As I have been out of my cultural element in church for the last months, I have become very aware of some things that I really miss – things that are both cultural and religious. Some of them are things which are often held back in the context of “multi-ethnic” communities because they make people uncomfortable; others are quirks of my Pentecostal background.
Sister & Brother: Growing up, and even now, any adult person in the congregation was always referred to by their last name preceded by a title – usually sister or brother, but sometimes something else, depending on their position. Even within families, this is true. For example, at church I never referred to my father except as Elder or Pastor or Bishop. I had cousins who, outside of church, might be called casually by their first name, but in church became Deacon X or Missionary Y. I miss that. It is a practice that is falling out of favor in some Black churches, but it is rooted deep in our culture – to show honor and respect to those who have earned it, and also to acknowledge the inherent dignity and worth of people whose personhood was often assailed during the working week.
Testimony Service: It doesn’t happen much anymore, but in years past, almost every Sunday service (or Sunday evening service) saw testimony service, which was the congregants chance to sing their own song or tell about some particular thing God had done for them that week, or even ask a prayer request. Oh of course many of the testimonies bordered on gossip, (pray for my daughter that she wouldn’t be so rebellious…) but there is something very ennobling and participatory about any person, no matter their status or position, being able to participate in the service in that way. Testimony service was often the most “explosive” part of the service, because a really good testimony could set off…
Shouting: And by shouting I mean running down the aisles, dancing with abandon, jumping up and down, and of course actually shouting. It is a spontaneous joyful response to God in worship; and expression of being touched by the Spirit. You could run, jump, yell, fall out on the floor and it was contagious. If one rejoiced, others would join in – jumping feet first into the flow of the Spirit and allow themselves to be carried away. Everyone who shouted had their own preferred style and as kids one of our biggest games was to play church so we could playfully mock Sister So and So – complete with falling out and pretending to speak in tongues (cometiemybowtie… shecomeinahonda)
Let the church say amen: I miss the “Amens” and “Say that” and “You preaching now, doc,” that accompany almost every good sermon. The single hand lifted by a church mother signifying her agreement with the sermon, the brother standing up in the middle of the sermon pointing at the preacher, the loud cries of “yeah!” echoing through the sanctuary make the sermon so much more than just …
Preaching: Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my pastor’s sermons. They are thoughtful, articulate, theologically sound and generally edifying. BUT… there is just nothing quite like good old school Black Pentecostal preaching. If you aren’t familiar with it, check out TD Jakes for a sample (although he’s toned down a bit for the TV audience) or even Rod Parsley – who is white, but preaches like a Black Pentecostal. I miss the kind of preaching that causes you, despite yourself, to want to stand up and holler because it is just so potent and connects at such an emotional and spiritual level. Sometimes the content wouldn’t be that great, but you would leave church encouraged and inspired to “go on a little further in the Lord.”
Music: I didn’t want to say this one, because people always say this about the Black church, and it gets a little annoying. But I do miss the music – the improvisational interpretation of songs, the culture of music, the mentoring of young musicians, many of whom have never and will never learn to read music or be trained professionally.
All in all, I think I miss the very participatory nature of my Black Pentecostal roots. Church and worship are places where everyone was given dignity, anyone could participate, all were welcome to contribute. It hardly mattered if you could sing well – you could still sing in the choir. Even if you were one of the saints who struggled to live right, you could share during the testimony service. You didn’t have to be a musician to pick up the tambourine and play. You didn’t have to be on the dance team or go to practice in order to “shout.” The success of a sermon was not just in the preachers hands, but he could (and did) “wish somebody would help me preach this.” Sigh… these are some of the things I miss.