Craig Simonian had a vision. It landed him in a war zone.
Raised in an Armenian-American Orthodox family, he came to know Jesus personally at university. He served as a Vineyard church pastor in New Jersey for nearly two decades but continued to embrace his Apostolic church heritage.
It laid the foundation of his faith—but also of his nation of origin.
“The reason Armenia still exists is because of the church,” he said. “It kept our shattered people together, especially in the diaspora.”
As a child, Simonian’s grandmother witnessed her father and mother murdered in the Armenian Genocide, killed by Turks in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
When she eventually arrived in America, it was the Apostolic church that embraced their family. Simonian recalled kindly visits by priests of their Oriental Orthodox tradition who—in the face of tragedy and devastation—gave him a deep appreciation of the sovereignty of God.
It was his evangelical awakening, however, that drew him back to Armenia—and in particular to its church. He relocated in 2018 to a nation locked in a cold war with neighboring Azerbaijan. A self-professed “oddball,” he longed for the Apostolic church to embrace fully the gospel he had discovered.
“If we are going to reach this generation, we can’t do it without them,” Simonian said. “I will call people to Jesus but never to leave their church.”
But two years later, the war turned hot.
Azerbaijan invaded the Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in October 2020. The territory is recognized internationally as belonging to Azerbaijan, yet the 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 supplied to Azerbaijan.
Russian intervention enforced a ceasefire, with Nagorno-Karabakh demolished and Armenians holding a fraction of their previous territory. The nation felt numb after its defeat, and many found refuge in the Apostolic church.
Today, Simonian provides ad hoc spiritual care as he builds relationships with evangelicals and Orthodox alike.
His primary worship is through Yerevan International Church. But few in his personal circles have saluted his efforts to attend the Divine Liturgy and cultivate relationships with Orthodox clergy. Many evangelicals are soured by years of the older tradition labeling the newcomers a sect, or worse, a cult. But neither has Simonian yet found in the Apostolic church the fellowship that characterized his diaspora youth.
“The warm fuzzies I had growing up are completely void here,” he said. “The church is not so much a community.”
Simonian understands. Soviet communism purged the church, replacing clergy with compliant leadership. Following Armenia’s independence in 1991, this generation still exists but is giving way to a spiritual cadre that he says recognizes the church needs more than ancient traditions.
“We do not need to re-evangelize Armenia,” said Shahe Ananyan, dean of Gevorkian Theological Seminary in the Apostolic holy see of Etchmiadzin, 13 miles west of Yerevan. “Our main task is to wisely consider how to bring both Eastern and Western traditions together in synthesis.”
The church is still discussing application, he said. But he recognized that modern life for many has crowded out liturgical attendance and Bible reading. Forging forward anyway is…
This article was originally published by Christianity Today on April 1, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.