Originally Published: January 24, 2010
Every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., millions of shillings are spent to broadcast sermons on major television stations in the country. Since they all target the same audience, the religious tussle for souls is reminiscent of showbiz – and it is big business.
Investigations by the Sunday Nation show the length to which some preachers go to make sure viewers part with hard-earned income in return for the promise of good health, bountiful harvests, children for the barren, and immense wealth.
In his New Year address in Kisumu, preacher David Owuor of the Repentance and Holiness Ministry launched a scathing attack on churches whose leaders promise miracles in return for payment, saying they had lost their authority to lead the country to God because many of them were involved in corruption and immorality.
“Preachers ask people to contribute money before being prayed for, but the people are not healed. The church must abandon these ills and walk in the highway of holiness,” said Dr Owuor.
Some term this form of preaching the prosperity gospel. Some call it an outright sham. Still others say it is a fad that comes and goes.
Critics say the pastors in question often present an unbalanced picture of the scriptures, often dwelling on the good things of life rather than giving the the whole picture.
“Life is not all about milk and honey. There has to be some ups and downs in it, and that is how it was meant to be. Having problems is part of the whole experience and does not mean God has forsaken you or that, to bring Him back to your side, you have to give something,” said Pastor Kyama Mugambi of Mavuno Downtown Church.
The testimonies given by those claiming to have seen God’s hand in their lives raise a number of questions.
One testimony from a member of one of the evangelical churches posted on the ministry’s website reads: “God is so faithful to us. I went for an HIV test and was found positive. I made a call the following day to you. I remember you leading me to Christ, and you prayed for my healing through the phone. I went for a test and was found to be HIV negative. Rev I am so grateful to God. I have decided to live for Him the rest of my life. God bless you to reach many lives with His word. I give all glory to Him.”
In 2006, little-known Lucy Nduta shot to national fame on rather questionable grounds. In a poorly ventilated warehouse at the Haile Selassie Railways Godowns in Nairobi, the self-proclaimed prophetess spent many days preying on the desperation of hundreds of Kenyans in search of divine intervention in their lives.
Through prayer and selective random “acts of God”, which she directed, she claimed to be able to make all of life’s problems, including HIV/Aids, disappear, as long as, after the healing process, your HIV test was conducted in a clinic of her choice.
She was subsequently convicted of fraud and given a two-year jail sentence. Hers is, however, not the only name on the list of rogue preachers and televangelists who have been taking people for a ride.
Nevertheless, thousands still fill churches each Sunday waiting for their moment. Increasingly, it is becoming more and more difficult for Kenyans to tell a genuine man of God from someone out to make a quick shilling from hawking miracles to fit all problems.
“It is very difficult. First, because almost everything they feed their congregations on is backed by scriptures,” Pastor Mugambi said. “Whatever they say has truth because it is written in the Bible.”
Pastor Mugambi says the surest way to tell a con from a genuine preacher is by looking at how they live their lives and what other people say about the pastor.
“If he preaches tolerance and is intolerant of some things, ask yourself questions. If his recurrent theme is helping his congregation get more money and buy bigger cars and bigger houses, think twice. Life is not all about material wealth,” he said.
Experts believe that a collapsing social order ensures a constant supply of naive victims desperate for miracles.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. As long as people live in hopelessness, they will try anything that gives them the promise of a better tomorrow,” said sociologist and senior Kenyatta University lecturer Dr Halimu Shauri.
Followers of “miracle preachers” are known to give everything they own in return for the promise of untold riches.
The Sunday Nation has learnt that some go as far as selling their inheritance and donating the proceeds to the cause their pastors stand for, often with catastrophic results as the “blessings and miracles” they await never materialise.
“As a Christian, I believe in miracles, but these preachers use the possibility of the supernatural as advertisements. Divine signs and wonders should come after the gospel has been given. Even Jesus’ primary role to mankind was not to perform miracles,” says Pastor Gilbert Jumba of Nairobi Pentecostal Church.
Father Dominic Wamugunda, a Catholic priest, says such gimmicks raise doubts about Christianity as a religion among non-believers.
“This is just transferring corruption into religion. By nature, God is generous. You cannot bribe Him or arm-twist Him into blessing you in a particular way, or to suddenly fast-track his blessings towards you,” the priest said.
Such preachers, he said, have their eyes trained on only one aspect of life – money.
Adds Dr Shauri: “Today, the easiest way to get someone to listen to you is by mentioning money. And if the person you are talking to is in particular need of it, then he will pay the most attention and the highest price to get it.”
Eventually, the sociologist said, the continuous drumming of the same message over and over will create loyal converts, even among the once most pessimistic of the lot. “A lie repeated over and over again might in the end be accepted as truth,” he said.
In Kenya, it is estimated that there are more than 4,000 Christian churches. However, the increase in the number of churches does not necessarily mean an increase in the number of believers.
“Religion has become big business. As a result, the line between religion and profanity has become blurred,” said Father Wamugunda.
“How can you get someone to become a practising Christian when lies are put before them on national television in the name of the Lord,” said Pastor Mugambi, who added that this does not necessarily mean there are no genuine televangelists.
Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of the Anglican Church of Kenya said televangelists shouldn’t all be painted with the same brush.
“There are those whose sole mission is to preach the word of God as it is with no additions or subtractions, and they stay truthful to the gospel,” he said.
And Pastor Jumba said the fakes can always be spotted.
“Spend time with your Bible and read it for yourselves. Question all that your pastor says. If something doesn’t add up, think twice about whom you are letting into your spiritual life,” he said.