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Mark Gornik: African Christianity, a gift for the Western church

Out of sight of most Americans, African Christianity is thriving in New York and other cities, here and around the globe. It is a gift in our midst, a vivid reminder that Christ is about flourishing, says the author of “Word Made Global.”

Photo by Mark Gornik
Worshippers arrive for services at Redeemed Christian Church of God, International Chapel, in Brooklyn, one of a growing number of African congregations throughout New York.

May 8, 2012

If you want to see the cutting edge of the church today, go to the outer boroughs of New York, to the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. There you will find a vibrant transnational movement of faith, in particular African Christianity, propelled by globalization and other forces, says the Rev. Mark Gornik.

GornikGornik, the founder of City Seminary of New York, spent 10 years studying African Christianity in New York City. His book, “Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City,” was named one of Christianity Today’s best books of 2012. Although largely unnoticed by most Americans, the growing presence of African Christianity in the United States is an important development for all Christians, with important lessons for the church, Gornik said.

“African Christians give us an example of how to recover a comprehensive, holistic faith,” he said. “They remind us that Christ is about flourishing, that God is interested in our bodies, our hearts and our souls.”

Before moving to New York in 1998, Gornik co-founded New Song Community Church in Baltimore. In 2003, he launched City Seminary of New York, which he serves as director.

Gornik spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about “Word Made Global” and African Christianity in New York. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you get interested in studying African churches in New York City?

I moved to Harlem to work on starting a second New Song Community Church, and I noticed there was a large African immigrant community in the neighborhood, primarily from Senegal, Mali and Ivory Coast.

I began to get a sense of the city’s profound demographic changes. Since the 1980s and the 1990s, there has been a great immigration to New York from the non-Western world.

It struck me that, if Christianity was growing around the world and many of those places were now connected to New York City, then perhaps the church was growing in New York in ways that reflected those connections.

I was reading a book by Andrew Walls, “The Missionary Movement in Christian History,” and I thought, “What he’s describing is what I think is happening in New York.” I went and met him at Princeton Seminary, and he helped guide my movement into this work.

So, I found one church, and I went from there.

Q: You went all over the five boroughs of New York, tracking down and studying these churches, right?

When I started 10 or more years ago, there wasn’t one article or book on African churches in the United States that I was aware of. So I tried to see if there were any churches. It wasn’t a question of, “Where are they?” It was a question of, “Are there any?”

After a little homework I found an Ethiopian Pentecostal church in the Bronx, and I worshipped there one Sunday. It was an amazing experience. On the way out, I asked the pastor if he knew any other churches where people from Africa worshipped. He wasn’t sure, but he mentioned one in Brooklyn called Redeemed Christian Church of God.

I found them and visited one Sunday. They were renting a vacant warehouse, heating the place with kerosene heaters and it was freezing. It was a very profound worship experience.

I asked basic questions and found that most [worshippers] were from Nigeria. Later, I looked up the Redeemed Christian Church of God in “World Christian Encyclopedia,” and I’m thinking maybe there are one or two branches in Nigeria. Turns out there are almost 5,000. I realized then that this wasn’t a one-off church, but part of something pretty significant in Africa and globally.

I did that, church by church, for a number of years. I kept asking people if they knew of others, and I’d follow up and go worship there.

Q: How large is the African Christian presence in New York?

I documented about 150 congregations, but that is probably an underestimate. I would say probably 200 African congregations are in New York City, primarily from Nigeria and Ghana, some Liberian, some Ethiopian.

They don’t fit our traditional categories. Almost all are influenced by the work of the Holy Spirit in the sense of being charismatic or Pentecostal. They are not called denominations but ministries, and they have a global focus. Some might be Catholic or Presbyterian or Methodist, but primarily they’re just their own movements.

Many businesses and financial firms have their headquarters in New York, and I found the same thing for many African churches. They have a hub or a center of operations here, and they use that as a base to plant churches across North America.

Q: You write that New York is the connection point for both the global economy and African Christianity.

Globalization has really intensified things. Airplane travel has made mobility very easy. Borders have become stronger, but they’ve also become more porous. It’s contradictory but it makes sense.

One of the technical words is “transnationalism” -- that is, people have a foot in two worlds, actually more than two worlds. Someone from Nigeria will have extended family back in Nigeria, but they work and live here with their family. They went to Redeemed parish in Lagos and they go to Redeemed parish here in Brooklyn.

If they have a conference, the speakers are from Nigeria, not from their own churches in New York City or from American evangelicals or mainline Protestants -- they won’t even know of them. Leaders go back and forth for seminary education or revivals, and at the same time they’re creating and connecting networks here in the United States.

People are relating through work and faith that crosses boundaries. They’re very local, but they’re also global.

Q: So, these are not like immigrants of 100 years ago who left home never to return. They are still intimately connected to these places and are constantly going back and forth.

Absolutely. Before, when people got on the boat, they said goodbye to their parents or brothers and sisters, probably forever. And when they arrived in the United States, there was a pattern of assimilation, as people tried to adopt a culture and language here.

In a globalized world, people stay connected, and they preserve their culture. The Africans that I met are very committed to New York and have great respect for the opportunities they’ve been given and for the city and for this country. But that hasn’t meant that they’ve lost their cultural identities or their religious commitments.

Instead of losing their identity, it becomes enriched. They gain new ways of relating. Immigrants today have multiple identities. At their core they are who they are, but they’re also finding new ways to navigate life in the United States.

Q: You suggest in the book that globalization is not just about economics, it’s also about religion.

We can’t understand globalization without appreciating that it has a religious dimension. Typically when people talk about religion and globalization, they’re talking about a theological assessment: Is globalization good or bad?

To me, that’s far too abstract. If you actually look on the ground and see how religion is lived and how it’s practiced, then you can’t understand religion without globalization, and you can’t understand globalization without religion.

The two are related. Globalization has given opportunities for people to practice their faith and live the gospel in various cultures and around the world. It has been a key means of the gospel moving.

In my experience in New York, I found that globalization didn’t flatten out but extended people’s rich cultural and religious resources. Religion is not a McDonald’s product, where you just take something and then repeat it around the world. It is very contextual and very local. People are living their faith in very profound ways. Globalization has been crucial for the expansion of Christianity through migration and it has preserved identities by also expanding and crossing frontiers.

Of course, there is precedent for this. In the first century, the early church was an urban movement, going from city to city, using the roads that had been built by the empire. Methods of transportation, access, and urbanization are core components of how the gospel spreads around the world, both in the first century and now the 21st century.

Q: Why is African Christianity important? Why should other Christians in the U.S. care?

We should care for a couple of reasons. First, there is one body, and we belong to each other. Christianity has always been a world religion, but increasingly now we can see and have contact with Christians from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the West Indies.

Because of that, we can grow together. We’re incomplete in our own world. We need one another to form the full body of Christ. We share a common faith.

Second, if you want to know about Christianity, then you have to know about Christianity in Africa. The growth of Christianity in Africa has been extraordinary. Numerically, it’s the fastest growth of the Christian faith in history. And you can’t understand Africa, either, without understanding religion and Christianity.

African Christianity offers great gifts for the West. One criticism you hear about Christianity in the West is how our faith is compartmentalized: It’s only for Sundays; we don’t know what do with it the rest of the week.

African Christians give us an example of how to recover a comprehensive, holistic faith. They remind us that Christ is about flourishing, that God is interested in our bodies, our hearts and our souls.

Q: You note in the book that all this is happening largely unseen by most Americans, confirming Andrew Wall’s point that throughout Christian history it’s at the margins where growth, creativity and energy happen.

That’s true even here. When people think of New York, they think of Manhattan, and by that they mean a certain section in Manhattan, because they usually leave out Washington Heights and Harlem. But the cutting edge of the church is in the margins of New York relative to Manhattan. It’s in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx.

That’s always, or often, the case that the margins are the centers. We see that playing out globally as well as locally.

And, of course, Wall also points out that Christianity doesn’t have a single center. It has multiple centers. New York City is one but so are Lagos and Seoul and Kingston and on and on and on.

Q: You mentioned earlier that most of these churches do not consider themselves denominations but movements. Many, especially Redeemed Christian, have been able to strike a balance between having an institutional structure and being very decentralized. Any lessons there for U.S. denominations?

I can’t speak to lessons others need. I just know that the reason Pentecostalism is growing around the world is that it’s decentralized. If you try to control and order things too much it won’t work.

With all its decentralization, Redeemed maintains its identity. They maintain ordination procedures. They have Sunday school materials everyone uses week by week all over the world.

To start a new church, they give people some Bibles, folding chairs and a few members. It’s not very programmed.

Without decentralization, Redeemed would not be growing at all. Yet, they also maintain their identity and their leadership of the overall movement. It’s a very interesting dynamic.

Q: What are the pastors like in these churches? How does their job differ from a typical Western view of a pastor?

Almost all are in bi-vocational ministry. They work other jobs five days a week from driving a taxi to working on Wall Street and then pastor every night and on weekends and use their vacation to go to meetings related to their faith.

Generally, they see the pastor’s job as building communities of spiritual and social belonging where human flourishing can occur. That’s the most important thing they do.

The pastors that I looked at built communities of spiritual life, and to do that you have to also build infrastructure. They are totally available to people, praying with them, on the phone, in everyday life, always building this community.

And worship is not a 45-minute or an hour experience. It was often from two to four or five hours or even all night. What’s powerful about these services is that people come because it is a community where they can meet God and God can meet them in their everyday life.

That was the pastor’s role, to mediate to their communities a sense that God is here and with them and will empower them.

Q: You write that these churches were not a place of escape or refuge but the very place where life happens.

One argument you often see in analyses of Christianity, and especially Pentecostalism, is that people attend church because it meets a need, that there’s a deficit that religion fills.

I think that’s wrong. What I found is that these churches were a place of life, of everyday life.

Great theologies are really theologies about life. One of the striking things I found across these churches and African Christianity is that they are about a theology of life. It is about how you live -- your relationships, your work, all aspects of life. It is a comprehensive holistic theology.

Worship is about life, and that’s why people don’t miss it. Worship is an event, a profound and creative experience that can’t be repeated.

Q: Talk some about the importance of prayer and of Scripture in these churches.

If I was to begin this project again, I think I would just write on prayer. Prayer is the defining practice of African Christianity. Life is about prayer, and prayer is about life. All-night prayer meetings start at 9 or 10 p.m. and end at sunup. People fast and pray for a month at a time.

There is an amazing commitment to the work of prayer. It’s not meditation. It’s hard work. In some churches they kneel, in others they stand and pray, but it’s physical work.

They believe prayer brings changes. There is a dialogue between God and the person and community. There is an assumption that God is continuously at work, guiding and shaping peoples’ lives, opening doors and creating opportunities for jobs and protecting children and watching over them. No one leaves the house or the apartment without praying. There is nothing more important than prayer, and by that I mean hours of it, not a quick prayer.

And Scripture informs everything. It is the language of all the prayers -- names for God, names for Jesus, relating stories. Whether it’s Samuel or David or the life of Christ, there’s a constant interaction with Scripture, both in prayer and in lived practice. It’s the way that they see themselves in the world.