Prophet Sheperd Bushiri preaching at his church Enlightened Christian Gathering in Pretoria. Picture: Thulani Mbele/Sowetan
Prophet Sheperd Bushiri preaching at his church Enlightened Christian Gathering in Pretoria. Picture: Thulani Mbele/Sowetan

In 2013 we saw one of the first broad-based consumer uses of artificial intelligence in Apple and smartphone devices and with that, the beginnings of the fourth industrial revolution.

The currency of this revolution is data. Big Brother is not just watching but analysing, predicting and nudging our every move through data we consume.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to ensure that SA moves into the fourth industrial revolution and has spoken about it in his last two state of the nation addresses.

Then in 2015 we saw the first wave of media reports of cult-like churches that seemed to be springing up all over SA from Limpopo to the Eastern Cape. Pastors have been telling their congregants to eat grass, drink petrol and allow themselves to be sprayed with insecticide. The media often infantilised congregants so gullible as to join these churches.

New forms of the religion emerged to deal with the alienation of those confused by change

The rise of what I call cult churches like Seven Angels, Pastor Lesego Daniel’s grass-eating church in Pretoria or Shepherd Bushiri’s Alleluia Ministries International is, in part, a reaction to the fourth industrial revolution and ordinary people’s sense of alienation from this revolution. They know they are being watched but do not really understand what this revolution is about except that soon computers will do the work people now do.

These churches, though often similar to Pentecostal charismatic churches (PCC), are more like cult churches as defined by sociologists of religion. They are hierarchical in nature, with a charismatic leader who has all the answers but who gives only selected information to chosen people. Cults tend to attract young adults and encourage people to make a complete break with their families and friends while giving a great deal of time, money and energy to the church.

A brief overview of the history of Christianity in the West shows that at important moments of knowledge or industrial revolutions, new forms of the religion emerged to try to deal with the sense of alienation experienced by those marginalised by the revolution.

The printing press, arguably the second knowledge revolution (the first being the establishment of libraries in 300BCE), led to the formation of Protestant Christianity as people began to realise that they were saved through grace and not through the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences. The first industrial revolution gave rise to the Methodist Church as the Wesley brothers and others tried to address the abuses suffered by ordinary folk working in the new factory and coal-mining cities of England and Wales.

At the turn of the 20th century, the second industrial revolution gave rise to the Pentecostal movement as people tried to deal with the poverty, oppression and alienation experienced in mass-production factories. In all three of these instances a form of Christianity emerged that focused on the work of the Holy Spirit and miracles.

What each had in common was an understanding that through the power of prayer, people were able to take on new agency in their own lives — praying for the miracles of healing, finding a job and being able to sustain their families amid the turbulence of a revolution.

Similarly, the rise of cult churches in SA can be seen, in part, as people’s attempts to make sense of a world they feel alienated from and are struggling to comprehend. Almost 50% of young adults are jobless and, barring a dramatic rise in the economy, will never find salaried employment.

Landing a job in their world is akin to experiencing a miracle.

A church that "teaches" them how to pray and show faith by swallowing petrol or eating a snake is one that equips them, in their minds, to show God they are more deserving of the miracle of a job, or finding a husband with one, than others.

Frahm-Arp is associate professor in the department of religion studies at the University of Johannesburg