Social Ministry and Missions in Ukrainian Mega Churches: Two Case Studies

Catherine Wanner

Religious Pluralism

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a commitment to religious pluralism was incorporated into the very idea of the Ukrainian nation, at a minimum to accommodate the various Orthodox churches and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, all of which claim to be indigenous national institutions. The various splits and divisions among the three competing Orthodox churches in Ukraine—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church—mean that no single “national” church can lay claim to a state-protected, privileged status. As a result, a comparatively tolerant legal and political climate has emerged in Ukraine toward minority religious communities and foreign religious organizations, allowing them to establish a formidable presence.1

Government Support for Religious Values

Many mission organizations have even made Ukraine their base of operations in the former USSR. From small bureaucratic concessions, such as eliminating the need for foreigners to obtain visas, to allowing religious organizations to receive and distribute humanitarian aid directly, the Ukrainian government has consistently demonstrated an atmosphere conducive to developing and strengthening religious institutions. Legislation in 2006 paved the way for religious-based instruction in all levels of education from preschool to higher education, claiming instruction in religious values will produce “highly moral and spiritual citizens, which will further the spiritual revival of the Ukrainian nation.”2 This 2006 law is one of many initiatives that have been adopted after 74 years of state-sponsored promotion of atheism.

A Missionary Sending Nation

Since the collapse of Communism, Ukraine, unlike other former Soviet republics, has become a center of publishing, seminary training, and missionary recruiting for a multitude of faith groups.3 Currently, hundreds of Ukrainian missionaries travel to Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union annually to evangelize.4 Ukrainian believers possess the cultural capital to elude state policies designed to stem the flow of foreign missionaries of “non-traditional” faiths proselytizing former Soviet citizens.

Analyzing the social ministries and mission activities of two transnational mega-churches that have firmly established themselves in Ukraine will illustrate how churches are revitalizing religious life in a highly secular society. A profile of these churches and their activities also begins to suggest what it means for believers and governments in Eurasia to have Ukraine develop as a base for missionary and clerical training.5 Both of these churches are committed to the twin goals of reversing the rampant secularism they perceive in Eurasia and alleviating social suffering, inequality, and violations of biblical understandings of justice as they understand them.

Global Networking

The international ties and activities of these two churches illustrate the interrelated dynamics of saving souls from Communist atheism in the east as well as from European secularism in the west. Most religious communities in Eurasia are barely able to sustain themselves financially, let alone finance missionaries and social ministry. Thus, Western funds underwrite most charitable activities in Eurasia. In this way, Ukraine has become a global hub for these two churches, and for a multitude of others, linking Ukraine to international networks of religious organizations, and through its churches’ mission outreach, to Eurasia and beyond.

Cultural Orthodoxy

Religious identity in Orthodox countries largely hinges on who one is, more so than on what one does. That is to say, in Eastern Christianity cultural, linguistic, national, and territorial identities frequently coalesce with confessional identities, synthesizing into a single national-confessional identity. This approach creates a nominal allegiance to Orthodoxy that is more a matter of cultural identity than spiritual conviction.

Nominal allegiance is most vividly manifest in a multitude of survey and ethnographic research that illustrates the often paradoxical categories that individuals commonly have used to describe their religiosity: Orthodox non-believer, Christian pagan, and, as Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko infamously has declared himself an Orthodox Communist.6 These categories demonstrate an allegiance to the Orthodox Church based on a recognition of and respect for its contribution to national, historic, artistic, and intellectual achievements. An embrace of Orthodoxy often does not include religion. Although allegiance to the Church is often real and heartfelt, it often has little to do with religious practice. One does not have to do anything, not even believe, to consider oneself Orthodox. In other words, the relevance of Orthodoxy over time has become gutted of its religious content without diminishing the popular reverence for the achievements of those associated with the church. Hence, much to the frustration of social scientists, survey data are routinely peppered by responses of individuals who self-identify as “Orthodox” and “non-believer” in the same breath.7 Such respondents understand Orthodoxy to encompass culture, community, a particular sensibility, and worldview It was in the midst of this context of nominalism and 70 years of state hostility to faith that the two churches profiled below were founded. Following the collapse of Communism, these two churches have thus far met with remarkable success in revitalizing religious and social life.

The Embassy of God

The Blessed Kingdom of God for People of all Nations, or the Embassy of God as it is known to its followers, has 25,000 members, making it the largest evangelical mega church in all of Europe. Founded in 1994 by Sunday Adelaja, a Nigerian self-taught Pentecostal pastor, the Embassy of God now has 38 churches in Ukraine and 18 abroad, including five in the U.S., four in Russia, two each in Belarus, Germany, and Holland, as well as others in the United Arab Emirates and India. Although the church faces serious political challenges, it still is very much of a force driving social change.


The second church is a daughter congregation of Hillsong, the largest church in Australia with 20,000 members. After creating a base in London, Hillsong opened a church in the center of downtown Kyiv in 1992 with the hope of using it as a gateway to Eurasia and particularly to Russia. Since opening the Kyiv church, Hillsong has planted a church in Paris and on 1 March 2007, its newest European church opened in Moscow.

Shared Characteristics

The Embassy of God and Hillsong share several features. Both are charismatic Pentecostal churches that feature expressive, even ecstatic, forms of worship. Doctrinally, they advocate belief in an inerrant Bible as the literal word of God, and they adhere to basic tenets of Pentecostal theology including prophecy, faith healing, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues. Both are led by husband and wife “preaching teams.” Both, as well, now have a plethora of Ukrainians, both men and women, serving in a multitude of leadership positions. In contrast to almost all Soviet-era churches, including Pentecostal and Orthodox, they support a relaxation of the general suspicion of worldliness. In particular, they do not follow the strict codes of personal morality and ascetic lifestyle that characterized believers and their religious communities in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Yet, these two churches retain an overall conservative slant on a variety of social issues, especially homosexuality.

Both churches also promote a belief that financial and professional success is a sign of God’s favor.8 Indirectly, such a principle endorses the virtues of neoliberal economic values by encouraging commitments to individual responsibility, initiative, and charitable giving. Both churches masterfully exploit the media to advance and spread their visions for personal and social transformation. In sum, both churches offer much more that a set of religious beliefs. They foster self-conceptions that celebrate empowerment and fulfillment.

Race and Class Differences

Among the differences that separate these communities, however, are the important ones of race and class. Both churches display their foreign influences, associations, and connections in their names. However, when the Nigerian founder of the Embassy of God speaks of “peoples of all nations,” he signifies that this church is particularly receptive to minorities, immigrants, and people of color.9 Caribbean and African-American visiting preachers are interspersed in a steady stream of visiting white evangelical Americans. Miles Monroe from Jamaica as well as Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar from the United States, all strong proponents of prosperity theology, have been guests at anniversary celebrations. At nearly every service foreign delegations visiting the Embassy of God are presented to the congregation.

Use of Media

One of the reasons the Embassy of God is so widely known is that Sunday Adelaja is so adept in the use of media. He originally came to Soviet Belorussia in 1986 to study journalism, which convinced him of the power of modern means of communication. His church has its own publishing house where Adelaja’s more than 40 books have been published (some in English), and its own television studio, which allows the church to use televangelism as a source for attracting religious seekers. He also can be seen preaching every week on TBN, the largest Christian broadcasting network in the U.S. F

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Winter 2011). This article is published from a presentation given by Dr. Wanner in Edinburgh, Scotland, 30 May-2 June 2010, at the second research consultation of the Center for the Study of World Christian Revitalization Movements, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.


1 U.S. Department of State, “International Religious Freedom Report 2002,” for Ukraine and for Russia; accessed 26 March 2007. Myroslaw Tataryn, “Russia and Ukraine: Two Models of Religious Liberty and Two Models for Orthodoxy,” Religion, State and Society 29 (September 2001), 155-72.

2 See, 16 February 2007; accessed 26 March 2007.

3 Evangelical groups have become particularly prominent. For example, Kyiv alone currently has four Baptist and three Pentecostal seminaries, all of which have internet-based distance learning programs. See Catherine Wanner, Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

4 Patrick Johnson and Jason Mandryk, Operation World: 21st Century Edition (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Publishing, 2001), 644-45.

5 Currently, one-third of the world’s Christians are either Pentecostal or Charismatics. See Martyn Percy, “The City on a Beach: Future Prospects for Charismatic Movements at the End of the Twentieth Century” in Stephen Hunt, Malcolm Hamilton, and Tony Walter, eds., Charismatic Christianity: Sociological Perspectives (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 207.

6 Larissa Titarenko, “On the Shifting Nature of Religion during the Ongoing Post-Communist Transformation in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine,” Social Compass 55 (No. 2, 2008), 237-54. The charged and judgmental nature of the category “nominally Orthodox” prompts me to suggest instead use of the term “culturally Orthodox” to

refer to those who have a hybrid form of allegiance to the Orthodox Church.

7 Irena Borowik, “Between Orthodoxy and Eclecticism: On the Religious Transformation of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine,” Social Compass 49 (No.4, 2002), 504.

8 Some of the risks in contemporary Ukrainian economic life and how they are understood and experienced are illustrated in Catherine Wanner, “Money, Morality and New Forms of Exchange in Ukraine,” Ethnos 71 (Winter 2005), 515-37.

9 Although many Ukrainians continue to outmigrate in search of economic opportunities, other immigrants are settling in Kyiv, creating unprecedented levels of diversity as Ukraine emerges in the post-socialist aftermath as an immigrant sending and receiving country. See Blair A. Ruble, Creating Diversity Capital: Transnational Migrants in Montreal, Washington, and Kyiv (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Catherine Wanner is associate professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania.