Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought about a spiritual watershed moment that requires Christians to “pray like never before” for doors to preach the Gospel to remain open in the region, said Willem van der Colff, a South African missionary who has been serving in Ukraine for 27 years.
In an interview, Willem who is still in Ukraine with his wife Alla and their three children, said it is critical that Christians do not just pray for the safety of people in Ukraine – as important as that is – but that they also pray with “Kingdom eyes” that the war does not result in a huge swathe of the region becoming closed to the world and to the Gospel like in North Korea.
When Russia attacked Ukraine last Wednesday and the West responded with sanctions, a process began that could result in Russia — and other nations in the region — being cut off for decades, said Van der Colff.
He said the question is: how big is the area that could become closed to evangelism from the outside and be extremely hard to evangelise by Christians left inside the region who would not find it easy to look after their own churches without access to outside resources, let alone to take the Gospel to more than 40 unreached people groups in the isolated region?
If Putin wins the war, Russia – Ukraine – and Belarus, an ally of Russia that is being drawn into the conflict – are all at risk of becoming cut off from the world. It is critical for Christians to step up now and to call on God to find a way to keep the region open to the Gospel, he said.
“Somehow many Christians stopped praying for the people behind the iron curtain after the Berlin wall came down – but the reality is that the evil forces of that old Soviet system are still in place and are now trying to pull the people of Ukraine away from greater freedom, back into a tightly controlled communistic system, said Van der Colff.
Could nations like China and Turkey, who have their own land conflicts with Russia, take opportunistic action while Russia is involved in Ukraine? How would this impact the Gospel? Could Islamic influence increase is certain areas? He said Russia itself is not as united as one might think, being made up of about 150 nations. Could the nation split up as a result of the war with Ukraine? With the impact of severe sanctions, what will Russia’s rich oligarchs do, he asked. Could greater western involvement in the crisis trigger a third world war?
He called on Christians to pray for God to intervene in the war and, in fact, use it to open doors wider to the Gospel in all three nations.
Van der Collf said he first met his wife, Alla, a Ukranian citizen – after he had been in Ukraine for one and a half years and they were both involved in planting a new church. He said she had been praying for a husband in ministry and he had been praying for a wife who understood his missionary calling. Their three children were all born in the country and their eldest son, Johan, is studying at a Christian seminary in Kyiv.
“This nation has become my nation – I minister out of Jesus’s love but also from the love that He has given me for this nation,” he said.
He said most Ukrainians culturally identified as Orthodox Christians but they did not have a personal relationship with Jesus. They were practical atheists or agnostics and were not open to being evangelised through the Bible which they did not believe. Your life and testimony had to be “a letter from Christ” to them. It took time to win them to Christ and to His Word but it was rewarding to see them change, he said.
Like an estimated million people in Ukraine, the Van der Colff family have left their home in the face of the threat of an advancing Russian army.
He said a week ago he was still pastoring a church in the city of Vinnytsia – preparing sermons and discipleship training. But when he woke up last Thursday and learned that his son, Johan’s Christian seminary in Kiev was in the area under the fiercest Russian bomb attack, everything began to change. With masses fleeing Kyiv they got their son on a bus with difficulty that evening and the normally-3-hours journey to Vinnytsia took 10 hours on the busy roads.
By Friday, the war was close to Vinnytsia and 90% of his congregation had left in search of safety. Together with about six or seven other families the Van der Colffs headed south west across the Carpathian mountains travelling on backroads.
A Christian family they have just met have given them use of two rooms in their home in a village close to the Romanian border.
“We thank God that we have a place to stay. We have a small suitcase, some clothes and we are together — and there are no bombs,” he said.
“We are now learning to just get up in the morning and say: “God, what do you have for us today. And then we start to move and work with what we have.”
At the moment he said their ministry has become mainly one-on-one encouragement and practical help to people – especially those displaced by the war.
Van der Colff said it is a tough time for many people leaving the country as queues at border posts are up to 20km long and it can take people a week to get to the front of the queue.
They have given away sleeping bags and camping mattresses to some travellers. They also help to arrange sleepover accommodation for travellers, provide food and money where they can. And they do their best to provide spiritual support to their few congregants still in Vinnytsia.
He said they will keep on ministering with what they have until God says otherwise. If He says it is time to leave Ukraine they will go.
He said that over the past few months during which people have been stressed by the presence of Russian troops across the border — and now amidst their panic since the invasion — people have been more open to the Gospel than usual.
He said the current situation puts missionaries in a challenging situation.
“We have to make the choice: do we want to live in safety or do we want to bring the Gospel to these people in need — and sometimes we cannot have both.”
Van der Colff said that if anybody would like to partner with them in meeting the practical needs of displaced people, they are welcome to contact him on Telegram or WhatsApp at +380 97 939 74 73 or by email at email@example.com.
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