James Attlee went to a black-led church in North London to investigate some seminal forms of worship.
'Black church' may be a phrase that makes every Christian wince. But the phrase represents a reality believers cannot ignore. Worship commentators normally focus on either the white, middle class charismatic renewal or the serene solemnity of the liturgical tradition. Seldom do they pause to consider one of the fastest growing and most distinctive manifestations of God-centred worship, Britain's burgeoning black churches.
There's something very forlorn about a street-market after dark. The stalls in Islington's Chapel Street on a Sunday evening stand empty, and only the occasional rain-sodden fruit wrapper underfoot hints at the bustle of weekday trade. However, all is not quiet. From a corner building just off the market come the sounds of an organ and the unmistakable fast handclaps of a black Pentecostal church. A car pulls up and three ladies emerge, immaculate in their hats and Sunday best. A group of sharply dressed teenagers stand talking at the top of a flight of steps leading down to an open basement door, from which the music comes. A small sign tells me that the building is occupied by the Pentecostal First Born Church Of The Living God.
Having descended those steps I take my place in a row of wooden seats towards the back of the congregation. Apart from one lady usher, I am the only person present not drawn from the West Indian community, but there is an atmosphere of acceptance and smiles of welcome are flashed my way. One lady passes me her personal copy of the Redemption Hymnal to help me participate in the worship. A steward hands me a card to fill in, asking me my name and whose guest I am, which is collected a few minutes later. We are now engaged in that part of a Pentecostal service known as The Devotional Service, when the more formal hymns and scripture readings and prayers take place. "I've found a friend in Jesus, He's everything tome", we sing together from the hymnal. Our singing is accompanied by organ, bass drums and guitar, the sound of a thousand traditional-style gospel albums. This evening is a youth service, and in this first section we are led from the front by a teenage girl, church dignitaries sit on a high dais behind her, which is mounted by a steep staircase. One wall is decorated with a carpet in the style much loved by Irish Catholics and West Indian Christians, which depicts, somewhat incongruously, a blonde blue-eyed Christ clutching a burning heart. "Shall we praise the Lord?" asks the girl. "Praise the Lord!" answer the congregation in unison.
"Shall we PRAISE the Lord?"
"Praise the Lord!"
The scripture reading is taken from James chapter two-(or rather St. James, chapter two - all readings are taken from the King James Version as they are in most black churches, on theological principle)-and the worship leader and the congregation read alternate verses. A middle-aged lady in the congregation stands to pray, and dedicates the service to God, calling down "showers of blessing". The church is beginning to fill, as more people come down the steps and take their places. The seats set aside for the choir are now nearly all taken, and the blue and white choir robes add a splash of colour to the proceedings.
A young man comes to the front to lead in the next part of the worship, which is known as the Testimonial Service. He again asks us to praise God. "Shall we praise the Lord?" In his repeated request, growing in urgency, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with our apparent lethargy. After three call-and-response sequences he appears satisfied and calls up a young lady to give her testimony.
Christians from a wide variety of church backgrounds will be familiar with the practice of individuals 'giving their testimony' or 'sharing' - telling about the blessings or trials they're experiencing in their Christian lives, either in a public service or a more intimate small-group meeting. The roots of the custom seem to lie with David back in the Psalms. "I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly; I do not seal my lips, as you know, O Lord. I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of you faithfulness and salvation. I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly." (Ps. 40:10,11 &c.)
At best the practice can be a great source of mutual encouragement as a group of believers are able to see God at work in a tangible way in each other's lives. At worst it can be embarrassing and time wasting, as people super-spiritualise the trivia of everyday life in a self-centred exercise in ego-gratification. (Even in these cases it can be said we learn something about accepting each other as Christ accepted us!) In the black Pentecostal church, which is stereotyped as informal and spontaneous, giving testimony is marked by a considerable degree of formality. Typically one giving testimony in this service begins with the words "Shall we praise the Lord?" to which the congregation respond "Praise the Lord", raising a hand in the air as they do so. As before, this sequence is sometimes repeated a number of times. Then follow greetings, which often begin with the words "First giving honour to the Holy Spirit". Then church officials, pastors, elders, the church board and finally the congregation are greeted before the speaker goes on the give testimony.
The first testimonies are not so much concerned with giving an account of personal experiences, as with stating theological truth. In King James English they stand and thank God for saving them, washing them in the blood of Jesus, and allowing them to stand among God's people one more time. Each ends with a declaration of their intention to continue walking with God, and a request that the congregation pray for them. During this time the atmosphere of the service becomes much livelier, the congregation calling out encouragement to those testifying and punctuating the testimonies with exclamations of "Amen!" and "Praise the Lord!" One choir member testifies and then starts up a song, which is taken up by the congregation. "I've made up my mind to live right and to die right; I've made up my mind to cross over the Jordan in the calm tide." A young woman at the back of the choir gets up and tells us that she has been to attend a baptism in Brixton that afternoon and she "received such a blessing" that she is determined to carry on in the good of. "Shall we praise the Lord?" she calls. "Praise the Lord!" comes back the reply. This time the call and response is repeated again and again and the woman strides down the central aisle of the church, waving one arm above her head as she repeats her question. All hands are raised and spontaneous clapping, singing and moaning break out as the congregation respond to the call to praise God. The upsurge dies down as the testifier takes her place among the choir, but after a few words she again appears to be gripped by the desire to praise God and the surge of spontaneous worship sweeps through the congregation once more. Others give testimony or start songs, which are taken up by the congregation. After the young man leading this section has brought it to a close, the cards filled by first time visitors are read out and we are each requested to stand and make ourselves known. The congregation applauds warmly. One visitor is asked to give his own testimony and does so with fluency. There then follows a time of recognising various congregational members who have served the church in various capacities. Two girls who have been working in the youth ministry come forward and are each given a gift and thanked for their hard work. This is a vital part of the way the church affirms and gives a sense of worth to its members. Each church member is encouraged to feel they have a part to play, and their contributions are acknowledged with gratitude.
Three other young people come forward in turn to give 'exhortations'. These are five-minute sermonettes that give a good opportunity to gain confidence and develop preaching skills. The atmosphere is very supportive, and when one girl stumbles and hesitates as if searching for a word the congregation call out suggestions to fill the gap. Another young man announces plans to form a junior choir - he asks some nine to 12-year-olds present who will make up the core of this choir to stand up so that the church can see them. The intention is obviously to involve children who otherwise might feel left out of church activities, and at the same time remind the rest of the church that they are an integral part of the congregation. The black church remains a hotbed of creativity - its young people are encouraged to develop their musical gifts and we can expect many of our best singers in the secular as well as the gospel field to have learnt their trade in the church for many years to come. The Youth Choir perform next led by a choir director specialising in the dynamic style of choir direction popularised by the likes of Basil Meade of LCGC and Simon Wallace of the Angelical Voice Choir. This style depends on the choir having lightning responses to the hand signals of the choir director, and is proof of painstaking rehearsal. The congregation respond enthusiastically rising to their feet, singing along and clapping. A church elder who appears to be in his seventies cuts a quick dance across the raised dais. Then, having taken the choir into double time, in a superbly dramatic move the young director of the choir sits down in the congregation, as if he's going to leave them clapping and singing their hearts out forever. Then he's back bringing the song to a conclusion with a series of long, drawn out notes, to tumultuous response from the congregation. Gradually, calm is restored as the congregation settle down for the sermon.
The preacher tonight is Bishop Francis, a church-planter and founding member of the denomination in Britain, and father to the church's young pastor John Francis. The Bishop is about to leave Britain and go to live in Florida, where the organisation has their worldwide headquarters. "We must not omit the word of God," he begins, speaking from way up on the dais. The theme of his message is that although joy is very important - "the joy of the Lord is your strength - true joy is found in obedience to those in authority over you. There is such a thing as false joy," he maintains, and restates the importance of obeying authority whether in the church or in the home. His preaching style is classic black Pentecostal, little changed from early recordings on 78s of black preachers in America. He asks a 'quick reader' to read out the text he gives, and a lady does so. As she reads a verse, he repeats it to give it emphasis, building up in volume until he is screaming the words as he walks up and down the dais. He also extols the virtues of honesty, and exhorts the congregation to have faith. He tells the story of his wife's miraculous healing from cancer in the early days of their ministry together, "The Devil tried to kill Mother Francis," he tells us. "She came down to 86 pounds skin and bone and sent home to die. Satan knock her over. Raise your hand and praise God. There is no sickness that my God cannot heal." At climatic points in the address the organ begins to play, and the congregation responds with urgent Amens.
After the sermon is finished, to reinforce the faith message, a song is sung. "If you've got the faith to believe, my brother...if you've got the faith to believe, my sister...you can say to the mountains - problems, troubles, I want you to move." Notices are read out, then Pastor John Francis comes forward to sing a song that a member of the congregation who is experiencing various troubles has asked him to sing for them. The song is a ballad called 'Tears Are A Language God Understands'. He tells us that he feels there are a number of people to whom this song is appropriate, and while he sings, comes down from the dais to touch hands with members of the congregation. The service ends with a doxology, much greeting and handshaking. The service has lasted approximately three hours.
The next day I return to ask Pastor John Francis some questions about his church's style of worship. We talk in his office, which is crowded with choir robes and recently donated office equipment. Every available surface carries gospel music awards for his group, the Inspirational Choir. I began by asking him how central a value does he feel worshipping God is to his congregation?