Why Cults Thrive in Uganda

In 2013, Conrad Mbewe of Kabwata Baptist Church in Zambia preached a Sermon titled ‘Are we Preachers or Witch-doctors?’ at the Strange Fire Conference, an annual Conference organized by Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, California. In his presentation, later published in a blog (found here), Mbewe makes an excellent diagnosis of the evangelical movement in Africa, most especially the famous charismatic churches.

When the study of global Christianity mentions the widespread of Christianity in Africa, they usually speak regarding numbers and conversions to Christianity, but often stay silent on the question of discipleship.

As a result, it is easier to see and hear of the consistent numerical growth, for any movement claiming to be Christian, if led by a charismatic personality and can take advantage of mass media and proper branding, than it is to hear of well grounded and exegetically sound preaching.

Even our evangelism is more of promotion than an invite to eternal life, the forsaking of all other idols and wholesome embracing of the well explained Person and Work of Christ. As a result, many come to Christ, if they come at all, because of what they expect Him to give them, rather than who He is. We are rarely given Christ; but promises of promotions on jobs, or marriage partner, or a visa, or overcoming witchcraft, should we ‘make the decision’ to ‘come to Christ.’

We had written about IYF and the dangers it poses to evangelicalism in Uganda here. But IYF is not alone. The fastest growing form of ‘Christianity’ in Uganda is not biblical Christianity, but promotional Christianity, popularly known as the Prosperity gospel. It is a form of Christianity that pays no attention to Christian doctrine and teaching whatsoever yet emphasizes a materialistic approach to theism and the Bible. The God of the Bible is viewed as a means to the end, the end being our well-being here and now rather than eternal life in Christ that demands obedience and a complete change of our motivations from what is earthly to what is heavenly. Sure, the talk of eternal life does exist, but only in as much as it translates to my well-being here and now.

Of the current popular movements, particularly in Uganda, is ‘Phaneroo,’ a name derived from a Greek word simply meaning ‘Make Manifest.’ This movement is led by ‘Apostle’ Grace Lubega, a former Banker with Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), whose rise to prominence has been quick and visible. This article aims at introducing this movement, placed in its cultural and evangelical context. It will be against this backdrop that we shall learn more of what it teaches, in the subsequent articles.

Phaneroo has its roots in Afro-Stone fellowship (a fellowship at Makerere University that brought together Christians from the two on-campus halls of residence, Africa Hall for the Ladies and Livingstone Hall for the Gents). Its inception as well was at Heart of Christ Ministries International in Mukono, pastored by ‘Bishop’ Isaiah Mbuga. The spread of Phaneroo is beyond Uganda, as they have a school of ministry even in Boston. It targets the young, especially those at college campuses who are enthusiastic at having found something to engage their minds and involve their energies.

The youth often view the mainline Protestant Churches as ‘cold,’ ‘unengaging’ and ‘outdated,’ unable to provide the youth with a challenge to ‘grow,’ and as a result, the youth in these churches either attended just for the sake of doing so or because their Parents did. Phaneroo offers something different, something ‘catchy.’ After all, the leader is himself young and energetic and seems to speak their language.

Pastor Mbewe, speaks of the sort of Witch-doctor mentality in the charismatic movement, where the Pastor is a cult hero, supposedly with a ‘special level of knowledge’ that the congregation doesn’t seem to enjoy. In the mind of the followers, and encouraged by lack of biblical depth, the ‘deep knowledge’ the Pastor has gives him unquestionable authority over the congregation that is otherwise unbiblical.

Lubega’s cult-hero status can readily be ascertained by having a conversation with any of his followers.

As Mbewe Exposits 2 Timothy 3:14-17, his emphasis on the need for every Pastor to ground their preaching and teaching in scripture can never be overstated. As we will see later, the lack of expository preaching is responsible for the mushrooming of these unbiblical movements. You will rarely hear Pastors in Uganda (and in Africa) preach from a text, well explained without neglect for its textual, historical and cultural context. This remains the most significant undoing of the Church in Africa, and thus the unfortunate and unforgettable maxim, ‘the church in Africa is thousands of miles wide, but one inch deep.’

The ‘Quick Fix’ Solution Mentality 

‘We live in a society in which many people are constantly searching for a quick fix to all life’s problems—a little‐known truth that once discovered will eliminate the wants, worries, and woes of life. It is therefore not surprising that The Secret, which claims to reveal an age‐old process for attaining anything and everything one desires, is quickly gaining a frenzied following.’  Hank Hanegraaff

The context of Christianity in Uganda is not just of people who have no discipline to study scripture for themselves, but also a materially poor people, who would do anything and go anywhere to receive relief from their troubles. The quicker it is, the better.

When a man suffering from the pressures of this fallen world hears a hope of redemption from the horrors of his life, perhaps a sermon about their right to riches, a talk about how to survive the witch-doctor next door, or how to pass his exams without much effort, such a man will give you his ear. There is a tendency in Uganda, not always, and not for everyone, but generally, for people to look for a quick fix scheme that will solve all their problems, overnight. This explains why sports betting, network marketing, promotional offers, and lottery are thriving in Uganda, forgetting that false hope offered to a fallen, misguided and suffering man does more damage to his soul than harsh truth does; for false hope kills him eternally though it seems to save him temporarily.

When the Pastor, or ‘Man of God’ promises the congregation a quick end to all their problems in a minute, through the Pastor’s prayer and the believer’s ‘seed,’ this Pastor’s popularity shall grow regardless of how biblical their message is. In fact, the more unbiblical the teaching is, the more popular the Pastor, or so it seems. So it was in the days of the Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 4). Popular Christianity in Uganda is more of a promotional offer than redemption from sin and eternal death.

We seem to forget often that biblical Christianity speaks of carrying the cross and following Christ (Luke 9:23). We overlook the truth that Christ doesn’t promise that all our earthly problems shall vanish once you come to Him.

He instead admonishes us to set our eyes on things above, to store up treasure not on earth but above, where no moth can reach (Matt 6:19-21). And yet, the message preached on most pulpits, is that all your problems will be dealt with if you only do what the Pastor says. Much of what the Charismatic movement in Uganda does teach (and we shall explain most, one by one, in the subsequent articles) is about earthly things; it is a call for ‘believers’ to set their eyes on material things, it is human-centered rather than Christ-Centered.

Why Should We Be Concerned?

The lack of clarity concerning what Christianity is, even among those who profess to be Christians leaves many confused. Multitudes shall come to Christ on the last day, telling Him how they did miracles in His Name and even prophesied in His name, only for Him to let them know, gently and painfully that He never knew them (Matt 7:21-23). Unfortunately, with the subtlety of deception, many do not think about this painful ending on the judgment day.

Miracles and Prophecy, are the two things that Christ in this text mentions as the evidence these false and wicked preachers shall present on the last day to prove their authenticity in Christian ministry. In Uganda, these two are carrying the day. On Phaneroo’s website, ‘about Apostle Grace Lubega’ section (which we will talk more about later) gives these as evidence of the authenticity of his preaching.

It is indeed ignored that Christ insists that they must not be. Not only that but also big ministries with far-reaching influence in Uganda have names revealing a ‘miracle’ centered ministry. As expected, there is no biblical exposition in their preaching, and Christ is spoken of in as far as He helps them achieve their dreams of a good life here on earth.

Paul’s charge to Timothy, to be careful, ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15) is one few Pastors heed too well. The frenzy of activities, the lack of personal discipline and diligence to study, the illiteracy of some and sinfulness of many are some of the factors that hinder proper Bible study. The need for the preacher to sound relevant and unique also contributes to the dangers. For all these reasons, cults thrive in such a context as this.

The reason why Paul challenges Timothy to study diligently is that it is a dangerous thing to misrepresent God. When a man claims to speak for God, especially in a context so sensitive to the supernatural realities of Africa, many listen and believe without questioning. The Pastor has almost unchallenged access to the heart of those under him with least resistance.

To quote Mbewe, ‘the seismic shift (has) taken place in the popular understanding of who a pastor is (crosswise) a large section of Africa.  What we read in the Bible a few minutes ago ((2 Timothy 3:14-17) is not what is on the popular mind back home.  The pastor is someone who faithfully studies the Bible, preaches it in its context, applies it in the context of God’s people.  No.  And what you need to appreciate is that the Charismatic Movement in Africa has evolved further than its American counterpart, especially in its portrayal of the person often referred to as the man of God.’

When a Pastor who has not patiently studied Scripture preaches to a congregation that has not quietly studied Scripture themselves, there cannot be biblical depth. Personal Studying is something often avoided by many in Africa, and regrettably so.

Without the truth of God carefully preached as revealed in God’s word, there will remain fertile grounds for cults to thrive. And Uganda is fertile ground, unfortunately. The church of Christ only exists where the Word of Christ is adequately preached. Eloquence is useful when used correctly to communicate well-exposited truths, and deadly when deception is the poison of asps under the tongue. It is even more dangerous when delivered with the language of learning within the context of those without the personal discipline of study and reading of God’s all-sufficient and inerrant word.

There must be clarity between what Christianity is, and what it is not. We must be able to tell the Wolves from the Sheep if Christ is to be exalted in this land. I seek to sound the trumpet, of the dangers to Christendom that lie ahead. And this article was by way of introduction. In the next pieces, my attention shall be explicitly turned to Phaneroo; it’s doctrines and specific dangers it poses to Christianity.