THE BLACK CHURCH: FROM “SERMONS” TO “STRATEGIES”
HEAR US: Some of The Voice Editors’ Forum panel (from left to right): Sonia Brown, Bishop Wilton Powell, Bishop Wayne Malcolm and Marcia Dixon
WHILE EMPTY pews in traditional churches are gathering dust across the country, Black Majority Churches (BMC) are welcoming more and more members.
There is estimated to be more than 4,000 black-led places of worship across the UK boasting a collective membership in excess of 300,000.
More than half of all churchgoers in London are said to be from an African or African Caribbean background.
And even though the black community represents only two percent of the country’s population, it makes up at least seven percent of worshippers nationwide.
For further evidence of the collective power of the black church, Jesus House senior pastor Aru Irukwu was this year voted Britain’s most influential black person in a poll organised by the Mayor of London’s Office.
It is no wonder that politicians are keen to get an audience with those church leaders who speak directly to a large section of the black community.
With this in mind, The Voice invited key leaders of some of these churches including Bishop Wilton Powell MBE, the national overseer for the Church of God of Prophecy, and Bishop Wayne Malcolm, founder of Christian Life City Church, to its Editors’ Forum to thrash out some of the pressing issues of the moment.
The discussion was hosted by Premier Christian Radio at their Vauxhall headquarter on Wednesday, June 20, and co-chaired by enterprise guru Sonia Brown MBE and DJ Muyiwa Olarewaju who presents the channel’s Gospel Tonight programme.
Guests were asked to discuss if Christianity was still relevant in modern Britain, before focusing on the most divisive issue for religious leaders across the country: their position on proposals to legalise of same-sex marriage.
Shez Christopher, the women’s regional leader for Church of God of Prophecy, stressed the importance for black churches to not only be open-minded, but also to be vocal about it.
It was vital, she said, in order to challenge negative perceptions of the church in the mainstream media.
Throwing open the debate, she said: “There is a lack of voice on this issue. What if the church were to welcome homosexuality and same sex marriages? Where is the voice saying that we embrace them and would like gay people to come and fellowship with us?
“If we were to start making that clear that the church is inclusive, we could attract the attention of the media and we could be considered a voice in society.”
“This issue is something that has been placed upon us”, argued Bishop Powell. “The church is in reactionary mode.”
He added: “The message of the gospel speaks to all human conditions. There are people in your congregation who have murdered, sold drugs and all manner of things. We don’t exclude them. Are we pretending that there aren’t homosexuals in our congregation already? Of course there are. We must be inclusive.”
Bishop Malcolm was more cautious.
He said: “I don’t think our issue is being able to say ‘all are welcome’. The issue is when [gay members] come, what are we now going to insist and demand from them in order to be accepted and fully integrate as a member [in accordance with the gospel that says homosexuality is a sin]? This is where we are split.”
There was a general consensus that one of the biggest challenges facing the church was a need to communicate more with those outside of their congregation in order to be seen as a positive influence in society.
Voice columnist Marica Dixon, and editor of Keep The Faith magazine, said: “In my opinion, the black church is one of the best things happening in our community.
“Some of the most progressive and successful people come out of our churches. There are a lot of good things happening and we need to shout about it more.”
The discussion then turned to how churches are communicating, not just with their congregation, but with the world at large, particularly the mainstream media that has had a tendency to seize upon isolated cases of corruption, child abuse and witchcraft.
It often overlooks initiatives like Street Pastor founded by Les Isaac, who was recently awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours or housing associations that have been set up by some churches.
Co-chair Brown asked: “How do we modernise the church so it keeps up? Are we engaging with social media?
“There’s an entire generation only on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, so are we using those tools effectively in response to the challenges we face?”
In response, Dixon said: “A lot of what is being preached in the pulpit is different to what was being said 20 years ago.
“It is now very much about empowering you for life. Black church leaders are talking about education, entrepreneurship and taking control of your own destiny. Maybe these elements aren’t being communicated on other platforms.”
She added that American pastors like TD Jakes, Joyce Meyer and Joel Ofsteen were among the most retweeted users on Twitter.
Noel McLean, of Yahweh Christian Fellowship, said that part of the problem was not lack of communication, but too many different voices.
He said: “We haven’t always been willing to have one people to speak for us. Like in Acts 3, Peter spoke, but said ‘hear us’. There’s a need for humility, and let the person who is called speak on our behalf.
“We have to recognise our limitations. One church tried to take on a domestic violence issue and failed miserably. This is where I am concerned. Some churches don’t have the resources or the expertise. We can be a positive influence. For example, a survey found that most people going through depression turn to their faith leader, before they went to their practitioner. So, we can work in partnership as a referral service, and not attempt to replace those services.”