T.D. Jakes may lead a Dallas mega-church, but that’s not all he does.
ATLANTA – He’s only a half-hour into his sermon on an early August evening, but T.D. Jakes has already sweated through his six-button, double-breasted, pinstriped suit. He’s pacing like a panther.
“How many of you have come expecting a blessing tonight?” he bellows, his voice reverberating throughout the Georgia Dome, while his image is projected on 10 big screens and simulcast to Jamaica, China, Canada and prisons all over the United States. “Oh, get ready, get ready, get ready!” the preacher shouts, using his sermonic catch phrase, whipping 50,000 faithful into a glorifying frenzy. “Get ready, get ready, get ready!”
Jakes is stirring up the atmosphere at MegaFest, his four-day festival that combines secular and spiritual workshops and activities and draws 150,000 people here each summer. With each sermon comes a visceral understanding of Jakes’ appeal and why he is regarded as one of the most electrifying evangelical ministers preaching today.
Equal parts therapist, author, motivational speaker, existentialist philosopher and CEO, Jakes, 48, serves as senior pastor and founder of the Potter’s House, a 30,000-member mega-church in southwest Dallas. He reaches millions more through his television shows on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and BET, and he is the best-selling author of more than 30 books on such topics as financial management and weight loss.
He has been a pastor for 29 years, and has presided over a mega-church since 1994.
– Concerns About The Teachings Of T.D. Jakes
Jakes lives with wife Serita and their five children in a Dallas mansion, complete with an indoor swimming pool and bowling alley. His message and his skill in conveying that message in a number of ways has made him a role model for black evangelical ministers.
“What makes Jakes powerful is that he’s willing to address so many social issues that traditional churches would not address,” says Milmon F. Harrison, a professor at the University of California-Davis and author of Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion. “He combines tradition and contemporary. He may be preaching like an old-school preacher in a zoot suit, but he doesn’t tell women, ‘If your husband is beating you, you have to stay with him because the Lord doesn’t like divorce.’ He says, ‘No, you don’t.’ “
Foremost among the preacher’s gifts is his ability to tap into pop culture to deliver his message of self-empowerment. In 1998, Jakes signed a seven-figure deal with Putnam Publishing Group, and he has since built T.D. Jakes Enterprises into a media empire. His books, DVDs and CDs have made millions and have given him the luxurious lifestyle worthy of a corporate executive.
And while some accuse Jakes of being driven by the dollar and not the divine – his transportation stable consists of a Mercedes-Benz, a Bentley, a BMW, a Lexus and a jet – his socially compassionate ministry receives mostly praise.
Time magazine, which hailed Jakes as “America’s Best Preacher” in a 2001 cover story, compared him to America’s venerable evangelist, Billy Graham. But Graham, 86, never received a Grammy nomination or acted in a film (Woman Thou Art Loosed) he produced. And it’s a safe bet that Graham has never declared “It’s about to get crunk up in here!” as Jakes did before thousands of hyped-up teens during MegaFest’s youth kickoff celebration.
“Jakes speaks the language of 21st-century America,” says Shayne Lee, a professor at Tulane University and author of T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher. “He’s written books about losing weight and financial prosperity. He acts in movies and has written a play.” All of which goes to show, Lee says, that Jakes is “profoundly American and profoundly postmodern… . He didn’t intend to be a preacher. He intended to be a cultural phenomenon.”
The preacher describes his ascension differently. “I didn’t go to Dallas to pastor a mega-church,” he said recently during a talk to the National Association of Black Journalists. “My first accountability was to the God who called me to preach in the first place.” He added that his overwhelming success was “something I couldn’t have predicted. The first Sunday I preached, 1,500 people joined.”
Thomas Dexter Jakes was born in Charleston, W.Va. The son of a janitor, young Tommy began preaching by practicing his sermons for the squirrels. Neighbors nicknamed him “Bible boy” because he was always carrying one. Facing ridicule from his peers for being “too Christian,” he dropped out of high school at 17 to answer the call.
During the late 1970s and early ’80s, Jakes and Serita struggled to keep their storefront church in Montgomery, W.Va., afloat: “We’d clean the church after the service and tape the handles back on the church fans – you know, the ones with a picture of Mahalia Jackson on one side and Martin Luther King on the other,” he recalls, chuckling.
But even then he had departed from traditional black-church emphasis on doctrine and dogma. Instead, Jakes created a needs-based, spiritual message that deemphasized eternal salvation and focused on a therapeutic gospel for people who were suffering from sexual, physical and emotional abuse, as well as struggling with finances and low self-esteem. It was the sermon he preached at the 1993 Azuza Conference titled “Woman Thou Art Loosed” for women coping with molestation, divorce and depression that got him instant recognition.
“Woman Thou Art Loosed,” based on a Sunday School curriculum Jakes taught in his West Virginia storefront, became its own franchise, spawning a best-selling book, a stage play, a Grammy-nominated CD, a national conference and a film starring Kimberly Elise and – who else? – Jakes.
Even though Jakes runs 50 outreach ministries that provide life skills via satellite to more than 300,000 prison inmates, his easy access into the secular world coupled with his enjoyment of the good life leaves him open to blasts from critics.
A 1995 Charleston Gazette editorial accused Jakes of not obeying the biblical example of living humbly: “Christians and especially ministers should set an example and not live like kings… . The love of money is the root of all evil.”
Indeed, during MegaFest’s kickoff, Jakes mentioned his sponsors more than he mentioned God. During the worship service, dozens of Potter’s House ushers sprinted throughout the Georgia Dome, collecting purple duffel bags full of money and checks made out to T.D. Jakes Enterprises.
The pastor says his income comes from his media enterprises, not from church tithes. And he dismisses such questions as having racist overtones. “Nonblack church leaders are never called to task,” he says. He does allow that operating the Potter’s House demands all of the resources it takes to run a small city. The air-conditioning system alone cost $4 million to install, Jakes says.
“We have 400 full-time employees who all have competitive salaries and benefit packages. We conduct five worship services on Sunday and average 400 funerals a year, and we have to provide flowers and food for those funerals,” he says. “If I didn’t pray before, God knows I know how to pray now.”
On this sultry night at the Georgia Dome, Jakes is doing a lot more than praying. He’s strutting, shouting, signifying, reciting Scripture and bringing souls to Christ with a gut-honest message of hope, empowerment, prosperity and forgiveness.
The preacher then closes his eyes and looks to the heavens: “Oh, I believe God is going to move in a supernatural way tonight. Look over to your neighbor and say, ‘Expect me to do anything tonight!’ “
To read other articles in the Kingdom Come series on the evangelical movement, go to http://go.philly.com/religion