Last year Mark’s aunt was seriously ill with kidney failure. Mark, the general director of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA), was a match and donated one of his kidneys to her. Mark, who is 40 later this year, is making a steady recovery and his aunt is back to full health.
“I’ve been away from ACEA for six of the last eight months, working on a book and recovering from the operation,” he says. “The transplant gave me the opportunity to reflect on some key issues: ‘What is life all about and how do I want to spend it?’ - another was ‘money can buy you life’. For me this was an important paradigm for ACEA. What I recognise is that it’s not my vision, my perspiration or my aspirations that will deliver what I wanted ACEA to deliver. It was money. I have always managed ACEA on the basis that if we meet the needs of the churches then the churches will meet our needs.
While there are many funding sources available, I felt that what God wanted was that the churches should be the foundation of ACEA’s work. However, despite working with 1,300 Black Majority Churches(BMC) and organisations, only 10% contribute financially to our work,” he explains. A recent reduction in the annual financial support to ACEA from Evangelical Alliance (EA) was another factor.
“Finances are very important. I don’t think that my board responded to the challenge,” claims Mark. “Instead, the agenda placed on the table was something I was not prepared to work with. I am used to making bricks out of straw, but I felt we could not be expected to run a national organisation on these reduced resources. I decided it was time to stand down as I wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to be as effective as I had been in the past.”
The chair of ACEA’s Board of Trustees, Revd Nezlin Sterling, was sent a transcript of this interview and invited to make a response to Mark’s comments. However the trustees decided not to respond beyond stating that the article did not reflect their views.
Mark contends that the witness of the British Church to the nation is “fairly weak”. He argues, “Simply just existing or making do, is not good enough.
You need to have a big vision for what you want the nation to be and the kind of stewardship it needs to succeed. Our stewardship is as equal as any other pressure group or organisation so whatever the issue, the Church should have a vested interest in that and we have to be a part of the dialogue - the debate of the whole process of transformation.”
Good news for Britain
Black Majority Churches are a major part of British Christian life. They are mostly vibrant, growing and strong, but how influential are they?
Mark considers that BMCs are a good news story for the UK church for various reasons. “The heart of Christianity is people’s relationship with God.
What BMCs bring to the table is a form of Christianity which says to the nation that God is not distant, merely observing us from a long way away, instead our God is with us wherever we are and our God intervenes into people’s lives.”
Mark continues, “Black Majority Churches also demonstrate to wider society that Christianity is a vibrant, growing and dynamic faith. The largest growth area of the UK Church in every historic denomination: Church of England, Methodists, Baptists, etc is through black congregations.”
Statistics from a 1998 census reveal that 51% of those attending church in Inner London are from ethnic minorities and 37% of those are black, while white church attendance in Inner London was 40%. Another reason BMCs are important according to Mark “is that, because of their newness, they still have not lost their credibility. The majority of the fruit coming out of these churches is perceived as good fruit.”
Mark believes this has a lot to do with the fact that many of these congregations are young and have the exuberance of youth on their side. The other reason according to Mark is doctrine. “They haven’t got a major divisive issue within BMC streams. They have not reached a stage where compromise is a part of their agenda. For example you would find it difficult to find a BMC whose pastor doesn’t believe in God. Also, BMCs put a very high value on Scripture. They still have confidence in God – therefore they are a confident church. They are effective at what they do, in the main, because they have a clear message, clear priorities for living and, in some instances, in the absence of major benefactors, members are very committed to the church.
“Ultimately, the BMCs are the Lord’s doing,” insists Mark. “When God is doing something fresh and new, either the old updates itself to be able to take on board what God is doing, or God will provide new channels. The BMC is a church in its season.”
Mark considers that the BMCs’ influence will largely be determined by their level of participation. “If we participate locally we will be influential locally; if we engage nationally we will be influential nationally.”
On the relationship between EA and ACEA Mark is clear. ACEA celebrates its 20th birthday this year and he believes there continues to be a need for a separate organisation. “Because Joel Edwards the general director of the EA is black, some people assume that it would be natural for the whole of the EA to understand the BMCs. But I would say Joel is a one-off. I can’t see another black person becoming general director of the EA in the near future.
“When ACEA was formed there was only one BMC that was a member of the EA. It was for this reason that the leaders of Black Majority Churches approached the EA and talked about how to avoid division. The other key issue was that very little was being done to promote the growth and development of BMCs as well as resourcing them. Until that time most of these churches were seen as sects, on the fringe of Christianity. They were not seen as evangelical but as fundamentalists lacking in knowledge, struggling with poor theology and unable to form part of the wider infrastructure.
“When I was at theological college ten years ago we were told the reason BMCs were not involved in the wider leadership of the church was because we couldn’t sit through board meetings! The truth is that the church is a racist institution and mirrors much of the racism prevalent in wider society.”
Culturally relevant and competent
When describing Black Majority Churches, Mark makes it clear that he isn’t just talking about churches from the African and Caribbean diaspora. “It’s not a monolithic group of people. It’s about the people and where they can be found. There are BMCs in the historical denominations. There are BMCs in White Majority Pentecostal denominations such as Elim and Assemblies of God. There is a cross fertilization at all sorts of different levels. What we’ve got now is far better than what we had,” Mark adds.
What about the critics who suggest there shouldn’t be separate Black Majority Churches? “Many congregations are happy to have women’s groups, men’s groups, youth church, children’s church… why? Because they recognise that people need to receive pastoral care or support according to their needs. Some churches are happy to say if you’ve got a lot of people from a different language group then we need to provide opportunities for self-expression and support for them. They are able to measure pastoral competence when it comes down to gender or youth culture or language. What no one readily identifies is cultural competence, which asks; ‘because I’m a Christian does that mean I am able to effectively minister to somebody from a different culture?’ The answer is a resounding no,” according to Mark. “These are skills you have to learn, develop and grow into. Would God allow his precious dear children to suffer emotionally and spiritually, because of the lack of cultural competence within leadership,” asks Mark, “or would he provide for them leaders with the ability to immediately meet their need?”
When Douglas Goodman, the leader of a 3,000-strong independent BMC in London was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for indecent assaults and for perverting the course of justice a few months ago, it sent shockwaves throughout the Christian community.
Some argue that had his church been in membership with ACEA or the EA, there would have been more accountability. Mark thinks not. “Douglas Goodman did not do what he did because he was an independent pastor or because he was black. He did what he did because the evidence suggests he delighted in sinning, he took pleasure from sinning and that is a sin that could befall anyone. When I was at theological college I was told that 12% of us would sleep with our secretaries. That fact didn’t come from the black church. That’s a white middle class institution reflecting on itself. My role at ACEA has taught me that the perception of accountability is often just that – perception not reality. There are a number of accountability instruments in place already. There is the law of the land, which governs how charities and companies operate and what is acceptable behaviour. We’ve also got the ultimate sanction available to us, which is Scripture and its examples and demands. People are free to join ACEA and the EA. However, I would rather they joined us out of conviction for the value of the work we’re doing, and because they want to stand shoulder to shoulder with us to demonstrate to the world whose side they’re on and that they are part of the Body of Christ - rather than simply to receive a certificate of approval which says, ‘I’m OK’.”
Mark adds, “The difficulty with many of the leaders in the UK of large congregations is that they have no equal in the UK and therefore are accountable to people and organisations overseas, such as T.D Jakes, John Avanzini and the like. This causes conflict between the different cultures as to how churches are governed. The American model is what is followed by a vast majority of large UK Black Majority Churches, which is not acceptable to the Charity Commission in the UK. The issue is you are either a good manager or not. If you have good structures in place they will protect both the individual and the organisation, but those things are basic core structures for any organisation.”
Back to the future
As Mark looks to the future he hopes to continue to be involved in a range of ministry opportunities including preaching, teaching, responding to contemporary issues, and working strategically to help the wider Church maximise its impact. Looking back at his eight years with ACEA Mark takes with him many positive memories.
“ACEA don’t do things that the churches could do for themselves, instead we have tried to do things that will have long term benefits, for example, initiating the child protection process for BMCs was a key part of our agenda.” Mark lists many other initiatives such as training children and youth workers, breaking down theological barriers with events like Retreating to Advance, and promoting the value and contribution of the BMCs in the nation as a whole. A particular highlight is the Faith in The Future event at which the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition were present, as well as the publication of two directories, which log all the BMCs in the nation. Meanwhile ACEA launches a new training course next month. The Certificate in Youthwork and Ministry course will be validated by Oxford Brookes University in partnership with the Centre for Youth Ministry.
It’s clear that Mark has not lost his passion for ministry, “I have not lost the burden for Black Majority Churches nor for the things that I’ve been pursuing over the last eight years. I have a book I’ve been working on for a couple of years now on BMCs in Britain which hopefully will be published this winter.” Mark hopes this will help trigger a wider debate about the role of Black Majority Churches in the UK today. If the book reflects the ministry gifts of the author – it will be honest, direct, passionate, relevant and a catalyst for change.
- ACEA was established in 1984 to promote Black Christian faith in Britain and to promote unity and reconciliation among all Christians in Britain.
- ACEA was set up to unite and empower the voice of BMCs in the UK. It aims to provide a coherent and cohesive voice on their behalf.
- ACEA works with over 1,280 Black Majority Churches (BMCs) and 1,600 individuals out of a total over over 3,000 BMCs.
- Rev Ronald Nathan and Rev Joel Edwards were former heads of ACEA.