Ian Boyne, Contributor
The Gleaner has done an excellent job in reporting on the decline in membership of traditional churches and the rise of the Adventists and Pentecostals/Charismatics, drawing on statistics from the latest Jamaican census.
Beginning with its lead story in last week's Sunday Gleaner ('Exodus; J'cans Flee Traditional Churches; said to be flocking newer denominations') and continuing with Monday's front-page story, 'Jamaicans turn away from 'ritual, boring worship', as well as several others, the paper has tracked the malaise which has overtaken orthodox Christianity in Jamaica.
In the 1960 census, the Pentecostals accounted for a mere one per cent of the population count, numbering 14,739. By the 2001 census that figure had accelerated to 247,452. But in this latest census, Pentecostals have grown to 295,195 - a growth of approximately 20 per cent, the highest growth rate of any denomination over 10 years. People identified as "Church of God" in the census, which has a style of worship and theological framework similar to the Pentecostals, account for 617,000. This category includes denominations like the Church of God of Prophecy and the New Testament Church of God.
But the largest denomination in Jamaica does not even meet on the traditional day of worship, Sunday, as that denomination is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Adventist Church has grown from 281,353 in 2001 to 322,228 in 2011, a growth of nearly 15 per cent.
The decline in the membership of the traditional churches has been dramatic. Take the Moravians, for example, who played such a critical role in Jamaica's history. In the 1960 census, 52,467 persons identified themselves as Moravians. (Bear in mind that Jamaica's population then was approximately 1.61 million, compared to 2.7 million today.) Yet in the latest census only 18,351 persons identified themselves as Moravians.
In the 1960 census, 115,291 persons were identified as Catholic. The number slid to 67,204 in the 2001 census and in the 2011 census only 57,946 persons identified themselves with the Roman Catholic Church. A nearly 14 per cent decline over 10 years. The Methodists claimed a membership of 107,858 in the 1960 census. But in this latest census, membership has tumbled to 43,000. Not only are traditional churches declining but there is no indication that they will ever see any significant rise in their membership. There are certain factors propelling the decline of traditional churches and the growth of newer churches.
The Gleaner sought answers as to why the drift away from traditional churches. One Pentecostal pastor was not diplomatic: "Boring, predictable and a ritualistic style of worship", were among the main reasons Jamaicans were fleeing traditional churches like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, United Church, Moravians and Methodism, he felt. Said he: "Persons are no longer interested in ritual, boring worship that does not connect with them. They want a church where they can connect with themselves on a spiritual level and feel alive and vibrant". But many of the congregations of traditional churches have adopted a more expressive, lively and charismatic style of worship, incorporating musical instruments and contemporary worship in their services to attract and keep young people.
The Gleaner on Tuesday quoted a Moravian minister as saying that, "we are shifting in that direction more in terms of lively singing, choruses and music. This is a response to the fact that people are saying we need more out of worship". But a charismatic-type worship with a lot of shouting, gospel deejay music and band music is not all that's pulling people, for how do you explain the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the largest denomination in the island and that denomination, while not dull, is certainly not among the liveliest. That's a denomination where the pull would be more with doctrine, particularly the emphasis on the Seventh-day Sabbath.
The reasons for the decline in traditional Christianity in Jamaica and for the rise in the newer churches are deeper than have been captured by the Gleaner reports so far. First, the decline in traditional churches is a global phenomenon, particularly pronounced in North America and Europe. This decline has been evident for decades. In 1972 Dean Kelley published his landmark book, Why the Conservative Churches Are Growing. He showed that people were generally more attracted to groups which demanded more of them, which established clear boundaries and which eschewed moral ambiguities. The more established denominations tended to be more liberal socially and politically and, of course, were not fundamentalist and literalist. Especially in a country where citing Scripture and being able to memorise it are glorified, churches which are more fundamentalist in their approach to the Bible will have a greater pull. Your average Anglican or Roman Catholic priest or Moravian or Methodist pastor is not likely to beat a Seventh-day Adventist or a Pentecostal pastor in a 'tracing Scripture' match, pitting proof-text against proof-text.
In Jamaica we love a 'clash', not just in the dancehall or on the political platform, or in the bar, but in the religious arena as well. We are an argumentative, cantankerous and contentious people. We are, culturally, a factious, divisive people and religious groups which emphasise distinctives, like the Adventists with the wedge issue of which day we should worship and what is the Mark of the Beast, who is the Antichrist, will carry the swing.
The Moravian, Methodist or United Church reverend talking about the love of Christ and the Social Gospel is not likely to generate as much excitement as the Pentecostal preacher 'proving' from Scripture that you must speak in tongues to be saved, that you must baptise in Jesus' name and that you can get your healing and material blessings right now if you show faith. That's more adrenaline-raising than Father Ho Lung's talking about helping dying AIDS patients or the elderly poor.
A statement attributed to Charles Dufour, Archbishop of Kingston, tells precisely why the Catholic Church is likely to continue its downslide in membership: "We don't believe in sheep stealing ... . We don't go after other churches' members and we don't criticise other churches. We are not into that". Well, Archbishop, the newer churches are into that and that's why so many Catholics have left to join them. Your approach is noble and your intention, no doubt, pure and Godly. But in the real marketplace of religion, where the Catholic Church is being beaten down as representing the Beast and the Antichrist; where in Adventist eschatology the Papacy will again plunge the world into religious oppression and will force "the final crisis" upon the world, there has to be a polemical response or others will steal your sheep. Our clash culture facilitates people's trekking from one church to the next because of better lyrics, better rhythms and more wheel-and-come-again doctrines.
The traditional churches take a more intellectual, high-ground approach to evangelism and mission and generally concentrate less on correct doctrine. The Seventh-day Adventists emphasise doctrine, Biblical teaching and is characterised as a "movement of destiny"; a movement with a unique perspective on history and prophecy, one proclaiming the Third Angel's Message of Revelation 14. Sociologists of religion have demonstrated over and over that groups that are exclusivist and which emphasise distinctive doctrines and features attract more people than those which are ecumenical, liberal and cosmopolitan. People want to be told what to believe in a complex, confusing and critical age. Religious groups that have pat answers, packaged solutions and panaceas generally do far better than those which invite people to mystery and self-discovery and which emphasise process over product. People want black and white, not shades of grey.
That is what the newer churches are offering. Plus, the churches which are growing fastest are not Pentecostal in the old-fashioned sense. You must understand this important shift which has taken place.
It's not just that people want livelier, more rousing worship. Pentecostal and Church of God churches were always offering that while the traditional churches had more members. What has changed? Old-style Pentecostals were largely uneducated peasants and working class people; the kinds of people studied by Ashley Smith and Barry Chevannes. The Pentecostals who are growing today are of a different kind. Enter the Charismatics who are more middle-class, more lettered, more moneyed, more upwardly mobile.
People see successful professionals, business people and celebrities embracing Christianity (Swallowfield Chapel is a who's who among Kingston's church-going elite). So it is no longer your helpers and gardeners who are 'getting in spirit', but big, brown, uptown people. The Holy Spirit has gone uptown, so people finally have the validation they were looking for in this highly stratified society. Besides, while the old-style Pentecostals frightened you with hellfire and brimstone, new-style Pentecostals induce you with blessings of health and wealth. The prosperity Gospel is what is driving many people, including the young, to newer churches. The churches which are growing rapidly, apart from the Adventists, are the prosperity gospel churches.
It's a gospel which is very much in tandem with the materialistic, consumerist ethos of American culture, which is our primary influence. It's the religious version of capitalism. So you have a religion that is not really counter-cultural but fundamentally in line with the spirit of the age.
Jamaicans are highly ambitious, materialistic and acquisitive. Come to Jesus and He will bless you with a good career, a good spouse, good health and a good amount of money. Whatever you need, as long as you have faith and have Jesus, you'll get it. In fact, you can get it easier than having to work hard as is the gospel in secular society. It's an easier road to the same wealth worship in bourgeois society.
In an excellent book released this year chronicling the shift from traditional churches and titled, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says celebrity prosperity preacher Joel Osteen "embodies a shift of a very different sort - the refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance, in which the old war between monotheism and money seems to have ended, for many believers, in the marriage of God and Mammon".
The Humpty Dumpty of traditional Christianity can never be put back together again in Jamaica.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.