"Praise the Lord! Every body ppraaaaise the Lord!" bellowed the preacher from behind the glass pulpit. HALELUYAH! Resounded the congregation in perfect resonance. It was hot and humid despite the newly installed air-conditioning. I was squeezed among 700 other worshipers at the launch of a new Church in South London. The minister was immaculately dressed in a tailor-made ash grey suit, shining black shoes with a screaming pink tie and matching pocket-handkerchief. The energy in the place was pulsating and you got caught up with the atmosphere of excitement and pure passion of praise, preaching and prose.
Like many other new worship centres, this predominantly West-African Church was being launched in a converted building with the support of other leaders and ministers from the UK, USA and Africa.
In his recently published book, Look What The Lord Has Done, Mark Sturge the former Director of the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance begs the question, "What on Earth is a Black Majority Church?" He classifies these new worship forms into five broad groups.
- Churches from the African Caribbean Diaspora
- Churches from the African Diaspora
- Black Churches within historic denominations
- Black Churches within white (Pentecostal) denominations
- African and Caribbean spiritual Churches
"I just don’t like the terminology Black Majority Church!" vented Bishop Joe Aldred, Secretary of Minority Ethnic Affairs, Birmingham. "And… and I would like to go on record stating that certain myths need to be laid to rest! Many if not most of these ethnic Churches were not birthed out of segregation, marginalisation or discrimination. Yes, we will not discount totally some of these factors but the major Caribbean denominations evolved out of Denominational expansion and missionary zeal. A lot of these Churches like the Church of God in Christ emerged out of house fellowships around 1951. They blossomed as out growths of established Churches in the Caribbean and merely continued their faith, liturgy and worship as practised back home".
Broadly speaking, a Black Church would either be predominantly Caribbean or African or perhaps an intricate combination of both, sprinkled with other nationalities. Definitions can be tricky though, because my good friend Canon John Williams, the English vicar of St. Saviours in East London, has an interesting mix of Caribbean, African and indigenous white Anglicans. Many of his members are black, but he does not consider his congregation to be a Black Majority Church. Meanwhile Rev. Tade Agbesanwa, an ordained Baptist minister is the Black leader of the Custom House Baptist Church. When he joined 14years ago, the church was white majority now it is black majority. Rev Roger Grassham is an ordained English minister with the Elim Pentecostal denomination. His congregation has about 45% black members. He attributes his multicultural Christian community to the values, ethos and style of theRiver Church, which was birthed out of a merge between two white charismatic congregations. These include a focus on prayer, having a vibrant contemporary worship style, variety of services, strong pastoral ministry and a welcoming attitude.
You therefore cannot place a fixed tag on what Black Church stands for. Sometimes it all boils down to what the particular church calls itself.
More than numbers
Many of the African-Caribbean Churches like the Church of God of Prophecy, New Testament Church of God, New Testament Assembly,andthe Wesleyan Holiness Church began to emerge in the UK in the early 1950s. The African Churches however started in the 1970s with the main surge coming in the ‘90’s. Early fellowships were the New Covenant Church, and the Four Square Church denominations. The more recent ones include the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Calvary Charismatic Baptist, Glory House, and Kingsway International Christian Centre among many others.
Many urban Black Churches have over 1,000 members, while KICC, Jesus House, Ruach Ministries, Glory House, New Wine, Calvary Baptist and others have more - from 2,000 and 10,000 members. Even though my emphasis is not on numbers these figures are an indication of the impact and reach of these inner-city Churches.
Peter Brierley of Christian Research estimates that 51% of Church attendance within London consists of Black and ethnic Christians. Many of the Black Churches are located within large towns and cities. The growth rate of these Churches has been phenomenal. Mark Sturge writes; ‘For the first time, we encounter "church bombing", where a congregation suddenly appears in an area, either on a Sunday or for a short period, and then disappears. This was because of the saturation of existing premises: for the first time buildings were just not suitable for the needs of rapidly growing congregations.’Many of these Black Churches have over 1,000 members while others have smaller congregations with a 200 average. It is interesting to note that Churches like KICC, Jesus House, Ruach Ministries, Glory House, New Wine, Calvary Baptist and many more have burgeoning congregations ranging from 2,000 and 10,000 members. Even though my emphasis is not on numbers these figures are an indication of the impact and reach of these inner-city Churches.
The WOW factor
I stepped through the doors of the New Wine Church in Greenwich and I could have stepped into the mini-lobby of a five-star Hotel. There was turquoise carpet everywhere. The main auditorium looked like a section carved out of the Savoy. The bright and colourful choir were singing on stage, which had electrical moveable sections and glided as they danced! They had just taken over a listed Cinema building by the Thames ferry roundabout. The day I attended the Senior Pastor Dr Tayo Adeyemi introduced the guest speaker Creflo Dollar, a popular African- American charismatic preacher.
Like many emerging African churches, New Wine started in the early 90s meeting in a South London town hall. Over the years, it has grown in size, influence and relevance. There was a list of different outreaches from New Wine in one of their recent publications. This included supporting the Greenwich Mayors Charity, Cystic Fibrosis and Macmillan Cancer Research. Among other ventures the congregation sent 2,000 shoeboxes with gifts to children in Eastern Europe, raised £25,000 in support of the Tsunami disaster, and built homes for lepers in India.
Freedoms Ark, pastored by Rev. Nimms Obunge has been the precursor of the Peace Alliance. This community initiative works in partnership with the Home Office, Ken Livingston’s cabinet, The Metropolitan Police and various local Councils within and beyond the Capital. The Street Pastorsoutreach was started by Rev Les Isaacs in Brixton and is now one of the flagship initiatives highlighting the partnership between statutory bodies like the Metropolitan Police and faith communities. The Glory House Football Academy is probably one of the best-kept secrets within East London and has a current white majority membership of 700 East End young boys and their families. Meanwhile Bishop Wilton Powell, who heads up Church of God of Prophecy in Birmingham, has been awarded an MBE in recognition for his work in the local community. The work of BMC’s are being increasingly recognised and appreciated by local and national government.
"You should get one of these Pastor Jonathan", said David, a friend, as I sat in his brand new Porsche Cheyenne, with its beige leather seats and walnut dashboard riddled with cockpit like dials. "Drive it round the block and feel the power under the hood". I pressed on the accelerator and was launched forward. (I felt the leather seats press into the small of my back) It was a black beauty. David and his wife represent the fresh wave of Africans on the block. They had moved from inner city Hackney to the Chafford Hundred suburbia a few years ago. Like a growing number of members of Glory House they commute three times a week for the services and meetings that take place in Church or homes across London.
I consider that the average black believer has a holistic financial worldview. The language some churches use might be similar to the American prosperity teachers – but there are differences. Also what can seem flamboyant to white believers is viewed very differently by black people who came from a working class background but aspire to better themselves and their families. Money is regarded not as a master, but a servant. Many of these churches are built up and sustained by the generous and faithful giving of working class first and second-generation immigrants! A percentage of these believers are breaking into the middle-class category with an entrepreneurial spirit to set up a wide range of business such as nurseries, estate agencies, employment firms, shops etc.
Many Black Churches are living-growing organisms in communal cultures where everyone is a distant cousin or aunt. BMC’s are not just places of religious worship but the hub of the black community where boy meets girl, business ideas are received, mortgages are blessed, children are born, named and nurtured. Where life’s crises are anaesthetised, friendships and relationships are forged and careers are boosted. The Church is open almost everyday of the week with different meetings; the Grandmothers club, Choir rehearsals, Business network seminars, Youth prayer clubs, Ushers meetings, Prayer department, Cell group leaders meeting and the list goes on. The Black Christian faith is very integral to life. Theirs is a theology of ‘Emmanuel’ - God with me, in me and through me. The Holy Spirit’s companionship is evident with the speaking in tongues, laying on of hands and miracles in everyday life.
Follow the leader
"Pastor Jay! Please come, come, come and sit right here beside your beautiful wife!!" Rev Yemi Adeleke called out to me in her rhythmic Nigerian accent, as I entered the hall. As one of the co-leaders of House of Praise within the Redeemed Church of God (RCCG), Pastor Yemi is a bubble of life, giggles and smiles. The building located close to the Thames in Southeast London was converted from an industrial to religious use. Tastefully furnished and redecorated, the hub for this parish was teeming with women and men preparing for their ladies conference Total Woman that attracts hundreds of women annually.
As I spoke with her husband, Rev Andrew Adeleke, one of the top leaders in the denomination, I couldn’t help thinking that the Redeemed network of Churches have come a long way. The first set of Redeemed members started within a small house fellowship in 1985. According to the Centre for Studies on New Religions CENSUR in 2000, RCCG had approximately over 100,000 members within London and the Midlands.
RCCG reflects the new genre of BMC’s from Africa and the Caribbean, which do not fit the classic caste. Rather than project a siege mentality, these Christian communities ooze with optimism, confidence and hope.
From the brow-sweating Bishop John Francis, to the chic and trendy Ramson-Mumba to the authoritative Apostle Alfred Williams, the pulsating Dr Albert Odulele to the articulate Bishop Wayne Malcolm, the Black leader epitomises the rhythm of Church life. She or he is the peacemaker and thermostat, stabilising fibrillations, and regulating the ambience within the pews. An intricate culture of respect for leadership threads delicately through the liturgy, worship and congregational life. This gradient and medium of honour is one of the distinctives of black Christians mirrored by the Early Church. I consider that this is one of the key factors in the growth of black-led churches that allows fluid delegation, team dynamics and deployment. However, this can be one of its weaknesses when this leverage is abused. Sadly the failures – where leaders abuse their positions tend to grab the headlines.
I wanna dance!
If you’ve ever stepped into a black church, one of its classic hallmarks is the exuberant music, praise and worship. You are carried along, hypnotised by the rhythm and swept away by the sheer mass energy. You sweat with the songs and shout out the choruses. It’s enchanting and invigorating. Tiring but exhilarating all at the same time; especially if you’re over 50 and expected to move your body like a teenager! It’s an experience, period!
Viv Broughton in his modern classic Black Gospel traces the journey of this music genre from the exploits of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in league with Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey in the 19th Century. On through the Mississippi based Ultica Jubilee Quartet in the 1920’s to the Mahalia Jackson’s and Ward sisters phenomenon of the 50’s. The arrival of the Caribbean Church community in the 50’s then gave birth to an indigenous gospel expression through choirs, bands and solo artists. These included groups like Strings of Prophecy, Heavenly Hope, Harmoniser and Golden Chords. The 70’s and 80’s saw the emergence of names like Lavine Hudson, Inspiration choir with John Francis, Kainos with Basil Mead and Joel Edwards, Paradise with Doug Williams and the popular London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC) with Basil Mead.
With raised hands, we sang "How great thou Art" as the worship leader drew us into song after song. It was a medley of praise, thanksgiving, reflection and raw worship. Much later as I shook hands with this gifted minstrel, an electric guitar strapped to his back, a turtle neck jumper over worn Levi’s, I could not help wondering if Noel Robinson slept with his eyes open. Full of energy and life, Noel and his band Nu-image epitomise the Black Church sound. Other leading music and worship artists in the BMC scene include, Mark Beswick with the Power Praise team, Raymond & Co or Muyiwa and Riversong. The black church has always been the incubator for young and raw musical talent, which would later leap unto the secular billboard charts.
Back to the future
ev Katei Kirby the newly appointed CEO of the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance believes that there is great hope and potential for the whole Church in the UK. "I want to work myself out of a job," she says softly but firmly, "I would rather not see an ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s one body and the Black Church is not ‘the others’ as I heard a devout Christian leader let slip the other day at a large conference. The Black Church is here to stay not as an isolated distinct entity but an integrated part of the whole body of Christ." I smiled as I nodded in agreement with her. Katei represents a new vanguard of younger black leaders ready to engage holistically with the wider Church on biblical terms.
?The black Christian community is here in the UK by a divine move of God. They are embedded within the full spectrum of Christianity from Anglicans and Catholics to Evangelical- Pentecostalism. I challenge, myself first, and every member of Christ’s body in Great Britain; let us begin to build bridges wherever gaps exist between cultures, churches, classes or creeds. Let us join forces and unite against a common enemy that is not flesh and blood. Let the death, burial and resurrection of our lord Jesus Christ truly crucify and bury our differences. I pray that the Holy Spirit release the new life that true harmony, synergy and unity brings.