Garnett Roper, GUEST COLUMNIST
According to the census, 619,000 persons claim membership in one 'Church of God' or another, 325,000 are Seventh-day Adventists. Pentecostals also number in the hundreds of thousands and, by contrast, churches like Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Methodists recorded fewer members than in previous years and represented significantly smaller percentages of the population than their comparative standing during the decade of the 1960s. Baptists have seen adherents drop from 188,000 to 180,000. Very little movement, but still in the wrong direction.
In the first place, if The Gleaner is correct in its implied observation that there is an exodus from the main-line churches to the new-line churches, that would itself be an indictment on the new-line churches. When Jesus called us to be "fishers of men", He did not envisage that we would do our fishing in other people's aquariums. It was in the seas and the rivers that He intended us to do our fishing. By that, we understand that church growth should be based on new baptisms, not on stealing other people's sheep, if I am allowed to mix my metaphors. The truth is, much of the growth of one church is the decline of another church, because there is little more than musical chairs being played.
CHRISTIANITY'S MEANING LOST
The second thing to be said is that the census indicated that nearly 2,000,000 people claim to be Christians in some way. If this is true, it means that Christianity has been evacuated of its meaning. To claim to be Christian is not much more than repeating an empty epithet that is in no way a predictor of one's social conduct or behaviour.
Having said that, however, the census confirmed what was already apparent to many of us. Some churches were not doing enough to retain their youth population. They were too self-satisfied and comfortable with the old ways of doing things. The suggestion, however, that this is because these churches did not have enough of our Caribbean indigenous folk culture in their worship services is not accurate. Any survey of the liturgy of churches would reveal that the so-called established churches or liturgical churches have for the past 30 years done a great deal to make both pop and folk forms from the Caribbean part of their liturgy. They have done so without it becoming crass, superficial and patronising. If anything, it is the new-line churches, whose liturgy and content are entirely imported from the metropolis North of us that have neglected to make full use of Jamaican folk forms and cultural artefacts.
Many gospel-culture churches, which we are calling new-line churches are decidedly anti-local culture. Worship services in established churches are far richer, if Caribbean folk content is anything to go by. What has been the real weakness of this section of the church has been a stubborn clericalism and overreliance on the ordained clergy. It has not done enough with the basic ecclesial community and with engaging the laity. People are less passive and demand to be consulted, included and engaged. There has been too little of this in the established churches, though this also is changing. The established churches have in general, also retreated from making the agenda of the lived reality of the people the agenda of its sermonising, activism and advocacy.
Not own making
What are the new-line churches doing right? I belong to the sections of the church that are, according to the census, not in demographic decline. It is my view, however, that the so-called success of that section of the church is not of its own making and is not the success of the Gospel. I say this for the following reasons:
1. These are all religions with a North American extract and origin. Since the beginning of the 20th century, these religious groups from the bible belt of the US Midwest and US South have penetrated the Caribbean with overriding success. These groups promote a privatistic, individualistic and apolitical brand of Christianity, though they mask a right wing political agenda.
2. These religious groups are amorphous and varied in name and nature. There is little doctrinally or in liturgy that unites them. There is very little reliance on the trained clergy among these groups. These groups are given to constant splintering and separation into new groups with longer and longer names. Though these groups appear to have doctrinal emphases that are divisive and contentious, they manage an almost uniform right-wing political ideology that is long on words and short on deeds. Far too many of these churches, including both main-line and new-line churches, have their plant closed for most of the time. Their building space is hardly fully utilised.
3. Though these new-line church groups on the face of it draw membership predominantly from among the poor, the peasants and many inner-city residents, they still manage to afford expensive media presence. Many of these churches have worship and evangelistic services on television. How do they afford this? The answer is, often through overseas sponsorships. With the possible exception of the Seventh-day Adventists, which deserves to be treated separately, these movements do not have strong youth or Sunday/Sabbath school movements. In this respect, they have departed from their own historical roots by which they were characterised during the first half of the 20th century. One could argue that these groups grow despite of themselves. They are not distinguished by a defined unified system of beliefs, they do not appear to rely upon a cadre of trained staff and have not developed a systematic catechization of the children and believers. So why do they grow numerically?
A stop on the way to heaven
They have grown by appeal to fears, guilt and superstition. They have grown by the supply of a metropolitan form of light entertainment. These are not only churches with American extracts that feed their members a steady diet of American culture. The songs they sing are all American songs. The church in the Caribbean throughout its history, with exceptions, has been justly accused of purveying the values and culture of the North Atlantic. It has been Euro-esque and now it is American. And when they move on or migrate, both leadership and membership, they migrate to North America. Though to travel is a Caribbean disease, it is especially the case with the new line churches that on their way to heaven they stop in America. The more profound point is that growth achieved in this way is tantamount to decline in Christian influence, which is of course the real worry.
The Seventh-day Adventist movement is strong for two main reasons. The first is because of its brand of holism that has made significant investment in health care and education. The fact that it is at its foundation a rural movement among the people of the byways and hedges has not hurt. The second reason is that it is a united movement. It has yet to split and splinter, and that is the real strength of the movement. Its unity has been severely tested recently and even now there are undercurrents of simmering discontent that have been papered over. This unity is not likely to hold for much longer. The strength of oversight of the American parents of the movement and recent successes in numerical growth and political recognition are keeping the firebrand among them from spoiling the party.
Neither section of the church, main-line nor new line can feel too confident in light of the census findings.
The first order of business, if the Church (the collective redemptive presence in Jamaica) would avoid the risk of being trivialised is to recapture the name Christian. If so many people are Christians, why are violence, sexual violence and corruption and dishonesty on such an upswing in Jamaica?
There is work to be done not only to transform the society, but more so to transform the church.
Garnett Roper is president of Jamaica Theological Seminary.