The church gamble

It’s Sunday evening in the Peter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino. The lights dim and dazzle in a kaleidoscope of colours. Smoke pours on to the stage and the band’s electric guitars growl into life.
Welcome to church.

Preacher PJ Smyth: “There’s a lot of work to be done on men, and there’s leads in it for women”

It’s already a running joke. Church in a casino. I’ve given up trying to explain the weekly parking slips for Montecasino lying around my car. But I don’t really go for the beer on sale in the theatre foyer afterwards. I’m more of a wine drinker.

My faith as a Christian often comes as a surprise to some. Perhaps in the same way as the thought of a church in a casino, with rock-concert-loud worship and a bar open before and after services.

“Church is changing,” confirms Godfirst head pastor PJ Smyth, known to his parishioners simply as PJ. “The church needs to be naturally where people are. And most Jo’burgers enjoy the Monte vibe, so it’s just a natural place.”

A more cynical reading of the choice of venue might imagine the church preying on hapless gamblers.

While there has been the odd disenchanted gambler or bored spouse wandering into a service, PJ notes: “It’s great, but not really our agenda in being here.

“Our goal is not to see Montecasino converted,” he says, acknowledging that some are suspicious of the church’s motives. “The big goal is to minimise the number of hurdles that the unchurched person has to jump over.

“Interestingly, the people who give us the most stick for being here are very religiously minded Christians who say: you can’t do church in a casino.

“Which we’d think is a silly response because Christ would have been in this sort of place. He was always accused of hanging out with the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong time.”

Godfirst Church was launched in 2005 in Fourways by PJ, who previously started and led the popular River of Life in Zimbabwe, Harare. The church now has 1 700 people in seven congregations scattered around Johannesburg. When I moved to Johannesburg from Cape Town six months ago most Christians I know recommended the church to me.

At this point you’re probably wondering what denomination I am. It’s a question I get a lot and the answer, “non-denominational”, never seems to cut it. Even though non-traditional churches have become mainstream, the inherent suspicion of evangelical churches makes me shy away from the term—even if it does describe a style rather than a denomination.

Technically churches such as Godfirst would belong to a family of related churches from all over the world; in this case New Frontiers.

“We get the best of it which is friendship and accountability but we avoid the trappings and the red tape that often go with a denomination,” says PJ.

Other “families” of churches that I have attended in the past include New Covenant Ministries International and Every Nation, both similar in their focus: Bible-based and spirit-filled with an aversion to ritual and tradition.

Rock of ages:Sunday songs of praise at Montecasino

But the stigma still clings—and PJ is not insensitive to it: “Modern evangelical churches have an appalling reputation. High-profile church leaders are in scandals with money, getting divorced. The reputation is that our kind of church is dubious at best. I completely appreciate that and we are not critical, we’re humbly trying to do church like it was done in the Bible so that’s why people don’t call me ‘pastor’, I don’t get paid an enormous amount and I love my wife.”

Indeed 39-year-old Smyth, a gifted preacher on stage, is exceedingly thoughtful in the interview, thinking hard before answering every question and very cognisant of the other person’s point of view.

Given how experimental the church is, the biggest surprise perhaps is how conservative its beliefs are, though it may not seem that way on the surface.

Last year they ran a “Sex in the City” sermon series advertised in a billboard campaign. It was eventually axed by the Advertising Standards Authority. The provocative slogan, “Jozi loves sex. God loves sex. Let’s talk”, didn’t go down well with certain religious groups. But while the church ran sermons like: “All Night Long” and took controversial live questions, the focus was unapologetically biblical.

Says PJ: “We are brutally Bible-focused — and so conservative in that regard, but we’re liberal in that we’re very happy to do church in a casino and make the message relevant.”

And despite the attention the church has attracted for its campaigns, it’s pressing on with the “Real Man” series, in conjunction with a number of other local churches.

Real Man was sparked by what PJ sees as a crisis of masculinity.

“Nine out of 10 sex offenders are men, eight out of 10 prisoners are men, for every one woman who commits suicide, four men do. There’s a lot of work to be done on men and there’s loads in it for women.”

Church certainly is changing—but I haven’t really noticed. Evangelicals may seem like a new freak phenomenon but I grew up a “happy clappy” as the derisive term goes, standing on school hall chairs and singing at the top of my lungs.

My faith has informed my life in every way but, like a church in a casino, I may seem like an anomaly to some: hopelessly deceived or strangely out of sync.

But this church in a casino is no anomaly. Others like it are mushrooming across major cities, seeking to serve and influence the culture in which they live.

PJ offers a challenge: “I think the greatest defence is to come along and take a look—or take a swing. I don’t mind which. Take a swing or take a look, just don’t criticise from afar.”

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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