“We engage in evangelism, not necessarily because we want to, or because we choose to, or because we like to; but because we have been told to. The church is under orders. The risen Lord has commanded us to go, to preach, and to make disciples, and that is enough for us.”Historically, Christians have always taken this commission very seriously. Since the death of Jesus, first the apostles and then the Catholic Church and after that a variety of Protestant missionaries, have been carrying forth the evangelistic torch into dark and uncharted pagan lands. Indeed, missionary zeal is credited with opening the gateway to the colonisation of Africa. I remember reading a very clever bastardisation of the Christian missionary song “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, which went thus:
“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
Prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands.
Spread the joyful tidings where trade can be done,
Spread the peaceful gospel with the Gatling gun!”Since that time however, there has been a radical shift in the way Christians evangelise. The wonders of broadcasting technology have meant that modern missionaries need not undertake treacherous journeys to strange lands at the risk of catching some rare tropical disease or being devoured by an unrepentant tribe of cannibals. Nowadays, evangelism has migrated to the television screen and a multi million dollar industry has been created which is appropriately titled, “Televangelism”. It is this modern form of evangelism that may be severely affected by the Council’s decision, because if evangelism is generally considered to be advertising, this would affect the manner in which televangelists package and conduct their programmes in an effort to entice the proverbial “lost sheep” into the Christian fold. Of particular significance is the Committee’s finding that the message that is communicated to audiences/viewers, is that joining the Christ Embassy or its Healing School, or associating with it or attending its “faith healing sessions”, will lead to its Pastor(s) transferring God’s healing powers to anyone who suffers from the list of diseases that are read out or announced in the programme. According to the Committee, “this is not a general message to the community to promote faith and Christian faith in particular. It exhorts direct association with the Christ Embassy. This falls squarely within the definition of advertisement.” Other relevant findings in this regard are that Christ Embassy’s programme:
• “appeals for” and/or “promotes” joining the Christ Embassy in order to realise the healing of one’s diseases and touts its Healing School as a place to receive miracles from God;
• promotes faith as dispensed by the Christ Embassy as a proven means to cure illness and disease; and
• claims that many people have been cured of diseases when healing hands were laid on them by its Pastors.Most televangelical programmes typically include most, if not all, of the activities mentioned by the ASA Committee above. In its essence, televangelism contains advertising-like messages in which viewers are exhorted not merely to repent in order to find their way into heaven, but rather are invited to particular sects wherein their earthly problems will be solved. An important aspect of this is the “healing ministry”, which invariably involves the touting of miracle cures of various illnesses, especially those that conventional modern medicine has no cure for. These messages are then backed up by footage (sometimes archival, sometimes live) of miracles being performed, as well as testimonies by congregants about how they have been healed by the Lord through the intercessory prayers of various plenipotentiaries of the organisation. Now that these activities have now been put under intense scrutiny by the ASA Committee, broadcasters will have to ensure that religious programmes that feature all such advertisement like testimonies and miracle scenes comply with all the provisions of the Advertising Code. In addition, the finding that Christ Embassy is offering a service or product to the viewer/audience may also have far-reaching consequences on televangelism and the way in which the protagonists present their claims of healing. If Christ Embassy is indeed appealing this decision (and I do not think it has any option but to do so), it may well base that appeal on the unconstitutionality of proscribing the religious freedom of Christians in the way in which they carry out a fundamental duty of their religion. However, this argument will have to be weighed against the real problem that the TAC is complaining of, that is, ordinary people who are afflicted by HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses being swayed from proven conventional treatments to “faith-based quackery” (in the words of the TAC), whose effectiveness is at best dubious and at worst deliberately faked. It should make for a very interesting constitutional debate.