T.D. Jakes Feels Your Pain
Though critics question his theology, this fiery preacher packs arenas with a message of emotional healing.
February 7, 2000
Getting to Potter's House for Sunday-morning worship is no mean feat. Lines of cars spiral around the sprawling South Dallas estate, and the uninformed onlooker might think folks are trying to find parking for a football game, not a church service. Somewhere in the middle of the seemingly endless row of cars, one couple holds a tailgate party: ignition off, beach chairs unfolded on the side of the road, plates heaped with fried chicken and potato salad.
Before 1996, many of the churchgoers now tapping their fingers impatiently on their steering wheels would have been in bed sleeping late on a Sunday morning. But then Bishop T. D. Jakes, his wife Serita, and an energetic staff of 50 arrived from West Virginia and set up shop on property that had previously housed televangelist W. V. Grant's Eagle's Nest Family Church. The Jakeses christened their new church Potter's House—after Jeremiah's description of God as a potter who puts broken vessels back together—and the crowds started coming. Today Jakes holds three services every Sunday morning, with over 23,000 faithful filling the sanctuary and the overflow room, clapping and singing and worshiping. Each Sunday, middle-class crowds join men straight from prison and single moms trying to hold a family of five together on a shoestring income. They have come to find the Lord at Potter's House. Last year The New York Times included Jakes in its list of the five preachers likely to succeed Billy Graham. "Bishop Jakes has blessed us," says Freda Lindsay, cofounder of Dallas-based Christ for the Nations. "He is the biggest thing to happen to Christians in Texas in a long time. He might be the biggest thing to happen to Christians in a long time."
Jakes stays busy as an author, musician, and entrepreneur. He bangs out another bestselling book on his laptop computer, composes tunes for his next gospel CD, meets with right-hand man Nat Tate about the City of Refuge (which Jakes has launched to jump-start the strained economy of South Dallas), and cruises the Web with iFriendly.com, the "family friendly" Internet service provider Jakes is behind. Or, if Serita has anything to say about it, he might relax in his eight-bedroom mansion with their five children. The sales figures for his books indicate just how big Jakes is. Woman, Thou Art Loosed!—which sold more than 1.25 million copies through Destiny Image, a tiny charismatic-owned press—led to a seven-figure contract with the giant Putnam Publishing Group. The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord (1998), his first book for Putnam, immediately rose to the top of the bestseller lists. His latest, Maximize the Moment: God's Action Plan for Your Life, may repeat that achievement. Jakes seems to have forged a new mainstream market for African-American Christian books.
Phyllis Tickle, religion contributor for Publishers Weekly, says Jakes is the most important phenomenon in religious publishing in recent years. "He has managed to pierce the religious bestseller lists in both secular and religious magazines," Tickle says. "For Putnam to pick him up and for the general population to pick him up is remarkable. There seems to be in T. D. Jakes's body of thought something that bridges ethnic differences. That he has managed to do that with commercial success is very significant."
Jakes, 42, cuts an imposing figure. (It used to be even more imposing: You can read about his 100-pound weight loss in his 1997 dieting book, Lay Aside the Weight.) His stately baritone would probably get your attention if he were doing no more than reciting the Yellow Pages.
But Jakes does have something to say. Though detractors have claimed that, in the words of Gertrude Stein, there is no there there, Jakes insists that underneath the celebrity hype is a plain, simple gospel message.
Not too long ago, Thomas Dexter Jakes toiled in West Virginian obscurity. He preached at Pentecostal churches when he could but put bread on the table by sweating out the swing shift in Charleston's Union Carbide plant. When the plant closed in 1982, he began digging ditches, still preaching when he could find a pulpit that would have him. Soon, he took on a full-time pastorate at Greater Emanuel Temple of Faith, a storefront church in Montgomery, West Virginia, which relocated to Charles ton in 1990. It was there, in a Sunday-school class, that Jakes began to develop his trademark "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!" message.
One curiosity is this thoroughly masculine figure's ability to deliver a message that has such appeal to the intimate pains and struggles of women. His ministry niche began as a personal outreach to his wife.
"I was his first 'Woman, Thou Art Loosed!' conference," Serita says, smiling. She enjoys telling how Jakes happened upon his ministry to women. She remembers coming home one evening early in their marriage and sinking onto the apartment floor, exhausted."
I was overwhelmed with all of the roles that I was having to take on at one time," she says. "I asked my husband to step outside our relationship and minister to me. I said, 'I need you to talk to me to help me get my head on straight and give me directions as to what I am supposed to do in life, not just as your wife. Who am I? Who is God calling me to be?'"
That conversation got Jakes thinking about women's needs and problems. "So many women are abused; their self-esteem is stolen," Jakes says.
Helping those women heal became the goal of his Sunday-school class, the best-attended he ever taught. Jakes urged women to let go of their pain and find healing in Jesus. From the class came popular tapes and the third-bestselling Christian book of 1993. Jakes's popularity as a preacher and author led to other high-profile vehicles for his message: national women's and men's conferences and a nationally touring Woman, Thou Art Loosed! play. At a women's conference in Atlanta last July, Jakes attracted over 84,000 people, breaking the Georgia Dome's 78,000-person record attendance set by Billy Graham in 1994. Like Faulkner claiming never to have read Shakespeare, Jakes says he does not have time to read anything other than the Bible. But his message about women and healing bears a marked resemblance to many secular books in the self-help and pop-psychology sections of your local bookstore. Take his teachings about the effects of childhood abuse: "Many women in this country are bowed down under the weight and pressure that comes from deep, dark secrets and traumas," he writes in "Bent Babies Make Broken Ladies," a chapter from The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord. "Events of long ago permanently alter these women; the wounds might not be fresh, but the scars last a lifetime and never completely heal. … The mangled heart of an abused woman looks much like a torn cloth doll. The fragile tissue of a tender little girl is torn into shreds that continue to unravel into her adult life."
"Jakes has caught a pop-psychology wave, and that explains a lot of his popularity," says Deborah Kovach Caldwell, who covered the preacher's ministry when she was a religion reporter at The Dallas Morning News. "He's the perfect preacher for [today's society]. He taps into the recovery movement, he's appealing to a multiracial audience, and he's a Pentecostal pastor who preaches with intensity."
That Jakes has also been theologically flexible may be another reason for his widespread appeal. Though he is a bishop with Higher Ground Always Abounding Assemblies—a black Oneness Pentecostal denomination teaching doctrines that would trouble many evangelicals [see "Apologetics Journal Criticizes Jakes," p. 58]—his books and tapes are distributed widely in evangelical circles.
The Assemblies of God expelled Oneness Pentecostals in 1917 because of conflicts on two issues. First, Oneness Pentecostals pushed a different wording of baptism. Citing Acts 2:38, they insisted that people should baptize only in Jesus' name. Second, they developed a theology that many evangelicals would say is akin to the heresy of monism: that the Godhead is only Jesus—the Son trumps both the Father and the Spirit.
Jakes says he respects his roots and doesn't want to eschew them just because of his celebrity status, but he no longer emphasizes his denominational ties, and many of his closest ministry colleagues come from different theological perspectives. Though many Oneness Pentecostals continue to follow him, Jakes has expanded his theological language to include a more Trinitarian view of the Godhead. When you can pin him down, he'll say he usually baptizes in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, though he admits when he's with Oneness folks, he will baptize in Jesus' name alone.
Some observers, like Charisma editor J. Lee Grady, note that African-American Oneness groups are not as "strident or exclusive" as the predominantly white United Pentecostal Church. Still, one wonders whether Jakes's theological changes reflect genuine convictions, or an attempt to reach a broader audience.
Jakes's core audience clearly has no qualms about the man's doctrinal ambiguities. For his admirers, whether Jakes invokes the Trinity or the name of Christ alone when baptizing has little to do with the heart of his message of inner healing and empowerment.
The gravy on his grits
When asked to explain how Jakes has attracted so many female fans, his parishioners usually credit Serita. P'Gail Betton, a member of Potter's House, says Jakes is popular with women because of the way he praises his wife. "I am a divorced mother of a 7-year-old," she says, "and I like to see a man who loves his wife. Bishop Jakes hardly ever gives a sermon where he doesn't talk about how wonderful his wife is. Every woman wants to see a man doing that."
Serita Jakes—who published her first book, The Princess Within, last July—contributes to Potter's House in her own right. "She's the butter in my biscuit. She's the gravy on my grits," Jakes says of his wife, known as the First Lady to the 18,000 members of Potter's House. "She's essential to the running of this place."
After hearing Jakes preach at his Montgomery church, Serita began pursuing him with "secret pal cards." The couple dated for six months before marrying in 1981. Serita says her "central ministry has always been to undergird him in whatever I was needed to do at that time."
Like her husband, Mrs. Jakes is interested in ministering to women. Figuring out how to connect with the women at Potter's House has been a challenge. "We have almost 12,000 women in our congregation," she says. "And I found that it was difficult to give them me, which was what I was accustomed to doing in our smaller churches, where I could put the women's ministry in my back yard and have a huge picnic. … Now it's virtually impossible. But I needed them to see me, not just the stage personality, but to just see who I really was on the inside."
So Serita developed her Woman- to-Woman ministry. "I wanted to establish relationships. I find that women often have a problem identifying and relating to women. We're often intimidated by one another. We're often very critical of one another. I wanted to rip the veil and just deal with women relationally—mother-daughter, sister to sister."
Woman-to-Woman comprises programs for women at all stages of life. Occupying most of Serita Jakes's recent attention is her Debutante Program, a mentoring ministry open to teenagers with an academic average of B or better. The program was inspired by Isaiah 47:7: "And thou saidest, I shall be a lady forever." Serita, who describes herself as a "sissy" and a "fluff," says she has always enjoyed curls and lace. Her brow furrows as she talks about girls who dress either in baggy jeans or hip-hugging, skimpy Spandex. Serita wants to instill "a sense of femininity, an awareness of who they are as young ladies."
As part of her program, she treats each girl to a manicure and pedicure and buys each one a suit, usually something cream-colored with lace or pearls on it. She also teaches the "debs" table-setting skills and etiquette, taking them out to fine restaurants to practice their expertise. But the Debutante Program goes beyond the sartorial and culinary. Serita works hard to instill chastity in the debs, who must make a commitment to save sex until marriage. Each girl receives a Bible with her name inscribed on it, which Serita hopes the girls will read and cherish long after the cream suits wear out.
Too much style?
The Jakeses' emphasis on nice clothes and fine restaurants has set them up for a lot of criticism. Pointing to his flashy wardrobe, Mercedes-Benz, and $1.7 million house, critics charge that Jakes is in it for the money. Worse, they say he is peddling a prosperity gospel, teaching his parishioners that they can get rich too, as long as they're on God's good side. Evangelist John Perkins, for example, says he is "hesitant about the prosperity theology" that he senses in Jakes. "That type of thinking can be very dangerous to black people at a very critical time. I question whether this will be healthy for our community in the long run, or whether it's just a fad."
Eugene Rivers, the outspoken preacher and activist in Dorchester, Massachusetts, shares those concerns. "I want to know what the end game is beyond wealth accumulation and marketing," he says.
Rivers credits Jakes with being a brilliant marketer: "His genius is that he has pushed merchandising and marketing to a new level of sophistication within the black community." But Rivers worries that there's no substance behind all the shiny salesmanship.
Nor is Rivers convinced that the "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!" phenomenon is anything more than "a sanctified version of Teddy Pendergrass's women's-only thing. Jakes takes pop psychology and wraps it in Barry White love daddy soft talk. It's an irresistible marketing device."
Rivers wonders not only about the lasting effect on the body of Christ, but also about the message Jakes sends to African Americans about wealth. He is concerned that Jakes is only "promoting black middle-class consumerism. He is not offering black Christians a developed sense of biblical justice, like we got from [Martin Luther] King. The prophetic dimension of biblical faith is absent from Jakes's teaching."
T. D. Jakes has to move beyond being an upscale, monogrammed ministry to build a movement that revolves around something other than the latest flavor-of-the-month, fairly standard charismatic preacher," Rivers says. "If he fails to do that, he will saturate his own market and be tossed into the dustbin, as a new, more streamlined version of his gig overtakes him."
But such harsh critiques may be misinformed. A peek inside Potter's House on a Sunday morning reveals that Jakes's preaching is far more substantive than "name it and claim it."
Preaching and reaching
Members of Potter's House are dressed to the nines, toting children and Bibles, and crowding into the sanctuary. Jakes announces that he will continue his sermon series on prayer. The text is from John: "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you."
Certainly this could be the basis for a disconcerting message: If you ask for riches, for a husband, for a secure job, and a three-bedroom house, you'll receive it. The cynical observer expecting a prosperity message might quit listening right then. But Jakes teaches a much harder lesson. For him, the important words in the passage are "if ye abide in me." Abiding in God means being in his will. God's will, Jakes asserts, is often not the same as our own. Our task in prayer is not to wheedle and bargain and try to get God's will in line with ours, but to get our will in line with his. "You cannot pray trying to win his favor," he preaches. "You have to pray in his favor."
Jesus may not give you what you want, Jakes says, because Jesus' role is not giving us stuff or making us happy all the time. Our whole notion of good is scrambled, he suggests. Good is not a Jag, a pair of Nikes, a high-paying job. Good is God's will. Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher, and "every time he takes you through something he's teaching you." Sometimes you may beg him to take you out of a lesson—you may ask him to shorten the prison sentence, get you a raise at work, take away your tumor, send Mr. Right your way. "But Jesus," Jakes thunders, "is not done with the lesson yet." You are going to sit in that lesson until God is through teaching you. It's not exactly a prosperity-gospel sermon.
Jakes knows he can preach. He also knows, however, that a sermon is just a sermon. "It comes down to what we can do for people's lives," he says, and he apparently practices what he preaches.
When Jakes is not preparing sermons, writing books, or cutting records, he is developing a variety of social programs to help the down and out. There is the usual assortment of youth programs, literacy tutoring, domestic-violence ministries, and aids outreach. In the homeless ministry, volunteers not only deliver food and blankets, but also pick people up for church on Sundays and offer them a shower and job-skills counseling. Raven's Refuge helps prostitutes who want to leave their trade.
Jakes also began a prison ministry, which has garnered him more acclaim than all the other efforts put together. Jakes began preaching in the prisons, then sending books and tapes. Now 630 prison chaplains across the country rely on his ministry to provide tapes, books, and Bibles. Jakes has struck deals with 22 state governments to install satellite-receiver dishes, provided by his ministry, for prisons to receive his broadcasts.
He got involved with prisons, Jakes says, because he thought he could short circuit the cycle of hopelessness and crime. He worried that black prisoners in particular would not be open to a message of hope and restoration coming from white preachers and ministers. He says that white evangelicals "have been going [into prisons] very faithfully—more faithfully than we have. I'm embarrassed that African Amer icans have not been more evangelistic behind prison walls." But ultimately there are places white evangelicals "cannot go."
"They need to send us," Jakes says. "We have the key to the community. [White Christians] need to partner with those of us who can [speak the language]."
The results of the prison ministry are powerful. Often inmates released from jail will use their last few dollars for bus fare to Dallas. They show up at the doors of Potter's House, saying Jakes turned their spiritual lives around; now they just need to turn the rest of their lives around.
Building a refuge
Helping ex-prisoners and others get on their feet is the focus of the economic redevelopment program that Jakes says is at the heart of his ministry.
The drive from North Dallas to South Dallas is startling, like crossing from Manhattan's chic Upper West Side into Harlem—only more pronounced. According to Jakes, every year $1 billion leaves South Dallas and goes to North Dallas.
Looking out the windows of Potter's House, you won't see the boutiques and bistros that crowd the streets of North Dallas. Nor will you spot the Tony homes, the schools bursting with shiny technology. You will see the groundwork for the City of Refuge, the crown of Jakes's social ministry.
The City of Refuge is not designed primarily to bring people to Christ, Jakes explains. "We want them to have a spiritual experience, but we also want them to have a home to go to and to be able to eat once in it."
When it's finished, the City of Refuge will boast an entire campus of spiritual and economic resources for the community. One building will be devoted to pregnant teenagers, whom Jakes's assistant Nat Tate, in a quaint throwback to the 1950s, refers to as "girls in trouble." Next door will be a home for the elderly. Across the way will be a private K-12 school. Project 2000 will also boast a preschool, a retreat center, a youth ministry called gear (Generation Economics Academics Restoration), and a performing-arts center, the future home of plays, chamber-music concerts, and a symphony. "South Dallas needs that kind of exposure to culture," says Tate. "And the ballet needs to come here."
The centerpiece of the City of Refuge will be what the folks at Potter's House call the "business incubator": local people can come to this educational facility to take a series of classes on business and management. Those who make it through the extensive training can present a business plan. If City of Refuge leaders deem the plan viable, they will help the budding entrepreneurs improve wardrobes, sharpen interviewing skills, and apply at the bank for a loan.
Jakes is confident his plan will work, and he is willing to give anyone a shot, regardless of years spent in prison or pushing drugs. In fact, former drug dealers are some of his favorite prospects. "If you're pushing drugs on the street and you're any good at it, that means you are a skilled salesman," he explains. "What we want to do is take that skill and turn it around." Former pushers could manufacture and sell their own shoes, or computer parts, or bath towels.
Jakes's plan has already borne fruit. Take Paul, a former drug dealer who accepted Christ shortly after Potter's House opened its doors. Turning his skills to a "positive market," Jakes helped Paul set up his own nursery. Last year Paul grossed over $1 million selling trees, not heroin. Nat Tate, a compact, fiery man, talks about Paul with pride, then adds, "We are firm believers that those who have the wealth aren't going to give it up. We have to develop our own wealth." Eugene Rivers remains skeptical. While he commends Jakes's concern for the economic plight of the black working class, he says the preacher's vision is "manifestly insufficient."
"Bishop Jakes fails to offer a coherent and integrated understanding of economic reality," Rivers says, arguing that Jakes lacks a biblical vision of socioeconomic justice. Still other critics remain suspicious of the health-wealth overtones they detect in his language and lifestyle. Jakes doesn't pay much attention to the hecklers. Yes, he encourages people to earn money, build a nest egg, and buy nice clothes if that's how they want to spend their disposable income. But look at the context, he says: "I have to talk about economic empowerment because it is a reality for my people. Pastor Joe Success at First Suburban Christian Church does not need to preach that message. But I am preaching to men who get out of prison and can't get a job and can't feed their family. They can confess Jesus in their heart, and that's great, but they've got four kids by two different women and their choices are to deal drugs or work at Burger King."
The robust minister defends his own posh lifestyle in similar terms. Black working-class folks, he says, need "believable heroes; we don't need preachers who've taken vows of poverty or who, on the other extreme, are living out of the offering plate. We need a preacher who, through writing or some other honest means, has made the American dream work for him. The American dream has been our nightmare."
Jakes has never hidden his seven-figure publishing deal from his congregants. When he stands before them and talks about his income, he says, he's "not bragging, but offering hope for people who think the only way to get a Mercedes is to do a drug deal."
The City of Refuge's purpose is not just to give his adopted home a shot in the economic arm, but to make black America stronger spiritually. During a trip to Israel last year, Jakes met with a group of rabbis. "I didn't argue with them about Jesus or what I believed versus what they believed," Jakes recalls. Instead, he asked them: "How do you hold a group of people together after centuries of exile and slavery?"
Jakes says he's always looking for ways the church can bring practical solutions and relevance to the black community. He knows the church has been the one institution in society that African Americans trust intuitively, the one place where they can be themselves. This awareness constantly informs his work.
"Ministry is completely different in the African-American community," he says. "The church is everything. We've never had a president, we've only had preachers. So when we look to the preacher, he's the president. Many of us have not had fathers, so he's the daddy we didn't have. We take pride in him in a way white folks don't understand."
Perhaps it's not so surprising, then, that black women have found their pop-psychology guru in the church. As Jakes puts it: "We don't go to counseling, we don't go to therapy, we go to church." Church, he says, has got to be a place of healing. "We don't need to be in some bourgeois church where we are being asked to hide our pain in what God intended to be a hospital."
That's why people at Potter's House are up front about the mistakes they have made and the hardships they have endured, he says. "We need to know that it can be done—economically, spiritually, maritally … by flawed and broken people. Churches that pretend to be full of perfect people will turn [African Americans] off. That kind of stuff estranges our people because they cannot relate to it. They think, 'Oh, I'm ineligible for this, I can't do this,' and they go to something else," be it drugs or the Nation of Islam or a soap opera or a string of lovers."
They need to know that people who've been abused, who've been molested, who've been in jail, who've been ostracized, criticized, and have had a baby by Mary and one by Isabel over here, can come to Christ, not hide who they were, be rehabilitated, become productive, and that God has grace to receive them."
Jakes is right, of course, that his congregation needs to hear this message. But the rest of us need to hear it, too.
Lauren Winner is a staff writer for Christianity Today.
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