Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Sacrifice and Humility
Lessons from Ukraine: The Radical Humility of Sunday AdelajaUkrainian pastor Sunday Adelaja fears that some American preachers are spreading a deadly virus.
He is one of the most successful pastors in the world. The church he started in Ukraine in 1994 has grown to 25,000 people—to become the largest Christian congregation in Europe. A prolific author, he has sold half a million books—all in Russian—in the last decade.
But on the day I met with pastor Sunday Adelaja in his office at his Embassy of God church in Kiev, our discussion did not focus on success or how it is defined. Adelaja wanted to know why American preachers are so focused on money and fame.
It seems everyone who has a big church thinks they are supposed to be president for life,” Adelaja told me. They never move on.
At the moment, Adelaja is thinking about moving on. His main church in Kiev will celebrate its 12th anniversary later this month with a large conference. But the 38-year-old pastor, a Nigerian who earned a degree in journalism from a Russian university, is thinking of how he can work himself out of a job so he can plant more churches.
I have given all I have, Adelaja said. I have reproduced myself. I want the younger ones to go farther than I have.
Currently, 100 leaders trained by Adelaja serve as pastors for Embassy churches in Kiev. The movement spawned by the mother congregation now has 450 churches, including 13 in the United States. But each church is autonomous, and congregations do not tithe to the headquarters. Adelaja is vehemently opposed to starting a denomination, and he doesn’t want his name on anyone’s marquee.
Americans who visit Adelaja’s cavernous church in Kiev are sometimes surprised when they see the modest lifestyle of this modern apostle, who is known for his boisterous laughter and Nigerian passion. The Embassy of God’s building—a former Soviet-run sports arena—is rented, not owned. Behind the church’s stage, in an adjacent room rented by another tenant, athletes often disrupt services with their loud music. The owner of the building often turns off the church’s power, forcing Embassy staff to light the building with a generator.
Adelaja is not cut out of the same mold as the prosperity preachers who air their television programs here from the United States. Although he dresses tastefully, his lifestyle is not that different from the average Ukrainian. His Nigerian wife, Bose, and their three children live in a three-bedroom apartment that Adelaja bought for $40,000. He drives a 2002 Dodge Caravan.
When Adelaja hears about the glamorous lifestyles of some American ministers, he gets a puzzled look on his face. Is this a virus? he asks. Then he laughs hysterically, stands up and walks across the room with his arm raised. He smacks me with a big high-five.
Then he tells of one American minister who recently sent word that he must stay in the presidential suite in the most expensive hotel in Kiev when he visits. Adelaja frowns as he relates this story. He can’t understand why ministers of God need to be pampered like rock stars.
Everybody is busy building a big church. Let’s build the kingdom, he says.
Adelaja will keep his base in Kiev when he turns his church over to nationals, but he plans to spend more time training leaders and planting churches in Western Europe as well as in his native Nigeria. He is concerned that the virus of religious empire-building is as much a threat to his homeland as the bird flu is.
I asked Adelaja to share the secret of his spirituality, and the answer was simple yet profound.I spend one week out of each month with the Lord, he said. Fasting. I have to leave the family, the church and the pressures. That is what keeps me going.
Then I begged Adelaja to spend at least part of his time in the United States, where we need a dose of his New Testament faith—as well as a brotherly kick in the rear for our arrogance and materialism.
He wasn’t sure if American Christians would want to hear a message that calls for sacrifice and humility. I assured him that we are all ears.
J. Lee Grady is the editor of Charisma and an award-winning journalist. He spent the first week of March in Kiev and reported on Ukraine’s Christian revival in his last three columns.