After two years of pandemic affecting livelihood, work, and ministry, COVID ended its grip on European behaviour on 24 February 2022 as the first Russian missiles landed on Ukrainian sovereign soil. As the boots of invading forces stepped over the border and the tank battalions rolled towards Ukrainian cities, the borders to Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland became porous.
Ukrainian women and children, the disabled, and elderly were welcomed with open arms as the Baptist churches of Europe opened their hearts, their homes, and their churches. Within hours, Hungarian Baptist Aid had sent the first vehicle with relief aid across the border into Ukraine. Polish churches stacked pews in the pulpit to make way for mattresses in the sanctuary. Romanian believers opened their own homes and filled them with guests. The Moldovan Baptist hospital began caring for the injured, and Baptist summer campsites were upgraded in a matter of days to welcome families in the winter.
The church had awoken from its COVID slumber at the sound of the first missiles’ landing. Every refugee was a guest, treated with dignity, an individual with specific and personal needs. Every language barrier was broken down, every COVID barrier overcome by hugs, tears, smiles, and resurrected gestures of welcome that had been dead for two years now finding new life and purpose.
By Their Fruit You Shall Know Them (Matt 7:16–20)
The European Baptist Federation is the main coordinating body for the global Baptist response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. Working through the local Baptist Unions, it has directed €5 million of targeted humanitarian aid into the region. This funding has been distributed from Unions to local churches in Ukraine, and in the surrounding countries which have served on the frontline of this humanitarian crisis. The approach taken by local churches in the Ukrainian borderlands has revealed their developing understanding of mission.
As an eyewitness of multiple local Baptist responses and a recipient of first-hand accounts of this humanitarian response in and around Ukraine, I reflected on the stories of the emergency response of Baptists in the first few weeks after the invasion of Russia into Ukraine in February 2022 and was able to see something of the heart and changing nature of the European Baptist Mission and its ecclesiology.
An Empowering Moment
This tragic war and humanitarian disaster became a moment of empowerment for the Baptist community—a post-COVID, resurrected moment—breathing new life into the churches in the countries surrounding Ukraine. Waking quickly from their COVID slumber, churches led nations in the response to refugees. Baptist churches were the first responders at many national borders.
As I travelled around the border of Ukraine, I was introduced to countless church leaders, local and national, who were serving with purpose, fuelled by adrenaline. They endured long days, emotionally exhausted after many sleepless nights, and yet there was a real sense that God was at work through them.
Church buildings previously kept as sanctuaries for worship were now converted to sanctuaries of refuge. The stillness of the COVID years was broken in an instant as the churches filled with Ukrainian mothers and their children. The noise of Polish Baptist church members busy cooking in the kitchen or washing laundry in the cupboard resounded in the hallways. The Romanian welcome tables were filled with food, travel cards, phone vouchers, and addresses for available accommodation.
Ministers and regional leaders were constantly messaging to coordinate this huge international operation. With amazement, they declared to me that the church was alive and well. The church had survived the COVID years: in just 24 hours, it had emerged and now it was doing what Baptists do best. They were active in Christian service.
Baptist leaders were leading—without committees or restrictions, but with a freedom to respond from the renewed heart and mind. Church leaders experienced the freedom to lead, and their leadership was recognized as effective.
In this church body that normally was led by a plurality of leaders, if not by the whole church community, the freedom to respond was significant. This effectiveness in freedom causes us to reflect on our structures and to assess the impact they have on our ability to innovate and respond, freely and immediately, to new opportunities in both dire and ordinary times. In a rapidly changing world where disruption is normal, the church must evaluate how its structures impact our ability to respond with immediacy.
A Democratizing Moment
Very quickly this humanitarian operation became the service of the whole people of God. The Baptist belief in the priesthood of all believers became evident, both in acts of compassion and in the worship life of the church. As a Ukrainian pastor said, we are ‘putting faith back in touch with life’.
New daily rhythms appeared. Times of daily worship in the morning and evening became the normal pattern. The presence of many unbelievers in these gatherings also became normal. All people were searching for hope and light amidst the darkness of despair. With no time to prepare sermons, congregations turned to the Scriptures and read them with a new lens coloured by tragedy and war. They worshipped and prayed together with simplicity, offering hope to one another. In place of sermons, people shared how the biblical texts spoke to them—men, women, hosts, guests, believers, and unbelievers.
While leaders coordinated the national responses and used their ministerial networks to help people move around the world, the whole church came out to serve. Young adults with Down syndrome were welcoming Ukrainian refugees; lawyers were supporting passport processes; car drivers were serving the refugees like Uber drivers. I witnessed people of all ages listening to the stories that the guests had to tell. I watched guests tidy church gardens, wash toilets, and prepare food as they participated in their own care.
As the people of God in the church recognized the importance and the dignity that they could offer by sharing the tasks together, I witnessed something of a reverse of Matthew 10, in which Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim his message to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ hoping to be welcomed. Instead of waiting to be welcomed, the people of God welcomed those who were needy into church spaces and invited them to serve in churches. Church kitchens were now places of mission, as believers and not-yet believers served together.
In worship and in service of those in need, Christians and not-yet believers were sharing a united mission, and people were coming to faith.
An Integral Moment
While thousands of euros were being donated for humanitarian aid, the church did not shy away from proclaiming gospel truth. Welcoming unbelievers into daily worship services, praying for them, distributing Bibles, giving access to Scripture through QR codes, and calling displaced people to repentance became regular patterns of behaviour.
There are clear ethical questions to be explored here concerning the vulnerability of displaced people and the manner of approach by believers. However, what I observed was gentleness and respect, offers of care to all and no change in that care if the offer of spiritual care was declined. Gospel proclamation was not the first experience of the refugee, nor was it the predominant one. Nonetheless, I have heard many accounts of people seeking out churches in search of refuge and finding that refuge in Christ through faith and repentance.
What I saw was unbelievers being guided in their reading of Scripture or being invited to join in with Christian worship, and in that place of worship finding new faith in Christ. I was encouraged to see that the church recognized that spiritual help was an essential aspect of refugee care but not a condition of it. This Christian response was an example of integral mission which made it different from the humanitarian aid agency response.
Conclusion: A New Moment
The war in Ukraine has changed the church in Europe as it is changing the continent. Many new challenges are appearing, as well as many new opportunities.
- The war revealed the importance of the local church responding to crisis. The church is a humanitarian army present in many communities, skilled and equipped as a team for service.
- While the many millions of funds raised came from all around the world, it was the local churches that enabled a quick and effective response. The mobilization of thousands of people to serve within 24 hours astounded governments and NGOs.
- The effectiveness in service empowered by freedom has raised questions as to how our ecclesial structures can restrict the imagination and leadership of our pastors, but it has also allowed us to see what is possible when these leaders are released from those structures and restrictions.
- Our collaboration with not-yet believers has shown us that allowing them to serve with us believers does not diminish or in some way contaminate our service together. It has proven to be an effective means of drawing people towards the kingdom of God. Illustrating that belonging, even in a temporary sense, was important for many on the path to believing.
For church leaders who have served on the frontline of this response, there are now challenges of balancing old and new priorities. Returning to old restrictions and expectations of their ministry after such a time of freedom and fulfilment will be problematic. However, we have a fresh opportunity to consider the role of church pastors within the community, especially beyond the people who form the church. We have seen a model that releases pastors for a more varied ministry and empowers the people of God in teaching, personal evangelism, pastoral care, and leadership in worship and Christian service.
We have also seen the importance of the interdependence of local Baptist churches. Baptists are not known for their international ecclesial structures. In this crisis, the local church has been supported in a variety of ways by their national bodies who in turn have been supported by the European Baptist Federation (EBF). The EBF was supported by the Baptist World Alliance and Baptist Mission bodies around the globe. It has surprised many that such normally independently minded churches could come together so well at a time of great need.
- ‘Ukraine Crisis: Praying for Peace in Ukraine,’ European Baptist Federation, accessed March 31, 2023, https://www.ebf.org/ukraine.
- Editor’s Note: See ‘Faith, Health, and Collaborative Love,’ by Ted Lankester in the January 2021 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2021-01/faith-health-and-collaborative-love.
Alan Donaldson is the general secretary of the European Baptist Federation. He has travelled extensively across Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, and has also overseen the organization's response to the war in Ukraine. He is an accredited Baptist minister in Scotland where he has served the church for 30 years in a variety of roles including youth pastor, senior pastor, and general director of the Baptist Union of Scotland.