I am growing increasingly concerned about the nature of liturgy and sermonising that seems to be gaining prominence in Britain – particularly in some Black Pentecostal churches. This trend is characterised by the way it, probably unintentionally, blames worshippers for lack of growth and progress; ignoring a clear biblical precedent that although we ‘plant and water’, it is God who causes increase. The narrative progresses along the lines that the cause of lack of growth is because worshippers are not close enough to God, not praying enough, not giving enough – just not enough. It may be worth remembering that it is Satan whom the Bible calls ‘the accuser’ of the saints (Revelation 12.10).
This focus on perceived inadequate human agency instead of divine agency, which is the ultimate means by which all are drawn to God, plays into many Black people’s insecurity, lack of self-worth, lack of self-esteem, and general sense of being ‘not good enough’ in western society; and this in the very space that ought to give those same people a greater sense of security, self-worth, self-esteem, and of being enough, by God’s grace.
The idea that we need to be closer to God, need to pray more, need to give more, need to be more than we are – an idea that is front and centre in some Black Pentecostal churches – reinforces the western lies about Africans, and is even more dangerous, because it is an idea being propagated by ourselves and in a supposed spiritual space.
Too many Black people have imbibed ideas about Black inferiority for far too long. It has damaged us, weakened us, and often turns victimhood into self-hate or self-loathing. This may explain the week after week rush to the altar by some so desperate to be ‘fixed’ – a form of self-flagellation. In desperation, they repeat the very thing that has not changed their circumstances in the past, in the hope that it will. There is also the triumphalism of some in the congregation, cheering on the liturgist or preacher as they whip up emotions, often using ill-prepared sermons focused on human inadequacies, rather than on the power of God to redeem and empower.
Those of us, who are followers of Jesus Christ, believe the Gospel that the God who in Jesus overcame suffering and death is interested in our liberation, our salvation, in this life and the next. We believe that God is interested in justice, peace and love – especially for the oppressed, the outcast, the excluded. We believe we’ve been called as disciples to follow the Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters and restores our souls. I personally continue to sign up to this Way because of Jesus the Liberator I have come and am coming to know more day by day. It is simply not helpful to have the tables turned on disciples of Jesus to become blameable for the lack of progress some leaders expect. Misdiagnosis can often be fatal.
Our liturgy and preaching would do better to focus and shine light, not on Jesus’ disciples’ inadequacies – that will always be with human ‘clay jars’ – but on the power and adequacy of God to transform. To do otherwise is to feed the victimised mental slavery that started over five hundred years ago, and continued under colonialism and neo-colonialism. This contributes to our people’s susceptibility to feeling ‘less than’, ‘never enough’. A ministry that focuses on God in Jesus who redeems, transforms and empowers will attract new and sustain old followers of Jesus.
From observation, I can think of a few more areas that if addressed are likely to bring people to respond to the Gospel. These are the things that were central to the ministry of Old Testament prophets and the ministry of Jesus: justice for the wronged against; liberation for the oppressed; care for the widow, parentless, the aged, children and the poor, and liberation for the oppressed by sin, principalities and powers. Leaders will do well to remember that our churches are not omnipotent; instead, they are flawed agencies that need to constantly keep under review their tendency to preserve institutional, cultural and doctrinal ‘sacred cows’ that stymie spiritual growth and confidence in God.
Finally, Pentecostal church leaders should think long and hard about how to put the needs of ‘the least of these’ first, and way ahead of taking from the needy to give to those who already have more than enough. Wouldn’t it be truly unworldly if, at the next convention or assembly, the special food tables were reserved for the widows, orphans and the aged, not for bishops and VIPs? Wouldn’t it say something to the world if the special offerings collected went to those most needy, not those already well paid?
Fellow leaders, when we scrutinise the reason for the lack of the progress we crave, let us first ask: is the way we operate pleasing to the God of justice, for whom the last is first? And the last thing we should do, is to absolve ourselves and the institutions we operate and instead reverse-blame those we are called to protect. Remember, ‘it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5.1).