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KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Pastor Sunday Adelaja, a Nigerian preacher, understands why some in Ukraine are suspicious of him.
He is black in a nation where racism is blatant, Pentecostal in a country considered the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy, and a foreigner whose lively, conversational preaching style - punctuated by pom-pom girls and electric keyboards - stands out from the subdued, centuries-old practices of Ukraine’s traditional faiths.
But the 39-year-old preacher laughs at critics who suspect black magic, hypnotism, brainwashing and even hallucinogenic drugs explain the hundreds of bopping, clapping white worshipers who fill his converted sports hall every Sunday.
By delivering a you-can-do-it message of hope and redemption - along with such direct help as free meals and addiction counseling - The Embassy of The Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations church has ballooned from a ministry for society’s troubled into this former Soviet republic’s first true megachurch, claiming a membership of 25,000.
The church, informally called God’s Embassy, boasts a TV ministry and plans for a $15 million church stadium, and aims to reach 5 million people - 10 percent of Ukraine’s population - with its message of salvation.
Adelaja’s church has dispatched missionaries to Western Europe and the United States, and is eyeing China. Kiev’s new mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky, is a member. Many analysts credit the church’s get-out-the-vote efforts with his surprise win in March over a two-term incumbent and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.
“I knew it would grow, I just never knew it would grow to this extent... in a way it is unexplainable,” said Adelaja, who went to the then-Soviet Union to study journalism, but was inspired by a dream to establish a church.
Adelaja’s church is part of a Pentecostal movement that has flourished in Ukraine, which has been more politically and culturally open to new faiths than some of its other ex-Soviet neighbors, even as the dominant Orthodox faith has looked on warily.
Ukraine has long been an important religious center. Legend says the Apostle Andrew traveled the Kiev hills overlooking the Dnieper River, planting a cross and prophesying that someday, churches would be sprinkled over the landscape. Some 900 years later, a Slavic prince marched the population into the water to baptize them into the Christian faith.
While the Russian Orthodox Church made its base in Moscow, more than half of its registered churches were in Ukraine, including its most sacred monastery. But after the Soviet Union’s breakup, the Orthodox church in Ukraine splintered, weakening its influence.
“I don’t think there is the assumption that because you live in Ukraine, you must go to a particular Orthodox church... That makes it very different from Russia,” said Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18, a group that promotes religious freedom. “Orthodoxy is very pluralistic in Ukraine. There is not one dominant church overshadowing everybody else.”
That has given other faiths more confidence, and Ukrainians more choice.
The nongovernmental Religious Information Service of Ukraine estimated that some 60 percent of Ukrainians still identify with one of the Orthodox churches, and Protestant churches account for less than one million believers.
But the Pentecostals’ increased visibility has the traditional faiths nervous. Patriarch Filaret, who heads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate, said he had written a letter to the new mayor “expressing fear that this sect will only become stronger with his election.”
At Adelaja’s church, the mostly young congregants come early for the three-hour service to mill around tables set up in the back that offer everything from specialized training programs to legal counsel.
Men whose knuckles are stamped with prison tattoos brush shoulders with young Ukrainians such as Anna Chizhebska, who came with her husband and two children looking for an anchor amid the increasing materialism of Ukrainian society.
“I think a lot of people are searching right now,” she said. Her husband, Serhiy, added: “Everyone is seeking peace, a sense of how to live.” Both pledged to return.
The gregarious Adelaja, who addresses the congregants in accented Russian, pushes the audience to interact with him, trying to break through their customary wariness about revealing too much of themselves. Adelaja said he is trying to teach the congregants that religion “can be used to solve problems in their daily lives.”
“In many ways, it is simple common sense,” said Konstantyn Permylenko, as he quietly read a Bible in a corner of the sports hall while other members huddled in small groups, their hands laid on one another in prayer.
Skeptics continue to question Adelaja, despite his popularity.
He has been accused of using the church as a money-making venture and has been investigated by a medical commission to ensure that he wasn’t claiming to be performing medical miracles on stage.
So when Kiev’s Mayor Chernovetsky recently invited the Orthodox patriarch - rather than Adelaja - to bless the city government buildings, the Nigerian pastor shrugged off the snub.
“Kiev is the motherland of the Orthodox church. It is a cultural thing to be Orthodox and people feel it is a disgrace and insult to have a Protestant mayor who goes to a black man’s church,” he said. “If you are a white politician, you have to cool that down... But let me tell you, he’ll be here on Sundays.”
NEW YORK (AP) - A new 10-nation survey of Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, considered the fastest-growing stream of Christianity worldwide, shows they are deeply influencing the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches and are poised to make a big impact on global affairs.
The poll released Thursday by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that “spirit-filled” Christians, who speak in tongues and believe in healing through prayer, comprise at least 10 percent of the population in nine of the 10 surveyed countries.
The study also found that followers are more willing than previously thought to bring their traditional values into public debates, potentially shaping government policies in the years ahead.
The surveys were conducted over the spring and summer in Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India, the Philippines, South Korea and the United States.
Researchers polled both Pentecostals, who form their own denominations such as the Assemblies of God, and charismatics, who have adopted some Pentecostal beliefs but remain members of traditional Protestant and Catholic churches.
The survey estimated that Pentecostals and charismatics together comprise at least half the population of Brazil, Guatemala and Kenya, and 44 percent of the Philippines.
They make up about one-third of the population of South Africa and Chile and nearly one-quarter of Nigerians and U.S. residents. The figure for South Korea is smaller, at 11 percent. In India, the poll was limited to three states with large Christian populations, so a national estimate could not be made.
The study found Pentecostal beliefs have a strong hold in major churches in many countries.
In the traditionally Catholic nations of Brazil, Guatemala and the Philippines, charismatics are a larger share of the population than Pentecostals.
In six of the 10 countries, Pentecostals and charismatics together make up the majority of the overall Protestant population, according to the survey.
The Pentecostal movement, which began a century ago in Los Angeles, spread quickly overseas because of its adaptability to local cultures, whose indigenous beliefs often include healings and casting out of evil spirits, and because of the exuberance of its worship.
While Pentecostals and charismatics are known for speaking in tongues, the survey found respondents were more likely to say that they had personally witnessed or experienced other signs of the Holy Spirit, such as a healing through prayer or a direct revelation from God.
The majority of Pentecostals in every nation surveyed except South Korea and India believed religious groups should express their views on social and political issues. In seven of the 10 countries, 70 percent of charismatics agreed.
“These are folks for whom the world of spirit is remarkably alive ... but that in no way diminishes their commitment to social justice for the poor, for instance, or a role for government in meeting those needs,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum.
The polls were conducted by phone in the U.S., and in person overseas, with margins of error ranging from plus or minus 4 percentage points to 9 percentage points for some subgroups.
The polls in Brazil, South Africa and South Korea focused on urban areas.
Pentecostalism is thriving in Latin America with “spirit-filled” Christians constituting at least a third of the overall population in parts of the southern continent, a Pew Forum survey has found. The organization conducted further research to examine the Pentecostal history and politics of the country.
Over the past century, Pentecostals and Charismatics grew dramatically from 12.6 million in 1970 to 156.9 million in 2005. The World Christian Database reported Pentecostals as representing 13 percent of Latin America’s population and Charismatic members, 15 percent.
Latin America is an overwhelmingly Catholic continent and houses other “evangélicos,” or Protestants, such as Presbyterians, Lutherans and Anglicans. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, however, noted that “Pentecostals represent the most rapidly growing sector of Latin American Protestantism.”
In Brazil, which has the region’s largest Protestant population, Pentecostals grew from less than 50 percent of Protestants in 1980 to 68 percent in 2000, Pew reported. In Central America, the growth of Pentecostals from 1965 to the 1980s was 37 percent to more than half. And today, Pentecostals make up some 73 percent of all Latin American Protestants, according to the World Christian Database.
Pentecostalism is not as prevalent in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru, with Pentecostals representing well below 10 percent of the population. But some of them are currently witnessing significant Pentecostal growth, according to Pew.
“The impact of Pentecostalism on Latin America’s religious landscape has been profound,” Pew reported.
Pentecostal churches increased to make up 61 percent of all existing churches, according to a 1992 survey in the Greater Rio area of Brazil, and the proportion continues to increase. Protestant places of worship outnumbered Catholic ones by two-to-one in one Catholic diocese in Greater Rio.
The impact of Pentecostalism has been widening in public life.
A previous study by the Pew Forum – “Spirit and Power” – found a growing Pentecostal and Charismatic movement in nine out of the 10 nations it surveyed. And followers are more willing to bring their traditional values into public debates.
The new report found the expanding Pentecostal community has exercised an increasingly important role in public life. Examples include Guatemala having seen two Pentecostal presidents; Brazil’s formation of an evangelical congressional caucus that consists largely of Pentecostals; and Nicaragua’s Pentecostals founding a political party that has fielded presidential candidates and won seats in congress.
The Pew Forum pointed to several factors for the spate of Pentecostal politics.
The growth of Pentecostals led them to seek a greater share of public influence and political representation. Widespread and enduring democratization allowed for a greater opportunity to organize politically and influence their governments. Special benefits granted to the Catholic Church led Pentecostals to enter politics partly to abolish these benefits or to insist that they be made available to the growing Protestant communities as well. And left-of-center groups attempting to liberalize government policies on abortion, divorce and homosexuality have spurred Pentecostal political mobilization.
“Pentecostalism’s growing presence in Latin American society and politics is attracting the attention of some of the region’s most prominent politicians,” the report stated, including Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “At the same time, Pentecostalism’s growing societal presence and political clout have attracted criticism and fueled political conflict.”
Criticism and attacks have come from the Catholic Church including the late John Paul II who described the growth of Pentecostal churches as an “invasion of the sects” that is robbing Latin America of its Catholic culture and destroying its social cohesion. Latin America has an estimated 490 million Roman Catholics, more than any other region in the world.
Some argue that Pentecostal politics follows a monolithic pattern, but the Pew Forum revealed the different growth patterns and theological emphases seen among Latin America’s Pentecostals.
“The result has been a great diversity of Pentecostal political styles and forms of activism.”
Pew’s report on Latin America is the first in an examination of Pentecostal history and politics in the countries surveyed for “Spirit and Power.” Reports on Africa and Asia will follow.
The nation’s largest Pentecostal group drew some 1,400 people to a prayer summit that centered on a divine power that many of America’s churches are leaving out, according to one preacher.
“I’m afraid that in a number of our (Christian) churches around America, we’re preaching an oxymoron of an Old Testament Christianity,” Jim Cymbala, senior pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, told summit attendants in Springfield, Mo. “We’re preaching Jesus and we’re preaching laws, but we’re missing the dynamic element of the one who is able to make you ... what God wants you to be.”
Cymbala spoke of the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Pentecostal preacher of the Brooklyn megachurch opened the Assemblies of God Prayer Summit Monday night telling fellow believers that they are hopeless without the Holy Spirit.
“How sad to travel around the country and world and see churches trying to have a Christianity that represents the New Testament without an understanding and an emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
In place of the third person of the triune God, Cymbala noted that many church leaders have become formulaic.
Church models and conferences may lead some church leaders to copy the way a successful pastor runs ministry. The “copycat” mode, however, prevents the ministry from being blessed by the Holy Spirit, Cymbala indicated.
“God has something better for us,” he exhorted. “He has his Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us.”
Another possible hindrance to the Holy Spirit working is seminary. Cymbala never attended seminary but realized that seminary graduates adopt “some formula and some traditional way,” whether it be a Baptist or Pentecostal way of running ministry. And formulaic leaders show little dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit, the Pentecostal pastor noted.
Pentecostals are no exception.
“Think of all the churches that have Pentecostal doctrine around this country and that are doing nothing for God,” Cymbala shouted. “They don’t baptize 10 people in a whole year and they’re speaking in tongues and they believe in the cardinal truths of the Bible.
“There’s got to be more than just an Acts 2 experience.”
Then, how can you distinguish a “true spirit-filled” church? Cymbala says the Holy Spirit “cuts to the chase” and penetrates like fire when it works within a congregation.
Pentecostal preaching is supposed to penetrate into people’s hearts and not be clever or showy; music is supposed to penetrate and not just entertain churchgoers; sinners are supposed to feel uncomfortable; and the power of the Holy Spirit is not “user-friendly and seeker-sensitive.”
“It says ‘get in or get out.’”
With all that, “when fire (Holy Spirit) comes, there are changes in people’s lives,” Cymbala said. “This is what makes Christianity unique - God Almighty dwelling in a man or a woman.”
The Assemblies of God Prayer Summit concludes Wednesday.