The unlikely reformer
Staccato Powell has overseen stunning growth in his AME Zion church in downtown Raleigh, which he sees as part of a “new church” that stresses Christian fervor over denominational identity. But his goal, he says, is to revitalize the traditional church, not to reject it.
June 21, 2011 | The Rev. Dr. Staccato Powell arrived for his first service at the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Raleigh, N.C., and found more people in the choir loft behind the pulpit than in front of it. He told the singers to sit in the pews, even though it meant preaching to the choir.
“I had to have a decent congregation to preach to,” said Powell, 51, a trim North Carolina native with salt-and-pepper hair.
Powell no longer worries about having enough people in the pews. When he arrived in December 2003, the membership of the church, which was founded in 1919, had dwindled to fewer than 50. Today, it’s more than 1,300, with the number rising weekly.
On Sundays, ushers set out folding chairs in the main aisle because the pews are overflowing. More than 140 people attend a weekly Bible study. Powell has opened a branch of the Grace AME Zion Church in nearby Wake Forest. There are plans to build a new church in Grace’s Raleigh neighborhood that will include a charter school and housing for seniors.
Church member Lisa Hodges said of Powell, “He truly has transformed this community and the congregation, and has elevated all of our lives.”
For all his success, Powell says it was not his doing. He didn’t want the job, but a few years before, he had made a promise to surrender his life to God’s will. When AME Zion Bishop George Battle asked him to take over the faltering church in a drug-plagued area near downtown Raleigh, Powell said he heard the voice of the Holy Spirit say, “This isn’t Battle. This is me.”
Powell said yes, reluctantly.
“I really came kind of pouting, kicking and screaming, because I didn’t want to be in the pastorate. I said to God, ‘I’m not going to do a thing. I’m not going to lift a finger. You want me here, then you do it. You run the show.’ And God said, ‘Well, I can do that.’”
The ‘new church’
So began the story of a church and a minister who are confounding the national trend in shrinking church attendance with an idea that is at once radical and fundamental: Let us not be like a church; let us be like Christ.
Powell describes his work at Grace as being the midwife at the birth of what he calls the “new church,” which stresses Christian fervor over denominational identity.
Questions to consider:
- Powell’s vision of a “new church” is modeled on the practices of the earliest Christian communities. How does Powell’s vision compare to the work of John Wesley at the beginnings of the Methodist movement?
- How do the activities of the Grace AMEZ Church compare to the work of your congregation? How does your congregation live out the description in Acts 2?
- How are the beliefs and practices of a congregation affected by a relationship to a denomination?
- How are the ways that the congregation honors God, does mercy and loves justice shaped by connections to other institutions?
- What hinders your congregation from being the thriving community described in Acts 2? Which of these obstacles, if overcome, would make the most difference in becoming such a community?
Powell’s push for the “new church” is something of a one-man campaign for less attention to denominational distinctions and more attention to the collective power of Christian faith. It is not denominationally specific, he said, “but an ethos, a mindset and the spirit that is pervasive throughout the body of believers and the people of Christ.”
The “new church” models the practice of faith on the earliest of Christian communities, Powell says, a model “where they held all things in common. Signs and wonders were performed, and the church grew on a daily basis. I think the ‘new church’ will recapture that kind of dynamic impact.”
Powell saw an expression of this “new church” in an event he coordinated in March 2010 known as the Great Gathering. The event in Columbia, S.C., brought together leaders and members of the three major Methodist denominations within the African-American community: the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches. The event attracted more than 12,000 people and took as its main focus “the state and condition of the African-American male.”
In his opening remarks at the Great Gathering press conference, Powell said: “For the first time in the history of these three churches have we met together on this scale. ...We are coming together to blend our voices in a way that we are confident will change the course of the history of not only our denominations but this country. This signals the ‘new church’ in a real way.”