Social Ministry and Missions in Ukrainian Mega Churches: Two Case Studies
Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Fall 2010): 12-14.
The Embassy of God’s outreach strategy centers on its drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, which champions faith healing and the efficacy of prayer as a means of overcoming addiction. Its healing programs and the accomplishments of its rehab centers are showcased in an annual march in downtown Kyiv. The church began with recovered drug addicts and former alcoholics, and today nearly half of the church’s pastors are graduates of the church’s Love Rehabilitation Program. An additional component of the church’s membership is grateful family members of former addicts. Although the leaders of the church’s Love Rehabilitation Center are not adverse to medical intervention, few of their clients can afford it.1 On the other hand, prayer and fellowship are offered free of charge to all. The Embassy of God’s faith-healing programs mirror in many ways the twelve-step healing programs embraced by such U.S. groups as Alcoholics Anonymous that include surrender to a higher force.2
To date, branches of the Kyiv-based Love Rehabilitation Program have been established in Minsk, Belarus, and Vladimir, Russia. In 2001 the Embassy of God sponsored the March for Life, renamed in 2005 the March for Jesus, as a proselytizing forum to showcase the liberating effects of belief. From its inception, these marches were presented as broad ecumenical actions involving Orthodox priests and other clergy. These marches, involving a broad cross-section of clerical leadership in Ukraine, proved to be important precursors to the united front of religious communities mounted in opposition to the falsified election results that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004. With the notable exception of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, all religious groups supported the Orange Camp and about 4,000 members of the Embassy of God were among the protestors on the Maidan every day in late 2004.
A Wary Russia
Unsurprisingly, Russia proved hostile to Adelaja and his vision for transforming the post-socialist order. On 31 May 2006, when Adelaja flew to Moscow for a television appearance, the Russian FSB, successor to the KGB, refused to grant him entrance. The claim was that he was a security threat. He lost a court appeal to have his entrance visa honored, but it was too late to close the door. In fact, the Embassy of God has been active in Russia since 2000. Alexander Dzjuba, senior pastor of the Moscow Embassy of God Church, has been quite vocal in his assertions that he would like to see an Orange Revolution in Russia. As in Ukraine, the Embassy of God’s strategy in Russia is twofold: 1) to affect change by offering spiritual solutions to social ills; and 2) to convert entrepreneurs with the hopes of putting godly people in public office. So, although it is possible to shut out the foreign face of the Embassy of God in Russia, in so many places it already has a native face beckoning people of all nations to join.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Religion
Hillsong’s experiences in Australia have tremendously affected the way it functions in Ukraine and Eurasia. Institutional religious participation in Australia has been waning steadily for decades, suggesting that it is on a path to European-like secularization.3 Countering this longstanding trend, Hillsong members, even if they are entirely non-practicing religious believers, participate in charitable initiatives. In other words, Hillsong uses participation in social service initiatives as an opening to middle class young people who perhaps have little interest in institutional religion, but who nevertheless are willing to engage in social services because of their concern for justice, fairness, and morality.
In Australia, two-thirds of Hillsong’s 20,000 members are under 30 years of age. In Kyiv, three of the seven services offered every weekend are specially designed to appeal to the 2,000 young people who attend. Music has been the signature vehicle that Hillsong has used to deliver its message of salvation to young people. The house band of Hillsong’s Sydney Church, the Bayca Boys (Believe And You Can Achieve), has released CDs that have topped the music charts in Australia and given the church enormous visibility—and profits.
Hillsong Kyiv meets in a rented theater in the historic center of the city, wedged between a Chinese restaurant and a kickboxing studio. The head pastors of the church, Zhenia and Vera Kasevich, both 30 years old, assert that sermon-based services are ineffective in reaching youth. Instead, they use the appeal of rock music as a first step to introducing young people to the church. As its main means of outreach Hillsong Kyiv features a series of Saturday night Christian rock concerts, called Vybukh [explosion], celebrating personal empowerment and fulfillment. These concerts are recorded live and sold in CDs and cassettes at weekly services.
Hillsong Social Ministries
Sixty percent of the budget of Hillsong Kyiv is spent on social ministry, with the Teen Challenge drug rehabilitation program as its most successful initiative. Hillsong outreach is oriented to the most vulnerable members of society who, not surprisingly, because of feelings of powerlessness and isolation, are often the most open to supernatural experiences and to conversion. Hillsong Kyiv offers such initiatives as the “Tribe X” youth movement to evangelize the over 100,000 orphans in state institutions. A 2006 Tribe X CD entitled “Salvation” featured such hits as “Awesome God” and “Shout Unto God,” all performed in an exuberant style of worship appealing to youth. In this way, via music, Hillsong draws in young people and celebrates the glories of becoming a person of faith and of participating in charitable endeavors to help other young people.
A Global Versus a European Focus
The Embassy of God is just as active as Hillsong in terms of its public witness. But whereas the Embassy of God aims to plant churches in the U.S. as well as Europe and other locales, Hillsong is focusing its efforts on Europe as one of the most unreached parts of the world. One of Hillsong’s goals is to establish sister churches in London, Kyiv, Paris, and Moscow using a variety of media, especially “praise and worship music,” to reach all of Europe for Christ.4
From Ukraine to Uganda
Just as the Embassy of God undertakes charitable outreach programs in Adelaja’s native Nigeria, so Hillsong Sydney’s long-standing commitment to missions in Africa has prompted Hillsong Kyiv to launch efforts to support and save Uganda’s “child soldiers.” The Australian church currently sponsors over 3,000 Ugandan children, while the Kyiv church is now undertaking a parallel outreach to sponsor orphans in a neighboring village to complement the efforts of Hillsong Sydney. Thus, both of these churches tie Ukrainians to other parts of the world where historically they have had limited economic and political engagement.
The global reach of transnational mega churches such as the Embassy of God and Hillsong call into question such common notions of missions as West to East, North to South, and core to periphery. Even longstanding notions of the expected relationship between missionaries and their converts and between colonizers and colonized must be abandoned. For, as I have suggested, through their impulse to spread the gospel, Ukrainians have embarked on their own “civilizing mission” to their former colonizer, to Europe, and to the United States. Local Ukrainian congregations furnish missionaries who travel the world, but they also tie these local congregations into global organizations, thereby bringing the world to Ukraine. The far-reaching global connections of the Embassy of God and Hillsong Kyiv enhance the appeal of these mega churches, especially for those who perceive themselves to have been on the forgotten margins of the world “behind the Iron Curtain.”5 The charitable impulses and missionary activities of these communities connect their members to fellow believers on multiple continents. In doing so, these local religious communities become the sites of social relations that span great distances and increasingly interlock the local and the global in powerful ways that shape the consciousness, everyday practices, and identities of individual believers.
In closing, I would like to suggest that the spectacular and rapid success of global churches that promote renewal, such as the Embassy of God and Hillsong, are catalysts for change in other churches. The commitment of charismatics to charitable services for the needy, for example, pressures traditional churches in Europe and Eurasia to do likewise.
Charismatic churches, such as the two profiled here, shift the burden of caring for the needy away from the state and recast it as a moral obligation of believers, as a means of witnessing to their faith and demonstrating conviction. These charismatic mega churches challenge the historic patterns of church-state interdependence and the concept of particular churches serving particular nations. Furthermore, transnational charismatic mega churches have become a formidable force transforming the lives of individual believers. Their missionaries are committed to equally formidable social transformation. In the process they also combat secularizing tendencies wherever they find them, be it Eurasia, Europe, or the United States. F
Editor’s note: 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.
1Although the core membership shares a history of overcoming addiction, it would be wrong to conclude that the church appeals uniquely to the down and out. Some members of the church are so wealthy that they single-handedly finance entire charitable endeavors, such as homeless shelters or business counseling centers.
2For an extended discussion of the Embassy of God’s faith healing programs, see chapter six of Catherine Wanner, Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).
3Philip Hughes of the Christian Research Association claims that nine percent of the Australian population attended church in 2001. Because the number of attendees over 60 years of age is so high, within 20 years the percentage of the population attending church is expected to drop to six. See Barney Zwartz, “We’ve Got to Have Faith,” Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 2006.
5Anthony Gidden, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 87.
Catherine Wanner is associate professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania.