Prosperity’ gospel the scourge of the Church
“And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten ...”
— Joel 2:25
This is the year of restoration,” did proclaim the Right Reverend Gregory Ingram as the emphasis of this year’s just concluded Bermuda Annual Conference of the First Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which drew members by the thousands to the luxurious Fairmont Southampton over four days.
Yet, while the elegant pomp and ceremony typified the usual proud tradition of a collective, celebratory worship, as offerings of gratitude and certain hopefulness were proclaimed in the highest regard by the multitude, and even as the gathered crowds appeared most refined and polished in finest attire and requisite accessories, the AME church stands locked in conflict and struggle for relevance among the emerging, modern church movement.
Bishop Ingram admitted as much as he directed attention at the present crisis trending among tradition-bound Christian institutions to devastating effect, with dwindling memberships and financial shortfalls forcing many to close or consider shuttering the gates.
He expounded the need for the Church to press forward in knowledge and belief in the ascribed scripture from Joel based on the certain hopefulness that fulfilment is nigh for the institution, even as the AME denomination, and others similar in old-world tradition and tendency, struggle in their recruitment of new blood from among the “unchurched and millennials” prevalent among today’s landscape of the “unsaved”.
“Today, we are confronted with the symbolism and counterpart of what the locusts have done to the Church,” stated Bishop Ingram, who also announced how this would be his final year as head of the district, as he plans to retire in July 2020, at which time he would have spent eight years as presiding prelate of the First Episcopal District. “For years the Church has struggled from the damage and problems caused not by swarms of little insects, but by the locusts of fiscal integrity, the spirit of apostasy, social and political apathy, moral issues, the parochial mindset of people who suffer from tunnel vision, and the lost craft of sound biblical, theological and meaningful preaching.
“All of these locusts have had a devastating effect on us.”
The bishop’s language appeared to point a finger at the increasing emergence of compromise and decreasing standards that are diluting the Scripture and the power within the message. The so-called “prosperity gospel” is often regarded as one of those that have served to undermine traditional church and belief in its promotion of “idolatry”.
Prosperity theology has been criticised by leaders from various Christian denominations as irresponsible and contrary to Scripture. Secular as well, as some Christian observers have also criticised prosperity theology as exploitative of the poor.
While Bishop Ingram did not specifically take aim at the likes of prosperity gospel proponents Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and their ilk, the inference was clear. He pointedly highlighted the falling dress code as a point of reference indicative of the diminished respect and obedience to biblical decree.
“Many churches are not only facing losses in these areas — membership and fiscal shortfall — but some are losing their identity as well,” the bishop added. “In an effort to attract people, some churches are going to great lengths appealing to the emerging church movement and embracing a casual dress code believing that this is one of the fundamental ways of getting the unchurched and millennials to attend church.
“Added to these dynamics, there are many people today who have their criticism about ‘the church of yesterday’ and are writing off ‘the church of today’ as being a relic that needs to become more contemporary and focus on the future.”
He went on to state that the AME variety had not been immune “to the influences that shape contemporary society”, as evidenced by the numerous congregations who often engage in “worship wars” that has resulted from the clash between those who favour tradition versus those who seek to align with the trends of the today’s culture.
Further, he added how the Church had “cast the vision and sought to address the realities of what many churches must do in ministering to the needs of the people”.
He said: “The Church has gone through great pain over the years trying to recover and recapture what once made us great people.
“This means if it is our prayer and goal to be what we once were, we have to take a good look at ourselves and ask what it means to be a pastor, minister, steward, trustee officer, church school teacher, component group leader, usher, choir member, youth director or member.
“The Church cannot afford to become a collection of moribund sanctuaries slowly losing membership through attrition. We must be life-altering incubators that draw souls to Christ.
“But to grow, the Church sorely needs an awakening and renewed spirit of evangelism.”
Locally, the renewed spirit will take the form of enhanced outreach initiatives, according to the Reverend Howard Dill, one of the bishop’s key Bermudian-based representatives.
Mr Dill, who was retained in his position as presiding elder for the Bermuda East District, as well as the pastor at Allen Temple AME Church in Somerset, concurred with his superior in voicing the need for greater extension within the communities served by the various local branches.
“We believe there is a need for us to establish initiatives that better ingratiate the Church within the community and allow us to touch more people and let them know that we are available to serve them in the best possible way,” said Mr Dill, one of two presiding elders, the other being Larry Dixon, who presides over the Bermuda West District and has St Philip as his home sanctuary.
Bishop Ingram also revealed a largely unchanged line-up of ministerial appointments to the 11 AME churches in Bermuda, with only St John’s absent a committed, permanent pastor. The Reverend V.A. Deyone Douglas was appointed to administer and oversee its affairs.
Following is the full list of appointees and their designated church assignments: the Reverend Larry Dixon, presiding elder for the Bermuda West District (St Philip AME); the Reverend Howard Dill, presiding elder for the Bermuda East District (Allen Temple AME); the Reverend Charles Smith (Bright Temple); the Reverend D. Terry Hassell (Heard Chapel); the Reverend Milton Burgess (St Luke); the Reverend Lorne Bean (Richard Allen AME); the Reverend Jahkimmo Smith (Mount Zion AME); the Reverend Leonard Santucci (Vernon Temple); the Reverend Ruth VanLowe Smith (Bethel AME); the Reverend V.A. Deyone Douglas (St John AME); the Reverend Nicholas Genevieve Tweed (St Paul AME).
• Patrick Bean is a freelance sports writer who appears regularly on the radio talk show Sport Zone and whose range is broadening to take in current affairs and religion