Connect to share and comment

Johannesburg's rock and roll church

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


“I’m not trying to be politically correct, but publically correct,” he said.
In his main sermon, Olivier preached about the negative effects of speaking ill of others. His every utterance was accompanied by the appropriate image on the video behind, from Martin Luther to a traditional praise singer garbed in leopard skin. The pastor moved the sermon briskly, at one point asking the members to form circles of three or four and pray with each other.

After the service, Leslie Pupuma, an attorney, said he loved coming to the church because it was unlike any he had attended before.

“It is relaxed, informal and what they say is relevant to our daily lives,” said Pupuma. “These are issues that we deal every day. It is a place you can relate to.”

One worshipper, who declined to give her name, said it would be wrong to focus on “the glitzy” side of the church. “I started coming here because my friend’s domestic worker worships here. She walks here. So you have all types here.”

The churchgoer, a mother of two boys, said the main reason she has chosen Rivers as her place of worship was because, in addition to their message, that they emphasized a well-run Sunday School for children with state-of-the art play equipment and well-organized Bible lessons.

“They are focused on raising the next generation of Christians, cultivating them from the ground up,” she said.

When approached for an interview after the service, Pastor Olivier said he was concerned about negative stories because his church had been misrepresented in the press in the past. But he finally consented to speak by saying that people should not judge his house of worship by its glitzy style.

“It’s the same message of the Bible, packaged differently,” he said.
“We don’t want the way people dress to be a barrier to their coming to church,” he said. “I sometimes come in jeans. We are just trying to make the Bible relevant to people’s lives. Yes, we use pop music, but remember pop comes from popular.”

The pastor said he had always had his own sense of style. “I used to own a shoe factory,” he said. His wife of 36 years, Wilma, is the church’s other senior pastor. They have three children and three grandchildren.

The Rivers Church, which is a part of the world-wide Assemblies of God congregation, was founded in 1992.

Olivier said the racial mix among his congregation was not unusual because he grew up in Cape Town in a multi-racial community while attending a Catholic boarding school. He said that he struggled to include more people black people on the church’s leadership positions but that finding the right people was difficult.

“Most educated black people these days go to business, and going into the church is a sacrifice,” he said.
Olivier recently married one of his daughters to a church member who happens to be a black.

Paul Germond, who lectures on the sociology of religion at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said Pentecostal churches started to gain popularity in South Africa in the 1970s and “have really blossomed in the last 15 years.“

“All these churches - Rhema Church, Grace Church, His People, and Rivers — are mega churches that preach a gospel of prosperity in which theology says that God rewards the faithful in material ways,” Germond said. “It fits in neatly with consumer capitalism. You see it in the car, homes, dress … the conspicuous consumption.”

Germond added the churches have a “heavy emphasis in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, miracles and exorcisms,” he added. “There is a high demand of members. It is very intense. Members belong to cell groups and participate in smaller groupings.”

Germond said that there has been, among some whites, “a massive break" from the Catholic and Anglican Churches. "These (evangelical) churches have flowered since 1994 and attracted whites disaffected by mainline churches,” he said.

“For black people moving from up from the townships, these churches have been an entry to modernity," Germond said. “These churches are hostile to traditional beliefs such as ancestor worship, lobola (bridal) payment and animal sacrifice. So black Christians have been able to break from those practices through these churches.”