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empty Posted June 2007
Doreen McCalla
Transformational Congregations:
Life Trajectories in Black Churches (Part 1)

Doreen McCalla

Trajectories in life courses (or lifestyles) in Western capitalistic societies are mass phenomena. Substantial changes are evident in family compositions, work-life practices, organizational structures, educational systems, welfare and social reforms, telecommunications, industry and technology, media and arts to itemize some. These changes involve a shift to global pluralism1 that is enacted at individual and local levels and which are characterized by diverse social cultures. It would seem that such societal transformations are almost ubiquitous and endemic. They are creating a society of uncertainties and risk2 in which change is constant, multifaceted and fluid where ample time for grounding, stability and security is disallowed.3 It is a society thus caricatured by what Anthony Giddens describes as ‘a proliferation of lifestyles.’4

By drawing on evidence from a study into a nationalized, Black-majority Denomination in the UK, this paper shows that such global lifestyle changes have not escaped congregations. Church organizational reforms are directly responsible for these life trajectories. Societal amendments may also be liable. Concurrently, these life trajectories are reconstructing conventional religiosities and cultures of Black-majority congregations (BMCs), which is being realized by individual congregants at local levels in individual Black churches. 

Whilst the study focuses on exploring into the historical development and contribution of the Church of God of Prophecy (CoGoP) in the UK5 it must be noted that CoGoP is being used as a microscopic catalyst for a discussion of Black Churches more generally in Britain, especially Pentecostal such as, the New Testament Church of God, and others of the Holiness tradition namely, the Wesleyan Holiness Church. This means that whilst the issues addressed in this paper are drawn from an investigation into CoGoP, similar issues are identified in other Black Churches, which readers may identify with.

The paper starts with reasons for life trajectories of Black Churches with special reference to CoGoP followed by a section on some empirical evidence of life trajectories. The paper finishes with concluding remarks. Due to limited space the theoretical underpinning to the paper cannot be discussed but is reserved for a later publication. 

Transformational congregations
A noticeable cultural transition of CoGoP in the UK started in the mid-1980s and accelerated considerably in the 1990s. This transformation corresponds with several major organizational events in CoGoP’s international calendar. During the later part of the 1980s CoGoP restructured its financial systems thus enabling local churches to retain a bulk of their funds and offerings in local congregations.6 Prior to this, most local funds were collected and distributed by the National and International Church. With more income, local churches have set their own local agendas and have become extremely autonomous, localized, and diverse when once international and national standardization, with regards to mainly governance of traditional Black Pentecostal Churches, 7 was commonplace.

A second factor is the prophetic sermons entitled Excess Baggage and Time of Crisis delivered in 1979 to delegates of the CoGoP UK, Annual National Convention. Like no previous proclamations uttered by Bishop Adrian Varlack, the then World Mission Secretary, 8 these sermons declared first, that the Caribbean transatlantic experience to the UK is Divinely-ordained in which the relevance of the Black Church in Britain as religious agents of evangelism and social action must be realized. Church reform was therefore necessary. Second, Varlack foresaw the verge of religious crisis in British Christendom and foretold God’s requirement for prophetic voices during transition.

A third factor that marked CoGoP’s transition was a call for international Church repentance in 1984. This lead to periods of extensive prayer and rededication of Christian commitment by many CoGoP members in several churches in Britain. Nonetheless, other Congregants questioned a need for repentance and slighted or ignored this call. 

Another factor that concurred with CoGoP’s life trajectories was a shift from religious exclusivity9 to ecumenism. Writing in the 1970s, John Root records CoGoP being the ‘least ecumenical group in Britain’. 10 The religious identity change occurred in the 1990s with the launch of CoGoP’s 1993 national convention theme ‘No more strangers’ with reference to Ephesians 2: 11-22, cf. verse 19.

Closely associated with the swing to religious inclusion is a move towards a religious ideology or cultural theology of liberalism in terms of doctrines, liturgy and customs. This move is from traditional conservatism. Although this theological shift is nationally recognizable, regional and local variations are apparent. The West country such as, Gloucestershire and Wales, being the most conservative, Yorkshire and the South East of England is the most liberal and London is found to be indifferent. Ideological variations have also created local church diversifications and significant divergence of opinions across generational lines. The elderly are generally opposed to changes, particularly noted in the West Country and West Midlands and middle-aged and youth accepting or being nonchalant to change.

The extent to which these factors have directly impacted CoGoP’s life course transition is unknown. However, what is certain, is that subsequent changes, whether received favorably or not by UK, CoGoP congregations, was definitely not envisaged. I now turn my attention to address these lifestyle changes.

Life trajectories
Whilst several areas of lifestyle trajectories emerged from the study, two have significantly impacted the Church culture of CoGoP in the UK where major doctrinal changes have occurred. The two areas are (1) leisure, recreation and social behavior and (2) adornment and apparel. Both issues have been identified in other Black Church studies in Britain although not sufficiently addressed. Arguably, both issues are recently undergoing (or have undergone) similar doctrinal changes in other Black Churches. Furthermore, as shall be seen, transformation in both subjects has lead to degrees of individualistic, consumer hedonism, 11 on the one hand, and utilitarian practices – ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’12 – on the other. Both consumer hedonism and utilitarianism is debatably threatening the religiosity and cultural dogma of Black congregations. Perceived differently, it is this change that is heralding in progressive reformation towards the realism and sustainability of spirituality in the Black Churches. This paper shall begin focus on the first of these issues – leisure, recreation and social behavior. The issues of adornment and apparel shall be discussed at a later time.

Part 1: Leisure, Recreation and Social behavior
Fierce intergenerational polarization is particularly evident in this and the issue of adornment. In the study, youth are years 18-30, middle-aged - 31-59 and elders/seniors are 60s and over. These intergenerational groups correspond with CoGoP’s departmental social groupings. An examination of the issues on leisure and recreation in CoGoP demonstrates them inadvertently affecting the life course of youth while adornment impact directly on the life course of women. Hardly surprising, it was White, American middle-aged males, who formulated CoGoP’s first set of doctrines at international headquarters in USA. There doctrines were finally passed in CoGoP’s worldwide General Assemblies, which, until recently, were held annually in the USA. These Assembly meetings are now convened bi-yearly. Global standardization of doctrines in CoGoP were devolved to national and local church levels. Until the late 1980s, all CoGoP UK churches stringently adhered to and complied with the international legislations. Research into Black Christians, 13 Pentecostal ones in particular; found the lifestyle of congregants restricted to Church activities. They portrayed Black Christians as not having a life beyond the liturgical activities of Church. Root writes:

Most West Indians14 of any or no religious persuasion are shocked to see white Christians, particularly clergy, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol or going to places of public entertainment. Behind this is the assumption that these are “worldly” forms of behavior, which “saints” will have renounced. There are, in fact, in the West Indian community two fairly clearly defined and competing patterns of life, focusing around the church and the blues party. Whilst most West Indians would not conform absolutely to either, it is generally accepted that the characteristics of each do not mix at all – thus reggae music, alcohol, tobacco and sexual promiscuity belong to the “party” lifestyle, and must be renounced by Christians. Instead a saint will spend a very large proportion of his leisure time with other Christians, attending services, prayer and youth meeting, choir practices, evangelistic rallies, and conventions at which churches gather together. Thus upon conversion a person will immediately have available a full and demanding pattern of activities to cover evening, weekends and bank holidays, and which can replace a previously profane and “good-timing” way of life.15

Writing almost a decade later, Howard16 reverberates Root:

Going to cinema, nightclubs, public houses or parties are considered to be totally unsuitable forms of entertainment for Christians.

This study verifies observations made by Root and Howard on the life course of Black Christians during the same period. Participants aired experiences of life devoted only to Church engagements:

Church of the 70’s, I would say was basically, church, church and church. Nothing else. We had like the young people things but that was just internal. There was nothing external … everything was church-related and we can’t say it didn’t happen because it did. But I did enjoy my years as youth, but it would have been nicer if there were something else away from just church, church, church (Interview: Middle-aged member).

These rules for social behavior of CoGoP members were introduced in 1919 in the Church’s Advise to Members, in the Minutes of the fourteenth, General Annual Assembly. The section relating to youth reads: ‘younger members should not keep company or associate too intimately with worldly outsiders’. 17 Other sections confirm the prohibitions observed by Root and Howard. In some congregations, especially more conservative ones, disputes between senior, middle-aged and younger members on leisure and social behavior are aired in varying degrees. In these congregations young congregants are still subjected to these rules and in some cases, expected to comply. However, in other churches, young and new Christians, who were utterly amazed that such regulations were once part of CoGoP’s doctrinal culture, viewed these rules as strict and archaic and stated this in the study. These ‘new’ youth and others too do appreciate recent changes.

Comments made in focus groups are:

People have more choice of leisure and recreation activities [such as] cinema, bowling, badminton, golf, mix-sex swimming’  (youth/middle age)

We do more independent leisure and outside church activities [now] whereas camps were organized by Church and is in the past (youth/middle age) 

We eat out more, go to cinema and gyms [but there are] not enough places for Christians to meet (middle aged, youth)

Youth 1: People from the community come in to our community centers and we [churchgoers] go out. 
Doreen: Why?
Youth 1: Different environment.
Youth 2: Change of scenery.
Youth 1: Church has not got the leisure activities we want.
Doreen: What do you mean?
Youth 1: Like aerobics classes and gym equipment. 

Fewer members attend church in the summer because we go on holidays abroad (youth/middle-aged)

In addition to these comments, the study also revealed congregants attended theatres, and public sporting events, such as, cricket and football matches. Higher wage/salary levels for some congregants, and therefore more disposable incomes than was evident for Black Christians in the 1970s, means that some congregants are able to take advantage of the leisure and recreation changes. Like the membership, leaders are now spending more leisure time with their families, especially young and middle-aged clergy. They are enjoying meals-out, family outings to theme parks, cinemas and shopping. They are engaged in seasonal entertainment, for example, holidays abroad mainly in the summer, and pantomimes at Christmas. This leisure time contrasts with the seldom-taken leisure time experienced by the leadership of the 1950s-early 1980s. The study identified failure to spend time with family as one of the reasons for some children of the clergy leaving the church in their late teens.

To Be Continued…

Doreen McCalla is Academic Dean at American Baptist College in Nashville, TN and the Distinguished Charles Emerson Boddie Professor of Academic Excellence and Professor in Theology, Education and Social Studies. Previously she worked as a scholar in England. Dr. McCalla obtained a PhD from Kings College, University of London. The author of several books and articles, she wrote Black Success in the UK and her forthcoming book is Unsung Sheroes in the British Church: Singing the praising of Black Women now.

1. T. Giddens, The Global Third Way Debate. (Cambridge: Polity, 2001)
2. Ulrick Beck, The Risk Society: Towards a new modernity. (London: Sage, 1992) 
3. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity. (Cambridge: Polity, 2001)
4. Anthony Giddens, The Third Way. (Cambridge: Polity, 1998, p. 34)
5. CoGoP in an international Denomination and is represented in two thirds of the World. The Church started in 1903 in North Carolina, USA and its head quarters is now in Cleveland, Tennessee. In the General Assembly of CoGoP 2004 with the theme ‘Marching Towards a Million Members’, the Global Ministries of the Worldwide Church forecast attaining a membership of one million by 2006. The present General Overseer, Fred Fisher, Sr., also endorsed this. Space-allocation does not allow a comprehensive discussion of CoGoP. Full coverage is found in Doreen McCalla, Black Churches in Transition: Back to the Future (forthcoming). 
6. Most local church finance was in the form of congregants’ tithes and offerings. Local church Pastors’, and sometimes other ministers’, salaries (and expenses), which varied between churches depending on the congregational size, was deducted before the remaining amount was sent to CoGoP international and national HQs. 
7. Selwyn Arnold, From Scepticism to Hope: One Black-led church's response to social responsibility. (Nottingham: Groves Books, 1992);
Venessa Howard, A report on Afro-Caribbean Christianity in Britain, Community Religions Project, Research Paper. (Leeds: University of Leeds, 1987);
John Root, Enver countering West Indian Pentecostalism: its Ministry and Worship. (Nottingham: Grove Booklet, 1979).
8. Adrian Varlack as served the International Church for over 40 years in ministry. A large portion of this has been as The World Secretary. He is a USA citizen and resides in the US.
9. Howard, “A report on Afro-Caribbean Christianity in Britain,” 1987.
Root, “Encountering West Indian Pentecostalism,” (1979).
10. Root, “Encountering West Indian Pentecostalism,” (1979, p. 5).
11. Gilles Lipovetsky, Hypermodern Times (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).
12. Utilitarian philosophy is usually associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The philosophy holds that the realisation of utility should be the proper goal of life and thus behaviour that enhances happiness and reduces pain should be encouraged.
13. Howard, “A report on Afro-Caribbean Christianity in Britain,” (1987).
Root, “Encountering West Indian Pentecostalism,” (1979).
14. The politically correct, conventional term now is African Caribbean.
15. Root, “Encountering West Indian Pentecostalism,” (1979, p. 14).
16. Howard, “A report on Afro-Caribbean Christianity in Britain,” (1987, p. 20).
17. Please note that these guidelines did not prohibit CoGoP from interacting with non-Christians. Many CoGoP members did have outside friends, colleagues and associates. See James Stone, The Church of God of Prophecy History and Polity (Tennessee: White Wing Publishing House, 1977, p. 263).

Copyright ©2007 Doreen McCalla.  All Rights Reserved.
Used by permission

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