PASTOR Tony Evans
ADDRESS 1808 W. Camp Wisdom Road
ON THE INTERNET ocbfchurch .org
SERVICES Sundays at 7:50 and 11:50 A.M.
Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship has a homey sound to it, which is fitting for a church that began in 1976 with ten people meeting for Bible study in the home of Tony and Lois Evans. Today, after three decades of nonstop growth, it is one of Dallas’s largest and most vibrant churches, with almost eight thousand members. Pastor Evans, who spearheads an extensive radio and television ministry, is now one of the nation’s best-known and most influential evangelical leaders.
OCBF’s 3,284-seat worship center was almost filled on the morning I attended. The service was ebullient, featuring a forty-voice choir and a praise band that included guitars, a keyboard, percussion, saxophones, a trumpet, and a trombone. I especially enjoyed a rollicking arrangement of the hymn “The Rock That Is Higher Than I,” with so many repetitions of “higher than I” that I dared hope the young people in the assembly might deduce that the lyricist knew his grammar and had not intended to say “higher than me” or, even worse, “than myself.”
For those who fear, after hearing excerpts from sermons by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, that predominantly African American churches might be antiestablishment enclaves, a visit to this church should prove reassuring. Just a few minutes into the service, a video screen showed President George W. Bush commending Evans and OCBF for providing “a model for the nation” in their efforts in “transforming a community.” The president and the pastor are, in fact, tight. As governor, Bush was the featured speaker at Evans’s fiftieth birthday celebration. As president, he spoke at the dedication of the church’s enormous youth and education center. And when Bush addressed the 2008 National Religious Broadcasters convention, he singled out Evans as a friend. One of OCBF’s social service programs received its first large grant (about $500,000) from the president’s faith-based initiatives.
Despite these linkages, Evans has apparently not tried to turn his congregation into a Republican outpost. In an op-ed he wrote during the 2006 election season, he noted that Christians who emphasize social justice issues typically vote Democratic, and those more concerned with abortion, homosexuality, and other “family issues” tend to vote Republican. He contended that such a politically divided church does not reflect the will of God: “The church doesn’t just take people to heaven; it feeds, clothes and houses them. It teaches them how to read and gets them jobs . . . God is interested in whole life, not term. He’s interested in us from the womb to the tomb.”
OCBF clearly emphasizes this holistic approach. A brochure I received as I entered described Project Turn Around, the church’s comprehensive social outreach program, whose stated mission is “to rebuild communities from the inside out . . . offering wraparound services that enable individuals to make the right choices by changing the way they think, providing opportunities for positive change, and giving them hope for a brighter tomorrow.” Its facets include school-based mentoring, computer training, GED and literacy instruction, career development, parenting education, home-buying seminars, and a center that helps women facing unplanned pregnancies. As Evans referred to the program during the service, he said, “We can’t save everybody, but we can save a bunch.”
Some of Project Turn Around’s sweetest fruits were in clear evidence that bright May morning as Evans invited all those who were graduating from high school to line up, state their name and school, and declare their future plans. With no more than two or three exceptions, each of the approximately sixty teens named the college he or she planned to attend in the fall. Most identified their expected major, and several mentioned they were going on “a full ride.” Though Evans asked the congregation not to applaud until everyone had been introduced, the pride and excitement were palpable, and no one took offense at the occasional whoop of joy from a parent or friend.
Evans gave the new graduates some blunt advice: “Girls, your parents are not sending you to college to get pregnant. Boys, your parents are not sending you to college to act the fool and hang out with the wrong people and to party. The cost of college is so high that to waste that money when you have that much opportunity would be a tragedy. So we are going to pray that you maximize your potential and that God will give you this period of your life to develop into the men and women that he wants you to be.” Each of these statements drew vehement approval from the congregation. After two more musical offerings, about an hour and forty minutes into the service, it was time for the sermon.
OCBF’s official theology, outlined on its Web site, is straight-line fundamentalist, including a belief in a supernaturally inspired and inerrant Bible, creation “by divine command,” and a premillennial rapture—no surprise there, since Evans is the first African American to receive a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary, long the most notable academic promulgator of that doctrine. But an online listing of his sermons indicates that Evans is less concerned with the end times than with telling parishioners how to be compassionate, how to be reconcilers, how to deal with people who insult them, and how to “reverse the curses” related to money, career, race, divorce, and addiction.
The sermon for this Sunday, “Rules for Ruling Your World, Part 12,” fit that pattern. The text was Joshua 1:1—9, in which God tells Joshua, who became leader of the Israelites after Moses’ death, to enter and conquer the Promised Land without fear of the Amorites, Jebusites, and Canaanites who would resist them. Evans discerned four principles in those nine verses, elaborating on each one with humor and admonition.
Rule 1. Leave the past behind. “Moses is dead. He was the key, but he is no longer here. We can learn from the past, but we must not get stuck in it.”
Rule 2. Seize your spiritual inheritance. God had promised the land to the Israelites, but they had to seize it. “Occasionally,” Evans observed, “God does a supernatural miracle. Usually, you have got to go job hunting. You have got to go get it.”
Rule 3. Focus on God, not people. You will have human opposition, he said, so you must trust in God and not fear people.
Rule 4. Stay restricted to God’s word. Consult the Bible and be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
It was an encouraging and inspiring morning, one that justified the acclaim that Evans and OCBF receive. I fervently espouse the separation of church and state as an invaluable guard against corruption of either realm. Reports by former White House aides that political considerations guided the Bush administration’s channeling of funds to religious organizations should not surprise us. Barack Obama’s pledge to continue and enlarge such funding should give us pause. But exposure to what OCBF has accomplished—and was accomplishing before it received government monies—should remind us of the wonder-working power inherent in faith-based initiative.