Sunday Adelaja never dreamed of becoming a megachurch leader when he left his Nigerian village at age 19. He was headed to the Soviet Union on a journalism scholarship. Only six months earlier, moved by an evangelistic crusade on TV, he had accepted Christ.
That was in 1986, when millions of Soviet peoples lived under the shadow of communism. The young Sunday had no idea that communism denied God's existence when he arrived in Minsk, Belarus. "I was so frustrated when I couldn't go to church—they said there's no church here," he says.
Sunday, 38, now leads what may be Europe's largest church, the 30,000-member Embassy of the Blessed King-dom of God for all Nations in Kiev, Ukraine. Started in 1994 among drug addicts and alcoholics, the Pentecostal church expanded rapidly.
Students, housewives, former Mafia members, wealthy businessmen, and powerful politicians pack a sports stadium for Sunday worship. Behind the main platform where Pastor Sunday preaches, rock music faintly pulsates—Ukraine's top athletes are pumping iron in the adjacent weight room. The beat doesn't distract the clapping, singing, and swaying men, women, and children focused on praising God. And they're not alone; thousands of other church members worship at 30 additional locations throughout Kiev. They're also changing the nation's social and political landscape.
A wilderness babySunday began his journey in the Soviet Union as a "wilderness baby" whose faith matured quietly behind the Iron Curtain, akin to Moses's years of spiritual growth in the Egyptian desert. He quickly learned to survive at the state university by hiding his faith. He joined six other foreign students who secretly worshiped together.
After praying earnestly for several weeks, Sunday first glimpsed God's purpose in bringing him to the Soviet Union. He read in Isaiah 61, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor." God revealed to Sunday that crowds of Europeans would respond to his preaching.
For six years, Sunday struggled to trust God's plan. "I pretended I was asleep and prayed under my blanket. I had to have my morning devotions in the bathroom," he says.
When Sunday dared to hang a picture of Jesus in his dorm room, his roommate reported him. The local communist party leader and a professor banged on his door, demanding he take down the picture. They threatened to send him back to Africa. "The Lord spoke to me and said, 'Don't worry about removing the picture; just make sure they don't remove me from your heart,'" he says.
Sunday studied diligently and became a top student. "God used that time to train me, to help me master the language and understand European people," he says. He also started leading his student fellowship—more training ground for what lay ahead.
When Mikhail Gorbachev began opening the Soviet Union to the West, Sunday started his preaching career. On weekends, he and other local Christians visited churches and led evangelistic campaigns in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics, and Belarus. But traveling without a visa was illegal for a foreigner, and in 1993 Sunday was caught and expelled from Belarus.
Mega-visionJust then, he was invited to work for Ukraine's first commercial TV station, which he quickly accepted. His fiancée, Bose, a Nigerian student whom he'd met in Russia, agreed to join him there.
After only a year in Kiev, Sunday felt God nudging him to begin a church, but he resisted. Each time he'd planted a church before, God had said, "Leave it; give it to the local people." Afraid of being separated from another church he'd birthed, Sunday asked God why he should start again.
"God said, 'I want you to raise up a country of strong men and women to reach other countries, especially where the Soviet Union has been known to send death, destruction, and tears. Instead, I want to use the Soviet people to bring healing, health, and the Good News,'" Sunday says.
Despite his doubts, and encouraged by Bose's support, Sunday obeyed God. In the first few months, his attempts were fruitless. "I knew people were thinking, You're black, you have an accent, you've come from an uncivilized place, so who are you to talk?" Desperate, he cried out to God. Then he realized that Jesus preached to society's weak and outcast.
Drug addicts, alcoholics, and homeless people joined his Bible study and found new life in Christ. Their families took notice of the radical changes and became believers too. By 1997, 3,000 people were worshiping in Sunday's church. That's when the government took notice and trouble began.
"They said, 'Sunday is not a pastor. He's using drugs, black magic, and hypnotizing these people,'" he says. The police seized his passport and revoked his official permission to preach as a foreigner. During the next several years, Sunday battled 22 lawsuits.
Church members began 40 days of fasting and prayer. Their numbers continued to increase despite Sunday's trials. "God began to have mercy on us and send influential politicians to our church," he says. Fifty members of the nation's Supreme Council (legislature) pledged their support in a letter to the president and attorney general. All court cases were decided in his favor.
Plugged into GodPastor Sunday delivers a consistent message, calling people to plug into God's power: "God saved you so that you can transform your world—you are a world-changer." This belief in personal potential has mobilized his congregation.
In Ukraine's peaceful Orange Revolution last winter, more than 4,000 Embassy of God members prayed and fasted in the 12-day standoff before the first presidential runoff was judged invalid. They also donated food, warm clothing, and tents to the thousands of demonstrators camped in Kiev's freezing Independence Square.
Results from the second runoff infused Ukrainians with new hope. In January, President Viktor Yushchenko shocked the nation by starting his first day in office with public prayer, kneeling before an altar with his wife and children. Christians are delighted with Yushchenko's unprecedented stand against corruption and his appointing believers as government ministers.
"We know that the changes taking place here in Ukraine are born from above," Sunday says.
Church members are following their pastor's example to carry the Good News across cultural barriers. They've planted more than 300 churches in 30-plus countries, including the United States, Holland, Israel, Singapore, and South Africa. Modeling Sunday's original strategy, they open drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers before planting a church.
The strength of Embassy of God churches lies in tapping members' talents and developing leadership potential. This people power in Kiev alone has resulted in 300-plus outreach activities launched by church members, including a soup kitchen that feeds more than 2,000 people a day, a business training center, and a family counseling center.
"Pastor Sunday believes Christians have to affect society at a political, spiritual, and economic level. They've done this in Ukraine," says David Tinney, president of Family Aid International, a humanitarian aid group.
Despite his celebrity status in Ukraine, Sunday still endures racial slurs in public, but he seizes these opportunities for evangelism. "When people call me a monkey, I go and hug them and ask, 'Have you ever hugged a monkey before?' I make them laugh." He says these people may someday recognize true love, repent, and dedicate their lives to Christ. Several already have.
Pastor Sunday and his flock are inspiring evangelical leaders worldwide. Sunday's church is "the happiest in the world," says Pastor Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "After 70 years of being told that God was dead, this church is celebrating a living Lord. … They rejoice the way Christians worldwide should."
Sunday believes that Christianity in the developing world is often "more dedicated and radical for God" than in North America, and missions experts agree. Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans are obeying Christ's command to disciple the nations.
But the American church is still needed, Sunday says. "If a young man from Africa could build the largest church in Europe without money, Bible school, or seminary training, imagine the potential of a North American."
Since Jesus died a radical death for him, Sunday has pledged his own life in return: "I must give Him my best every day and every minute."