A shift in their focus for black churches

Neo-Pentecostals: Traditional congregations bristle at stress on the individual over social activism.

August 25, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

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."

Significant trends

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."

`Spiritual emphasis'

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.

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