With social media trends suggesting Gen Z are doubling down on spirituality, how are young people finding camaraderie and community in their faith? We spoke to Inkosi Phakama Shembe about the growing popularity of The Nazareth Church, the importance of African spirituality and why he’s committed to saving South Africa’s youth from harmful vices.
How did The Nazareth Church become the second-largest African-initiated church in South Africa?
The church was founded in 1910 by Prophet Isaiah Shembe who was my great-grandfather. It grew in popularity to 8 million members and counting, across South Africa. Today we baptise up to 2000 members per week and it's now becoming one of the fastest-growing religious movements in the country.
Please explain the relevance of the leopard skin symbolism; why was it chosen as the official uniform of the church?
Initially, cowhide was worn by our followers on the Sabbath but Africans have long worn animal skin, even before colonisation. The regal significance of the majestic leopard means much like South African royalty, our leaders don leopard skin for a more dignified and exalted position within the church.
What makes this independent movement different from mainstream Christianity?
Whilst we may have many differences, we have plenty of similarities with traditional Christianity. You only have to look at the name of our church and even our founder’s name is Isaiah. We follow many religious rituals like performing water baptisms and observing the Sabbath. We also refer to the Bible every day, as well as the teachings from The Izihlabelelo Za Manazaretha, sacred texts written by our founder Isaiah Shembe. However, unlike mainstream churches, we don’t use actual buildings, we prefer to worship outside to be closer to nature.
How do the teachings of the Nazareth Church resonate with the modern African empowerment narrative?
In recent times, we’ve seen more and more people returning to Christianity but specifically to the Nazareth Church which speaks more to their African spirituality. In the past colonisers preached to Africans to reject false idols, animal hides and polygamy to fully embrace Christianity. However, despite many of us joining the faith, we still want to feel at home in the church so we perform religious local rituals to help members feel a sense of belonging. It’s crucial we worship in a way that serves our ancestors and safeguards our traditional ways, to enforce an African sense of pride.
At the Nazareth Church, we find unique ways to worship God as Africans that are still in line with traditional Christianity. We take the teachings of the Bible and combine them with the sacred texts from Isaiah Shembe. I believe this creates a welcoming community for our members who are very familiar with The Word of Jesus Christ but still find their own ways of reinterpreting the biblical texts in line with our prophet’s teachings.
What is the youth wing of The Nazareth Church?
Nabachu is the name of the youth wing and most of the young members have grown up in the church. Many of them come from generations of church members and the Nabachu often collaborate with other youth organisations on community initiatives like addressing period poverty amongst school girls.
Describe the importance of the pilgrimages to I Nhlangakazi and if young people are encouraged to make the trip.
Our prophet Isaiah Shembe shared his sacred teachings stressing the importance of his followers making a holy journey to the mountain. It’s here where Shembe devised the laws of our church and its main teachings. As early as 1913, many church members were making the annual pilgrimage, often for the whole month and young people were always encouraged to attend too for their spiritual well-being.
How does the church engage young people and recruit followers?
It’s critical that we help the youth population find their way back to the church as here in South Africa, we are losing many young people to the dangers of nightlife drugs and alcohol. As bishops of the churches, we are trying to organise the youth by evangelising about the Bible in the streets. We are passionate about sharing the prophet's teachings to help them reconnect with their ancestors.