An answer to questions about the war against Ukraine

This week, a friend asked me to speak to things he has heard recently about the war…asked for background he could share with others. Here’s my response. I think you may find it helpful.

Thanks for your questions based on what you are hearing friends and other sources say about the invasion of Ukraine.

I first worked in Ukraine in 1992 (right after independence), and have taught in Ukraine more intensely since 2012. At the same time, I was working on both a Masters and Doctorate in Worship Studies–an “action-research” approach that involved careful study of my ministry context–that nation. Ukrainian history, church history, current affairs, and their relationship to Russia since the disintegration of the USSR have been primary topics for reading and writing in preparing my projects for classroom and conference work there. As you know, we also started ServeUkraine to come alongside those friends, colleagues, students, and church leaders who are doing relief work and require aid since the Russian invasion in February.

All that to say, I’m involved, and pretty broadly informed. My reading and research involves relationships with national church and ministry leaders, multiple international news sources, foreign affairs think tanks, and long-time observers of the Ukrainian situation. I was recently part of the Nashville Consultation on Ukraine in early November which involved Ukrainian church, political, and ministry leaders as well as nearly 100 ministry leaders, academics, pastors, and donors from all over North America. The head of the Baptist Union of Ukraine (2000+ churches, largest in Europe), leader of the Pentecostal Union, an Archbishop of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (pay careful attention to that name), and an Auxiliary Bishop from the Roman Catholic Church were there. The only major Christian group not represented was the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Eastern Rite Catholic) Church, whose leader had to drop at the last minute. There were members of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament), a Member of the European Parliament, leaders of ministries currently doing work in the country, local pastors, as well as the Mayor of Irpin, one of the cities severely damaged in the earliest stages of the war (about 5 miles from our campus in northwest Kyiv–I was there in September).

Steven Brooks, Myroslava Smetaniuk, Bria Blessing Pohle, Jesse Pohle, and me at the consultation.

Am I infallible on these matters? Absolutely not. Have I done, and am I doing my homework? Absolutely. Am I current? Yes.

Your two issues: is Zelenskyy a dictator, and is he curbing religious freedom in Ukraine? Two quick answers: No, and no. Some background…

First issue: Ukraine is under martial law. Russia has been attacking Ukraine, illegally annexing and occupying Ukrainian territory and killing since 2014, and seeking to undermine its sovereignty for many years before that.

In 2013, then-president Victor Yanukovich turned from saying he would ally with Europe to switching to Putin practically overnight. The country was enraged, and took to the central square (Maidan) of Kyiv in protest, starting with students, then thousands of others joined them from November 2013 to February 2014. Religious and political leaders took part, praying and protesting, and being shot at by the government’s secret police. Over 100 were killed by snipers, and eventually Yanukovich fled to Russia by helicopter in the middle of the night. He was totally in Putin’s pocket, and many Russian sympathizers and plants were all across the country. Yanukovich was found to have skimmed off millions from the national coffers to line his pocket, build his dream estate and fill accounts in many banks. Ukrainians call the process of getting him out as the “Revolution of Dignity” and set out to make changes. They did NOT want further alliance with Russia, period.

The parliament at that point named a Baptist layman to be interim President, and a Jewish lawyer to be Prime Minister, by the way.

Putin took the opportunity to illegally annex Crimea, and then seize a large portion of eastern Ukraine with his forces in anonymous fatigues and local sympathizers under false pretenses.

Since then, there has been another elected President, Petro Poroshenko, followed by Zelenskyy, who defeated Poroshenko cleanly in the next election. (More about Poroshenko in a bit.)

When the new phase of invasion began this past February, Zelenskyy declared martial law, sought to weed out those cooperating with Russia, including a couple of political parties who were more than sympathetic to Russia and calling for re-unification, etc. Those are the groups that he has banned. They continue to root out sympathizers who are cooperating with the occupying forces. Zelenskyy and the Rada also called for “national mobilization” which declared that all men between 18-60 could not leave the country with out express special permission as they might be needed.

This is what happens in war time, in martial law. Things that wouldn’t normally happen are set in place to try and preserve the nation. That is what Zelenskyy has done. (Was FDR a dictator during WWII? Some may have thought so, but he had wartime powers that gave him a lot of latitude, and in hindsight, we are still here.)

Second issue: Up until 2018, Ukraine had three (3) separate Orthodox Churches, dating back to independence in late 1991. They were the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (answering to Moscow), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (answering to leadership in Kyiv), and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – autocephalous, or independent. Ukraine also has in its constitution and in its practice, the greatest religious freedom of any nation in eastern Europe, if not all of Europe. Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholic, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, other Protestant groups, even Jews and Muslims all meet together in an All-Ukraine Religious Council to advise the government.

The Moscow Patriarchate churches have always been an issue, hence the other two splits. Ukrainians wanted and deserved their official church. After all, back in 988, Christianity came to the east through Kyiv! Moscow or Russia did not exist. Back in 2018, after a good deal of lobbying from Poroshenko (a practicing Orthodox) and others with the Orthodox Church, international Orthodox leaders granted autonomy to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU, the KP and autocephalous churches primarily), and all parishes could make their own decisions where they would go. And go they went. The OCU Archbishop I spoke with here said that the number of parishes joining the OCU has increased exponentially since the invasion. I believe the majority have joined the OCU at this point, but UOC-MP holds a lot of sway in significant areas.

Interestingly, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, who the MP churches answer to, has been internationally sanctioned since the earliest days of the invasion. Kirill is totally in Putin’s pocket, spouting the same false histories about the “Russian world,” and blessing and supporting Putin’s “special military operation” to the utmost.

The churches that have been raided have been MP churches. Ukrainian security forces have found Russian passports, millions of dollars, pro-Russian propaganda, etc. Here are two great reports from the Religious Information Service of Ukraine that will give some more insight from the other religious leaders about the MP churches being searched – “SBU raids Moscow Patriarchate churches” and “In UOC dioceses SBU finds Russian passports.”

So, Zelensky has powers under martial law, and the churches being searched are really in collusion with Russian efforts to wipe out Ukraine.

For better, consistent information, I recommend the best English-language news source in Ukraine, the Kyiv Independent, and reporting from the BBC, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and the Washington Post. Use the Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert for in-depth commentary on all that is happening. I also have several Telegram groups that have info straight from the sources and up-to-date reporting on attacks in the nation. (You can download the Telegram app from the App Store for Mac, iPhone, etc.)

The best, most-readable, and reliable history of Ukraine is The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard. It is a pretty quick read, and will give you the best back-story. It was written after Maidan (2015), and will give you context for the fact Ukrainians and Russians are not brothers, and the history that Putin is twisting at best, totally fabricating in general.

I’ve also just read A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin by British Russian Studies expert, Mark Galeotti. written in 2020. It’s just over 200 pages, an informed and entertaining read that clarifies both history and myths about modern Russia and its relationship to Ukraine.

I didn’t intend a major epistle, but so many have asked the questions, I thought it good to put it down in a form that I could post myself and also send to others.

Thanks for checking in with me. I’ve heard so much rubbish and out-and-out lies repeated by Christians especially in the last month. I am more than glad to redress the balance, especially with some of the stories I heard from leaders last month, and in my 8-10 days in Ukraine in September. I’m happy to recommend other resources as well.


11 December 2022

Why worship and why Ukraine?

16003274_1385166991527929_6680711285658944023_nMy wife Judie and I leave in two weeks for my eighth trip to Kiev, and Music in Worship, the conference we started in partnership with Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary (UETS).  Three years ago, it began as part of my Master’s project for my degree at Institute of Worship Studies, and it’s exciting to see it continue and develop.  This year we are also partnering with leaders from here in Nashville and with London School of Theology, Nexus Institute of Creative Arts and Worship Academy, Horsham in the UK.

I’ve been interviewed twice recently about the situation and the ministry opportunities in Ukraine–by UETS and for two programs for Compassion Radio.  You’ll understand more of my heart and get you a sense of why this is a crucial ministry at this time.

Worship from God’s Perspective – UETS

Ukraine: Worship on the Frontlines, Part One – Compassion Radio

Ukraine: Worship on the Frontlines, Part Two – Compassion Radio

Consider being part of our support and prayer team at MusicWorks International.



History, nostalgia and praise! A few thoughts on CCM United.

[NOTE: This was originally posted on my Facebook page in late January of this year.  I thought it deserved to be re-posted here, with a few small edits.]

I’m basking in the glow of what several hundred of us experienced in person last night, joined by many thousands who saw the live stream of “CCM United – We Will Stand” here in Williamson County, Tennessee.  33 artists, 40 songs–some old, some new, most in the middle of the heyday of Contemporary Christian music.  Joy, tears, thanksgiving – it had all that and more.  [For a full list of who was there, and the opportunity to see the entire three hours, go to] Many thoughts are running through my mind this morning as I’ve been reading posts and posting videos myself.  They are a bit random, but I’ll share them.

  • I’m so grateful for relationships that allowed Judie and I to be there with last-minute tickets.  Thanks to Mike Harland and Sue Moser for being so generous.  What an experience…
  • Having been in and around Christian music and the “industry” since I was 16 (that’s 42 years ago, if you’re counting), and being part of events like the Christian Artists’ Seminar (Estes Park) and Gospel Music Week (GMA)–I know all the different issues that are part of putting this kind of event together.  Schedules, relationships (past and current), sponsorship, past hurts, logistics, egos, spiritual attack, personal interests and yes, industry pCCMUnited_grandeolitics all come to bear on this stuff.  In our brokenness and by God’s grace, we move ahead.  Thanks to Stan Moser and his dogged persistence in being point person and midwife in bringing this to birth, and to the whole team.
  • The room was filled mostly with people who were (and are) part of seeing all of CCM happen over the years.  Executives, publishers, songwriters, producers, managers, booking agents, pastors, group leaders, worship leaders and other artists all had a chance to enjoy, celebrate and reflect.  I know I left at 11:30, and folks were still hanging out, visiting, laughing and crying together.  So many good friends and associates who shared so much experience and so little time to hang…
  • A special shout-out to my friend, almost-team-member, and past board member Neal Joseph.  It really was like watching your life story tonight (obviously others as well), but seeing The Imperials, Sandi Patty, Dallas Holm, Michael English, First Call and Wayne Watson on the same stage tonight put it all in perspective.  Your love, care, talent and persistence in supporting, signing, arranging or producing these artists (and many others) has borne phenomenal fruit.  Thanks.
  • Great to see other artists who have been part of CCM history happy to be there, even though they were not up front–thinking of my friends Byron Spradlin (early artist on Light Records), Paul Johnson (arranger and writer extraordinaire) and Steve Fry (worship writer, artist and pastor).

Some thoughts about history and perspective on these past 40+ years.  Any time you talk about history, folks will have a different perspective based on their experience.  We need to fight to get context as we read or recall anything from the past.  Even historians have a perspective, and that’s what makes it interesting and more fully-orbed.  Think of it like different camera angles on the same scene in a movie…one shot is not better than another, but the different angles help to give a more 3D version of what happened.  You have to pick and choose the shots, and in any movie or documentary, some things get left on the cutting room floor–you can’t include them all in order to tell the story.

We had a great story told last night–nothing can take away from that, and it was most certainly true.  I wept and cheered with the rest, and memories of past ministry that I received and also gave filled my heart.  Praise God for that!  When it comes to Contemporary Christian music, these artists and songs are key to the core of it.  However, I walked away wanting to also acknowledge and challenge us all to remember some of the other pioneers and get to know their work and the investments they made to establish and confirm what we enjoyed last night.  There was absolutely no way to include all the artists who have contributed, and many were highlighted and named in the projections on stage. Even that couldn’t mention all.

Let me mention and honor a few and give you a resource that will help you with more perspectives, more camera angles.  First, 40 years is not the full history of CCM.  It did not start in 1975–the celebration was of 40 years of CCM, not of all of it!  Love Song, who were honored and performed along with Phil Keaggy (who actually was part of the group at one point) started before 1975. The Jesus Movement was a significant revival that started in the last 1960’s, and was the catalyst for many to come to Christ, as well as being a seminal source for what has become modern worship with Maranatha! Music as well as CCM.  Love Song and many others pioneers were part of a Jesus Music documentary done around 1999 called “First Love.”  Check it out at–a 2 CD and 2 DVD set that shares testimonies and stories of that significant move of God.  It features Love Song, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Barry McGuire, Andraé Crouch, Randy Stonehill, Jamie Owens Collins, Honeytree, Paul Clark, John Fischer, Terry Clark, Matthew Ward, Annie Herring, Darrell Mansfield, Chuck Girard, Randy Matthews and a Keith Green tribute with Melody Green.  If you don’t know this history, you need to.

And, from my perspective, there were others who paved the way both in making the church ready to receive music more closely allied to the culture in my lifetime.  I first think of Ralph Carmichael and Jimmy and Carol Owens, who were pushing against the barriers in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Light Records was the home for so many of the artists who were pioneers in CCM, and Ralph’s musicianship and commitment to excellence in ministry that both reached the culture and served the church laid a solid foundation for those who would follow.  And he’s still at it in his 80’s–check out the Ralph Carmichael Big Band!

Jimmy and Carol Owens–significant early mentors and encouragers of artists and musicians like Andraé Crouch (Jimmy produced his first album) as well as Paul Johnson (who was at last night’s event) and Michael Omartian (who was the musical director)–created projects like “Come Together” which basically took a contemporary worship service and put it on record, and “If My People” and “The Witness” which called the church to intercession, and told the story of Jesus in compelling, powerful ways.  Artists like Andraé, 2nd Chapter (Matthew Ward, Nelly Griesen and Annie and Buck Herring), and Barry McGuire made their house a second home where they laughed, played and prayed. (Not to mention their daughter Jamie Owens Collins, who made it her first home!)  They are also still at it, encouraging artists and songwriters (songs like “Holy, Holy” and “Freely, Freely” are theirs), and calling the church to intercession for the nation.

I was glad to see that Thurlow Spurr was in attendance last night, and Stan rightly acknowledged him for his contributions.  So many folks that we know as arrangers, writers, and artists in CCM cut their teeth on the road traveling with The Spurrlows, Festival of Praise or other groups he started–Larnelle Harris, Sharalee, Dave Williamson, Terry Winch, Jon Mohr to name only a very few.  But another who travelled with Thurlow pioneered a ministry that would eventually see 40,000 plus travel in music ministry around the world, Cam Floria, founder of Continental Singers (The Continentals, Continental Ministries) and Christian Artists.  Artists who were on the platform last night like Wayne Watson got their start in Continentals, while at least several dozen others in the room traveled as part of Continental tours (including me and my wife Judie).  Michael W. Smith came as a young artist to the Christian Artists’ seminar and got early encouragement there.  Thousands of church worship leaders also cut their teeth with Continentals and were shaped by their international and inter-denominational touring.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, only a few of the additional camera angles that will add perspective to what we saw last night.  Stan Moser’s book “We Will Stand” adds a few more.  Dig deeper and you’ll see even more to give thanks to God for.

Finally, I’ll share my two most enduring images of last night, separate from what was onstage.  Both spoke of humility and joy in the journey.  First, as I was chatting with Travis Cottrell about the evening, a gentleman stopped as he was walking out and said how much he had appreciated Travis’ contribution to the evening and the ministry of it.  I looked twice, and it was Steve Archer, lead singer of the family group he had with his brother and sister “The Archers.”  He was the Russ Taff of his day, and could probably still match him note-for-note.  Yet, he was not onstage–Russ (and Travis) were.  The humility of his sincere congratulations that I got to observe spoke volumes.  Second, it was only about halfway through the event that I realized in the back row of the string section, happy and joyfully playing his cello, was Greg Nelson.  Producer of Steve Green, Sandi Patty and countless others and co-writer of “People Need the Lord,” Greg was in the back row making what others might see as an insignificant contribution to a significant night.  But not to my friend Greg…he was happy just to be a part.

May it be so for all of us as we go and grow in our ministry of music and worship.

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