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When the pulpit becomes a television spectacle


On January 2 whilst some people I know were nursing huge hangovers, I made a beeline to a church somewhere in Harare.

The set-up in the church reminded me very much of the ones I had seen in television church shows.

This service was not live on television but it was being recorded on video.

You would agree there is nothing amiss in this, but I want to argue that television is killing evangelism.

Now, this is contrary to what every Zimbabwean knows – those well-known pastors with their own television channels are hot.

They are our new superstars.

There is no doubt about the growth of Pentecostalism across Africa and I don’t wish to speculate as to the causes of this explosion.

I should just speak for myself that my dalliance with a certain denomination at school left me feeling weighed down by the monotony of the rituals and the restraint in the singing (Africans want their music to have “feeling”).

I still remember the masses in Latin, “Dominus vobiscum, Et cum spiritu tuo (The Lord be with you, And thy Spirit).”

On a continent in which we prefer to express our joy and exuberance with a feeling a bit stronger than James Brown in his heyday, you can imagine how some old denominations cannot adequately accommodate our energy.

But the same television that is now assisting the growth of evangelism threatens to take away the authenticity of sermons and replace it with something akin to dramatised rituals.

Let me make my argument by going back in time (ah, here he goes again on his nostalgic tip!) In 1975, Reverend Piniel Chimuriwo of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Zimunya Township, Umtali (now Mutare), did not have a number of things, namely, a television, an audio recording machine, a microphone and the Internet.

He wore the same old grey suit and black shoes. It seemed his appearance was of lesser importance than his preaching.

He could hold you in awe with his sermons, singing and burning eyes:

“A naught child is like a rotten tomato. A rotten tomato is cast out.”

Whew! This was uncompromising stuff and he liked throwing brimstone and fire at us every Sunday.

Years later I would study Irish writer James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and I would relate to the nightmares the main character Stephen Dedalus had after a sermon at his school.

These days I contrast that humble look of Rev Chimuriwo and his heartfelt sermons with that of the dapper television celebrity evangelists.

Whether we like it or not, the reality of television is that it is a medium that demands certain things: it asserts the tyranny of time, it demands make-up, it demands certain poses and gestures, it demands that the audience look glam and not glum . . . In the process some genuineness is lost.

I watch and listen carefully and I feel something is just not right. Something is contrived. I think I am seeing a lot of performance and not the genuine reach-out to the congregation.

We cannot change the hands of time and wish for a period when technology was not so pervasive. What is important surely is to put human beings at the centre and use technology to communicate the message. Special effects are not the message.

My other personal gripe is with bands and choirs. The ability of ordinary congregants to sing has been taken away by those stars on stage every Sunday.

Once upon a time there was something called the hymn book but it is now as extinct as the dodo bird. The hymn book was a great leveller.

It allowed everyone, including some of us who are better off confining our singing to the shower, to participate.

But we now mumble through songs and we wouldn’t pull it off without the sterling choir entertaining us upfront. We demand the right to sing too!

There is also an issue I can’t fathom, language. You would have thought by now we would have come full circle and rediscovered that our people actually love it if you can tell them a story in their “mother tongue”.

In sub-Saharan Africa it seems only English will work on television. Rev Chimuriwo preached in Shona. We heard and understood him perfectly well.

Contrast that with my January 2 sermon which was delivered in English . . . As we normally remark, this language arrived by ship (meaning it is not homegrown).

When you are not a native speaker of a language, nuance normally fails you. But this pastor tried – he shouted himself hoarse until I couldn’t follow.

It was clear there was a conflict here. He was coming from the old tradition of Bible-thumping (my kind of style) but he was trying to adapt to the English service that would require a different voice modulation. It didn’t really work.

When he made some small forays into Shona the audience came alive but their language remained a distant visitor.

The language issue is an age-old one and once upon a time it pitted writers Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiongo and Nigerian Chinua Achebe. Achebe’s argument seems to have carried the day, “I was given this language (English) and I intend to use it.” But I am sure God also understands Tonga.

Anyway, I just thought I should make my plea for a return to genuine worship and not WWF-like performances on television. Kenge!

Chris Kabwato is the publisher of www.zimbabweinpictures.com

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