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Marcia Dixon reviews the latest BBC documentary on Christianity - Life and Death the Pentecostal Way
This weekend the BBC broadcast one of the best programmes I’ve ever seen it air about the black Pentecostal church in Britain.
Life and Death the Pentecostal Way gave viewers an insight into the internal workings of a Pentecostal church. You can watch it on iPlayer here. It got to the heart of what black churches are about – ministry, loving its members and supporting them through the various life experiences they encounter.
We were able to see first-hand the sort of day to day ministry that many churches undertake. The camera crew spent three months following members of the Brixton Community Church (BCC) - one of the flagship churches of the New Testament Church of God (NTCG), one of the many Pentecostal denominations founded by Caribbeans who immigrated to the UK during the 1950s.
Prior to gentrification, Brixton was the symbolic and cultural centre of Britain’s black community. It was also one of the few places where black people were able to rent homes when they first arrived in Britain.
For just over 60 years BCC has provided Christian ministry for the local community. Its congregation currently spans four generations, and the programme title was an apt one as the show covered the various experiences people often go through on their Christian journey: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, spiritual new birth evidenced in baptism etc.
The programme reminded me of what church was like when I became a Christian as a teenager many years ago. The Sunday service was a major part of my Christian experience, and the sermon a key component. I used to attend every service going! The music was great, the worship lively and the preaching transformative. And there was a great sense of community. Furthermore, the pastors tended to be accessible. People got help for most problems they were experiencing (although single parenthood was taboo when I was younger) and there was a major focus on winning souls (as they were called then) to the kingdom.
In watching the programme we saw the leader of BCC and the former head of the NTCG Bishop Eric Brown, preach. We saw his wife Sister Brown lovingly counsel a single mother who was experiencing behaviourial issues with her son Kai. We gained an insight into the pain of Shanika in the lead up to her son’s baby dedication. And we heard beautiful singing from BCC's youth group.
We also witnessed one of the youth leaders John Ankle leading baptismal classes for the young people under his care, and we were privy to the evangelism team as they went out on the streets of Brixton to share the gospel. It was telling that one of the team shared the gospel with a group of young white men, highlighting again the increasing gentrification of the area.
Life and Death the Pentecostal Way got the tone of the black church right. Instead of focusing on how much money churches collect or the emotionalism inside some services (as past programmes on the black Church have done), this documentary provided a broader look at the church.
My only criticism is I would have liked to have seen a broader range of stories and heard from people for whom their church has fueled their aspirations for education and success. But overall I loved the programme.
My prayer this documentary helps viewers understand the workings of black Pentecostalism and gives them insight into the role of faith in the lives of the black community. Most of all I hope the success of this documentary and the good response its had from the black majority Church in the UK, inspires the BBC to make more thoughtful and inspiring programmes about the Christian faith.
Marcia Dixon is the religious editor of The Voice newspaper and founder of MD Public Relations