Nigerian mega-evangelist Pastor Chris OYAKHILOME brings a new revelation to America
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t could have been the heat, and the sweat, and the fact that I was coming down with the flu. I sat there wedged between a husky man and woman, each of us in little plastic folding chairs bound together so there was no chance of wriggling away.
I was getting an uncomfortable feeling, a knot in my stomach that scrunched ever tighter as the evening progressed. Then an assault of questions on the inside:
“Man, if this is true, I must be a real loser.”
“This sounds like a new revelation. Am I just too spiritually dull to receive it?”
A pillar stood between me and Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, the superstar Nigerian preacher and healing evangelist who was pacing across the stage, pulling up Scriptures in four translations on an iPad encased in a stylish alligator-skin cover.
I followed along on one of the giant video screens as Pastor Chris unfolded his teaching in precise, logical steps. He wore an impeccably tailored suit with a baby-blue pocket square and spoke in flawless English, punctuating his erudite delivery with darting hand gestures and the occasional spasm of tongue-speaking.
Many times a roar rose up around me as Pastor Chris shouted one of his trademark exhortations: “I’m blessed! I’m blessed! I’M BLESSED!” People leapt to their feet and waved their hands. The cameras swooped in on cranes and and showed us rocking the rows of chairs we’d been crammed into like pickled ham hocks.
I admit, I wasn’t quite getting it.
I was there for every minute of Pastor Chris’ teaching at the Higher Life Conference U.S.A., seven hours of material spread over three nights in August, viewed in person by some 2,000 people at a hastily refurbished warehouse store in Arlington. I came with an open mind.
One night I sat with the sick people—men, women, and children who’d come in wheelchairs or hobbling on canes, waiting expectantly for a touch from God. I watched. I listened. I took extensive notes.
By the final night, when none of the sick had been offered personal prayer, I had serious questions. And inner doubts, the kind that make you look around for a token of assurance that you are not, in fact, the only crazy person here. “Why is everyone around me so excited? What is wrong with me?”
Or was it me?
That last night I pulled out my iPhone and started looking up Scriptures, while waves of fever caused me to break out in a sweat. But I had another reason to feel sick.
I paged through my notes, and saw something I’d scribbled in the margins at the end of the first night: NO SIN. NO CONFESSION OF SIN.
Pastor Chris had held two altar calls for salvation, for becoming born again, and he had never mentioned, much less prayed for, man’s biggest problem—sin. Was this a new gospel?
If you don’t know about Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, you should. His ministry is hugely popular in English-speaking Africa and is making inroads all over the world. In his native Nigeria and in South Africa, he’s known for ministering in the miraculous. His Healing School in Johannesburg offers intensive teaching and one-on-one prayer for the sick, sometimes for hours, all at no charge. His popularity is such that he filled Johannesburg’s 95,000-seat Soccer City, built for the World Cup, and pulls in audiences exceeding half a million—you read that right—for outdoor crusades in Nigeria.
Pastor Chris combines Bible teaching, miraculous signs, and exhortations to prosperous living. His ministry, Believers’ LoveWorld Incorporated, also known as Christ Embassy International, has used sharply produced television programs, social networking, conferences, the Healing School and YouTube to build devoted followings in the U.S., the U.K., Zimbabwe, Zambia, and other countries. Pastor Chris’ followers have planted Christ Embassy churches in many locales, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area. His TV show can be seen on the USA Network.
Pastor Chris managed to pack the house every night in Arlington despite the inadequate air conditioning and iffy parking arrangements. (Many parked at the Walmart next door, causing one of the hosts to threaten a “Rapture strictly for cars—and they’re not going to heaven.”)
“I went there because I wanted to know what this man was all about. There was a palpable sense of expectation—because of the miracles, because of his superstar status, because we knew we had a rare opportunity to hear a man who hardly ever preaches in venues this small. “You will remember when it was like this,” Pastor Chris said the first night. “We have a special mission in the U.S.—it’s all about Jesus.”
Spirits were high at the conference, heavily attended by Dallas’ African immigrant Christian community. Pastor Chris took the stage each night to a rock-star reception, and we shouted stuff in unison along with him:
“I will never be broke again in my life!”
Living the good life is a theme of Pastor Chris’ preaching. “I came that they may have and enjoy life!” he said, alluding to the words of Jesus.
“Settle that in your heart, settle it in your spirit. This is why Jesus came!”
During the conference, I heard several testimonies of miracles about diabetes, crippling back pain, and business crises. I heard about the personal piety of Pastor Chris, and how he wore shorts one day, and his followers noted with awe that his knees were black from countless hours of prayer.
Pastor Chris’ distinctive teaching goes like this: Once you’re born again in Jesus Christ, you’re the Righteous—“holy, unblameable, unreproachable,” as Anita Oyakhilome, his wife, says in a YouTube clip that neatly sums up the couple’s message. Sin and the Devil are no longer an issue for you, because Christ’s work is complete.
The Christian life, then, consists of becoming “aware of who you are”—the Righteous, an heir of Christ, entitled to power, prosperity, and joyous living—the “Higher Life.”
If you don’t possess these things, if you continue to struggle with sin and doubt and the Devil, you’re an “ignorant Christian,” according to Pastor Chris.
He spoke sneeringly about Christians who try hard to obey God, mess up, make up, and try harder, in a cycle of futility. In the Old Testament days, he explained, the people of Israel “tried to obey God, but they failed God.”
Everything changed with Jesus Christ. “In the New Testament, we don’t try to obey the Word,” Pastor Chris said at the conference. “We look at the mirror”—meaning the Word of God—“and it shows yourself.
“We don’t need to obey,” he continued. “We look and see who we are and walk in the light of who we are.”
And who are we? The Righteous. The Unblameable. The Unreproachable.
I guess that makes me an ignorant Christian.
It also provides a big, fat rationalization for all kinds of sin.
No stranger to controversy
In between the nightly sessions, I got online, I made calls, I sent missives to Nigeria. Pastor Chris, through intermediaries, declined an interview with MannaEXPRESS, so I had to look elsewhere. He is accustomed to controversy, and his activities and personal life are dissected and commented upon in African media with the same scrutiny accorded to Hollywood celebrities in the American tabloid press.
It’s a strange media world to these American eyes, with much of the coverage poorly sourced and gossipy in the extreme, but it points to the status of mega-evangelists such as Pastor Chris in the developing world, with its ravenous hunger for the miraculous. And the gospel. And gossip.
It isn’t difficult to find scathing criticisms of Pastor Chris online. Some of it, however, seems motivated by jealousy. Pastor Chris reportedly has great personal wealth, and his church is growing worldwide by leaps and bounds.
But a few reports had the heft of real news. The case against Pastor Chris goes roughly along these lines:
Are the miracles real?
The Sowetan newspaper, published in Johannesburg, South Africa, reported in 2008 that a Christ Embassy pastor—not Pastor Chris—had allegedly offered a man 10,000 rand ($1,287.00), a huge sum for most South Africans) to rehearse and pretend to be wheelchair-bound for a Pastor Chris crusade. He was to stand up and walk as soon as Pastor Chris finished praying for him. The man refused, according to the report by Gertrude Makhafola and Tebogo Monama.
Jackson Ekwugum, publisher and editor of LifeWay, a respected Christian magazine in Nigeria, hasn’t heard allegations like this in Lagos, Pastor Chris’ Nigerian home base. But he notes that Nigeria’s National Broadcasting Commission has banned Pastor Chris’ Healing School “for various reasons including unverifiable miracles.” (Pastor Chris’ teaching programs still appear on television in Nigeria, and other ministries were also affected by the NBC’s crackdown on “miracle” programming.)
Many followers of Pastor Chris, however, have testified publicly about healing miracles resulting from his prayers. It’s highly unlikely they’re all lying; his healing ministry cannot be dismissed.
What is his relationship with controversial healer T.B. Joshua?
T.B. Joshua is a well-known Nigerian healer who has been widely discredited by church leaders in his home country for mixing Christianity and the occult. Many rumors surround Pastor Chris’ association with Joshua, who Pastor Chris has called a “friend.” Some say Joshua mentored and “initiated” Pastor Chris, and that Pastor Chris even adopted some of the healer’s unusual mannerisms and tactics in ministering to the sick. Pastor Chris says that he never studied under Joshua.
J. Lee Grady, former editor of Charisma magazine in the United States and a well-known columnist (whose work appears in these pages), has traveled and ministered many times in Nigeria. He has written investigative stories about T.B. Joshua, and believes Pastor Chris’ association with Joshua, whatever it entails, should give believers reason for pause. “In Nigeria you have occult healers in every corner,” Grady says. “This guy [Joshua] is a witch. All of his early history has nothing to do with Christianity. He started meeting Charismatic preachers in America and elsewhere, and he started passing himself off as a Pentecostal.”
While miracles do seem to follow Joshua’s ministry, Grady and others are not impressed. “There are false miracles,” Grady says. “That is no surprise to Nigerians.” His article on Pastor Chris can be read here.
Does he carry prosperity preaching to new extremes?
Pastor Chris wears his prosperity boldly. He is known in Nigeria for his wealth and for reportedly traveling through Lagos’ clogged streets in a caravan of expensive vehicles, guarded by security agents and with sirens blaring. Pastor Chris is “glamour and gospel rolled into one,” as one Nigerian publication put it.
Ekwugum credits the posh persona for some of Pastor Chris’ popularity. “Many people in Nigeria and Africa are desperate for success,” he says. “Pastor Chris’ very visible television ministry has accorded him fame and fortune. To many young people he is a picture of what they want to be.”
Pastor Chris reportedly profits from the sales of the many publications distributed by Christ Embassy. But at the Higher Life Conference in Dallas, offerings were a decidedly low-key affair. Ekwugum notes that Pastor Chris isn’t much different from the other prosperity preachers populating the Christian airwaves.
The problem of sin
I must admit, reading all the reports about Pastor Chris’ ministry and personal life wore me out. What’s true, and what isn’t? Should I be disturbed by his emphasis on prosperity? I’ve seen, after all, that many of the criticisms against prosperity teaching are leveled by the comfortable classes. When you’re desperate for hope and staring down generations of abject poverty, life looks a little different.
Same with miracles. I’d snatch up crumbs of healing if I were the mother of the ailing young woman I sat behind at the conference, blind and grotesquely disfigured.
So I pushed the news reports to the back of my head and listened to Pastor Chris teach. And that made my stomach queasier than anything I read.
On nights One and Two of the conference, the altar calls made no mention of the desperate condition that separates man from God—sin.
So what exactly were these people being saved from?
It was on night Three that Pastor Chris spelled out his unusual beliefs on sin. He used many Scriptures to support his teaching, which basically goes like this: The moment you are saved, you become born again. You are a totally new creature. Jesus’ saving work is completely finished in your life—you are the Righteous.
The biblical law is for “transgressors,” or sinners. Since you are the Righteous, the law does not apply to you. The only law that is still valid for Christians is the law of love, and love, as Pastor Chris noted, is unselfish.
Summing up Pastor Chris’ teaching on sin, Jackson Ekwugum says, “They believe that once saved, forever saved, and that if you sin it is the body that sins but the spirit is not affected.”
So there you have it, a modern-day Gnosticism, the ancient heresy that claimed the acts of the body were irrelevant, that what really mattered was secret knowledge, “new” revelation.
But the sick and the maimed who came to Pastor Chris’ U.S. conference weren’t there to parse theology. They just wanted to be healed.
Oddly enough, Pastor Chris never prayed for them or even set foot in their section of the audience. On the first night there was much jockeying for position, to be just a bit closer to the miracle-worker and hopefully catch his eye. All to no avail.
I could sense spirits rise and fall and fade away as Pastor Chris Oyakhilome briskly walked off stage to roaring applause when his message was finished. •
Julie Lyons is a journalist, author, and editor. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.