The Preacher

Bishop T. D. Jakes wants his flock not only to do good but to do well, and his brand of entrepreneurial spirituality has made him perhaps the most influential black leader in America today
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Anyone who has seen him preach will have an indelible image of his theatrical sermons, with Jakes hopping around the stage, drenched in sweat, his voice rising to provoke the rapturous thousands around him. But in this Dallas foyer he was a different kind of person, engaging in modulated conversation, listening attentively, nodding, giving quiet, thoughtful replies. He spoke to one man about China and the global economy. He listened as one woman suggested that New Orleans not be rebuilt because “the whole thing’s going to happen again,” and politely shifted the discussion to the tragedy itself. He went on to talk about Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, about poverty in America and overseas, about the prospects for economic development in nearby Fort Worth (where he himself owns a home worth $5 million). He spoke about his recent meetings with Bill Clinton and global economic leaders, telling them what he had learned.

In a nearby room a number of other guests had been watching the World Series, in which a Texas team (the Houston Astros) was playing, but as Jakes continued to talk, small pockets of these sports fans drifted away from the game and toward the preacher. One of the guests, looking back at the growing knot of people around Jakes, said to me, “When T. D. Jakes came to town, nobody knew what to think of him. In Dallas we do churches big—I belong to one that’s six thousand people, and that’s nothing compared to him. He’s dwarfed them all.”

In the process of redefining, and dominating, the religious hierarchy of Dallas, Jakes has won some high-profile followers. In 1996, Carolyn Chambers Sanders, then the wife of Dallas Cowboys defensive back Deion Sanders, decided that her loose-living husband needed a mature male influence. For a decade Deion had run roughshod over the National Football League as the game’s most feared kick returner and defensive back, a man who’d danced his way to Super Bowl championships for two different teams. But however successful he was on the field, Deion’s skills as a husband—as a man, really—needed help. His lifestyle was out of control. Help could not come from his biological father or his stepfather, who were dead. Carolyn decided that it could come from Jakes, who had just moved to Dallas from West Virginia.

Carolyn and Deion went to Jakes for marriage counseling, at Carolyn’s behest, and Deion found in Jakes and his church a father figure and a spiritual home. Deion took in everything that Jakes and the Potter’s House had to offer—the Wednesday-night Bible classes; the loud, overgrown services; the one-on-one personal sessions in which Jakes encouraged Sanders to put aside his hedonistic ways for his own sake—and began to spend more and more of his time in the confines of the Dallas church. He embraced the ideals of righteous self-empowerment that Jakes tried to instill in his congregation. In the end, Sanders’s marriage did not endure, but his way of life was turned around. “The ministry was like a life raft, and it saved me,” Sanders explains. For him, the Jakes connection has remained durable. It would be Jakes who, in 1999, officiated at Sanders’s second wedding, to the New York actress and model Pilar Biggers, in the Bahamas.

What is it that has drawn Deion Sanders and millions of others to T. D. Jakes? The place to start looking is probably on the life raft itself: at Jakes’s church, a large white structure with all the haunting spiritual resonance of a Maine outlet mall, sprawling across fifty acres in southwest Dallas. On Sunday mornings the Potter’s House attracts a long stream of snaking traffic that evokes the triumphant ending of Field of Dreams. After parking according to a system designed by the person who helps the NFL with its own traffic problems, a visitor is greeted by men in black fatigues with the word “Amen” emblazoned on the chest. The interior of the Potter’s House looks less like a sanctuary than like a Broadway theater: 7,500 people can fit into its lower level and balcony. And the pulpit is a stage, really, flanked by two JumboTrons and backed by an imposing 200-person choir that stands above a nine-foot-high recreation of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Every Sunday the sanctuary fills to capacity—twice. The choir warms up the congregation until the arrival of Jakes, who almost always is accompanied by Serita Ann. He begins with mundane announcements of church news (the fitness center is now accepting new members; the upcoming men’s retreat will include both spa services and a golf tournament), usually delivered from the pulpit, but he then steps down to the floor like a Vegas showman. He moves into a full-throated sermon, in which he summons the witness of Scripture and the testimony of his own life. He voices shortcomings and fears and hopes and doubts, and he calls for self-betterment, sometimes shouting and sometimes speaking softly. Men and women rise, seized with religious fervor. Some come near the stage, almost dancing in excitement. Dozens of emotional new members, cheeks wet with tears, come forward to be received by Jakes’s pastors.

“It is time for the baby to move to the next level,” Jakes proclaimed as he looked out at the stream of followers one Sunday when I was in attendance. “Remember that the womb is supporting the baby; it’s the baby’s time to move to the next level. I’m talking about the power of vision. The power of vision!

“If you have not seen God the way you should see Him, right now you should repent of your small-minded concept of who He is. You should repent and get an inner vision of your own needs and limitations. Or if you’ve been so stuck on your own needs and limitations that you fail to see the global, bigger picture of how God can use you in spite of those limitations, then look out for where you are. I want you to bow your heads, and whatever level this message spoke to you on, I want you to respond to God on that level so that you can say, ‘Here am I. Send me.  ”

There is, of course, more to the church than this emotional crescendo, much more: ministries for singles and couples, for young people and prisoners and ex-prisoners and recovering drug addicts and prostitutes. There are programs and seminars on personal finance geared to every social class. Although these are open to anyone, for the burgeoning black middle and upper classes, who are coping with new social and financial pressures, and also with the psychological burden of having made it when others in the black community haven’t, the church offers a wide range of programs that seem particularly appropriate. These include a “Doing Business in Deep Waters” cruise to Alaska, and the well-known Atlanta MegaFest, where religious programs are interspersed with appearances by people like the financial guru Suze Orman and the comedian Steve Harvey.

From the archives:

The Next Church (August 1996)
Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong: in communities around the country the old order gives way to the new. By Charles Trueheart

Like Jakes, the Potter’s House is standing on the shoulders of the 1960s-era crusade for civil rights. Its agenda isn’t about rights per se, a battle that has been, if not won, then joined; rather, it represents something new in the black community. Although it continues to serve the needs of the dispossessed, it is just as interested in the very different concerns of the affluent. It cuts across class lines and gathers blacks of all socio-economic strata, functioning in the black community the way the class-transcending Catholic Church has always done in America. In the case of the Potter’s House, it does this through a common emphasis on personal betterment—moving from one level to the next. The white megachurches that began to spring up in the 1980s, and are now a fixture all over America, have widely been seen as a response to the rootless geographical mobility of the sprawling white suburbs. The Potter’s House is a megachurch, too, but it represents a response to something very different—to the challenges presented to the black community by social mobility, either when it fails to occur (as among the poor) or when it occurs rapidly and disconcertingly (as among the middle class).

The roots of the Potter’s House can be traced back a hundred years to a black Pentecostal movement that arose in America from a church located at 312 Azusa Street, in a multiracial district of Los Angeles, and from the words of its black pastor, William Seymour. Seymour had traveled the country, listening to and learning from white ministers. (One of them—indeed, his mentor—was a racist named Charles F. Parham, a Pentecostal preacher whom he met in Houston and who enforced the conventions of segregation by allowing Seymour to hear his lectures—but only if he listened from outside the door.) Seymour urged his followers to connect with Scripture in a deeply intimate way, as the apostles had on the day of the Pentecost, when “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind.” Seymour offered a spiritual vision embracing all nations and peoples, whose direct connection with the divine would be manifested through speaking in tongues.

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