Magazine article The Christian Century

Saving the Soviets

Magazine article The Christian Century

Saving the Soviets

Article excerpt

Whenever I speak on global Christianity, I n count on getting at least one question along the lines of "So do you think Africans might start sending missionaries to convert Europe or America someday?" My response usually begins with the story of Sunday Adelaja, which is so radically counterintuitive for anyone brought up during the cold war as to sound like the start of a bad joke: "Did you hear about the African who tried to start a church in the Soviet Union?"

The reality, though, is anything but trivial. Though he has gone through some recent difficulties, Sunday Adelaja remains a startling personification of worldwide shifts in Christianity.

His story begins with a very different kind of global evangelism, namely the efforts of the Soviet Union to support anti-imperialist causes worldwide. In pursuit of its mission, it recruited thousands of young people from what used to be called the Third World, educating them at Soviet universities in order to send them back to their home countries as faithful adherents of communism.

When Sunday Sunkanmi Adelaja traveled from Nigeria to Minsk in 1987, he could not have known that he was one of the last of those recruits. Within four years, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. Adelaja moved to the newly independent nation of Ukraine. In 1994, with a few friends, he formed a Christian mission known as the Word of Faith Bible Church, which ultimately evolved into the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations.

In this instance at least, a church's decision to choose a grandiose name really did reflect impressive growth. That circle of friends soon swelled to become one of Europe's most successful evangelical churches, claiming 20,000 members at the main facility in Kiev and hundreds of daughter and satellite churches around Ukraine. The Embassy also took its "all nations" name very seriously, planting new churches across Western Europe and in several former Soviet republics.

The membership was overwhelmingly white. When the Embassy's website posted testimonials of healing, it showed people with classic Slavic names and faces reporting how they had been healed of AIDS, cancer, even raised from the dead--and it showed a black African pastor as a messenger from God. Adelaja became a prolific author of inspirational books.

The Embassy also wielded remarkable political influence. It supported the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, and it still counts some leading Ukrainian politicians among its members. …

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