‘A family can be a very stifling environment’—Lebohang Mojapelo interviews Pontsho Pilane on her book Power and Faith: How Evangelical Churches are Quietly Shaping Our Democracy

Lebohang Mojapelo talks to Pontsho Pilane about her new book, Power and Faith: How Evangelical Churches are Quietly Shaping Our Democracy.

Power and Faith: How Evangelical Churches are Quietly Shaping Our Democracy
Pontsho Pilane
Tafelberg, 2024

Lebohang Mojapelo for The JRB: Congratulations on the book. It must be quite a relief to have it finished and published. How are you feeling about it?

Pontsho Pilane: I am glad it is done, but now, you know, the nerves of waiting for reviews and people reading it. It is at that stage now, I think it is more daunting than writing to be quite honest.

The JRB: There are a lot of very personal stories as well.

Pontsho Pilane: Very, it is quite personal, but I am happy that it is out there.

The JRB: I love how, at the beginning of the book, you dedicated it to those who were brave enough to have left the church, and those who will leave. What was your thinking behind that?

Pontsho Pilane: I was really thinking through the ways in which the church was not aligned to my personal values, you know, as a person living in this world, and what I want the world to look like that I have influence over. These are some of the topics that I tackle in the book, and I think that can make or break a person’s faith, can affect the decision of whether or not a person decides to stay in a faith, and that is why it is dedicated to people who left—for similar or even unrelated reasons. But it is also dedicated to those who may engage with that sense of questioning their own faith journey and the relationship between the institution of their faith and the greater societal and political actors in our society.

The JRB: I like that, and it reminds me of this quotation from the book:

Born-again Christians will tell you about the freedom there is in Christ and how salvation is the most liberating gift we could ever receive, and yet the church teaches us to hold our tongues and question our instincts. We are unable to forge truly intimate relationships because of self-imposed and community-manufactured ideas of Christianity. This is what chips away at us in the church. These are the remnants of what felt to me to be spiritual abuse and indoctrination. In the same breath that we’re told of our freedom in Christ, we’re also taught that our salvation will protect us from bad things happening to us, which means that when bad things do happen—as they do in life—we see that as a personal moral failing rather than coincidence or as a result of any number of unexplored causes.

This goes back to how when you entered the church you found a space that aligned with your personal beliefs, but you left with the opposite feeling. A lot of people struggle with that in the same way, which is when what people describe as ‘church hurt’ occurs; in the end it still feels like your responsibility that the church did not align with your beliefs and left you hurt, and not the fault of the church.

Pontsho Pilane: Yes. You know, coming into the church, particularly the manufactured midwifery of an evangelical church, for lack of a better word, is quite interesting, because it is almost primed to be attractive and freedom is dangled like a carrot in front of your face. I always say that no one gets saved when they are already completely happy and satisfied and completely in love with themselves and their life. It is almost as if our trauma, our own personal struggles, are the thing that makes us susceptible to evangelical, born-again salvation, and it is in retrospect and in hindsight that the understanding comes that the machinery was built around attracting us to this so-called freedom. Freedom where there is a place to expel the hurt, expel all the trauma. A place to lay down, where the burden is not necessarily carried internally, which is a sort of purging process. Those are the beginning stages of salvation, when you find a place where your burdens can be removed. That is what makes it attractive in the beginning. For me, that is what made it seem as if this was my only way out of the misery of my life at that point.

This is the template, and I think a lot of evangelical churches, including The Family, follow this template. The question I had to deal with, and I do not know if I found the correct answer: is it deliberate or a coincidence? The objective of the project is to get people into the church, to get people committed to the church, and I do believe that because the institution of evangelical Christianity is as big as it is, as powerful as it is, it cannot only be coincidence. I think perhaps individual actors think they are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, being there to help people, which the church does, but ultimately it damages in the long run.

The JRB: It is interesting to read you referring to the church as ‘The Family’. Why did you choose not to mention the church directly?

Pontsho Pilane: Legal reasons. The Family has been known to litigate against people who dissent against them. While I was researching the book, I saw one person who had taken them on publicly on a particular issue come out and say that lawyers had been sent, there were legal ramifications to them speaking out about what they had found there. Another unsuspecting person—I actually reached out to them when I was writing this book, but I did not get a response—they posted something criticising the church on social media, and a day or two later they issued an apology which sounded very much like it was because of the same reasons. So the magnitude of writing a book, compared to a Facebook post, was important. In the middle of writing the book, I was so enraged, and there was a point when I wanted them named, I did not care. But, you know, the reality of what it means legally to put yourself out there …

The second task was finding a name that resonates. So the creative thought around using The Family was, as I explain in the introduction, around the power dynamics of family, and the power that the institution yields, and how that connects again to my personal story of how a family can be a very stifling environment, whether we like to believe it or not, and a very hurtful environment. Thinking back to when services would begin: ‘Good evening family, good evening, we are a family’—that metaphor, employed outside of the ‘traditional family unit’, is used to inadvertently manipulate a lot of us into certain situations. I wanted to explore what ‘family’ means in its sinister form.

Incidentally, I found out during the writing of this book that there is another book called The Family that looks at the powerful evangelical churches and connections in the US. I did not know about that book until I was writing my book.

The JRB: There was a series on Netflix about The Family in America, and as someone who had been in an evangelical church before, I found the parallels incredibly close. As you mentioned, you know, accountability, discipleship, how it is ‘home’. From the leadership to the way it is structured was exactly the same as was being talked about in the documentary. I realised that they literally just use the same model across the world to enact this kind of family structure, and it now exists in the evangelical churches in South Africa. I also did a bit of research into what I call a cult that I was a part of, and looking at its roots in America in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, it did come from a group of people who had been part of what was considered to be a cult. An entire religious board had considered this church to be an actual cult, because of the kinds of structures they were using, which we now see most evangelical churches in South Africa using, cult-like measures of control. So, these guys run away from America and rebrand in different places across the world, and this is how this church starts in South Africa. When I was reading your book, I was like, oh my God, this is exactly the same structure.

Thinking about The Family, one of the things that strikes me the most is the secretive nature. There is the necessity to keep secrets, even when you do not believe they are in line with that space, because you belong to it and you are part of it. Do you think even Pastor Thabo was doing this, that you were being coerced, and that because you belonged to The Family, and this was the structure of The Family, you had to play your part?

Pontsho Pilane: Exactly, and there is a sinister way in which the secrecy also manifests. You are manipulated into keeping secrets because the higher project is the upholding of the structure. If anything, your gut feelings and your own personal experiences, through people—in my case, Pastor Thabo—really damage or change the ways in which you see the larger picture of the church and evangelical Christianity as a whole as an institution. Because of the positives that have been highlighted and the positives you have seen, and the investment that has been made in you, and how it helped you through difficult times, these benefits are a way of justifying the secrets, and it becomes your secret. The constant reminders of what it means to be part of The Family, and the benefits of The Family, and the altruistic benefits to other people, and how the bigger project is beyond me, and that there is this greater God, these reminders allow the negative secrets to build. And they became a burden I had to carry by myself, and I had to resolve, and then I became the problem.

So it ends up being that the problem is with me, the structure is okay, but there is something wrong with me for feeling offended by the structure, by the institution. And this personal responsibility is assigned to the negative things that happen in your life, not the positive things. So, if something great happens, all glory to God, thank you to the church for supporting me and creating an environment where I can have the spiritual tenacity to overcome X, Y, Z, but if I have a problem, it cannot be the church, it is a personal failing.

Just to veer off a bit, that is also why the evangelical church does not exist outside of capitalism, because this is literally the capitalist model of success as well. It is the American dream, it is the hustle woman mentality, it is about taking every opportunity you are given. And if you are unable to be successful, then it is you who is not trying hard enough, it is you who is not doing enough to lift yourself out of poverty.

The JRB: One of the things we also have to consider when it comes to capitalism is patriarchy. I am wondering, when it came to this kind of labour, what the gender proportions looked like within your church? Who was doing what kind of work in relation to gender?

Pontsho Pilane: These are the kind of more progressive things that made the church attractive. A person who is very high up, who has a career as a chartered accountant or an executive manager, is also an usher, he is cleaning chairs on Sunday morning and packing chairs away. This idea that your worldly possessions did not matter as you needed to serve God in any way you can. This was one of the positive things for me in The Family, that it was not certain kinds of people who were reserved to sweep the church, to be the car guard, to be in the choir. It really was, for a lack of a better word, a meritocracy, that is what made it attractive.

In terms of gender, as we all know, there are always more women in churches than men, but unlike the traditional church I came from I saw a bit more balance. I do not know what it is about the church that enabled that environment, but even in terms of responsibilities there would be mix in that way. However, while the more overt gender dynamics of the church made it look progressive at first, in the book I talk about how when I was a choir conductor the way I dressed was policed, and it was not just a gender thing but a black-woman-gendered-body thing. In terms of, I am a black woman with a big bum, and what does that mean? And the sexualisation of my body was not seen beyond the theological way of protecting men from sexual temptation. Here, we can see bigger gender issues come into play, where there are certain expectations of purity—unintentionally and intentionally more put on women than on men. My church was very big on saying ‘purity is a two-way street’, but because it also existed within a patriarchal system, those pressures fell onto the girls, and there was the big, obvious implication that it was the responsibility of women and girls to ensure purity.

The JRB: I remember they used to say ‘men are visual, do not let your brother stumble’. It was like you had the responsibility to maintain the purity of both men and women.

Pontsho Pilane: Absolutely, absolutely. It was not as bad as I have heard in some churches, where women are shamed and everything. But one of the reservations or insecurities I have about the book is whether I explicitly show that enough, because of the veneer of progressiveness. Some of the things that happen in The Family look minimal and seem not to be dangerous, right? Because there are churches that are literally excommunicating women.

The JRB: That is a very interesting point, especially when you speak about the intellectualisation of purity culture, where a lot of black women actually find agency in making the decision to say, ‘No, I am keeping myself for marriage’. And this perhaps serves as a removal from being overly sexualised and provides a feeling of freedom. So it is almost like a progressive feminist idea of sexual purity. I also find it interesting when you say that The Family does not seem to be as terrible as other churches, because we are working within a certain realm of respectability that has been highly intellectualised, and a lot of black women can find a safe space within that.

Pontsho Pilane: Absolutely. And I talk about my own purity culture journey and celibacy. When I first got saved I did not realise what I was doing. It felt like a feminist decision I was taking; for the first time I could own the decision to engage or not engage in sex, when I wanted to. Celibacy, which the church was teaching through a purity culture framework, enabled that for me, but ultimately, again, it became a noose around my neck. So, really what I wanted to show is that even things that look progressive are not fully progressive if they are not rooted within a progressive or liberatory framework, like a feminist framework of sex and sexuality and sex positivity and what-not.

Around that intellectualisation, I also quote from Professor Maria Frahm-Arp, who did a whole book on this [Professional Women in South African Pentecostal Charismatic Churches], interviewing women who were going to these churches, and one talks about how it was a form of reclaiming of self. However, she frames it as being in South Africa where black women have the highest rate of HIV infection. It is also self-protective in that way. But if you look at black women in totality, thinking about us only through a lens of disease is not enough and is actually not liberatory at all.

The JRB: I am thinking about this idea that there were certain liberal ways in which The Family functions that made it attractive to you. Because a lot of these evangelical churches target young people in particular, especially on campuses. One of the tactics they use is to say, ‘we are open, we are free, we are like you, come in, you can be yourself, this is who we are’—and the long-term goal is to attract potentially influential people in our society.

Pontsho Pilane: Oh, absolutely right. I think these evangelical churches, particularly the ones I talk about like The Family, are created and function to attract young people to look ‘edgy’. One of the most famous—and I am sure you will know this phrase, Lebo—proclaims ‘we are in the world but not of the world’. I think that is unintentionally the most exposing thing about many churches like The Family and the one you went to: they understand that they function within ‘the world’. So they adapt to the trendy things that are happening. They redefine genres and create worship music that fits into the genres that are in the world. Think about how Hillsong and its music have evolved. When Coldplay was topping the charts and everyone was singing ‘Fix You’, they went to create music that sounded like that song but which was praising God. I removed the chapter on music from my book, because I felt I am not artistically skilled enough to unpack it in the ways it would require.

You know, I talk about getting saved wearing a Sondeza T-shirt, and I was not sure whether people were scandalised or if they even made the connection, because Sondeza was such a ‘black thing’ and I was going to a white evangelical church. But because of mina being in what was my worldly world at the time, I could not come in there as somebody who does not dress in a jean and a T-shirt and has a bit of an edge, with tattoos, piercings, and everything. Churches being able to accept us in this way is the first way they win you over, through the aesthetics and the bells and whistles of the world. Unlike when you go to your mom’s church, where you have to wear a long skirt, you have to cover your hair. They have been able to master moving with the times enough that the indoctrination is at an ideological level, and not necessarily at the level of petty or everyday things such as how you’re dressed and what you’re listening to.

I keep tabs on The Family quite a lot, because I think it is necessary if I am going to write about people or an institution that I understand what is happening in the institution. And one thing I realised, even when I was putting the book together, is how it has evolved its aesthetic over the years to reflect the youngest demographic that it is looking for, which is students.

Also, the investment in media and in digital media tools. The Family in 2009 was doing live streaming services, it was far ahead of its time. The senior pastor was in Pretoria or Bloemfontein and we were getting the same service in Rustenburg or Johannesburg. This investment in technology, media and popular culture, these things become the veneer, like an object you dangle in front of a baby.

The JRB: Within the evangelical churches there is a need for the constant reinforcement of certain images, like you said, certain music, certain language, and you mention how there was a shift during Covid. The Family and many other evangelical churches were really advocating against the pandemic restrictions, as if they were a direct attack on the church. Could it be that there was this fear that, firstly, we are not going to make the same amount of money we are used to, but also, how do you maintain the attention that you have of people’s minds without that constant reinforcement, where people are in services one day, the next day there is home cell, the day after there is leadership, the day after there is another kind of communal engagement within the church?

Pontsho Pilane: The constant reinforcement is what keeps you there, and Covid did disrupt that. It was not until I was too busy to be in church three, four days a week that I thought, ah, okay! The sky did not come falling, I am still here, you know? So, the inability to reinforce in that way really plagued the institution, and I think also economically Covid did a number on people. People’s tithes are monitored and I am sure tithes went down, and while some churches were honest enough to say that members were not tithing as much and they were in a precarious economic position, what I witnessed with The Family was that that was never made a reason. It was about ‘people need healing’, ‘the church is a sanctuary and these restrictions are disabling the church from playing its role, which is being the emotional shock-absorber for this pandemic’. I think at a certain level it is also true that people needed and wanted to be in a community, and this is why so many would go to church even though the restrictions were there. But I think it also gave many people a reprieve where they were able to reconsider and focus and prioritise other things in their lives—one of them being, why am I giving ten percent to the church, why am I tithing? There is a global pandemic.

Perhaps I should say that this was the first time I saw The Family showing adamant anti-government sentiment. We were always told and taught that God appoints priests and kings over your life. You have priests in the church and kings because that is how the government is presided over in the bible. It is God-given, whether we agree or not we should respect it. But the sermons became wild and that anti-government sentiment has gone on—I was listening to the services just this past week, I still do, because I fundamentally think something is brewing. I sometimes think, you know, and I ask people in my life, am I being a conspiracy theorist? But, I think the church has become, and not just The Family but the evangelical church, even churches in general, have become very important. Their role in society has always been important, and in The Family it is because of what the church represents and how it operates. It wants to be a political act. It is a political act.

I listen to the sermons and I think the anti-government sentiment is important, particularly when we look at the rise in anti-establishment movements across the world, and the connection between anti-establishment thinking and the evangelical church in the US, where within a Trump presidency it is like, you must listen to the government but if Christian nationalist ideas are not upheld then the anti-establishment sentiment rises.

In The Family, in particular, these sentiments from the US have found a home, to the point where while I was writing the book I was listening to these bizarre sermons about climate change and the West and just really bizarre things. I asked friends of mine who still went to the church, ‘How are you listening to this? How is this your spiritual edification for the week? I am not judging, I just want to understand.’ And they were like, ‘I am going because this is routine and because I serve and because this is where my family goes to church.’

The JRB: It is definitely filtering into South Africa in ways that perhaps we did not realise before. Especially because we watched this happen in extreme ways in, let’s say, Uganda, through the anti-LGBTQI+ laws, which were a result of extensive US evangelical work. What is happening now in Ghana, same thing, the same group of churches using their immense influence. And not just that, there was so much groundwork done by US evangelicalism to the point where they can now influence Washington. This is the work of decades and generations. You talked about the anti-establishment within churches in South Africa, but it exists even within individuals in influential South African spaces. When you listen to someone like former chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and the kinds of things he feels comfortable saying, and when he gets responses he doesn’t like it turns into persecution.

Pontsho Pilane: No, absolutely. Another chapter that I pulled focused on Mogoeng Mogoeng, because another author, Dan Mafora, has written quite extensively on him and I didn’t want to repeat the same thing. But, you know, the Christian anti-establishment is built and propped up by the Christian persecution complex. This idea that Christianity and Christian values and the Christian way of living are under attack is premised on the notion that we should be a Christian nation, and by nation I do not mean as South Africa, I mean as the world. It is based on the dominion theology of making disciples of all men and what-not. And then there is the idea that Christian values mean not being corrupt, it means feeding the poor, that everyone should be Christian, and this is what God wants of us and this is what God asks of his disciples. People who believe in Jesus Christ need to make disciples of all nations. So, Mogoeng Mogoeng then looks legitimate in the eyes of a lot of people. A friend of mine said, ‘I do not believe that people think Mogoeng Mogoeng will make a great president.’ I sent her interviews, every time Mogoeng Mogoeng is being as wild as he is, and the comments that come up on YouTube or online around what he says show how people are actually drawn to him because they think he is a man of God.

Because of the values they espouse, ‘feed the poor’ and everything, but also because of our very conservative Christian backgrounds, where we yearn for the past, the likes of Mogoeng Mogoeng seem like legitimate saviours of our country or of the world—and this is exactly what makes them dangerous. Because this imagined past is not just about children listening to their parents. It is also a world where women’s rights were stifled, where the rights of poor people were stifled. But the nostalgia is bred, it is connected to a world where everyone is oppressed in one way or another except those who were on top to begin with.

The JRB: Exactly. It is an application of Christianity or perhaps Christian supremacy; there are certain people that know they are going to come out on top in a hierarchy. In this case, black men are going to come out on top and gay people don’t exist and women are back under the oppression of men and the state. They want the totalising effect Christianity provides, hence the need for the entire state to be Christianised.

Pontsho Pilane: Yes, but also there is a racial component to that, right? I write about The Family, which is a multinational, multiracial, white-led evangelical church, where blackness or racialism has to die at the altar or be sacrificed. Even though we operate in a racialised world, the church is supposed to operate from a colourblind perspective. Race does not matter. For me, it is contradictory for the pastor to want race not to matter when race does matter. For The Family and churches like The Family to want to non-racialise during the most pivotal time in South Africa when race matters is repeating the same mistakes, but the doctrine enables them not to seem as if they are being contradictory.

The JRB: Something you speak about at the end of the book is how much Christianity has completely impacted African identity, from inception. They came in, they removed traditional African spiritual structures, and now this is a continuing cycle. Every generation is going to have to deal with Christianity in South Africa in one way or another, and that is how much impact it has—not only on our identity, but our country. So right now we are fighting against encroachments on sexual reproductive rights, LGBTQI+ rights, we are fighting encroachment on democracy itself, and this is the fight for this generation. You write about how the church created spaces where they offered advice and counselling in order to influence people not to have abortions, obviously using vulnerable women within their own agenda. Do you believe this is on the rise? Are we on the verge of losing certain constitutional rights due to the work of evangelical-leaning organisations?

Pontsho Pilane: I think we are always on the verge of losing our rights, until people actually fight for their rights. For me, what is dangerous is the assumption that we are comfortably in a space where our rights can be practised and where we can assert our rights and we live within our rights. I wrote this book to say two things, really: that the impact of evangelical churches and evangelical thinking in our everyday lives is fertile ground in South Africa, because we are a latent evangelical Christian country, and that even though we have rights that are protected in the constitution, the everyday people who enact or create an enabling environment for those rights are not necessarily people who believe in those rights. For example, say I am pregnant, I do not have medical aid, I go to a clinic and I try to get an abortion. I get to the gate and I ask the security guard, ‘Where is the abortion clinic?’ That security guard, depending on their beliefs, is the first gatekeeper, because they could be like, ‘Ayenziwa lento la.’ If not the security guard, the nurse. So, it is not necessarily just about the institutions and how they are working together to curtail our rights, but how the spirit—and I use this ironically—the spirit, that gathers people together, has disseminated within society and through the psyche of individual people, that is what is a threat.

The JRB: We have to round off. This has been amazing. Perhaps just to go back to the personal, towards the end of the book you open up a lot about your struggles with mental illness, and something I have seen with other people who have gone through similar experiences within the evangelical church is the level of destruction of the self that occurs with these evangelical spaces. What measures can we take and what regulations can we put in place within these religious spaces to prevent the kinds of things that happened to you and are happening to other people?

Pontsho Pilane: That is a big question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. But I would say, for the Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights Commission to actually do its job … I think regulation of the church is something that has been debated and has been a hot topic and a complicated topic for a long time. But I also think communally we need to think about what we want our churches to exist to do in society. There are more questions we need to ask ourselves before we even get into the question of regulation. There is a lot of deconstruction of the social role of church needed before we even talk about the ways in which it can be regulated. But I think there are obvious red flags in many churches, particularly in the increase in evangelical churches and mega-churches in South Africa, and there needs to be a framework developed to regulate those as a way to protect society.

  • Lebohang Mojapelo is an editor, writer, researcher and poet based in Johannesburg. Follow her on X.
Author image: Pontsho Pilane on X/Composite: The JRB

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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