Neo-Pentecostals: Traditional congregations bristle at stress on the individual over social activism.
The Baltimore Sun, Aug. 25, 2002
By John Rivera
Like a sea of humanity, nearly 20,000 swaying and singing worshipers packed the Baltimore Convention Center, transforming the exhibition hall into a tent revival.
The organ pumped, an electric bass drove the urban gospel beat and a massed choir raised its voices in praise. The churchgoers rose as one, hands clapping, arms raised, some jumping up and down in an ecstatic dance of the Holy Spirit. The recent national convention of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship attracted Baptists, Methodists and others who a decade ago would have worshiped in the confines of their own denominations.
A once-renegade movement in the African-American church called neo-Pentecostalism – which combines a powerful mix of spirit-filled worship and a philosophy of black empowerment – has come of age.
Once confined to storefront sanctuaries and a handful of Pentecostal denominations, the spiritual phenomenon has been increasingly embraced by the elite black churches of Baptists and Methodists. It is reviving congregations and creating megachurches.
“Our pastor is truly anointed,” Mashawn Phillips, 34, said of the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple AME Church in West Baltimore, which has grown from nothing to more than 2,500 members in two years. “I’ve done a 360-turn- around with things that went on in my life, and it’s all because of his teaching and preaching.”
Scholars who study the African-American church consider neo-Pentecostalism and the rise of the black megachurch to be the most significant trends in the past two decades.
Although there are no official statistics, historian Vinson Synan said a conservative estimate is that a third of mainline black churches – Baptist and Methodist – have embraced neo-Pentecostalism; that’s about 5 million people. Perhaps more significant is that nearly all the African-American megachurches (those with more than 2,000 members) are neo-Pentecostal, including Bethel AME, Empowerment Temple AME, and New Psalmist, New Shiloh and Mount Pleasant Baptist churches in Baltimore.
But the success of neo-Pentecostalism has prompted debate about the nature and mission of the black church.
On one side are the longtime heroes of the civil rights movement, who express grave concerns that church-based social activism is being cast aside by the new emphasis on entertaining worship services, which they deride as “shake and bake,” and by the creation of a cult of celebrity preachers.
“If we’re going to survive in this country, the only way is through church activism that identifies with the poor,” said the Rev. Vernon Dobson, pastor for more than 30 years of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, which has a century-old tradition of civil rights activism.
“My fear is that somebody will get the wrong message and see church as celebrating rather than serving,” Dobson said. “Never shout any higher than you can serve. Shout all you want. But let it be measured by your service.”
There is hesitation among the generation of neo-Pentecostal ministers to directly criticize men they consider their elders, for whom they profess respect and admiration. But the ministers also offer no apologies for their approach.
“When social action became the emphasis, the church lost its balance,” said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s oldest and largest black church. “Now, what the principles of this movement have done is to help us regain the balance between spirituality and social action.”
Any minister or board of elders that ignores this movement, the neo-Pentecostal ministers say, does so at his or its peril. “There are a few churches that have held out, tried to maintain their old tradition of staunch, rigid spirituality,” said the Rev. Dennis V. Proctor Sr., pastor of Pennsylvania Avenue AME Zion Church in West Baltimore. “But they are dying on the vine.”
Neo-Pentecostal services have many variations, but three important elements are characteristic – professionally performed music that will bring a congregation to its feet; dynamic and inspiring preaching; and a sense of freedom in the congregation to respond as the Spirit moves – shouting, clapping, dancing, speaking in tongues, healing and a sort of swoon known as being “slain in the Spirit.”
“Miracles still happen,” said Barbara Wiley, an elementary school principal who attends a Full Gospel church in Erie, Pa. “People are being healed; people are being delivered from oppression, drug abuse, sickness – all by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
The roots of neo-Pentecostalism lie in the Pentecostal movement that formed early in the last century, introduced to the world on a large scale by the Azusa Street Revival, an interracial, headline-grabbing religious phenomenon that began in 1906 in Los Angeles.
For most of the last century, Pentecostalism was limited to a handful of denominations, such as the mostly white Assemblies of God and the principally black Church of God in Christ, as well as to smaller storefront churches that served the urban black underclass.
But the more influential churches of the black middle class and elites demurred, clinging to a more restrained, “dignified” style of religious worship closer to that of the traditional European churches.
Pentecostalism began creeping into mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in the 1960s under a movement that described itself as “Charismatic.” About this time John Bryant, a young African-American who grew up in West Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church, became intrigued by the possibilities of “spirited” worship. After a stint in the Peace Corps in Africa and as a minister in Cambridge, Mass., Bryant returned to Baltimore, where he took over the Bethel pulpit and established it as a catalyst for African-
“I began to minister and preach a combination of a spiritual emphasis with a call to minister to the whole person, to speak on issues of justice, liberation and empowerment,” Bryant said.
The people responded, and the congregation grew to 6,500 by the time he was elected bishop in 1988. Bryant was followed by Reid, a rising star with a thriving church in Los Angeles. Reid, whose father was also pastor at Bethel, brought a vision emphasizing the importance of the role of men in what had become an increasingly female church – not just at Bethel, but in African-American churches generally.
Other pastors, seeing the numbers flocking to Bethel and other congregations, have awakened to the possibilities of neo-Pentecostalism.
The Rev. H. Walden Wilson II, pastor of the 3,000-member Israel Baptist Church in East Baltimore, adopted a more upbeat preaching style, expanded the choir and shortened the service while maintaining traditional Baptist teachings. “Had I continued that old, conservative, traditional style of worship … we would have died in the wilderness,” he said.
But civil rights activists say the emphasis on neo-Pentecostal spirituality plays down the church’s social conscience.
“I will tell you very frankly that I do not see the black church as creatively vigorous in the continuing of the civil rights struggle,” said the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, retired pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church and a leader in the movement. “The churches that are now the most vigorous are those who are a happy crowd.”
‘Shake and bake’
Dobson decried the neo-Pentecostal emphasis on praise and celebration and denounced the ambition of some pastors.
“The religious zealots get an opportunity to be celebrated and get all of the excesses that go along with that celebration: beautiful home, car, money, the whole thing,” he said. “For all of our high-powered music and beautiful sanctuary, I wouldn’t be surprised if I went away from here, and they got a little ‘shake and bake’ and wouldn’t replace this other stuff. Because it’s easier! ‘Shake and bake’ is much easier.”
Other Baltimore ministers fret that there will be no one to replace the civil rights veterans once they are gone.
“I think one of the sad things, not just particular to Baltimore, is there seems to be a gap between those 40 and older in terms of people distinguishing themselves in social ministry,” said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, former president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the city’s most influential activist clergy group. “That will be unique in Baltimore’s religious history.”
A national survey shows that fewer than 10 percent of black churches can be considered activist congregations, frequently lobbying public officials or participating in political advocacy.
“We seem to find there is a small cohort of activist churches at the forefront of public policy where African-American churches have been involved,” said the Rev. R. Drew Smith of Morehouse College, director of a long-term study of African-American churches.
Neo-Pentecostal pastors say their activism lies closer to home. Using biblical imagery, they say the generation of civil rights activists that had the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as their Moses was led from the spiritual slavery of segregation and Jim Crow laws. But this generation has entered into the promised land.
This has been expressed in a religious worldview that has various names: Canaan theology, Promised Land theology or Kingdom of God theology.
“These are ministers who wish to close the gap between the two kingdoms [of man and God] and establish God’s kingdom to the best of their ability here on Earth,” said Robert L. Franklin, president of Atlanta’s Inter-Denominational Theological Center, a consortium of six predominantly African-American seminaries. “The best antidote to poverty is not to be a poor person.”
It comes down to a difference in philosophy and strategy. The social activist minister wants to transform the legal and economic systems that keep poor people in poverty. The neo-Pentecostal minister would rather transform the person.
Expression of vision
That theological vision is expressed in the community development corporations set up by the neo-Pentecostal churches, which offer a spectrum of social services and projects. The nonprofit agencies run community outreach centers, offer alcohol and drug counseling, and operate soup kitchens, clothing banks and job training programs. Others are building housing and helping members start small businesses that provide jobs for their communities.
Neo-Pentecostal ministers say they are not social workers, and they are not social agitators, but simply Christians.
“I think the frustration [the civil rights ministers] feel is we are not making as many placards, we’re not holding as many rallies,” Proctor said. “But on the other hand, we’re having many more revivals and teaching sessions and seminars, trying to equip our people to be family, to have sanctity of family, have respect and reverence for the house of God and the people of God. And the balance is absolutely necessary.”