c. 2007 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Decades ago, some members of the Church of God in Christ would attend their annual meeting carrying vegetables from their farms to pay their tithes.
“Some of those men brought wagonloads of sweet potatoes, greens _ they didn’t have money,” said Sherry DuPree, a Gainesville, Fla., scholar and church member who has served on the denomination’s historical committee. “We have money now.”
As COGIC members celebrate their centennial convocation, some rural churches remain, but the denomination has come of age with large, affluent churches in urban centers. Its new presiding bishop, Bishop Charles E. Blake, reflects how long-standing doctrine has merged with modern times.
Blake, 67, leads a Los Angeles megachurch that attracts about 10,000 worshippers each Sunday, but also espouses practices like speaking in tongues and fasting that have always been hallmarks of his 6.5-million-member denomination.
“We are now in the midst of a 21-day fast,” said Blake, a third-generation COGIC member, in an interview before the church’s upcoming (Nov. 5-12) meeting in Memphis, Tenn. “That is something that the Bible asks for … to discipline our bodies and to focus our emotions and our aspirations and to move away from things physical, toward things spiritual.”
Tens of thousands of members of the nation’s largest predominantly black Pentecostal denomination are expected to attend the 100th Annual Holy Convocation. They will gather at Mason Temple, named for the denomination’s first presiding bishop, Charles H. Mason.
“Mason was just a poor kind of dirt farmer who dropped out of college, but Mason was a man of the people and … his church became the biggest Pentecostal church in the United States,” said the Rev. Vinson Synan, a church history professor at Regent University and an expert on Pentecostalism.
Now, COGIC members, including Blake (their seventh presiding bishop), are often moving on to more education and greater wealth.
Blake, who met Mason as a boy, leads West Angeles Church of God in Christ, which helps the poor with utility assistance and has welcomed celebrities like Denzel Washington and Stevie Wonder to its $65 million cathedral.
“When you’re in a city like Los Angeles and you’re approximate to what is, in essence, the film capital of the world, then it is likely that your congregation, if it is large, will have individuals from that community as a part of that church,” he said.
Many inside and outside the denomination look to Blake’s church _ with its 80 ministries that range from helping those on Skid Row to creating 400 new and remodeled housing units _ as a model. The church also houses the separate nonprofit, Save Africa’s Children, which Blake founded to aid children in Africa who are affected by AIDS.
“It is a diocese within itself, it is so large,” said Bishop J. Delano Ellis II, who was formerly affiliated with COGIC and is now the leader of the Cleveland-based independent network called Pentecostal Churches of Christ.
The Rev. Loran E. Mann, pastor of Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ in Pittsburgh, said Blake’s focus on administration and business expertise that has already helped his Los Angeles congregation will help the denomination.
“The Church of God in Christ, for many years, depended only upon the power of the Spirit, and we have come to understand that the Holy Spirit has to have something to work with,” said Mann, whose church has about 1,300 in attendance each weekend.
But even as individual churches expand _ Mann’s church grew in 20 years from 19 people attending a tent revival to a $1.2 million sanctuary _ the spiritual foundations continue. In his church, as in others, speaking in tongues remains an important aspect of the faith.
“God empowers people today to speak the heavenly language even as he did on the day of Pentecost,” said Mann. “Those are golden nuggets that we do not want to lose. We must maintain those foundational stones of our theology.”
Bishop J. Neaul Haynes, who leads about 2,500 congregants at Saintsville Church of God in Christ in Dallas, said the denomination that now has renowned choirs and sanctuaries that can seat thousands used to be known more for smaller churches where individuals rose to lead devotional worship.
“All of the singing was done basically from the pews,” said Haynes, the denomination’s first assistant presiding bishop. “If a person had a song … on their heart, they sang.”
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Blake, who was previously COGIC’s first assistant presiding bishop, moved up the church’s chain of command following the death last march of Bishop Gilbert E. Patterson.
But some leaders, including Haynes and at least two others, question the process and want to have an election during the November meeting _ when they would run against Blake. Haynes said he isn’t “anti-Blake,” but wants to ensure the denomination’s constitution is followed.
Blake, for his part, said he doesn’t object to a call for an election, and would run in November, and again in 2008.
“I fully understand, and have never sought to proclaim otherwise, that the general assembly has full authority to either call a special election or to, by some other parliamentary action, deal with the matter of succession,” he said.
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