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During Sunday Siege, Ukraine’s Churches Persevere

(UPDATED) As David is preached on Dnieper River, Russian pastors promote peace from Moscow.
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During Sunday Siege, Ukraine’s Churches Persevere
Image: Chris McGrath / Getty Images
St. Volodymyr's Cathedral is seen against the capital city skyline during a weekend curfew on February 27 in Kyiv, Ukraine.

[Українська]

As Russian troops met stiffer resistance than expected from Ukrainian soldiers and citizens in Kyiv and other cities, pastors in both nations adapted Sunday worship services appropriately.

“The whole church prayed on their knees for our president, our country, and for peace,” said Vadym Kulynchenko of his church in Kamyanka, 145 miles south of the capital. “After the service, we did a first-aid training.”

Rather than a sermon, time was given to share testimonies from harrowing days of air raids. Many psalms were offered, and Kulynchenko’s message centered on Proverbs 29:25. Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.

Both disruption and ordinary life were on display at Calvary Chapel of Svitlovodsk.

Andrey and Nadya, displaced from Kyiv by the Russian missile barrage on Thursday, exchanged wedding vows amid great celebration.

Scheduled to be married this weekend in the capital, the couple was instead sent fleeing to Nadya’s home church 185 miles southeast along the Dnieper River—with a request for an impromptu wedding.

“In the middle of a war? That doesn’t make sense!” said Benjamin Morrison, with irony. “But during war is when it makes the most sense. What better reminder that even war cannot stamp out love. And what better way to say that we serve a higher King than to rejoice in the midst of chaos?”

They were married on Saturday, as planned.

On Sunday, the congregation of about 80 people—just beginning to swell with newcomers seeking refuge—regathered to hear a sermon on David and Goliath.

“Yes, David still had to fight. Yes, it was still hard and scary—but God was his confidence,” concluded Morrison, an American missionary veteran of 20 years and married to a Ukrainian.

“May he be ours as well, and may he cut off the head of the enemy.”

Ukraine claimed today that 3,500 Russian soldiers have been killed so far. Russia has not released an official casualty figure.

Regarding its own losses, Ukraine’s Health Ministry counted more than 350 civilians dead and almost 1,700 wounded as of Sunday night. The reported tally combines civilian and military casualties, but broke out 14 child deaths and 116 wounded.

Taras Dyatlik, regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Overseas Council, did the math. If correct, in three days of fighting 40 Russian soldiers died every hour; one soldier every minute and a half.

“These are mostly 19- to 25-year-old children,” he lamented. “The depth of our human brokenness can only be healed by the Holy Spirit.”

Metropolitan Epiphanius, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), pleaded for the dead with Patriarch Kirill, Moscow-based head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

“If you cannot raise your voice against aggression,” he stated, “at least take the bodies of Russian soldiers whose lives have become the price for [your and your president’s] ideas of the ‘Russian world.’”

Prior to the war, President Vladimir Putin asserted that Ukraine was simply an extension of Russia, with no historic independent existence. Epiphanius said that the Ukrainian government was seeking to coordinate with the International Committee of the Red Cross to repatriate the dead bodies, yet receiving no response.

Kirill tread carefully, given his flock on both sides of the border. In 2019, the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, recognized the national independence of the breakaway OCU, while many parishes in Ukraine rejected this and chose to remain under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) which is part of the ROC, as has been historic precedent. (Exact figures for OCU- and UOC-affiliated churches in Ukraine are difficult to determine.)

Expressing his belief that the warring sides will overcome their divisions and disagreements, Kirill called on “the entire fullness of the Russian Orthodox Church to offer a special, fervent prayer for the speedy restoration of peace.”

As a foundation, he cited the common centuries-old history of the two peoples.

Epiphanius, however, closed his message to the patriarch by noting the Orthodox church calendar marks this Sunday for remembrance of the Last Judgment.

Putin ordered his nuclear forces to a higher level of alertness.

Western allies of non-NATO Ukraine increased their sanctions against leading Russian banks and politicians—including Putin. While they stopped short of the financial nuclear option of cutting Russia off entirely from the international SWIFT system for banking transfers, many approved the sending of additional defensive aid to Kyiv.

Meanwhile, 10 regional Protestant seminaries—including Kyiv Theological Seminary and Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine—put out a joint statement on Facebook that drew more than 650 shares.

“We are called to speak the truth and expose deceit,” they stated. “We … strongly condemn the open and unjustified aggression aimed at destroying the statehood and independence of Ukraine, based on blatant lies” from Putin “which are clearly contrary to God’s revelation.” They noted:

We confess the real and unlimited power of God over all countries and continents (Ps. 24:1), as well as over all kings and rulers (Prov. 21:1); therefore, nothing in all creation can interfere with the fulfillment of the good and perfect will of God. We, together with the first Christians, affirm “Jesus is Lord,” and not Caesar.

We express solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We share the pain of those who have already lost their loved ones. We pray that all of the aggressor’s plans would be thwarted and put to shame. We call on all people of good will around the world to resist the lies and hatred of the aggressor. We call on everyone to petition for a cessation of hostilities and to exert every possible influence on the Russian Federation in order to stop the unmotivated aggression toward Ukraine.

Five seminaries are based in Ukraine. Two, granted anonymity, are based in Russia.

Bolder still were a number of pastors within Russia.

Victor Sudakov, senior pastor at New Life Church in Yekaterinburg, the fourth-largest city in Russia, changed his Facebook profile photo on Thursday to incorporate a small Ukrainian flag. On Saturday, he changed his cover photo to display the flag and the tryzub, the gold trident from Ukraine’s official coat of arms.

The action by the Pentecostal pastor, part of the Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith (ROSKhVE), drew hundreds of comments. “Brother I always thought and said that you were a brave man,” stated one. “There is no price tag for what you are doing now!”

On Sunday, Sudakov linked to a Change.org petition intended for Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine. More than 960,000 people had signed it as of Sunday evening.

On Friday, ROSKhVE released an official statement quoting the Book of Acts in reference to God’s appointed places for people to live.

“Regardless of the causes, war is a terrible evil,” the group stated. “God has called us to love [and] the primary values should not be the specific outlines of borders, but human souls.”

Praying for peace “to be restored as quickly as possible,” the evangelical union called for fasting “until the divine resolution of the fratricidal conflict.”

Like Kirill, ROSKhVE cited as a foundation the centuries-old history of unity between Russian and Ukrainian evangelicals. Many of the latter’s missionaries, it stated, now serve as pastors and bishops of churches. They are hopeful this will speed an early reconciliation.

“I am so sorry that my country attacked its neighbor,” stated Constantin Lysakov, a pastor at Moscow Bible Church. “No matter how we call this event, no matter how we justify it, … there is no shifting blame when you are repenting. And we all should repent over what took place.”

“There is only one source of comfort in all of this for me,” he wrote on Facebook. “Christ is on the throne, God the Father holds everything in His hands, the Holy Spirit fills the hearts of those who trust in Him and nothing can overcome His might. God does the greatest works of redemption when everything seems hopeless. … I pray for the peace.”

At the outbreak of war, Yevgeny Bakhmutsky spoke similarly.

“My soul is grieved, my heart is torn with horror and shame, and my mind is shocked by human insanity,” said the pastor of Russian Bible Church in Moscow. “We are not politicians, we are children of God. We are not called to remake the geopolitical map of the world to please this or that ruler. … Let the world see that the children of God love and accept one another, not because of language [or] nationality … but because they have been accepted by Christ.”

A scriptural text often cited in Russian evangelical churches the Sunday after the warfare erupted was Psalm 2:1. Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?

Other churches focused on solidarity and prayer.

Across Russia on Sunday, the approximately 700 churches within the 26 Protestant unions that compose the All-Russia Commonwealth of Evangelical Christians jointly declared a time of prayer and fasting for peace, said Pavel Kolesnikov, former ARCEC chairman and Eurasia regional director for the Lausanne Movement. “This is our action,” he told CT.

Their prayer agenda included five emphases:

1) For peace between the fraternal peoples of Russia and Ukraine
2) For the authorities and “rulers” to have the fear of God, strength, and will for peacemaking
3) For the safety of the people of Ukraine, as well as Christians living in Ukraine in places of armed conflict
4) For the Church, that God may preserve it from divisions and conflicts amid the aggravated situation
5) Understanding how every association of churches can respond to the needs of people affected by warfare

At his own church, Zelenograd Baptist Church in Moscow, Kolesnikov asked attendees at the morning service to join hands—every man, woman, and child—to pray for peace and wisdom for the governments of both countries. His church has also been collecting supplies, as many Russian churches are, to aid Ukrainian refugees in neighboring nations.

“It is not our war,” he said. “We love our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.”

Joining in the fast on Sunday, the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) called on believers to be peacemakers.

“Bless restless nations and send peace, repentance. We are asking for your mercy upon all,” said Sergey Zolotarevskiy, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Moscow, without mentioning the conflict directly.

Oleg Alekseev, pastor of Source of Living Water, the oldest Baptist church in Voronezh in central Russia, used Psalm 2 as the main text for his message.

“The real victories do not happen there, nor does well-being originate there,” he said, referring to the battlefield. “It originates [in the church], when we faithfully [pray for] kings, rulers, and all peoples.”

Ruslan Nadyuk, pastor of Word for the Soul Baptist Church in Moscow, said the appropriate Christian response is one of incessant silent prayer that the conflict be resolved peacefully and according to God’s will. He cited the testimony of James 5:16. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Conditioned during decades of persecution under the tsars and communists, many Russian believers have decided that protesting is useless at best and dangerous at worst. Among the effects was a deepening of their prayer life, said Andrey Shirin, a Russia-born seminary professor in Virginia who surveyed sermons and Facebook comments by Russian pastors on behalf of CT.

“When upheavals begin, Russian evangelicals do not say much about them—particularly when they are political in nature,” said Shirin. “However, Russian evangelicals pray a lot. In fact, they believe this response is the most potent one.”

As Bakhmutsky, the Moscow pastor, stated on Facebook, “Do not rush to judge others through the prism of your culture, situation, and conscience. Do not think of prayer as something insignificant or useless. For most of us, that’s all we have left.”

But some pastors were more direct in their comments.

Yuri Sipko, former head of the largest Baptist denomination in Russia, said that first and foremost, Christians should respond with prayer. Jesus’ response, however, would respond to the events in Ukraine with the words of John 15:13. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

For Ukrainians, he said, this should be their wartime guiding principle.

Andrey Direenko expressed his dismay. “Pain, tears, horrors of bloodshed tear our hearts apart,” said the Pentecostal bishop from Yaroslavl in central Russia. “It seems like a nightmare, but it is horrible reality.”

And in the middle of it, ministries responded.

“I ask all families with orphans, as well as families raising children with disabilities and who want to move to safer areas, to write under this post,” stated Nicolai Kuleba, the evangelical ombudsman for children in Ukraine. “Leave comments, provide a number and we will contact you.”

Many churches within Ukraine are providing shelter. But so are those abroad.

“We are but a small church, thus our capacity to help is limited, perhaps up to a few dozen families or so,” said Péter Szabó, who pastors a Presbyterian church in Budapest. “But our greatest hope is not what we can or will do but what our King, the Lord Jesus Christ can and will do.”

Preaching from Acts 13, he reminded that the Christian life is never the series of failures, but that the “golden thread of God’s grace” gives the believer a sure hope for the future.

In desperate need of such perspective, about 78,000 refugees have fled to Hungary, he said. The UN reported a westward migration totaling 386,000, including Poland, Slovakia, and other bordering nations.

Thousands of Ukrainians have crossed into Moldova. At Kishinev Bible Church, a Russian-speaking nondenominational congregation in the country’s capital, several refugee families visited services for the first time Sunday morning.

The church and its partners, ministries whose offices are now turned into hostels, have shuttled refugees and supplies since the war broke out. Evghenii “Eugene” Solugubenco choked up as he preached on a topic he had slated months ago: God’s faithfulness.

“Those words mean little to us when we’re going to lunch in the afternoon after church. But when you’re a refugee they mean more. … I prayed for God to hug these people and let them know he loves them because he’s faithful,” said Solugubenco, who opened with Lamentations 3:23-24. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

“People are usually pretty reserved in this part of the world,” he said. “They don’t come up to the pastor after the service. But today they did.”

And some Ukrainians are seeing the divine.

“Soldiers and officers are telling me they are witnessing miracles from above,” said Oleksiy Khyzhnyak, a Pentecostal pastor in Bucha, 27 miles northwest of Kyiv, which witnessed Sunday’s most severe fighting. “‘It is not our achievement,’ they said.”

Khyzhnyak told Yuri Kulakevych, foreign affairs director of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church in Kyiv, that rockets reportedly fell without explosion and Russian tanks ran out of fuel. Soldiers, lost in unfamiliar locations, are asking villagers for directions—and even bread.

A Netherlands-sponsored bread mission in Brovary, 15 miles east of Kyiv, is struggling to provide enough. Already supplying neighbors and those displaced from the east, they hope to scale up to include hospitals and the Ukrainian military.

But under pressure from the conflict, their own pool of labor is shrinking, headed west.

“We want to start baking 24/7 from Monday,” it stated, “but at the moment we don’t have enough bakers.”

Morrison can relate. His church, Calvary Chapel, just purchased 1.5 tons of flour. But as many pastors expressed to CT, the situation is draining. Constant air raid sirens give little peace. The immense needs allow little rest.

“This morning I woke up feeling like a truck had run over me,” he said. “But though we are all feeling exhausted, we press forward—believing that Christ has put us here for this moment.”

Additional reporting by Kate Shellnutt.

Correction: Metropolitan Epiphanius is head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), not the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC).

[ This article is also available in español Português Français 简体中文 繁體中文 русский, and Українська. ]

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