Craig Simonian had a vision. This landed him in a war zone.
Raised in an Armenian-American Orthodox family, he came to know Jesus personally in college. He pastored Vineyard Church in New Jersey for nearly two decades, but continued to embrace his apostolic church heritage.
He laid the foundations of his faith, but also of his nation of origin.
“The reason why Armenia still exists is because of the church,” he said. “It has kept our people broken together, especially in the diaspora.”
As a child, Simonian’s grandmother saw her father and mother murdered in the Armenian Genocide, killed by the Turks at the end of the Ottoman Empire.
When she finally arrived in America, it was the apostolic church that embraced their family. Simonian recalled the kind visits of priests from their Eastern Orthodox tradition who, in the face of tragedy and devastation, gave him a deep appreciation for God’s sovereignty.
But it is his evangelical awakening that brings him back to Armenia, and in particular to his church. He moved in 2018 to a country locked in a cold war with neighboring Azerbaijan. A self-proclaimed “eccentric,” he longed for the Apostolic Church to fully embrace the gospel he had discovered.
“If we want to reach this generation, we can’t do it without them,” Simonian said. “I will call people to Jesus but never leave their church.”
But two years later, the war got hot.
Azerbaijan invaded the Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in October 2020. The territory is internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan, but residents of what Armenians call Artsakh voted for independence in 1991. For three decades, Armenia held the upper hand but was routed. in a 44-day war through superior drone technology that Turkey and Israel provided to Azerbaijan.
The Russian intervention imposed a ceasefire, with Nagorno-Karabakh being demolished and the Armenians holding a fraction of their former territory. The nation felt numb after its defeat and many took refuge in the apostolic church.
Today, Simonian provides ad hoc spiritual care while building relationships with Evangelicals and Orthodox.
Its main worship is through the Yerevan International Church. But few in his personal circles praised his efforts to attend the Divine Liturgy and cultivate relationships with Orthodox clergy. Many evangelicals are embittered by years of older tradition labeling newcomers a cult, or worse, a cult. But neither did Simonian find in the apostolic church the camaraderie that characterized his diaspora youth.
“The warm fluff I had growing up is completely empty here,” he said. “The church is not so much a community.”
Simonian understands. Soviet communism purged the church, replacing the clergy with docile leadership. After Armenia’s independence in 1991, this generation still exists but is giving way to a spiritual cadre that he says recognizes that the Church needs more than old traditions.
“We don’t need to re-evangelize Armenia,” said Shahe Ananyan, dean of the Gevorkian Theological Seminary at the Holy Apostolic See in Etchmiadzin, 21 km west of Yerevan. “Our main task is to think carefully about how to bring together Eastern and Western traditions in a synthesis.”
The church is still discussing the application, he said. But he acknowledged that modern life for many has crowded out liturgical attendance and Bible reading.
Bagrat Galstanyan, bishop of Tavush, 100 miles northeast of Yerevan on the border with Azerbaijan, is moving forward. Previously presiding over the Canadian Apostolic Diocese of Montreal, he is well placed to help with the synthesis, but struggles with the weight of his spiritual responsibility.
“Practically we are tense,” Galstanyan said. “I rely on the institutional memory of the church.”
Before the pandemic, he set up the One Community, One School program to provide religious education – and social work – in remote villages in Tavush. Out of 70 parishes, his diocese has 18 active churches but only 10 priests.
At Galstanyan’s inauguration, he pledged to “bring Christ into every home”. Sunday school-type activities take place every day after regular classes, which become a sort of village center. And it unites each group under rotating themes, with family, identity, salvation and eternal life at the forefront.
“We start at a level that people can understand easily, and then we expand it,” he said, focusing on practical, day-to-day issues. “The gospel imperative is that the Word become flesh.”
Galstanyan welcomes evangelistic partnership in Tavush. But the few groups currently there, he said, pursue their own interests. And across the country, he lamented, there are so many denominations, all with different names and purposes.
“How can you claim to follow the one and immutable Christ,” he asked rhetorically, “when you are internally divided?
Armenia also lacks an evangelical alliance, a pastor noted. Previous efforts crumbled when the new government expanded religious freedom, reducing the need for solidarity. Each group then resumed its journey.
It is very confusing for Armenians, admitted Hovhannes Hovsepian.
Pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church (AEC) in Yerevan, he is also assistant to the head of the historic Protestant denomination. Founded in 1846 during an Armenian revival and reform effort in Turkey, its presence is more recent in Armenia proper. Its relief and outreach ministries grew significantly after an earthquake in 1988.
Unlike most Baptists and Pentecostals, these Evangelicals seek to honor the Orthodox as the “mother church”.
“We emphasize the importance of the Word of God and the gospel, against traditions that marginalize them,” Hovsepian said. “But once the reform takes place, we can freely go back.”
For centuries, he explained, the Apostolic Church not only preached Christianity, but also held the Armenian people together, becoming the Church of the nation. They can’t understand another denomination in their fold.
The ancient church has its roots in the year 301 when Saint Gregory converted the King of Armenia and created the first official Christian nation in the world. Hovsepian said the church has a biblical explanation for every apostolic tradition, but most priests don’t communicate it to the people. And with the liturgy conducted in the ancient Armenian language, those seated in the pews cannot understand the richness of their heritage.
Instead, the church calendar is populated by saints who hijack the intercession of Jesus himself, the only mediator between God and mankind.
“They would rather light a candle,” Hovsepian said, “than open their hearts to God.”
Ananyan, who is also the head of the apostolic church’s ecumenical department, reluctantly relishes the “mother church” label. And he’s not against the Reformed faith. The current Catholicos (similar to Patriarch)Karekin II, is also the current President of the World Council of Churches and oversees official dialogue with the Anglican Communion.
But the head of the Orthodox seminary suspects that local evangelicals are confused about what it means to be Armenian. Over 100 different Protestant entities are registered with the government.
“Is their goal to create as many evangelical communities as possible or to renew spiritual life? Ananyan asked, calling it nonsense. “Instead, they create divisions and a distorted community.”
He considers such a burst to be dangerous. By pluralizing Christian identity, Protestants break the link between religion and ethnicity. Look at the results in Europe, he says, where all faith is threatened.
Hovsepian sees it differently.
“People can choose the type of church that suits them best,” he said, as some turn to preaching, music or tradition. “God uses the church in its diversity, as each gathers his particular flock.”
But there is ample room for cooperation. The past half-decade has seen unofficial dialogue between the Apostolic Church and the AEC, which has resulted in a vast improvement in relations.
Through the Bible Society of Armenia, Hovsepian joined Catholics in teaching the Bible to public school teachers, under the auspices of Etchmiadzin. The three denominations have jointly translated the New Testament into modern Armenian, which will soon be made public. And the Christian Women’s Forum adds Greek Orthodox and Assyrian participation, providing financial and moral support to young mothers considering abortion, among other services.
The Bible Society’s board of directors is made up of five Orthodox, two Evangelical and one Catholic members. Ananyan said he sold 30,000 Bibles last year, evidence of a constant thirst for God’s Word.
But although he praises the Apostolic Church for its missionary role in the sixth century, he believes such outreach is not appropriate today among its Muslim neighbors. Instead, the Church’s witness comes through preservation, especially of historic monasteries seized by Azerbaijan during the war and threatened with erasure of their Armenian identity.
This unshakable faith should be better respected by Protestants and Catholics, he said.
“As a nation, we are called to witness to Jesus Christ in a very difficult region,” Ananyan said. “Our very existence is a testimony to Christianity.”
It also weighs on the heart of Simonian, who is eager to join the Orthodox in promoting church growth and evangelism.
The church is old, but it continues.
“I love the apostolic church,” he said. “Every dream I have for Armenia includes them.”