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Today's Christian, January/February 2005

When T.D. Jakes Talks …
At church or on the big screen, this mega preacher always draws a big crowd.
By Dahleen Glanton

When T.D. Jakes Talks …
Bishop T. D. Jakes
Image by T. D. Jakes Ministries

Last summer, on a muggy Thursday evening, more than 40,000 men came to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to hear Bishop T. D. Jakes. Millions more watched from home, as the event was broadcast live internationally in English and Spanish. In South Africa, men at Drakenstein Prison, where former President Nelson Mandela once was held, got up at 2 A.M. to see the show.

After more than an hour of prayers, gospel singing accompanied by an orchestra and an offering, Jakes appeared on a floodlit platform decorated with greenery and lion statues. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume sat on the stage, and celebrities such as Darryl Strawberry, the ex-baseball player and recovering drug addict, were in the audience.

Jakes preached for an hour and a half about how to be a good husband and father. And when it was over, the men rushed to the altar, overcome with emotion and falling to their knees as they made their way up the aisle.

Then Jakes asked them to "find another man. … Whisper in his ear something you want him to pray about. You will never see him again, so it does not matter."

Almost everyone did. And for the next 10 minutes, doctors, judges, factory workers, and ex-convicts cried together and comforted each other.

"We are engaged in storytelling every Sunday, sharing the story of the Good News of who Christ is, and dramatizing those words so people can experience them."
—T.D. Jakes

It was ManPower night at Mega Fest, a four-day spiritual event produced by the bishop and his Dallas-based Potter's House ministry. Jakes, a 47-year-old non-denominational minister who preaches in designer suits some days and athletic jerseys on others, has emerged as one of the most powerful religious figures in America, heading a church of 28,000 and commanding audiences of sometimes triple that size when his ministry goes on the road.

"These meetings do for the soul what vitamins do for the rest of the body. They are a supplement," Jakes told the Chicago Tribune after the conference.

Family man
Jakes's Mega Fest, which drew more than 130,000 people to the Georgia Dome for preaching, worship, and entertainment, was the largest gathering in Atlanta since the 1996 Summer Olympics. It included a concert featuring Patti LaBelle and India. Arie, a celebrity basketball game with Magic Johnson, and speakers such as financial adviser Suze Orman. There was a comedy show, a fashion show, and a circus for the kids. The event, which drew people of all races but mostly African Americans, included family counseling sessions and workshops on business ethics, home buying and health and fitness. A family expo offered everything from voter registration to beauty makeovers to artwork.

"People need encouragement and structure so they can develop life skills and economic empowerment," says Jakes. "We have to tell men how important it is to be a father to their kids because we are in the unfortunate situation where when a man divorces a wife, he sometimes divorces the children. Those issues are relevant to all people, but they are especially important in our community."

Much of his success, according to religious experts, is due to Jakes's ability to mix the secular with the spiritual, appealing to Christian conservatives as well as hip-hoppers. He also has mastered a preaching style that is tailored to his audience, whether it be women or men. His "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!" conference in 1999 drew 87,500 women to the Georgia Dome, breaking the attendance record previously held by Billy Graham. Mega Fest combined the preacher's trademark outreach to women (which was inspired by his wife Serita) with his ManPower men's conference, turning them into a family affair.

"He is drawing on people who have a lot more disposable income, and the fact that there are not a lot of vacation spots that market themselves to middle-class African American families. He pulled everything together to make a family vacation event that combined the imagery of a religious revival and the notion of a family reunion," says Nancy Eiesland, professor of sociology of religion at Emory University.

Audrey Woods of Tyler, Texas, saw Mega Fest as a good place for her family to get together last summer. Her daughter, son-in-law and grandson, from San Antonio, joined her there. "I wanted us to share a blessing and healing event and experience being in a large gathering with other Christians," says Woods. "I wasn't sure how he would pull it off, but everything went well."

Multifaceted evangelist
In 2001, Time magazine featured Jakes's picture on its cover with the provocative question: "Is This Man the Next Billy Graham?" Though the secular media often compares him to Graham, Jakes has a unique style that combines the flavor of a fiery country preacher with that of a motivational speaker. He tackles issues facing many urban communities, such as black-on-black crime, absentee fathers, and spouse abuse. In Dallas, his church works with homeless people and prostitutes and has a thriving prison ministry.

With his varied interests, Jakes has become a true Renaissance man. He is a songwriter, a playwright, and performer. He has authored 30 best-selling books (including a novel), founded a record label, produced a Grammy award-winning album, and launched a theater and movie production company which last year released a critically acclaimed film version of his popular book and play Woman, Thou Art Loosed! Hollywood took notice when the movie went on to gross a respectable amount at the box office.

The Pentecostal preacher has been called a marketing genius. Though some have questioned whether he sometimes stretches the line too far between the secular and the spiritual, the bishop offers no apologies, explaining that it is necessary to be "multidimensional." Adapting the gospel message to a variety of forms is crucial to reaching today's culture, he says.

"I understand the importance of drama and storytelling," he said in an interview with Today's Christian. "I think they bring an important perspective to ministry, and for me this is harmonious with preaching. As preachers, we are engaged in storytelling every Sunday, sharing the story of the Good News of who Christ is, and dramatizing those words so people can experience them."

Cultural bridge-builder
Though a Pentecostal preacher by heritage, Jakes's appeal extends across the evangelical spectrum and far into secular pop culture. He has forged ministry relationships with both Bill Gaither and Max Lucado. "There seems to be in T. D. Jakes's body of thought something that bridges ethnic [and denominational] differences," observed former Publishers Weekly religion editor Phyllis Tickle in Christianity Today. "That he has managed to do that with commercial success is very significant."

Jakes generally ignores critics who question the soundness of his theology. (He's been accused of everything from "prosperity" teachings to therapeutic psychobabble.) But he's very clear on what he believes: that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is relevant not only for our spiritual salvation but for all the issues we face in contemporary life.

"We're commanded by the Scriptures to deny the flesh from having control and allowing Christ to rule," he told TC. "But we often struggle to see who is going to reign. That's the reality we grapple with each day. Having the freedom to acknowledge that-and making the commitment to mature through it-is what [my ministry] is all about."

Adapted from the Chicago Tribune (July 6, 2004). © 2004 Chicago Tribune. Used by permission. With additional reporting by Today's Christian.

Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.
Click here for reprint information.

January/February 2005, Vol. 43, No. 1, 42

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