In March this year a new reality show by the name of AmaBishop aired on South African screens. It was produced by DStv’s Moja Love channel and hosted by Nimrod Nkosi of Jam Alley fame. The last episode was in May – but the reruns and YouTube clips just keep on rolling.

The show discusses controversial issues involving South African churches, such as abuse and infidelity.

The basic format is simple. The show’s host, regular panellists, and guests discuss controversial issues involving South African churches, such as abuse and infidelity. The show’s panels are diverse, including both prominent religious leaders and ordinary church members. My question is simple: how do we account for the show’s enormous success and following?

Why Is AmaBishop So Successful?

The show has been explosively popular. It garnered a large audience on DStv but perhaps its most impressive feat was trending on social media, with its very own hashtag #AmaBishop and a public group on Facebook. Following each episode, viewers and fans posted their views and reactions online. It’s still active today.

The popularity of AmaBishop and its ability to generate online debate has not gone unnoticed. But why has it been met with such interest? Why did the show gain such a following online? I think there are three main reasons for this show’s success.

1. It’s Showbiz!

Though there are numerous definitions of reality TV, I found a few points of agreement between them. Reality TV is a genre that usually films ordinary people and their stories. But above all these shows seek to entertain, not simply inform. Therefore, reality shows focus on drama. This version of ‘real’ that we watch has in some senses been directed, and is always edited.

We can chalk a significant portion of AmaBishop’s success up to it being great television.

AmaBishop fits this genre perfectly. It’s a broadcaster’s dream, custom made for maximum drama. For example, in one episode, viewers are treated to a chaotic debate between Pastor Mboro and Solomon Izang Ashoms. In another, we witness a disordered and lively engagement between the panellists regarding sensational accounts of sexual abuse. No doubt, we can chalk a significant portion of AmaBishop’s success up to it being great television. This point leads naturally into our second one.

2. Magnetic Personalities

The host, along with the majority of panellists, are public figures, TV personalities, or celebrities. One article describes the host Nimrod as a “reality television personality”. Indeed, he has recently hosted other reality shows such as Utatakho. However, and quite interestingly, very little is known about his religious convictions.

One frequent panellist is Joshua Maponga, who is known as a “public speaker, author, philosopher, leader, musician, and social entrepreneur”. He trends for his strong views about Christianity and African culture. But his life has not lacked controversy. For example, in 2020 the Seventh-day Adventist Church suspended Maponga because of concerns regarding the gospel he preaches.

Panellists are in many ways personalities before they are persons of serious theological convictions.

Another panellist who frequents the show is Enoch Phiri. His own website describes him as a “speaker, writer and TV personality, mentor, and a marketplace Apostle”. He is also a pastor of Restoration House Church in Soweto.

I mention these three men because they have undoubtedly brought success to AmaBishop through association. They lend weight to the show, making it more attractive in the competitive space of entertainment. They are in many ways personalities before they are persons of serious theological convictions. But I believe there exists another, more unnerving reason AmaBishop has drawn so many Christian viewers into its orbit and onto social media.

3. A Desperate Need For Accountability

Finally, I believe that AmaBishop’s success is in part due to our deep longing for accountability. There is a growing concern regarding this matter—which is good, since it is a major issue. Thus we repeatedly hear calls for greater transparency regarding South African religious organisations.

A recent climax of this concern came in the guise of the 2017 report, from the CRL Rights Commission. It focused on the commercialisation of religion and abuse of people’s belief systems. The findings are disturbing, with reports of financial maladministration, lack of governance, zero accountability or peer review, and unethical practices abounding. Yet despite the report bringing numerous cases of malpractice and abuse to light, the problems haven’t gone away.

People see AmaBishop as force for good: a way of upholding victims’ rights and holding churches to account.

In light of this report—and the pervading issues it flags—it’s not surprising that AmaBishop is thriving. In fact the show markets itself as a means of keeping South African churches and religious leaders accountable. Because church scandals, abuse, and the likes are often hidden, people understandably see AmaBishop as a force for good. They look to it as a way of upholding the rights of victims and holding churches to account.

Tragically, the public platform continues to be necessary in discovering and calling out abuse. For example, in one episode, Nimrod mentioned the sexual abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church. More recently we might think of Ravi Zacharias or Stanley Ntagali. Thus despite trading on sensationalism and TV personalities, AmaBishop has achieved good. The show has brought thieves, charlatans, perpetrators of abuse, and serial adulterers to account. However, that we needed a reality show to do this is a serious mark against the African Church.

Is AmaBishop The Answer?

Accountability is good; sensationalism less so. It’s also true that our obsession with celebrities is worrying. But the success of AmaBishop cannot be limited to any of those three reasons. We can still explore the popularity of AmaBishop and ask what else we might learn from it. However, we also need to understand the type of accountability that the show provides and examine the usefulness of such accountability. It’s also important to ask if AmaBishop really lives up to its self-imposed mandate.

That we need a reality show to bring thieves, charlatans and serial adulterers to account is a serious mark against the African Church.

Because we all long for accountability, AmaBishop has drawn in many Christian viewers. My hope is that we can redirect this desire away from on screen drama and Twitter battles and into our churches. Thus, as grateful as we are for the efforts of AmaBishop, we must be aware of at least two dangers related to the show and its success. Firstly, those leaders are not your own. So we should avoid becoming fixated on them. Secondly, it’s not up to someone else to hold your Christian leaders accountable. This is the responsibility of every believer.