A Pastor With a Drive to Convert
McLean Sanctuary Opens With Grander Plans
By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page A01
When the Rev. Lon Solomon says he aims to persuade every soul in Washington to believe that "Jesus is the only ticket to heaven," it is a vow not to be taken lightly.
From the wealthy of McLean to the poor of Southeast Washington -- all are in his sights, especially the area's Jews, whose conversion Solomon considers his God-given calling.
While other Christian leaders might have similar goals, none has the advantage of Solomon's perch as pastor of McLean Bible Church, a glitzy megachurch with an evangelical mission that might seem an unlikely fit for Washington's most affluent suburb.
Few could have predicted that Solomon, raised a Conservative Jew, would end up a Christian minister, let alone such a driven one, when he was a marginal student at the University of North Carolina in the late 1960s and early '70s. His fraternity buddies say they thought jail was more likely for the infamous campus drug dealer with the puffy Afro.
But today, a shorn and straightened Solomon, 55, leads one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. More than 10,000 people -- about the population of Falls Church -- are gathering to hear him preach as his new $90 million sanctuary opens this weekend just west of the Tysons Corner malls.
The megachurch phenomenon is nothing new. Pastors with huge followings -- the largest counts 25,000 -- can command pervasive influence in their communities. What makes Solomon unique is that his home base includes people who are running the country from the most politically powerful city in the world.
"It's really because of Lon Solomon that I go" to McLean Bible, said Sen. James M. Inhofe, whose fellow Oklahoma Republican, Sen. Don Nickles, also attends Solomon's services. "He does things that many others don't do. He's not afraid to say things and talk about political issues. He's very pro-life and strong on opposing homosexual" marriage.
Solomon's city-size flock is just the beginning of his reach throughout the region.
On Capitol Hill, Christian Embassy, which is backed by McLean Bible and whose leaders attend the church, drew 100 members of Congress to Bible studies in the exclusive Family Room off the floor of the House last year. The group's other meetings attract high-ranking officers from the Pentagon, foreign diplomats and administration officials.
In Southeast Washington, the church's inner-city ministry, based on a street known to locals as Murderers' Row, has helped pull dozens of teenagers out of drugs and violence. The program is so highly regarded by administrators at Anacostia High School that they let its leaders run ethics seminars for students in place of a regular school day.
At Metro stops and parks throughout the region in August, the church will launch what Solomon promises will be the most ambitious evangelical outreach ever to the area's Jewish community. Hundreds of church volunteers will sing hymns on street corners and distribute literature aimed at converting Jews.
There's more. Solomon's clothing ministry asserts that it helped 10,000 people last year; his center for disabled children is gaining a national reputation; and church support groups draw hundreds of divorced and abused women.
Nothing Solomon does is small time. When he wanted to put his sermons on the radio, he didn't look for friendly Christian outlets. He pays $521,000 annually to buy 30 minutes every Sunday on seven of the most listened-to stations in the region. Solomon said he is working on deals with five more.
"That way, no matter what preset your car is set to on Sunday mornings, you'll find us," he said. His one-minute sound bites, known as "Not a Sermon, Just a Thought," are broadcast on 13 secular stations.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company