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African-American Churches Weigh Gospel Debate


The rise of so-called megachurches in the African-American community has helped draw tens of thousands of people back to religion. But some traditional black pastors find the growth of these churches, with their huge congregations, worrisome. They say that their leaders focus on messages of personal prosperity, and they're turning their backs on the civil rights struggle. From Atlanta, Joshua Levs has this report.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

Every week congregants pack the 8,500-seat World Changers Church in College Park, Georgia, just south of Atlanta.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) And the world changes. Destined to change the world everywhere I go. The changes...

LEVS: Millions tune in on TV or online to see charismatic Pastor Creflo Dollar deliver sermons, such as this one called "The Gateway to this Power."

(Soundbite of sermon)

Pastor CREFLO DOLLAR (World Changers Church): When you're in a business meeting and they don't know what to do about it, Holy Ghost's power are going to be on you. And when you show up with a suggestion, promotion's going to have to show up at the same time. Get ready. The Power of God's about to hit your life.

LEVS: It's called prosperity gospel, messages focusing on helping individuals succeed sometimes in terms of relationships or their health but often in terms of jobs and money. Pastor Dollar says he's preaching in a way that helps give people strength to lift themselves up.

Pastor DOLLAR: By taking the principles of the Word and setting it up in a practical way, then you can change the way people think through training, and you have a better person at the end of the day.

LEVS: One of them is 35-year-old congregant Jeff McGee(ph).

Mr. JEFF McGEE (Congregant): When I heard Pastor Dollar minister, I was like, `Man, this guy has all this zeal and enthusiasm.' So that's what initially grabbed my attention. And through that, I began to listen and apply what I heard to my life, and ultimately it made a mark in my life that could not be erased.

LEVS: He says he gave up drugs, got a good job in television production and built a family. There are many others like him in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, where megachurches attract thousands of worshipers to sanctuaries that look like amphitheaters. Over the last several years dozens more have sprung up. There have always been huge churches in America, but these preaching prosperity gospel to African-Americans are reaching unprecedented numbers, partly through TV, radio and the Internet. They're also drawing heated criticism from pastors who say they're making religion about money.

Reverend OTIS MOSS (Tabernacle Baptist Church): The televangelists are presenting a prosperity gospel, where they're promoting a Jesus that is more like a cosmic bellhop, vs. a Christ that is engaging in the current issues.

LEVS: Otis Moss is head of the 1,800-member Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia.

Rev. MOSS: That's a real challenge because it's very media-driven ministries are that developing right now.

LEVS: Moss was among about 800 African-American ministers from various denominations who came together at a meeting in Atlanta to talk about what's missing from megachurches. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, also attended. He said the megachurch services help middle-class people feel good about their own success without pressuring them to take action on larger, more complicated problems.

Pastor JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Trinity United Church of Christ): Make me feel good. I'm going back out into another week to make some more money, and my face stops at the door.

LEVS: Wright said it's a good show, but it doesn't address what he and others at the conference consider critical social justice issues.

Pastor WRIGHT: What are you doing about--why is there hunger? What are you doing to change the laws? It's nice to have a wonderful service and to bring in big stars. You know, they sing, light candles and cry--"We Are the World," "That's What Friends Are For." But we haven't done anything about AIDS.

LEVS: The event that drew these ministers together was called the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference named for the late leader of a major Baptist church in New York, who also helped lead numerous civic organizations. Participants said they address issues like AIDS, poverty and the war in Iraq in their sermons, and some of them draw several thousand congregants. But organizers fear they're losing congregants to the attractive world of prosperity gospel. Frederick Haynes is senior pastor of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas.

Pastor FREDERICK HAYNES (Friendship West Baptist Church): There is no continuance of the legacy left by Martin Luther King Jr. and that kind of faith expression that if it had not been for that faith expression, we wouldn't have a middle class that we have right now.

LEVS: Heads of megachurches dispute these complaints. T.D. Jakes, pastor of the 35,000-member Potter's House in Dallas, says he offers messages of economic empowerment precisely because he's working to fix social ills by reaching out to poor people.

Pastor T.D. JAKES (Potter's House): In the inner city we have people who are dealing with issues: how to get out of debt, how to manage their family, how to survive the vicissitudes of life. It is not enough to serve them theologically if we don't serve them socially, and it is to that ends that I minister to serve my community.

LEVS: His church runs a prison ministry and works with women in shelters. Pastor Dollar of World Changers Church says he pushes voter registration and recorded public service announcements to help combat the spread of AIDS. But Dollar says he chooses not to use the pulpit to push a civil rights agenda.

Pastor DOLLAR: When I get on the pulpit, there are too many people that are hurting and dying for me to push another agenda. That's the time for me to push the Word of God. My instructions from God is to teach the Word with simplicity and with understand. Now another guy may get the instruction, `Now you need to kind of take this issue of government and use it in your sermon.' Amen. Do what you've been called to do.

LEVS: He says he does touch on some social justice issues, and the pastors at the Atlanta conference say they sometimes address personal prosperity. It's a matter of emphasis, a difference that has always existed among African-American churches. In a sense, the different churches cater to different camps. Some attract parishioners like 50-year-old social worker Tony Graves(ph), who says churches must still lead the civil rights struggle.

Mr. TONY GRAVES (Parishioner): Oh, most definitely. Church is actually the only institution that we own and control and direct in the community.

LEVS: He attends Atlanta's First Iconium Baptist Church, which is active on numerous issues.

Mr. GRAVES: Decent housing, education, fair employment, justice in the justice system, decency in the economic distribution of wealth. If there's a good pastor of a church and he knows his flock, I mean, he's always reminded that those issues are more prevalent now.

LEVS: Jeff McGee of World Chargers Church says as he was growing up, his pastor was very involved with the NAACP and civil rights. But it wasn't until he heard Pastor Creflo Dollar that he felt the Gospel could really affect his life.

Mr. McGEE: It's the simplicity and understanding, breaking the Word of God down to a practical and effective manner, where you can take what you heard from church--take it home with you, apply it in your everyday life and see the results.

(Soundbite of ambient noise)

LEVS: The challenge for the pastors who gathered in Atlanta is to attract more people like Jeff McGee. They say with many civil rights battles already won, more church-goers today are focused on financial success. So these pastors need to demonstrate how their social justice messages apply on an individual level. Organizer Iva Carruthers.

Ms. IVA CARRUTHERS (Organizer): There has been an increasing difficult to get the word of those churches who have really maintained a focus on the justice agenda to be a voice. And so we have to come together in the context of 21st century technology and revisit: How do we continue to maintain our voice?

LEVS: She says to do that, these churches need to take a page out of the megachurches' book and harness the opportunities of TV, radio and the Internet. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Lev in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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