NEWS FEATURE: Black Pentecostals Reshaping New Orleans’ Religious Landscape

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ Among this city’s African-American Christians, faith has long been dominated by Catholicism and the richly textured small-church tradition of Baptist life, two wellsprings that produced the gifts of Xavier University and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

But a reshaping of black Christian worship is well under way here, signaled by the emergence of a handful of new, mostly Pentecostal megachurches dwarfing the churches that once dominated the city’s religious landscape.

In a city where in years past a big African-American Protestant church usually was Baptist and had 500 to 1,000 members, these new churches usually are Pentecostal and the congregations are three, five or 10 times bigger.

Pentecostals emphasize the power of God in the Holy Spirit and fill their worship with exuberant praise. But beyond preaching personal salvation in Jesus Christ, they emphasize the Holy Spirit’s everyday availability to deliver miracles, physical healings and deliverance from emotional and financial troubles.

That extra dimension “is why you have the word `full’ in `Full Gospel,”’ said Bishop Robert Blakes Sr., of New Home Full Gospel Ministries, a pioneer in the New Orleans movement.

“You go to a traditional Baptist church, they’re not going to call you out, lay hands on you and tell you you’re going to be delivered that very night,” said Bishop Paul S. Morton, 49, another founder of the movement in New Orleans. “People want that kind of experience.”

No one professes to know the implications of such growth.

Among the pastors whose churches are growing explosively, there is no consensus on where their new congregants are coming from, whether from Baptist ranks, Catholic, or from those previously unchurched.

At one level, New Orleans is merely tapping into the spiritual power of Pentecostalism, the fast-growing stream within Christianity that once carried superstars such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and, since their downfall, has replaced them with immensely popular national evangelists such as T.D. Jakes and Benny Hinn.

But there also are more practical reasons closer at hand.

First among them has been the emergence in the New Orleans Pentecostal movement of a corps of relatively young pastors _ only Blakes is over 50 _ with sharp marketing and pulpit skills and a willingness to deploy technology in service to their churches.

“We’re living in the 21st century now, and I’m trying to acclimate the church to the world,” said Bishop Darryl Brister, 33, who uses Microsoft Powerpoint software displays to buttress his weekly Bible studies at Beacon Light Full Gospel Baptist Church, a Pentecostal congregation despite its name.

“Ministers have become more corporate in their thinking,” said the Rev. Robert Blakes Jr., the elder Blakes’ 35-year-old son, who is pastor of a New Home Ministries church of 3,500 members in eastern New Orleans. “We understand vision; we understand our abilities; we understand marketing.”

The trend gathered speed throughout the last half of the 1990s.

One thread traces back to the 1980s, when Morton, who had grown up attending the Pentecostal church in Windsor, Ontario, and moved to New Orleans in 1972, began injecting Pentecostal thinking and worship into Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church. Its 650 members made it one of the largest black Baptist churches in the city when Morton took over its pulpit in 1975.

While keeping the name Baptist, Morton soon added Full Gospel to the name of the transformed St. Stephen’s to signify that it had been doused in Pentecostal Christianity.

By the early 1990s, Greater St. Stephen had exploded to 10,000 members, then to more than 20,000 today.

And in due course, Morton, having assumed the title of bishop, began to franchise the success by helping proteges transform other traditional Baptist churches into new, supercharged “Full Gospel” Baptist churches.

One of those is Beacon Light, whose membership mushroomed from 150 to 7,000 when that nearly moribund church in 1993 offered its pulpit to Brister, Morton’s young top aide.

And there’s Life Center, led by Bishop J.D. Wiley, a 12,000-member Full Gospel church that did not exist before Morton recruited Wiley from Michigan in 1993, convinced him to start a church in suburban New Orleans, and loaned him some of his own key people to get Wiley’s church off the ground.

But there is another stream of black Pentecostal spirituality in New Orleans springing from the elder Blakes.

Operating separately from Morton, who would follow a roughly parallel track at Greater St. Stephen, Blakes expanded his church throughout the 1980s.

Turnover was enormous, he said. Unnerved Baptists walked out; other congregants arrived in even greater numbers.

Now Blakes claims 7,000 on the rolls at the the ministry’s mother church. More important, he is head of New Home Ministries, an independent Pentecostal enterprise. The work includes two sons, Robert Jr. and the Rev. Samuel, and a total of six churches in and around New Orleans.

Brister’s small office at Beacon Light Full Gospel Baptist Church is not the expansive study Hollywood might envision for a pastor leading a congregation of 7,000.

On the floor near Brister’s desk one day recently lay a plastic basket of cigarettes. They had been there for a few days, ever since he had preached on the economic and physical evils of smoking and urged congregants to hand up their cigarettes and try anew to shake the habit, this time with the help of the Holy Spirit.

It is part of what a church ought to be doing, he said. And smoking is but one tiny behavior to be changed in a full reorientation to Christian life.

“I grew up Baptist. And what I heard every Sunday was salvation,” Brister said. “You must be saved. You’ve got to repent of your sins to be saved. Jesus is coming back, but you got to be saved.”

But Morton, Brister, Wiley and Robert Blakes Jr. see themselves as teachers, too, teachers of biblically based life skills on a full range of subjects: self-esteem, consumerism, civic responsibility, marital life.

Before he implored his congregation to seek spiritual power to overthrow smoking, Brister inveighed against the evils of credit card debt.

This kind of ministering is something of a maturing Pentecostalism that supplants the long ecstasies, the dancing and speaking in tongues characterizing the fiery outbreak of the Pentecostal movement early in the century, Robert Blakes Jr. said.

To some extent those days have passed, certainly for the new breed of Pentecostal pastors now at work in New Orleans.

“In our church we have exuberant worships, and it’s exciting, uplifting, noisy and fast-paced,” Wiley said. “But at the same time, it must be equally as thoughtful and intellectual. We’ll have ecstatic manifestations. But that’s not what we’re about. We’re about learning. About teaching.”

DEA END NOLAN

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