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Church planting in Azerbaijan

July 1, 2024 |  By Eric Vess

As this blog post is being written, Warren, ANM’s regional director for Central Asia, is currently on the ground in the region. I sat down with Warren the day before he left and asked him about church-planting efforts in the central Asian nation of Azerbaijan and the purchase of a new ministry and training center. 

“We are partnering with a church planting network in Azerbaijan. It’s a kairos moment (the appointed time). God is doing something in Azerbaijan!”

Eric: Warren, what does church planting in Azerbaijan look like?

Warren: We are partnering with a church planting network in Azerbaijan. I can’t prove it, but I have a strong feeling that it’s a kairos moment (Greek: the appointed time in God’s purposes). God is doing something in Azerbaijan. There are a number of really, really solid leaders who are giving leadership to the church. They have a healthy perspective on growing the kingdom in that region.

Eric: What do you mean by a “healthy” perspective?

Warren: There is a commitment to leading people to Christ. So, there’s a real commitment to proclaiming the Kingdom of God, to cultivating relationships and growing those relationships, and a commitment to multiplication. They’re helping foster both traditional and house church expressions. Whatever it takes! 

Eric: How many leaders are you personally involved with in this church planting network?

Warren: There are nine pastors in the network. 

Eric: Who leads this network of churches in Azerbaijan?

Warren: A younger guy who loves the Lord. He and his wife are really gifted, humble leaders. You know when you see quality leaders, whether they’re leading a Bible study, [doing] training, or [in how] they lead their teams. They have incredible capacity! He came to Christ in his 20s. By God’s grace he got trained up really well with InterVarsity. He was on staff with them for a long time. And they did a great job of developing him. So he has a hunger for God and to grow the kingdom. But [he also has] a real understanding of what it takes to develop leaders. [Ethnically], he is Talysh, one of the [26] unreached people groups in Azerjaiban.

Eric: Tell me how the church-planting network works. 

Warren: They have a [mutual] commitment to the churches [in the network]. They are constantly [working] to develop [the churches] and pour into the leaders with encouragement to grow their churches. But also [to] raise up leaders who will multiply and start new churches. They have a commitment [beyond Azerbaijan] to the [entire] Caucasus region. There are 157 unreached [people] groups in the Caucasus. That includes parts of Russia, Georgia, and Iran.

Eric: How big are the churches in the network?

Warren: We’re probably talking 30 people [in larger churches] and a dozen or less [in house churches]. In a larger city like Baku, you’re more likely to see the traditional church expression. In the villages, you’re more likely to see the house church [model]. 


  Give today to complete the training center project in Azerbaijan.


 

Eric: What kind of leadership is provided to the network pastors?

Warren: [The leader meets with them] on a frequent basis, I think weekly. Often, when I call him, he says, “We’re having my team meeting right now.” We supply funding to cover the travel costs for all these [pastors]. But it’s not a very big country. So, it’s maybe, at most, a three-hour drive. So they come together for training in the ministry center that a partner ministry purchased. 

Eric: And we are raising funds to pay the partner for that purchase. So far we have raised a little less than half the purchase price of $200,000, and we need an additional $110,000 to complete the project.

Warren: It was definitely a deal. They didn’t want to get into a [long-term] mortgage or anything like that because the interest rates are so high [in Azerbaijan]. A team of [men] that are all part of the church network bought it. They established an NGO [non-governmental organization] and bought the property through the NGO. The place is amazing. It’s not just a building. It’s got a very large lot on it, around five acres. So there’s all kinds of room for other [ministry opportunities] and expansion. And it’s very near the Caspian Sea, only two blocks away. 

Eric: Now, what are all the things for which this training center will be used?

Warren: Right now, [the center] is being used for leadership development of existing pastors. We have already used it for evangelism outreach and church planting training. And we will continue to use it for those things, plus training in microbusinesses and entrepreneurship; Business as Mission (BAM).  

Eric: Didn’t you tell me that introducing the local leader to the Business as Mission ministry model deepened your relationship with him?

Warren:  Yeah, that’s really how he and I developed our relationship. We had been growing and connecting, but with BAM, everything really hit the accelerator button. I brought him with me to a BAM training in Turkey a few years ago, before the pandemic. I think it was 2019. He told me on the flight as we were leaving that the training transformed everything for him. And he went home and right away began starting a couple of business-as-mission projects. Business as Mission is rooted in the fabric of this whole network. They want to plant churches but they also want to grow businesses alongside so that [the churches] can be self-supporting.

Eric: What are the obstacles to church planting in Azerbaijan?

Warren: I think the same obstacles as anywhere else in Central Asia. You do have resistance. You have what we call spiritual strongholds. I also call them prevailing [cultural and religious] assumptions. It’s not like the police are going to stand in your way and arrest you. But it’s when you start interacting with people that those deeper concepts and ideas prevent people from really hearing you. 

Eric: What is the government’s attitude toward Christian churches?

Warren: The government is open to minority religions as long as you don’t get too big and you stay in your lane. I think that’s the way that the Soviet Union used to work. And you know you’re really not going to get messed with as long as you stay in your lane. Once you start really having Influence and then ruffling feathers because of that influence, [the government] will do something. 

Eric: But there is no active suppression of the church, correct?

Warren: That’s right. What the government is really looking for is extremist religious activity [of any kind].

Eric: What is the real potential in Azerbaijan for church planning?

Warren: So I go back to when I talked about a kairos moment. I think we are sitting on an incredible opportunity to see the kingdom advance in a powerful way.

Eric: How can we pray for the Azerbaijani pastors?

Warren: Pray for a deep connection with Christ and humility in leadership. When I look at someone like our local leader and I put myself in his shoes, I know that I would deal with a lack of humility because he’s just so talented. Thankfully, I don’t see any signs of that. Leadership gets placed on a pedestal in the honor-shame cultures of much of the world, including Central Asia. A churchgoer sees the leader as automatically elevated, and it’s incumbent on the leader to not give into that view of himself. 

Eric: Thank you, Warren. Safe travels!

 

Give today to complete the training center project in Azerbaijan.

 

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