texasmonthly.com: You say it is unlikely that anyone “will ever achieve the singular eminence accorded to Billy Graham.” Won’t the future produce supergiants whose broadcasting abilities alone can supersede Graham’s charisma?
William Martin: I did not mean to imply that no one could ever be as able or as dedicated as Billy Graham. In the longer form of this article—there is almost always a longer form before editors convince writers that not every word or phrase is as jewel-like as they had imagined—I had written the following: “The proliferation of megachurches and elaborate parachurch organizations, combined with easy access to varied forms of mass media, make it unlikely that anyone, regardless of talent and commitment, will ever achieve the singular eminence accorded to Billy Graham.” That in itself was a shorthand way of saying that the religious landscape in America is far different than it was when Graham rose to prominence. In the forties, evangelical Christianity, though more widespread than many people recognized, was rather marginal compared with the so-called mainline denominations. It was easier for a single person to stand out. Over the past six decades, however, evangelicalism, often mixed with Pentecostal and charismatic elements, has become so large and diverse, with so many centers of power, that I doubt anyone will ever dominate the religious scene in quite the same way. But, as I had written, that is not to say that there are not people who are just as talented and just as committed as Billy Graham has been. If Billy Graham were just starting out today, I don’t think he could be “the next Billy Graham” either.
texasmonthly.com: Is Potter’s House the Lakewood Church of Dallas? Is Jakes the Joel Osteen of Dallas?
WM: The key difference, of course, which I specifically address in the closing part of the story, is that the Potter’s House is still a predominantly black church, whereas Lakewood attracts approximately equal numbers of African Americans, Anglos, and Hispanics. Jakes and the Potter’s House are certainly open and welcoming to whites and Hispanics, and a fair number belong to the church, but much of the preaching and the diversity of ministries clearly reflect the culture of African Americans and issues particularly relevant to their lives. Bishop Jakes includes a great deal more theology and scripture in his sermons than Joel Osteen does. Pastor Osteen preaches for less than half an hour, in a conversational manner. Bishop Jakes typically preaches for an hour, in the dramatic oratorical style of the best of black preachers. Both churches have a wide range of ministries that address various needs, but the Potter’s House is more directly involved in efforts to encourage what Bishop Jakes calls “economic empowerment.”
texasmonthly.com: How do you think the move from West Virginia to Texas has influenced Jakes?
WM: It has certainly made it easier for him to have a national ministry. The Trinity Broadcasting Network has a facility in the Dallas area, which makes it easier for him to tape his programs. Dallas also offers much better access to air travel. And, as I said in the article, more African Americans live in the Dallas area than in the entire state of West Virginia, which not only affords him a larger potential audience but also provides much broader cultural underpinning. And Anglos, Hispanics, and Asians who are attracted to his message and the church should find it less daunting to enter into a cultural setting that represents approximately one fourth of Dallas residents than into one representing approximately 3 percent of West Virginia. Without wanting to sound parochial, one can think of other advantages Texas might offer to an entrepreneurial, flamboyant go-getter like Bishop Jakes.
texasmonthly.com: You write about “lowering barriers to affiliation” as a key to the success of contemporary churches. Do you see preachers becoming more and more socially liberal, as Jakes has? Where would you place Jakes’s followers politically?
WM: In writing about lowering barriers to affiliation, I was thinking primarily of insisting that people subscribe to denominational creeds and other specific requirements. Many megachurches accept as members people who say they’d like to be members; there may be nothing more to it than that, other than a general affirmation of belief in basic Christian teachings. As for their political leanings, it is probably the case that megachurch pastors range between extremely conservative and politically neutral, with few who could be described as politically liberal. A few, with Rick Warren (author of The Purpose-Driven Life), pastor of the Saddleback Church in California as perhaps the most notable example, have begun to work intensely and effectively on such problems as poverty and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Some may consider that politically liberal; I regard it as intrinsic and inseparable from the practice of biblical religion.
As for Jakes’s followers, most of whom are African American, I expect they reflect the overall pattern: conservative on the number of social issues, including sexual mores and gender roles, but more liberal on economic issues, since economic policies and practices typically characterized as conservative have not generally worked to their advantage.
texasmonthly.com: You seem to agree with biographer Shayne Lee that religion is becoming commoditized. Is megachurch-style consolidation the foreseeable fate of religion, or will people cycle back to small parishes for a more personal connection?
WM: Given the dramatic surge in the growth of megachurches, coupled with their successful incorporation of many of the elements of popular culture, I don’t see any reason to think they are just a passing fad. Many people will always prefer a more intimate setting and, doubtless, some who are now in megachurches will return to something smaller and more personal. It is important to remember, however, that megachurches typically have large numbers of small groups, so it is possible for people to have close connections and associations within the larger structure.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think Lee will think of your treatment of Jakes?
WM: I’m not sure, of course, but I’m confident his perspective will be an informed one. I benefited greatly from reading his book, particularly with respect to the background and insights regarding contemporary African American religion. Professor Lee knows a great deal more about black churches, past and present, than I do and I expect that he will see things I might have missed. I’m reasonably confident that he will feel I characterized his work accurately, since I interviewed him, then checked with him personally to make sure I had understood him correctly. In addition, the magazine’s fact checkers—I suspect most readers would be amazed and impressed with how thoroughly every quote and factual statement in a Texas Monthly story is verified before getting into print—also checked the quotes with him to make sure they were accurate. I look forward to seeing what he has to say about the story, and I hope he thinks I have captured Bishop Jakes reasonably well.
texasmonthly.com: How different would this story be if Jakes were white?
texasmonthly.com: What import do you think Jesus would place on parishioners’ 401(k) accounts?
WM: Jesus and the prophets had a great deal to say about the dangers wealth can pose for a righteous and godly life. But Jesus had some wealthy supporters and his parable of the talents praises the man who invested their money wisely and criticizes the man who buried it in the ground, where it would draw no interest. Since I have a 401(k) account, I like to think Jesus would approve.
texasmonthly.com: Do you believe Jakes is sincere?
WM: Yes. Of course, like every human I know, he experiences mixed motives. He is interested both in converting people to Christ and putting their lives in order, and also in making money, and he has found it is possible to combine these activities. I am confident that when he is preaching a great sermon and has the congregation in his thrall, he enjoys simply being able to do it that well, as, for example, a professor knows when he has taught a class particularly well or a writer knows that a particular turn of phrase will not only drive the point home effectively but may also cause people to think, “What a fine writer!” I suspect that even Mother Teresa took some pleasure in knowing she was probably on the fast track to sainthood. If Bishop Jakes pretended to be in dire financial straits while raking in money from poor people, I’d be quite upset with him, but he doesn’t do that. He has been quite successful financially and he tries to share what he knows about “economic empowerment” with others. Two things help convince me of his sincerity. For the first ten years of his ministry, he struggled with dire poverty yet remained faithful to what he regarded as his calling. Secondly, even those who criticize his affluent lifestyle and are uncomfortable with the amount of money he has made do not question his sincerity. I will be quite surprised—and deeply disappointed—if I turn out to be mistaken about this.
texasmonthly.com: So how do you know he has a 19-inch neck?
WM: I carry a tape measure so that I can measure the relevant dimensions of all the people I interview. Actually, I had read that somewhere, perhaps several times, and we asked if it was accurate. I did not doubt it. When I first met Bishop Jakes face-to-face, my wife was standing beside me. She later said, “I’ve always admired your broad shoulders. Bishop Jakes has really broad shoulders.”