Have the Advertising Standards Authority heard of Fabrice Muamba?

All right-minded people will be relieved that Fabrice Muamba appears to be making a recovery which experts are saying is ‘miraculous’. Earlier in the week, players, fans, followers and officials from his club were all appealing through the media for people to pray for him. Chelsea’s Gary Cahill was amongst the advocates and wore a “Pray 4 Muamba” T-shirt in a recent match against Leicester. And no doubt countless thousands of people have been praying, even if they do not all personally know the God to whom they are addressing their prayers.

It is hugely reassuring that when a crisis occurs, there is still an instinctive reaction to pray amongst the general populace. Some Christians might be dismissive and see it as no more than a cultural sentiment akin to sending “positive thoughts and warm fuzzies” which Facebook friends bombard each other with whenever somebody admits to being unwell. Consider it, if you choose, as nothing more than an expression of solidarity which actually requires you to do nothing. But I would rather recognise it as a sign of latent spirituality which offers enormous hope for the Christian church and for witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus.

When I served in military chaplaincy in Rhodesia many years ago, it was commonplace for troops to compete in trying to persuade the padre or ‘skypilot’ to accompany them on their particular vehicle when a troop deployment convoy set out. The rationale was that if fate should determine that a truck in the convoy was going to detonate a landmine, it would somehow be less likely to be the truck that had the padre on board! Spiritual superstition maybe, but what an opportunity it opened up for a Christian witness in such circumstances!

I sense that much of secular Britain’s population today still retains a similar residual kind of spiritual belief. If public opinion is in any way reflected by the tabloid press, then the headlines on the Monday morning following the incident made interesting reading. The Sun showed more theological astuteness than some church leaders in the bold print headline “God Is In Control”; The Star showed a picture of Muamba, accompanied with the words in large font “In God’s Hands”. Even the BBC’s Home Editor, Mark Easton wrote a web article which began “Have you prayed for Fabrice Muamba today?” And this comes from an organisation that has publicly admitted its anti-Christian bias.

The Metro’s headline was also something rarely seen in British media: “Your Prayers Are Working”, it optimistically blazoned across its front page. There must surely be a divine irony in the fact that all this happens barely a month after the Advertising Standards Agency had banned a Christian group in Bath from claiming that God can heal as a result of prayer. The ministry group known as HOTS – Healing On The Streets – have members from a variety of different churches, and they have regularly prayed for members of the public outside Bath Abbey for the past three years, and have numerous testimonies of healings that have resulted. But the ASA’s verdict was that such claims were misleading, irresponsible and could encourage false hope. Perhaps someone should contact them and tell them about Fabrice Muamba. I am convinced God has a sense of humour.

There have, understandably, been some mutterings that these public appeals for prayer only occur when it is some big name celebrity who is in peril, and that there are countless thousands of ordinary members of the public who daily suffer similar life-threatening conditions who don’t get prayed for. Ironically, when Christians have lately taken such initiatives to pray for ill or needy people, they have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs for such an act of caring. But isn’t such a ministry of prayer exactly what the Church of Jesus Christ is best able to do? Praying for ordinary people on the streets or in their homes who request or value such healing prayer is a privilege that need not be confined to worthy groups like HOTS.

Whilst miraculous healings are not always experienced by everyone who is prayed for, perhaps if more Christians were willing to offer to lay their hand on a sick neighbour, work colleague or friend and pray a simple prayer for the healing power of Jesus to be manifested, the headlines mentioned above might not be as extraordinary as they appear today. And just perhaps, the Advertising Standards Authority may be forced to change their tune!

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol