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Johannesburg's rock and roll church

The Rivers Church draws big crowds of worshipers with slick, entertaining services.

The Rivers Church in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Sandton looks more like a concert hall than a house of worship. The services feature lots of rock and pop music. (Photo courtesy of Rivers Church)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Entering the Rivers Church in Sandton, one of the richest neighborhoods in this city, feels more like entering a concert hall than a house of worship.

There are no stained glass windows, towering crosses, or a pulpit for the pastor.
Instead, there are giant screens that envelope three sides of the church with slickly produced videos worthy of MTV, a raucous rock and roll band with a singer who looks like he stepped out of “American Idol,” and a pastor whose appearance and energy makes it clear: This ain’t your father’s church.

About 4,500 to 5,000 worshippers stream in and out of the church every weekend in an operation so meticulously executed that each service is 90 minutes long, no more, no less. A few dozen guides, ushers, and parking attendants, all church volunteers, move worshipers in and out like clockwork. Services are at 6 p.m. on Saturday, and on Sunday at 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The church’s ultra-modern building, with its polished steel and dark wood panels, fits right in among the glass skyscrapers of Johannesburg’s number one business center. The church’s lobby is dominated by a well-appointed gift-shop, and the smell of coffee wafts from the snack bar on the mezzanine.

The worshippers come in all hues and colors, and the parking lot is filled with Porsche Cayennes, Hummers and BMW X5s. Although the congregation is predominantly white, there are many blacks and people of all colors. People are dressed as if they were told the dress code is “smart casual.” Colorful blouses, elaborate hairdos, and a sprinkle of flowery African dresses are everywhere.

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The unconventional appearance of the congregation extends to Senior Pastor Andre Oliver who bounds up on stage in an outfit that would have made Johnny Cash proud. On a recent Sunday the pastor was garbed in cowboy boots, stylish black pants and an untucked black shirt adorned with a large sequined cross on the back. A thin, plastic tube curled around his left earlobe served as a microphone.

In rapid succession, the business of tithing, children dedications and special prayers were dispensed with. Every utterance of the speakers was amplified with video illustrations on the giant screens behind them, including a note alerting worshippers that, for security reasons, “no one will be permitted to leave the auditorium until the offering has been received and taken off the property.”

The success of the church, one of the fastest growing in the country, is based on the financial support from worshippers.

After the preliminaries are done with, Olivier bounds on stage and says, “Finally!”
“I’m going to come at you like that movie “The Fast and the Furious,” because I have a lot to say and we want to let you go on time,” he said. Olivier added that he wanted to “pray for the nation,” and plunged into current affairs such as the current municipal strikes, which he said harmed the country.