Packing them in without a pew

2011-04-16 16:10

Oh God. That was the first thought that popped into my mind when I was told I had to spend time over my precious weekend watching Christian television.

My preconceived notions of evangelists nagging about being damned to hell got the better of me.

Don’t get me wrong, those disparaging thoughts aren’t without foundation.

Coming from an inter-religious family, switching from MTV to religious programming was not uncommon growing up in our household.

The channel would suddenly change from Jay-Z spitting against a heavy beat to a mid-western-sounding “and I look to Genesis chapter 9, verse 17, line 3, word 1” – you get the point.

Televangelism originally started in the US during the 1980s as not only a means of spreading ­religious messages, but one which supported and rallied for ­politicians such as Ronald Reagan and later George Bush.

Over the years, with negative ­reports abounding about the founding fathers of evangelism such as Jimmy Swaggart, Billy ­Graham and Jim Bakker – questions arose about their sincerity, honour and authority.

Bakker was caught, as one website describes it, with “church ­secretary Jessica Hahn, who got to know Jim Bakker and John Wesley Fletcher – in a Biblical sense”.

Swaggart’s?now?infamous?line “the devil made me do it”, after being caught with a prostitute, also removed a bit of his heavenly glow.

Another website has a list of ­televangelists in the US who have been inducted to the hall of shame for their indiscretions, which range from sex with prostitutes to ­embezzlement and fraud.

But not even this kind of public shame can stop the brazen religious dogma from ruling television.

South Africa has its fair share of preachy TV programming and ­perhaps Pastor Ray McCauley should be thanked for that.

The emperor of a network of Christian services from mass ­services to pastoral zones, ­McCauley’s Rhema Network is the originator in South Africa of outlandish religious TV.

His church in Randburg seems to preach “successful lives”, according to an article from the Independent, to its 40?000-strong congregation.

And despite his questionable lifestyle and R100 million Rhema ­Network (valued in 2009), not even President Jacob Zuma delivering a Sunday talk prior to elections two years ago is stopping anyone from leaving the pew.

Both DStv and TopTV offer three channels each dedicated to Christian ­programming, proving the genre’s audience-pulling power.

But since the days of pulpit-pounding Graham and Swaggart, there have been some modifications made in the Christian television line-up over the years.

Not everyone speaks with a drawl, not everyone has miracle healing abilities (some of them still do), and not every one of them is a man.

DStv keeps its religious programming to a minimum with the likes of ONEGospel, TBN Africa and Rhema, but that costs extra.

TopTV also offers three dedicated channels for the Christian faith: Inspiration TV, God TV (seriously?) and local channel Top Gospel, a24-hour scheduled channel.

Top Gospel is a multi-denominational channel featuring Christian lifestyle programming, commercial preacher slots, talk shows, music videos and movies.

The channel head of Top Gospel, Lineo Sekeleoane, says: “The ­‘content spine’ of the channel ­features both South African and ­international celebrity preachers (with a definite skew to local preachers), as well as local and ­international Gospel music.

“We feature a variety of preachers?– male, female and youth ­pastors.”

Unlike my set ideas or previous experiences of watching people ­being “healed” with one magical touch, the channel offers a lot more than that.

Shows like Feel the Vibe, which is hip-hop and rock Gospel-centric, focus on ­music, while Ezomoya entices more traditional viewers.

Shows like Back Chat and ­Play-List USA do away with the idea that religious television has to be threatening, or scary for that matter.

And this is exactly what the channel is aiming for.

ONEGospel’s Brendah Nyakuda says: “When ­ONEGospel was launched one of our mottos was reach don’t preach.

The world didn’t need another channel preaching the word, as there are enough of those.

It was therefore necessary to find something that still got the message across without preaching or Bible-bashing.”

Televangelism may have started in the 80s and, it would appear with more threats of Armageddon on the way, it is here to stay.

Though these days it tends as much towards spirituality as it does towards fire, brimstone and miracle cures, making it easier to endure.

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