that will give MTEE credibility and kudos for its ongoing legitimacy as both a methodology and a Christian training programme.

After the 20th anniversary celebrations, I stayed another week, co-leading the Langham Preaching partnership training of 29 pastors in Biblical preaching. I remember a good number of these pastors as teenagers, 22 years ago. I had baptised several of them.

We met in a summer resort village outside of Ulaanbaatar, and it was Spring. The last of the snow had melted and the trees were bursting into leaf. In all these events – academic symposium, MTEE 20th anniversary, Langham Preaching training – there was a recognition from several pastors that “the initial work is complete; the church is well planted. What we need now is consolidation and capacity building.”

*Hugh and Karen Kemp were with Interserve from 1992 to 2002. They both now work at St John’s Theological College, Auckland, where Karen is one of the deans, and Hugh is an adjunct lecturer.*

Extract from GO Magazine (Aotearoa New Zealand) July 2015.