He walks onto a spotlit stage. Loud music and even louder applause greets his appearance. He is the new face of religion in this country - the flashy pastor. Mokgadi Seabi meets a few of South Africa’s new celebrity pastors.
Each Sunday when Pastor Ray McCauley steps on stage, the crowd breaks into such a loud cheer that the uninitiated may think pop star Mariah Carey is trailing behind him. But the only one in the spotlight on the Rhema Bible Church stage is the big man himself.
Despite two divorces and a couple of scandals, McCauley can do no wrong. The stage is his, and his alone, and the congregation likes it that way.
The fanatical concentration with which the flock listens to his every word is akin to a music fan listening to their favourite singer at a concert – catching every syllable and lyric.
Camera lights flash while large TV monitors surround him.
This audience’s reaction towards its pastor is not unique to Rhema.
These days pastors are treated like celebrities, and some of them live and behave like the rich and famous.
While McCauley’s may be the first name that comes to mind when you mention celebrity pastors, there are many other local pastors who are fast gaining the fame and, often, the fortune that comes with being the feted leader of a large church.
Some of the more popular ones include Pastor Vusi Dube, who is a politician and the founder of the eThekwini Community Church.
He ordained President Jacob Zuma as a pastor in his church.
Others include Pastor Mosa Sono of Grace Bible Church in Soweto, who also has a satellite church in the affluent suburb of Rivonia, Sandton; Pastor Bafana Zondo of the Living Water Ministries in the Free State and Soweto; and Pastor At Boshoff of the Christian Revival Church in Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
There’s also singer Reverend Benjamin Dube of the High Praise Centre; Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of the Christ Embassy in Nigeria and South Africa; finance whizz Pastor Jerome Liberty of Victory Ministries International in Port Elizabeth; and Prophet Paseka Motsoeneng, popularly known as Pastor Mboro, of Incredible Happenings Ministry in Katlehong.
All these men are making waves in Christian fellowship circles.
Each of these congregations can boast up to 7 000 members every Sunday and are often featured on various TV stations daily.
In McCauley’s case, he even has his own dedicated channel – Rhema TV.
When you consider the fact that Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of the Christ Embassy Church sold out the 94 000-seater FNB stadium during his Night of Bliss event last month, you get the full scope of just how much star power a pastor holds.
Theologian Desmond Lambrechts of the Ecumenical Foundation of South Africa says: “People live in an age of consumerism, where everyone is looking to get quick-fix answers to everything, especially health and wealth. These charismatic pastors provide something different from orthodox churches by telling their followers that God blesses those he favours with riches and miraculous healings.”
The South African Theological Seminary’s Dr Reuben van Rensburg believes that, like many of their Nigerian counterparts, some local ministers build churches around the strength of their personalities.
“The prosperity gospel movement can now be found everywhere, from the US to Africa, where churches are run by leaders looking for financial benefits while preaching the gospel,” says Van Rensburg.
He describes the “prosperity gospel” as a Christian belief that began in the 1990s by a controversial American religious leader called Oral Roberts, who founded the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association and was one of the pioneers of TV evangelism.
Supporters believe that God wants his followers to prosper and, in order to do so, you have to contribute generous tithes to your church.
The critics, mainly from mainstream churches, believe it’s a dangerous gospel that “fleeces the flock”.
It’s mostly poor church members who give the little money they have, expecting to be blessed tenfold.
Dr Jurgens Hendriks, the head of Practical Theology at Stellenbosch University, says that during his studies into the phenomenon of “prosperity gospel”, he has found the trend to be mostly prevalent in countries like Nigeria, where pastors “compete against each other with expensive cars and palaces”.
“The pastors preach ‘prosperity gospel’, which tells their congregation that the Lord wants them to be wealthy, whereas orthodox churches preach humility in amassing wealth.
“This message appeals mostly to professionals who do not want to feel guilty when they make money. They don’t have a problem giving a tenth of their salary because they expect to gain tenfold, as they are told,” says Hendriks.
His statement is echoed by another theology follower, Professor Jacob Manala of Unisa, who believes the celebrity pastors from charismatic churches have managed to grasp the essence of African spirituality.
This includes the belief in a priest’s ability to heal all kinds of illnesses, promoting spirituality through praise and song, and the concept of giving offerings so that God or your ancestors can look favourably upon you.
That, he says, is the reason mainstream churches are losing their members by the thousands.
Manala adds that another reason is that the healing ministry and prosperity gospel are both subjects near and dear to most Africans.
These healthy and wealthy, who include well-known celebrities, politicians and athletes, can often be seen attending church in their designer outfits, rubbing shoulders with ordinary church members.
Celebs like designer David Tlale, Sophie Ndaba, Thuli Thabethe and Sonia Sedibe can be found at the Grace Bible Church in Soweto, while Basetsana Kumalo, Baby Jake Matlala, Kabelo Mabalane, businessman Lazarus Zim and many other politicians worship at Rhema.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with prosperity gospel,” says Pastor Dube, who is a businessman and politician.
“From Catholics, Anglicans to Mormon, they also preach prosperity but they try too hard to balance it with the gospel. For instance, if I’m going to build a church, I will need contributions from the congregation. I won’t go ask some bank because the community needs to feel that it belongs to them,” says Dube.
Observes Hendriks: “You will often find that pastors in affluent parts of cities attract affluent churchgoers who don’t see a problem with their church leader looking just as affluent and spectacular as they do.”
Pastor Sono is not happy with the celebrity status of the men of God.
“It is unfortunate that the word celebrity can be used in the same breath as the word pastor. I believe our role as pastors is to serve God, lead people, serve our communities. None of us can know all the reasons people come to church, and their perception of us. My belief and function is to assume that all have come because of a genuine desire for God and for God’s word.”
Professor Jan Hattingh from the Auckland Park Theological Seminary, the oldest Pentecostal and Charismatic theological seminary in southern Africa, believes this trend is damaging the image of pastors.
“There is nothing wrong with dressing well. Most pastors I know have a secondary job and if you have the means to dress well, why not?”
Dube says: “I believe there are issues of jealousy from the mainstream because they’re losing their members to young pastors who are charismatic.
“I will concede that there are some pastors who will take advantage of poor people. It’s those few that give the rest of us a bad name. We just want our congregation to prosper mentally, physically and spiritually,” explains Dube.
Says Hendriks: “The tide is slowly turning against these spectacul
ar churches because of the information era. False churches are unmasked every day because they don’t have a message that sustains the congregation.”