Come on now, preacher!

by
25 October 2019

The study of ‘black preaching’ could benefit the C of E, says Carol Tomlin

ALAMY

Judy Muthoni (right), her mother, Jane, and her brother Michael at a worship service at Spirit and Truth Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Sacramento

Judy Muthoni (right), her mother, Jane, and her brother Michael at a worship service at Spirit and Truth Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Sacrament...

I APPLAUD my forebears, the Windrush generation who came to Britain during the post-war period. I will shout from the rooftop and whisper in the breeze about their contribution to British society — especially Christianity as expressed in Pentecostal preaching. It is my belief that the Church of England can learn much from this powerful artistic form.

The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, last year, gave a global audience a glimpse of the preaching of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Most Revd Michael Curry, who “stole the show” (News, 25 May 2018). His sermon presentation was reminiscent of the African Caribbean Pentecostal preaching that I have observed throughout my life. Bishop Curry is certainly not Caribbean or Pentecostal, but this style of his homily can be referenced as “black preaching”.

It is a term that does not necessarily denote a racial code. Pentecostal preaching, though culturally ascribed, can be found among white Pentecostals in North America. The “folk sermons” of black and white Evangelicals during the Great Awakening had much in common. Moreover, several cultures collided in the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, considered the birthplace of modern Pentecostalism, at least in the West.

 

THE African Caribbean Pentecostalism that we encounter in Britain today finds its roots in the Windrush generation, who travelled primarily from Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, after the Second World War. Pentecostalism, imported from the United States, permeated countries such as Jamaica during this period, replacing much of the historic denominations and the syncretic cults — such as Cumina and Pocomania — that brought together elements of African and European religious traditions.

Generally, white American missionaries were instrumental in developing Pentecostalism in Jamaica, but its rapid growth was primarily due to indigenous clergy, who became Pentecostal while working in the US. When they returned, they established indigenised Pentecostalism, undergirded with undertones of the syncretic cults, thus reflecting some of the cultural mores of their African ancestry. It was this brand of Pentecostalism, including preaching methods, that the first Jamaican migrants brought to the shores of Britain.

When we look at African-Caribbean preaching, we study both the text and how this text is interpreted by preachers and congregants, exploring how their underlying beliefs influence the communication of scripture. For black Pentecostals in the diaspora, this can be studied in the light of their inherited African oral culture and world-view, their religious experiences formed out of slavery and colonialism, and the social context of the language used in the black community in Britain and elsewhere.

This oral culture encompasses lexis (words), phonology (sounds), and syntax (arrangement of words grammatically). It includes Jamaican Creole, popularly known as patois and spoken by the first generation, and Black British Talk (BBT), which describes the speech of younger generation.

The most important characteristic of African-Caribbean preaching is call-response, a fundamental feature of the African communication system, whereby an audience either echoes or adds to the utterances of a performer.

Call-response reflects the traditional African world-view, in which the universe is rhythmic in nature and seen as composed of natural and supernatural forces which are both interactive and interdependent. There is a symbiotic relationship between the speaker and audience that illustrates shared common cultural values and experiences.

In preaching, call-response demonstrates the ways in which the preacher and audience merge in their understanding of biblical texts. Professor Geneva Smitherman, who led the study of African American Language and Literacy at Michigan State University, has identified different kinds of response. The most common types in black Pentecostal churches are co-signing, which indicates agreement with the speaker’s point, and encouraging, which spurs on a speaker. They illustrate group solidarity and the communal aspects of the church culture.

Responses commonly include “Yes”, “Amen”, “Praise him”, “Praise the Lord”, “Tell it”, “Glory”, and “Hallelujah”. Encouraging responses such as “Hm hm”, “Come on now, preacher”, “Bless him, Lord”, “Yea, Lord”, are known in Jamaica and Britain as “bearing up the preacher”.

 

PREACHERS in this tradition often intersperse their sermons with a variety of phrases that serve as cues for the audience. I include this example of Pastor Tamika and congregants in my book:


Pastor Tamika (call):
I want you to say out loud with me “This is my transitioning season.”

Congregation (response): This is my transitioning season.

Pastor Tamika (call): Say it again.

Congregation (response): This is my transitioning season.

Pastor Tamika (call): Listen to me, I want you to say this as well: “The person you see today is not the person you see tomorrow.”

Congregation (response): The person you see today is not the person you see tomorrow.

 

Preaching can often be a daunting task. Call-response greatly encourages me in my own exposition, and other preachers I know also say that the responses spur them on in their delivery. To hear the supportive responses of the listening audience is reassuring and boosts confidence.

Call-response tends to be culturally specific and confined to the Pentecostal tradition and non-Pentecostal churches, such as the Baptists in the African diaspora. Interestingly, it is also prevalent in some white and Hispanic Pentecostal churches in North America, owing to the shared spiritual heritage of Pentecostalism in the US.

While call-response lends itself to audience participation, the preacher is still the central figure, and is perceived as an authoritative bearer of biblical knowledge and insight. The listening audience are not invited to make specific comments on the actual sermon: they remain the recipients of knowledge.

Together with fellow ministers in my church, I have explored preaching that is more dialogic, whereby congregants are invited to comment or respond to the content or theme of the sermon. In this way, they are co-constructors of the preaching act — not a common occurrence for a Sunday worship service in any Christian tradition, but one that can yield immense satisfaction for both clergy and laity.

One idea for non-Pentecostals such as Anglicans to consider is to introduce the sermon by asking a series of general questions related to its main theme. You might need to inform the congregants of your intentions at the beginning, and could conclude the sermon by asking congregants to respond to any of the ideas that you have presented. Depending on the size of the congregation, you might wish to request that individuals work in pairs or small groups, to respond to a couple of key questions. You might also decide to have feedback. Call-response in this way would facilitate audience participation.

 

IN SOME Christian traditions, a common practice for clergy is to present the homily by reading from carefully prepared sermon notes. In contrast, African Caribbean Pentecostals tend not to read the whole of their sermon script. Even the most well-prepared sermons contain a great deal of improvisation or spontaneity, which is an integral feature of the African Communication System and suggestive of an oral-written tradition.

Preaching in the lectionary tradition tends to be tied to the liturgical year, and there might appear to be little room for manoeuvre. But improvisation can allow for a certain licence. It serves to enliven sermons, and helps to engage the audience, especially when you are dealing with more challenging or dry theological ideas.

Clearly, this kind of improvisation entails a degree of risk-taking and experimentation. If you are somewhat reticent about inserting off-the-cuff remarks, one strategy, apparently employed by Sir Winston Churchill, famous for his inspiring speeches, is to carefully rehearse beforehand a segment of the speech related to the sermon. This means that the preacher is not solely reliant on spontaneity, but, with practice, becomes more confident to ad lib.

While writing this article, for example, I thought of a sermon on water. One could ask someone from the audience to take a sip of water, and link that to what Jesus said about being the living water (John 7.38). Alternatively, one could drink a sip of water, or ask an audience member to drink a few sips of water, to illustrate how it quenches thirst.

 

THE genius of African Caribbean preaching lies in its simultaneous use of different types of language features, including improvisation and repetition. Preachers have tremendous oratorical skills, because they utilise a range of rhetorical devices, which I have briefly touched upon.

There is always a danger of mimicking a style or a voice that does not feel like one’s own. Authenticity is important. There is beauty in every style of delivery. I have learnt from clergy in the Anglican tradition to write out my sermons in full. At the same time, I bring to the act of preaching my own personality and academic and cultural background. To borrow a quote from Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” We can be true to ourselves while tapping into the wide-ranging tapestry of preaching styles.

No one Christian tradition or community, however, will ever completely unravel the mystery of God through its preaching. Both Anglicans and Pentecostals can learn from each other. I have presented a snippet of African Caribbean Pentecostal preaching as a piece that wonderfully fits in the jigsaw of the preaching genre.

The Revd Dr Carol Tomlin is Visiting Fellow at the University of Leeds. Preach it! Understanding African Caribbean preaching is published by SCM Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £16) (Books, 7 June).

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