Megachurch star preachers packing ’em in
A growing roster of out-of-town reverends are fueling one of the newest trends to hit old-time religion: frequent-flier pastors who jet around the country delivering megaservices.
In New York, the reverends play in university facilities and venues not normally associated with sermons.
The Rev. Creflo Dollar, who wears custom-made suits and preaches about prosperity – the material and spiritual kind – flies in weekly from Atlanta, to headline mostly at The Theater at Madison Square Garden.
The Rev. Frederick K.C. Price, one of the earliest African-American televangelists, purchased the Church of Scientology building on Central Park West and 96th St. three years ago. The leader of the Crenshaw Christian Center takes the red-eye from Los Angeles once a month.
And the Rev. Brian Moll, of Naperville, Ill., has a brand-new church at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center that has been drawing an intimate crowd of the city’s hipsters with alternative Christian rock music and edgy videos.
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These nondenominational preachers are attracting newcomers to religion with messages that speak to their everyday concerns: love, money and happiness in the big city.
Experts say the trend is a modern-day version of the ancient missionary mandate embraced by most religions.
“Jesus said to ‘go into all the world’ to spread his good news,” said Warren Bird, a researcher with Leadership Network, a religion think tank and consulting firm in Rockland County. “And Jesus’ followers have been doing so ever since.”
The pastors see an untapped market of people who are without a regular house of worship in the Big Apple, Bird added.
But Scott Thumma, a professor at the Hartford Seminary and an expert on megachurches, said he finds it hard to imagine why a New Yorker would want a senior pastor who lives across the country.
“That’s not my idea of church,” he said. “But part of the thinking here is that anybody that’s on television several times a week has to have more credibility than the pastor down the street.”
Part Billy Graham, P. Diddy
On Saturdays, the Rev. Creflo Dollar of Georgia flies into town on his private jet to tend to his hand-waving, singing and dancing flock – all 5,000 of them.
Described as part Billy Graham, part P. Diddy, Dollar has been doing this for a year now – driven, he says, by a divine force that told him to preach in the melting pot of New York.
“God is leading me to do it,” said Dollar, 43, the youthful leader of the College Park, Ga.-based religious empire known as World Changers Church. “It has just really become a love affair with the people of New York.”
His name flashes on the electronic marquee over The Theater at Madison Square Garden, which he rents for about $100,000 a month. Churchgoers are greeted by smiling ushers who hand over blue envelopes for tithes.
Citing Scripture after Scripture, Dollar encourages those in attendance to give cheerfully. And they do. Thousands vigorously wave their check and cash-filled envelopes in the air, hooting and hollering. Dark-suited men – equipped with ear-listening devices – collect the envelopes with buckets.
Rewards in life “will come when you begin to give what’s of value to you,” Dollar said at a recent service.
World Changers Church-New York celebrated its first-year anniversary at the Garden on Oct. 22. Members from Connecticut to New Jersey to Brooklyn say they are excited to have Dollar in the city.
Paula Schulzki, 35, of Washington Heights, said Dollar’s sermons deal with practical life matters: how to communicate with people by showing love and respect, how to eliminate negative thinking, how to land a promotion or a new job.
Maurice Luke, 33, said his prayers were answered when Dollar started preaching locally.
“I had thought about moving to Atlanta for World Changers,” said Luke, a Jersey City resident who plays keyboard in the choir. “I was spiritually bored up here – I wanted something different.”
More than a preacher
After finishing the graveyard shift at 7 a.m., Judith Synclair drove from Westchester to Crenshaw Christian Center East on a Sunday in November to see her idol in the flesh.
The nursing assistant, who lives in the Bronx, had been watching the Rev. Frederick K.C. Price for 10 years on television. She rejoiced when she learned that Price comes to New York once a month to hold Bible study on Thursdays and services on Sundays.
“He’s not so much a preacher, he’s a teacher,” said Synclair, 51, who stood in line for 20 minutes to get Price to autograph copies of the several books he has authored. “He’s made me a more positive person. I understand the Bible better.”
The 73-year-old pastor, who has had a TV ministry since 1978, called his sermon “The Power of Positive Confession.” In a dark pinstriped suit and a fuchsia-and-black silk tie, he talked about how the depth of a Christian’s faith can determine certain outcomes in his or her life.
“If you don’t like your circumstances, then change your confessions,” said Price, whose ministry has 27,000 members nationwide. “When you pray, you believe that you receive.”
Stanley Johnson, of Mastic, L.I., the head usher at Crenshaw Christian Center East, cannot get enough of Price. He’s been a follower since the 1980s.
“You were taught as a youngster that you need to go to church, you need to be good in order to go to heaven,” said Johnson, who owns his own construction company on Long Island. “Nowhere did they tell you that God’s promises were for now, that we should live a prosperous life right here on Earth. He’s made the Scriptures come alive for me.”
Message for the youthful
The video that the Rev. Brian Moll showed to his congregation on a Sunday in October depicted a young man given a choice on how to lead his life:
He’s presented with a dollar bill and told he can hand it out to the needy or keep it for himself. The drug-addicted man chooses to roll up the bill and snort lines of cocaine with it.
“You see, you and I have an option,” said Moll, 31, who sports a soul patch, “to be a voice or to be silent.”
Visuals, poetry and alternative music dominate the two hour-long services held Sunday mornings at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center.
Moll’s three-month-old congregation, called the Forefront Church, is an offshoot of the Naperville-based Community Christian Church. Founded by the Rev. Dave Ferguson, the church has in recent years begun to set up “franchises” mostly around Chicago.
At a recent service, a young woman read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”
“It’s really not about exporting something from Chicago – it’s about making it indigenous to New York,” Ferguson said.
Moll said he wants to address his mostly twenty- and thirtysomething congregants’ most pressing issues: coming up with the rent money and having sex.
Whitney Green, 23, who participates in the church’s “Girls’ Night Out,” said she feels right at home. “It’s contemporary – it applies to my life,” said Green, who is an assistant producer of commercials and lives in Astoria. “It’s different here. Everyone is so nice.”