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.
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.
“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.”