Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Memoirs of a Mega Church Member

A phenomenon of the 21st Century African American Community is that of the mega-church. According to Wikipedia, a mega church is defined as one that counts 2000 or more during its weekly services. It further describes one-tenth of all mega church congregations as African American.

In our community, the church remains the center of consciousness. It is yet the center of reason in times of crisis. It is the moral foundation for a people who, even in these days of complete freedom, still face the vestiges of discrimination in tandem with the pressures of life. Nonetheless, the black church has come under increased scrutiny and criticism from the black community. Questions of black church relevance dominate radio talk shows. Black oriented television talk shows discuss the direction of the black church. We are seeking to define the role of the church in these days and time. With black on black crime, joblessness, homelessness and other issues impacting the black community, the community is seeking more leadership from the church. And, with the explosive growth and metamorphosis of the church into the mega church, folk are starting to complain that pastors are more concerned with the growth of the church and how much tithes and offering they collect on Sunday as opposed to providing solutions and spiritual comfort/empowerment in the face of these trying times.

I am a member of one of the nation's largest and most respected mega churches. The pastor is a highly respected preacher with high offices within the denomination and responsibilities across the globe. Our church membership is numbered at 25,000 and five years ago, we completed construction on a $65 million cathedral which has completely changed the landscape of the Crenshaw Corridor, the largely African American Community in which the cathedral stands. My work as a broadcaster at the city's premier African American owned and operated radio station affords me the ability to hear and discuss the role of the mega church in our community. The church that I have attended for nearly 20 years is more than often the target of harsh criticism and disdain. My pastor seems to be the symbol to the community of those men of God who teach prosperity ministry and lack genuine caring for the people. Our church building is the symbol for those who say, "See, all they care about is a big church. They should have used the money to feed the homeless". There have been published opinions that say my pastor doesn't care about black people. I have even been with him on the radio when listeners called him a "pimp preacher" taking money from the community to fill his own pockets. I have been on the street engaged in conversation about the state of our people and the community, when out of nowhere the conversation turns to the black church and their lack of caring for the community and of course, my church is the example that one uses when talking about the failure of the church to support the community. And then, there's the argument that since the church is so large, then one cannot get the spiritual strength and food that you can get in a smaller church. Wow.

But the common denominator of this conversation is that inevitably, the person spewing this rhetoric is someone who has never ever set foot inside the church. How could you know what goes on inside the church if you have never attended, let alone participated in it?

Now, I have to admit, I understand what people mean when they question the support of the black church when it comes to the issues of our community. Further, I see how the black church's role has been diluted from the Civil Rights era. I sometimes do not see the black church working with community. I sometimes see the black church as being "so heavenly bound, we' re no earthly good. I see us getting bound by denominational biases and debates - spiritual gangbanging, I call it. I can even see what one means when they feel overlooked because of the sheer size of the ministry.
But even so, I cannot see the criticisms inside of my mega-church. While it's quite large, I see an easy path to making the church smaller for you. I definitely disagree when it comes to criticisms of the pastor.

Honestly, I see a man who has described himself as a "Christian Pan Africanist".. How conscious is that?!!! I see a man who's compassion for black people is reflected everywhere if you look for it. Look at the goals and objectives of the community based programs. Look at the index of sermons, listen to the messages from the pulpit. And I have NEVER seen a white Jesus in that entire church...

I find the pastor to be an extremely wise man, from whom I have learned so much. I mean, even as a grown man, I need a mentor to pattern my business demeanor after and when I look at this man, I see one who sets an example of excellence for me as a man. I see tremendous support of the community - actually ground breaking, historic strategies for church based development and support of the community. In fact, the mission of one of the departments of the church charged with community empowerment is to "seek social and economic justice and alleviate poverty as tangible expressions of the Kingdom of God". I have heard sermons dealing with our trek through the middle passage through slavery to now. I have heard sermons dealing with our responsibility to the community and to our families, and building the strength of the black community through education, preservation of the family and faith. I have seen the money put in the offering tray put to action in the streets.

Although I have never been to the Continent- and unquestionably, I am 100% Black American - I have a natural affection for Africa and I really believe when Pastor says "Africa must be to African Americans what Israel is to the Jews".. I feel the spiritual connection to my "cousins" from Africa. I see the powerful global effect my mega church has when it's moving to support Children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Oh yes, there are those that say hey we have enough problems here to warrant help, leave Africa to the Africans... But yet, my mega church has started community development and empowered African Americans since long before faith based initiatives were in vogue.

Speaking of Faithbased initiatives, I realize that my mega church has not taken advantage of the programs in place since Bush became president. Oh sure, Pastor went to the meetings in the White House - and why not? After all, he is a preeminent black church figure. But the initiatives are blase' to us because we were already doing community development and empowerment long before Bush ever took office. So to those who say our mega church gets money from the government, we were already in the game... In fact, a lot of community development agencies take their plays from our book.

Yes, we have celebrities that attend the church. But what does that do for me? I mean, I have not been blessed with millions. I cannot slam dunk, so I did not get the contract with the NBA. I don't have any recognizable acting skills, so there are no Academy Awards on my shelf. But good for those who do possess these things. It's all good and tremendously admirable that they are centered and attend church regularly. But, outside of me going to the game or to the movies or play, they have nothing to do with me so the argument that we attend the church just because celebrities attend is null and void. I mean, I need God for my life, not theirs.... Besides, in the case of the men who fall into that category, it's their wives that I see every Sunday, and them every now and again. Blessed is the man who has a praying wife!!

Yes, the place is large. Two city blocks of campus, a bookstore, 24 hour counseling center, a five thousand seat auditorium... yup, it's big alright... There are 88 ministries and auxiliaries. While you may not be able to get to Pastor directly, there are well qualified ministers and counselors that can help you with your every need. And I found that if you get into it and go to Bible study, join the choir or attend activities outside of Sunday Morning Service, then the church becomes much smaller. It's a family, a large family but a family nonetheless.

There are those who say "Why do you need a big cathedral? The Pastor has answered that if there are multi million dollar casinos and houses of gambling and ill repute, then why can't the people of the Lord have a multi million dollar facility." It makes sense to me. Besides, I remember before we built the cathedral, we had five services and the criticism was "dag, you gotta stand in line at that church"... Now you don't have to stand in line and y'all are still beefin'..... You know what? when I look at that magnificent granite building located right here in the hood, I can't help but think, man, black people built that....

Yes, money is collected inside my mega church. It's a constant move to raise funds. But if one really pays attention, they will take note that there are so many ministries and auxiliaries and programs, all of which need funds to operate. A friend of mine finally came to church after listening to me inviting her for many years. She did not come with me but came nonetheless. Her impression was that the church talked way too much about money. She had come on one of those Sundays where appeals where plentiful because of different organizations in the church moving to execute their respective programs. We talked about this for a while. I agreed that there are many appeals for money, but pointed out that there is so much going on and it costs to do the work of the Lord. Yes, we can feed the homeless, but we need to buy the food. Yes, the education system needs improvement but our school needs stuff to operate. The Work of the Lord costs - we have to buy the "stuff" to do the work. She told me she never considered that... At my mega church you can see where your money is going...

But as for me, I find my mega church to be a spiritual place. Full of holistic activities that are healthy to the soul. I have learned about my spirituality and forged it according to what I have learned inside this huge place. The Pastor is a mentor for me. Honorable. Wise. Loving. Kind. His support staff around him to handle the congregation's life issues - you know those issues that you would go to the church for - is well qualified.

Oh yes, let me mention his wife, our First Lady. She is the most beautiful, loving, wise, positive woman you ever want to meet. She is a shining example of what the sanctified woman should be.
And if you talk to her about these issues, you'll find she's down for her people too.

As a black man, I see this mega church as a pillar in the community, not a bane. I see it contributing and bolstering our fight toward complete and utter liberation. I see this mega church helping me balance my spirituality and my consciousness. The Pastor is fighting for all people, but Black people is clearly at his center.

Yes, it's big. But the community benefits from it's grand posture. The community benefits from the programs and ministries that are in place. And the Pastor is honorable.

I don't know what happens at other churches. All I know is, my mega church is the bomb.