All of this battened onto a religious superstructure means Sunday service has never been this loud, this dramatic — this hip.
While anguished shouts of praise the Lord, tambourine, organ and piano music have always filled Jamaican Sunday mornings, church leaders today are enticing the young with more pizzazz from the pulpit and fun in the aisles. The hope is that they’ll come for the entertainment but stay for the word of God.
Locked in a high stakes battle for souls, some churches have armed themselves with modern-day tools — the ‘Net, hi-tech equipment, advertising, cable television as well as sports and pop music — to keep the Youthful Faithful happy and spiritually focused.
The Swallowfield Chapel in Kington, with its let your conscience be your guide dress code, has become a magnet for young people.
“We don’t judge people on the bases of how they dress, but we recognise the biases that are naturally there,” said Jean Claude Davidson, the church’s youth president.
Swallowfield, which has a membership of 1,000, has youth power because it organises games nights, sport extravaganzas, trips, camps and other recreational activities.
Plus “on Saturday nights, youth church is held where the opportunity is presented for leaders to pitch a religious message relevant to the teenage population, separate from that of the Sunday adult church,” said Davidson. “It is interactive, there is an informal bible study session, and teens can ask provocative questions, and share their opinions.”
Claudette Brown, chairman of the Youth Commission of the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC), calls these charismatic churches.
“Speaking generally, it does appear that a lot of young churchgoers are gravitating towards the charismatic churches, which use popular music like that of artistes like Ron Kenoly in their worship and praise,” she said. “And yes, it certainly appears that there are more young people in charismatic churches than in traditional ones.”
The phenomenon could be a result of the combination of contemporary music and what appears to be more social and religious activities, she opined.
The youth influence is vital, say some church leaders.
“Any organisation that depends on people for advancement, needs fresh critical thinking so that we can bring energy to a thing,” said Reverend Peter Harding of the Jamaica Baptist Union.
The Pentecostal Tabernacle on Wildman Street, Kingston, which has also gained favour with young people, has created a separate children’s church because children tend to get lost in the heavy adult gospel.
Still, Celia Morgain, assistant director in the Care Services Department, explained that “the overwhelming reason that young people attend this church isn’t the band, or the fellowship, or the loud hallelujahs, but that you can feel the presence of the Lord here. People worship here without coercion, it’s just an automatic response to the Lord’s presence.”
At the Elim Open Bible Church in Naggo Head, St. Catherine, young people are leading the charge. They outnumber the older age groups in the choir, and often take charge of the services.
One recent Sunday, in a prayer and worship session, youth president Owen Wilson offered prayer for an ailing female member of the congregation who stood in the middle of a huddle of fellow worshippers. Suddenly, he whipped his neck right and then left. Then he began to chant — loudly. The ‘subject’ of the prayer suddenly ‘gets into the spirit’, and the youth president drops to his knees, and from his prostrate position, grabs her ankles, still chanting.
The young people seemed amused and shocked. They could have been watching a horror sequel on HBO.
Members of the huddle broke from the circle, and like satellites zoomed throughout the congregation, crying and spreading the ‘spirit’. Soon, the church was filled with members either crying, stretching their arms out to the ceiling, or both.
“Participation is key. If they don’t feel like they’re a part of what is going on. they will leave, and the devil is out there to welcome them with open arms,” Owen Wilson, president of the Elim Open Bible youth congregation said afterwards. “Throughout the years, young people come and go, but we have to challenge ourselves to devise ways for them to stay and not lose the desire to attend church.”
In their youthful zeal young people may sometimes lock horns with older members of the congregation but their presence provides a chance to bridge the generation gap and to work for the good of the kingdom, said the JCC’s Claudette Brown. “We certainly have the right tools to do it, opportunities are limitless in terms of avenues for service.”