096: Planting Churches In a War Zone (with Andriy Bondarenko)

Andriy Bondarenko, with his wife Natasha and three children, leads a group of 35 church plants in Ukraine, India and Russia. Many of them are placed in areas that have been ravaged by war, primarily due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and some are in places where their faith is opposed by the new government. In this episode of the podcast, Andriy shares his experiences of church planting and war.


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Ukraine's Story

  • 4 years ago, war came to Ukraine without expectation.  In the years previous to the war, Ukraine was a happy place and was experiencing economic growth.
  • Andrey and his family had a good business supporting the family and apostolic ministry.
  • 1.5 million left East Ukraine and became refugees due to the war.
  • The reality of the war is evident daily in bombings, armed guards and tanks on the streets.
  • There is a huge need now that war has broken out. The church has given out 200,000 hot meals to the surrounding families.
  • Training, leading and pastoring the churches has had to shift dramatically since the war.

Apostolic Strategy Under Persecution

  • Jesus said that, personally, we are building a spiritual house and Paul said that as ministers we are building God's house – these houses will be checked by storm, wind and water. Leaders need to be ready for the pressure and for these 'houses' to be checked.
  • Due to war in Ukraine, 30-50% of churches broke down. But before those churches broke down it was actually the leaders who broke down under the pressure. There is a straight line between leaders and the church.
  • Leaders need to be strong in order to provide for the churches.

Pursue Unity Within Real Disagreement

  • In Ukraine, there was much political disunity which had been funded by Russia. This then impacted the church – those with particular political views did not want to stay in certain small groups or would sit in a different part of the church hall.
  • In life, we all believe in Christ. But when we disagree politically it can be hard to keep unity.
  • Is Christ enough for us to be one in Him? Or are political views more important? This challenged the apostolic foundation of the church in Ukraine where people had to agree that there are no differences between the brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • It is important to have the right theology in both our hearts and minds.
  • When Ukraine became an independent republic, the government and army decided that the territory would only allow Russian Orthodox believers. All protestant and evangelical churches became illegal, and thus fell to persecution. Leaders were arrested and armed guards checked church buildings.
  • This persecution meant the church congregation rapidly reduced initially.
  • The local authority made it clear that if Andriy's church met that Sunday, they would arrest them. In response there was a late-night leadership meeting to pray about what they should do. They decided to become an underground church.
  • The only true comfort within persecution is Jesus, our personal relationship with Him is the key in order to hear His voice and know what to do.
  • For the apostolic foundation, challenges and trials are important. God does not only send blessings but also allows trials. Through many hardships we enter the Kingdom.
  • We have to be aware that the reality behind fighting flesh and blood is a spiritual battle. The government can try and change leaders to solve the situation but truly behind the disunity is the spiritual enemy. 
  • Our prayer life has to be toward God and against our spiritual enemy not our human enemies. Jesus knew that behind human enemies were spiritual enemies. We are told to love our enemies – they are weak and blind.
  • The moment our enemies become the outcast and the weak, the church needs to be prepared to step down and help them. The church will see salvation through that love.
  • Fear can bring weak decisions, but seeking God brings clarity and strength.

Prayer and Fasting Changes Situations

  • There was a moment in the fighting where it intensified, and the area Andriy's church was in was without internet, and so they were cut off from leaders and churches. In response Andriy prayed and he gained perspective that the comparatively small things he was praying for yesterday were not like what he was in need of today. Because of this situation, Andriy spent hours rather than minutes praying and listening based on God's promises.

Building Strategic Plans Under Pressure

  • It is typical for Ukrainian leaders to know God's plan for the church for the next 3-5 years. But in times of persecution, that can change to only knowing the next few months. We have to remain obedient under this lack of clarity.
  • We cannot make human plans under pressure.
  • Jesus was always obedient step by step according to God's plan.
  • We cannot come to God and pray solely to due pressure because of lack of strategic plans, God's presence rather than long-term plan is enough for us. If God's decision is to simply lead us step by step for a time then we need to be obedient to that and lean on Him.
  • Short-term strategic plans can be harder to adjust to since they are more reactive rather than a strategy with careful planning. But if that is where God wants you then it is good for the church.
  • We have to allow space for God's immediate and spontaneous opportunities, and not limit God's plans to only yearly planning.

Understand Seasons of Ministry

  • Many leaders break down when seasons change to preparing the soil rather than harvesting.
  • If you're church planting and God has destined that season for preparing the soil, don’t expect massive church growth.
  • Knowing these seasons of change helps leaders know how to disciple in the present.
  • When we are in a season that isn't a harvest but can see other churches in seasons of harvests, we have to have a Kingdom of God view and help other churches build in their times of harvest.

The Church Needs to Serve Society In Times of Persecution

  • When the war started the economy stunted, and the closure of the border meant food supply was limited. The church realised that their methods of bringing food to the towns through the borders was no longer viable. The church still knew they had a part to play. The church then provided more direct help by supporting families with food through home visits and more personal connections.
  • There was no water for a local community in one area as supplies had been cut off, so the church invested £4,000 to drill a well. There were daily queues with bottles lined up to the well in order to support their families.
  • The church has invested in many washing machines and showers when water supplies have been cut off and buildings have been bombed.
  • When electricity in areas was back up and running the church's ministry changed and adapted to the new needs.
  • In crisis situations, leadership needs to act and change quickly.
  • The church had started a 'charging ministry' for electrical devices for whoever needed electricity. Other places were making money through doing this by using generators, but the church decided that they would do this for free. Soldiers with machine guns and political rivals were sitting opposite one another charging their phones. It was an interesting opportunity to serve and bring people together.
  • New ministries can last half a day in war time. Intense fighting had started in one particular place, so the church started sending a car in and out to help people escape. They then established a refugee camp with everything provided for them.
  • Churches with no opportunity to preach the gospel directly, can shift to social serving ministry.
  • The churches that were illegal were now the people who were helping society in their greatest time of need.

Paul's Apostolic Strategy

  • When Paul went to convert and thus begin churches, the church would always be socially minded and serve the area.
  • The local church in Ukraine has challenges, how it builds and plants churches in the future in a much weaker state without resources and people. But God told the leaders to go and visit Christians in new places who had been displaced. After Stephen's death in Acts, many believers left and were displaced, and only the apostles stayed in Jerusalem, a similar situation to Ukraine. Peter's strategy was that he would visit everyone who had been displaced to provide support so they can plant new seeds. 
  • Many people from Ukraine who had left because of the war, were asking questions to the visiting leaders of how they can begin ministry where they are.
  • This strategy is apostolic care and support in order to see more churches planted.

The Underground Church In Ukraine

  • We cannot romanticise underground churches.
  • A tendency that occurred in Ukraine was that the underground church shifted into many little sects with no connections with others, which is a dangerous situation as strange teachings and huge ambitions started to occur. Key and trained leaders had left and new untrained and less mature leaders overtook small groups and were ambitious. God had to rearrange the foundation and world view and challenge what had occurred.
  • Let's use peaceful time rightly.
  • Some leaders who can operate in peaceful times are less able to in crisis times. Leadership rotation is painful.
  • We need open conversations in order to change leadership where there is courage and servant-hearts.
  • But during the 4 years of war, the number of people in the church plants have doubled, and now Andrey has planted new churches and ministries in surrounding areas and also in India.