Building Ministry in Armenia

Armenian staff member Meline Bilbulyan builds Christ-followers from the ground up.

By Amber Kinneer   |  10 . May . 2010
image-Building Ministry in Armenia-465x280 Meline is one of 23 full-time staff members who work with Campus Crusade for Christ in Armenia. Photos by Ted Wilcox

Clanging machinery and the deep rumble of trucks echo behind Meline Bilbulyan as her fashion heels sidestep potholes and uneven asphalt.

Climbing five flights to her apartment, she walks onto the small balcony, setting her gaze on construction a few blocks away. She remembers when the noisy trucks began arriving, passing her on the street as she walked to and from the bus stop each day.

Until she was able to make sense of the madness, things looked messy from her view on the balcony. Not long after what seemed like chaos began, she was told a new grocery store was being built.

“Each day I watch the construction,” Meline says. “I see how it relates to the Christian life: Many workers must each do a job, and it takes time. It’s a process.”

Meline is one of 23 full-time staff members who work with Campus Crusade for Christ in Armenia, and their work is similar to that of the construction workers as they seek to build spiritual leaders.

Sometimes the process may be messy, but they are striving toward something great.

At her office in New Life Armenia’s headquarters, Meline and two students step out onto the balcony, away from ringing phones and employee chatter. She seats herself on the oversized ledge of an arched window frame while Nare and Tatev pull up chairs to form an intimate circle.

Last year, Nare began a relationship with Christ after several conversations with Meline. Then they started discussing a study series called Six Steps, designed to help Nare grow in her faith. This is the way spiritual construction begins, with the basics of faith.

While the three women pray together, there is a clear view over rooftops, gardens and side streets cramped with workmen’s bulky vehicles. New buildings or repair work are scattered across the landlocked country.

Crammed between Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Armenia is smaller than the state of Maryland and bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.

As Meline’s mother teaches in high-school history, Armenia is a unitary, multiparty, democratic nation-state of ancient and historic cultural heritage. They are descendants of Hayk, great-great-grandson of the biblical Noah. Hayk defeated the Babylonian king Bel in 2492 B.C. and established his nation in the Ararat region.

The Kingdom of Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion in the 4th century A.D. During and after the fall of the Soviet Union, Christians scattered, living and struggling for their faith due to lingering tension with neighboring religions.

Bordered by three countries where Islam reigns, the ideals and values of those countries vastly differ from Christianity.

As Meline and other NLA staff members construct a foundation for Christian life in Armenia, their focus is on reaching non-Christians, like students who attend what the staff members call the Self-Development Center.

A group of 45 to 60 students gather at NLA’s headquarters to hear a lecture given by a psychology professor about positive thinking. Because of government regulations, staff members and students cannot meet or arrange events on university campuses.

Sitting with a few girls she has been praying for, Meline desires to build friendships with women and equip them to tell others about their relationship with God -- the next step in building spiritual leaders.

The NLA staff members are patient in the construction project because they know it takes time. Although most attendees at events like the Self-Development Center are not believers, they’re friendly and welcome close interaction, true to the Armenian way.

When students make decisions to place their faith in Christ, NLA staff members meet one-to-one with them, like Meline did with Nare using the Six Steps book. Staff members are seeing more interest in spiritual things, and over the past two years, NLA has seen 8,382 students indicate decisions to receive Christ.

Sunlight is fading and casts flickering shadows through golden leaves as Meline and another student, Anush Hovhannisyan, walk arm-in-arm down Abovyan Street near Yerevan’s famous opera house. A table-tennis champion at the university, Anush became a Christian last year when a staff member near her home in Karabah, the mountain region of Armenia, began meeting with her to talk about God.

Recently, when Anush and her roommate had a disagreement, Anush asked Meline for advice. Meline told Anush to take the first step and try to resolve the issue with her roommate. Anush was able to reconcile the relationship, something she would not normally have felt confident to do.

“Meline is a unique friend who I’m open with about my feelings and can trust,” she says. The first time the two met to discuss deeper matters of faith, Anush told Meline, “I didn’t know how to express myself. I felt I had to keep everything inside.”

Meline remembers feeling the same way. Not long after Meline invited Christ into her life, her father left home, abandoning his family. For many months Meline constantly doubted and wondered how God could love her when her earthly father wasn’t around to show her love. She asked God, What promise do I have that You will never leave me?

One evening, her Bible study group was reading the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-15. Meline was bursting to tell someone about the doubts and fears she’d kept hidden for years. That night, she felt free to express her struggles and was more sure of God’s love than ever before. It was no surprise to her, then, when Anush described how she had kept feelings hidden inside for years and was learning to express them.

When a neighbor invited Meline to church when she was a teenager, it was only the second time in her life she’d been to church. When the pastor explained how to begin a relationship with Jesus, Meline felt nervous and excited. “I knew it was a decision I had to make,” she says. “I prayed for Christ to change me.”

Meline knows tradition and culture have a huge effect on people’s beliefs. “Just because we live in a Christian nation doesn’t mean every single person living here is a Christian,” Meline says. “Many people have yet to understand the truth of the gospel and what it means to truly follow Christ each day, not just on Sundays.”

Her goal is to see women like Anush go out into the world in their various occupations and spread that truth. It’s the final step in the construction project.

Vardan Blbulyan, who leads NLA, says, “We want the next generations to be holders of light, those who will take the light of Christ to countries all over the world.”

Sitting at their favorite café, Meline and student Marina Sahakyan chat over steaming drinks. For more than two years, Meline has met with Marina to discuss the Bible. Last year, Meline was able to present the message of salvation and saw Marina give her life to Christ.

“If I hadn’t met Meline, I couldn’t know about God seriously,” Marina says. Meline’s perfectly outlined eyes glitter with tasteful amounts of turquoise eye shadow as she sips her tea and leans on Marina to read a Bible passage.

The women meet weekly to work through a book in the series called New Life in Christ that teaches new believers the fundamentals of Christianity. Meline wants to help create multiplying disciples, women who will take the message of Christ’s love to others.

“Many Armenians do not trust in God. They trust themselves,” Marina says. “They lean on their own strength, they need to know God can help them. They need someone to tell them about the Bible, like Meline told me,” she says.

The women pay their bill and walk arm in arm toward a local theater, where students from the Self-Development Center gather to watch a play. As the sun slips below the haze-filled Yerevan skyline, an enormous silhouette stretches across the horizon -- Mount Ararat, Armenia’s national symbol. Although Turkey commandeered the Armenian land where Mount Ararat sits, Armenians view the mountain of Noah’s ark as a landmark to their heritage.

The goal to see Armenia reached with the message of the gospel is in sight, but like Mount Ararat, it is out of reach.

Much construction yet needs to be done.