Thanks to television, Kenyan preachers are increasingly becoming “celebrities.” The preachers emerge from state of the range motor-vehicles, are dressed expensively and tastefully and stand to speak ‘the word’ from flashy pulpits. Instead of their objective being to win souls, nourish the spirits and souls of listening to them, theirs has become a well choreographed show that entertains and attracts the eye to a world in which material wealth offers exciting possibilities. FRED MBOGO wonders whatever happened to the image of Christ in tired old sandals seeking nothing more than holiness.
The gospel, according to these TV performers, is not about being long suffering and waiting for heaven in the other world; it is about getting to live well down here on earth. It is about avoiding the ‘curse’ of poverty. It is about trampling the devil who ‘closes’ the doors to prosperity. It is about investing in faith so you do not pass up any opportunity.
To these televangelists poverty is the only major enemy. The devil may be an enemy but he is a minor one since he only facilitates one to be poor. Wealth is power, and power is godly. Poverty is a sign of weakness and should be avoided by all means but mostly through faithfully and generously contributing part of your income to the ‘ministry’.
The camera’s eye captures televangelists in immaculately designed dresses or suits, sometimes unfairly contrasting it with the ‘wowed’ congregation’s ill designed dresses. Unconsciously, television viewers are introduced to the wide gap between the televangelists’ prosperity and the congregation’s struggles with poverty. In a country where the gap between the rich and the poor is really wide, reality sinks into the viewers. They are made to perceive themselves as ‘unblessed’ when they compare their hard or rough looks to the glossy finish that accompanies the televangelist’s image.
Televangelists in Kenya are awake to the idea that good television shows are just about entertainment. They know that they have to create exciting moments that are sustained by a simplistic portrayal of the conflict between good and evil. Consequently, their efforts have been towards presenting images that are believable and entertaining. Their presentations are peppered with anecdotes that are humorous and suspenseful with unforgettable characters, and which are full of simple but beautiful imagery. Their sermons, when they sound ‘serious’ enough, are driven by a line from the Bible which when repeated becomes some sort of war cry. The congregation present at the time of recording is made to repeat this line for effect.
Recognition through the voice seems to be everything in this line of work. Pastor Wilfred Lai of Mombasa, Bishop Mark Kariuki of Nakuru, Pastor Pius Muiru and Bishop, Dr. Margaret Wanjiru of Nairobi all project distinct voices. These voices are created specially with particular rhythms and pace of delivering words.
In Pastor Muiru’s case, his voice is predominantly hoarse, almost harsh. It seems to take off slowly and gather speed as it goes along. In this way it creates an image of a starting vehicle that accelerates and comes to a point of maximum speed. His pattern of speech is tempered with responses from his congregation. Shouts of ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’ seem to egg him on. The shouts are not always coordinated but they do often increase with the tempo of his speech. This makes it interesting to listen to him, even where he may not be saying the most crucial thing. The deliverance moves to a point of no return when the shouts of ‘Amen’ and ‘ Hallelujah’ are loudest. Suddenly he stops. The camera gives us a close up of his face. He is sweating. He mops his face with an immaculately white handkerchief. The congregation is waiting for more; there is suspense. Then he starts slowly again with his hoarse voice almost sounding sleepy but progressively swaying with some energy. The theatricality of the whole event is best captured at the next moment of silence when some struggling one or two voices from somewhere in the thick of his audience shout back in ‘appreciation.’ They are ignored as the evangelist mops his face again with his nice white handkerchief and possibly drinks very clear water from a very clean glass. As a viewer you are reminded of the effects of water rationing in your neighborhood!
These televangelists are unforgettable characters. They have dominant personalities and seem to wade through the murky waters of life like giants. They wear many hats and seem to be multi-talented as many of them are politicians by their own right. In the last Kenyan general elections in December 2007 one unsuccessfully ran for no less a post than the Presidency. Numerous were involved in garnering for positions as Members of Parliament. Of them all, Bishop Margaret Wanjiru seems to be the more successful.
Her sermons are interesting in the light of the fact that she collapses her tribulations as a politician with those of the church as an army of God. Her slot on television comes immediately after Prime Time news on KTN on Mondays. This ensures that she has a faithful following particularly as there is no competing entertainment on Monday nights. It is this shrewdness that endears her to an audience ready for her serving of the word of God. Her personal life recounted expansively in the Kenyan press after a man claiming to be her husband managed to stop her wedding to a South African man, through the courts, appears to have made her a darling to those who advocate for the rights of women to determine their own destiny. At the same time it has made her a controversial figure particularly with her choice of language in response to James Kamangu Ndimu, the man who claimed to be her husband. She reportedly said that he could “go hang himself like a chicken.”
This controversy must have landed her into some sort of stardom which became an important springing point from which to outwit a well entrenched politician in the fight for the Starehe constituency parliamentary seat. Nothing seems to scare her, so much so that her television viewers may associate her success to her godly way of living. Her gospel then becomes typical of the televangelists’ claim that heaven is right here on earth. Given that her personal life story has been a fight from the jaws of poverty, prosperity is presented as the place to ‘arrive.’ This destination from poverty is thence a new heaven. Being aggressive in the process of running from poverty should not be frowned upon. It seems then, in this line of thought, humility is thrown out of the window as it wouldn’t help the desperate Christian reach the destination: Prosperity.
But television is also a powerful tool in marketing any church enterprise. As a marketing space then, televangelists use it to present their best to the viewers who are their potential church members. The greater the number of their congregation, the greater the potential for getting more money. This reality has made televangelists choosy in terms of the kind of message they deliver through their sermons. It is perhaps in the quest to ‘touch’ as many people as possible that their sermons turn into points of talking about “how to be prosperous.” After all, most of their viewers are people struggling against poverty.
It is a pity then that through these preachers religion has been turned into another tool for the advancement of material worship. Whatever happened to the image of Christ or Buddha in tired old sandals seeking nothing more than holiness? No longer can anyone walk on water, or turn a loaf and two fishes into millions of fish and crates of loaves that can feed the many drought-affected Kenyans. Or are we dealing with a new kind of miracle that is in tune with modern times so that the minimalist lifestyle of Jesus Christ is old fashioned?