Marcia Dixon looks at how Britain’s Black Pentecostal churches and the Christian community have changed during the 25 years that she has worked as a journalist on religious affairs.
Ever since I started writing about all things related to Britain’s Black Pentecostal churches – and the Church in general – 25 years ago, there have been some major societal, cultural and spiritual developments, which have greatly impacted the Church, what Christians believe, and how they live out their lives.
How people regard the Church and their relationship to the Church has definitely undergone a major change.
OLD SCHOOL CHURCH – In the late 1980s, if you were a Christian, church was your life. Almost all churches held Sunday morning AND Sunday evening services, which believers were expected to attend. If you didn’t, you were missed and people would find out why you weren’t there. Plus, there were weekly youth services, prayer meetings and Bible classes, and weekend visits to church services to other congregations, often in the church van. Believers were happy to pack out their diaries with church activities, because they didn’t go partying or clubbing (not the serious believers) and church was often like one big family.
NEW SCHOOL CHURCH – Nowadays, the pressure on believers to attend church every Sunday has decreased. The focus now is on serving God and not the church and, for many, regular Sunday attendance is not necessarily a requisite. Coupled with this, several churches no longer hold Sunday evening services, and there are less weekday services, as many church leaders now recognise that Christians want to spend time with their families, and focus on other things, such as socialising, studying, climbing up the career ladder, and working in the community. The downside of this is that church members aren’t always as close to each other as they were back in the day.
OLD SCHOOL CHURCH – Twenty-five years ago, there was a clear-cut demarcation between Christians and non-Christians, because of ‘hard’, clear-cut, Bible-based teaching/preaching by preachers. Believers knew the basics of the faith, and preachers constantly spoke about biblical concepts, like holiness, sanctification and the power of prayer. Furthermore, believers were left in no doubt that sin – whether it was sex before marriage, partying, clubbing, greed, lying, etc – was wrong.
NEW SCHOOL CHURCH – Although preachers still preach about sin, believers will also hear messages about how to build wealth, gain success, achieve their dreams, and fulfil their destiny. And, when it comes to issues of sin and wrongdoing, church leaders are more understanding of a Christian’s propensity to make a mistake, so preaching has a more compassionate edge to it. Furthermore, preachers are more likely to touch on the social issues their congregations are facing, and provide biblical solutions to them.
OLD SCHOOL CHURCH – There was a time when Black Christians had a reputation for looking dowdy. Women were encouraged to dress modestly, meaning no cleavage, arms or knees should be on show; they couldn’t wear make-up – even clear nail varnish was frowned upon. Church styles were long dresses and big hats. Men were expected to dress soberly for church, and usually wore a suit and tie.
NEW SCHOOL CHURCH – Recognising that strict dress codes stopped many non-Christians from attending church, many Christian leaders have adopted a come-as-you-are approach to church attire, meaning individuals can now wear what they like to church. This can consist of anything – casual wear, like jeans, T-shirts, jogging bottoms and even party wear, like tight-fitting dresses and the highest heeled shoes you’ve ever seen. It’s an understandable policy, but modesty seems to have been thrown out the window by some. However, there’s still a significant minority, who like to wear their ‘Sunday best’.
OLD SCHOOL CHURCH – Pastors of the 1980s were devoted to their God, the church and their congregations – sometimes tending to these three at the expense of their families. And, although church leaders didn’t always receive a salary from their church (many had full-time jobs), they made themselves accessible to their members; armour-bearers weren’t in existence then, and few church leaders had security. Ministers were also very strict and renowned for being black and white when it came to issues of morality.
NEW SCHOOL CHURCH – Due to the increased wealth of the Black church, and a recognition that leading a church is a full-time occupation, 21st century church leaders often receive a payment from their church. They are also more likely to get involved in community initiatives, as they now see their role as providing leadership and support services to both the church and the wider community. Some church leaders now equate leading a church to running a business, and see themselves as CEOs, as opposed to ‘men of the cloth’, and ministers of the past are very desirous to see their churches grow in membership, as well as in spiritual and social influence.
OLD SCHOOL CHURCH – Whilst marriage amongst Christians was encouraged, getting down the aisle with the man/woman of your dreams was something of a cloak-and-dagger exercise. Couples couldn’t date openly and, if the church found out you were dating, you were expected to get engaged within six months and married within nine months; this was because Christians were expected to take relationships seriously, and also fellow Christians didn’t want people falling into sin. Divorce was seen as the last resort to dealing with marital problems, as couples were expected to work through their problems. And, as for Christians confessing to be in homosexual relationships, this was a no-no.
NEW SCHOOL CHURCH – These days, whilst marriage is still encouraged, subliminal messages from the pulpit encourage women to look for a man with money, status, education and ambition. There has been a 180 degree about-turn where dating is concerned. Christian couples date openly, and there is less church pressure placed on people to solidify their relationship by marriage. In fact, there are some people – mainly men – who are serial daters, who seem more interested in the chase, than in settling down. More married couples are now opting for divorce if they are unable to overcome marital issues and, buoyed by developments in wider society, some Black Christians are now confessing to being homosexual and to being in homosexual relationships.
OLD SCHOOL CHURCH – Back in the late 1980s, most of the churches and denominations of note were African-Caribbean, like the New Testament Church of God, the Church of God of Prophecy, and many more. African churches were in the early years of their growth, and mass immigration of African professionals – mainly of Nigerian nationality – didn’t start until the 1990s. A large church of this era was any church that had a congregation of 250 or more.
NEW SCHOOL CHURCH – Church leaders growing their congregations to 500, 1000 or even 3000 is not uncommon. Leaders now aspire to have large congregations, because it indicates that they are reaching people with the Word, and having a large congregation gives a church greater leverage. Nowadays, we have seen the rise of the Black mega church, and the majority of these churches have a predominantly African congregation. This has been partly fuelled by their adoption of church growth principles, the rise in African migration to the UK, and their extensive use of media.
OLD SCHOOL CHURCH – Twenty-five years ago, the media landscape was very bare – aside from ethnic publications like The Voice, and pirate radio stations (the now defunct Choice FM was launched in 1990), churches relied on leafleting, mailshots and word of mouth to spread the word about their events and initiatives. Black Christians occasionally got a look in on terrestrial TV stations, on shows like Songs of Praise, and we got our own gospel music show, People Get Ready, which was first broadcast on ITV in 1988 and featured both British and US gospel artists. But, aside from that, there were no preaching programmes – except on pirate radio – and the Internet, satellite TV and social media were nowhere to be seen.
NEW SCHOOL CHURCH – There has been an explosion in media in the past 20+ years and, as a result, a rise in Christians using media to spread the Gospel. Satellite TV has led to a rise in Christian TV stations like God TV, KICC TV and many more, which deliver Christian programmes (predominantly preaching ones). Then there’s the growth of the Internet, social media, websites, on-line magazines – all of which provide Christians with opportunities to spread the Gospel to large audiences, as well as advertise their events.
There have been both negative and positive changes in how Christians ‘do church’, but ultimately, Jesus is still Lord, the Gospel is still changing lives, and the Church is still here – and that’s all that really matters.