By Wells Tower
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Mike Ferree is not your average, tithe-soliciting evangelist. He has been shot during a drug deal gone bad, married a woman he once planned to murder and demanded a lower salary for his last job. These days, he's happy to drive more than 500 miles for a couple dozen needy souls and a pocketful of change
Jesus Way Temple Christian Church is a plain brick building that stands at 1700 Maryland Ave. NE, across from a derelict parking lot whose jagged heaps of ruined pavement resemble the site of a meteor strike. Parked on the church lawn out front is a white 1998 Cadillac DeVille, its back seat filled with a week's worth of hanging laundry. The sun visors are crowded with mail and paperwork. The ashtray holds a toothbrush, a ballpoint pen and three plastic forks. Scattered around the seats are an electric razor, a bottle of Pantene Pro-V Volumizing Hairspray, a brick of saltines, a can of Van Camp's Pork and Beans, a copy of the Bible and an edition of The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. The Cadillac's odometer is crowding 230,000 miles. The car belongs to traveling evangelist Mike Ferree, and he has driven it 600 miles from his home in Tennessee to deliver a sermon here tonight.
Before tonight's service, Ferree sits in an upstairs office, drinking strong coffee with Kenneth Eller, the pastor of Jesus Way Temple, one of the dozens of churches along Ferree's revival route. "How many you think we'll have tonight, Brother Eller?" Ferree asks.
"If we're lucky, 20 people," Eller says. "Maybe 25."
Though Ferree makes his living on what he takes up in collection, he does not seem put out that he has spent all day on the interstate to preach for a crowd whose offering will probably total less than he paid for gas getting here. Ferree stays on the road roughly 300 days a year. In the winter months, he travels a grass-roots circuit of small Pentecostal churches in the Southeast and Midwest that have invited him to preach. In the summer, Ferree hits the road with his tent and trailer, and is part of a dwindling band of evangelists still preaching the Gospel at roadside tent revivals, usually for smaller sums than a celebrity evangelist might spend to have his hair done. That his work is so unremunerative is, in fact, a point of pride with Ferree (he bought the Cadillac used, he is quick to announce). He believes that trying to live as Jesus did calls for a certain comfort with penury.
"Money's a chronic worry with this kind of work -- there's no guarantee you won't go broke," Ferree says. "But, I mean, Jesus was born in a cow's stall. When it came time to pay his taxes, he had to get it out of a fish's mouth. This is God, man! He says a word and makes worlds appear! But when he had to go to town, he borrowed a donkey to ride on! Does that sound like a rich man to you, Brother Eller?"
"No, sir," Eller says.
Ferree considers himself an old-line Pentecostalist, a tradition distinguished by its ecstatic, free-form prayer meetings in which people speak in tongues, attempt feats of healing and topple before the pulpit "slain in the Spirit." All of this, Ferree says, makes people like him something of an embarrassing anachronism in the eyes of the Christian political elites, televangelists, megachurch pastors and other figureheads of American Protestant Christianity's present golden moment.
Though Ferree's audiences are holding steady in the dozens, he sustains hope that American Christians might soon turn away from the mass-manufactured religiosity of the current megachurch boom to seek God on a humbler scale. "I think people are going to start getting fed up with these bigger churches," he says. "They're gonna want something a little more sincere, a little more intimate, and they'll start coming to meetings like the ones I put on. But even if they don't, I'll keep at it till I draw my last breath. If I keel over at the pulpit, I couldn't think of a better way to go."
Ferree, 55, is a tall, somewhat forbidding man with an assertive jaw and forehead and a potent smile, which, when fully unleashed, looks large enough to swallow you whole. Ferree and his wife have nine children, and he gives off an air of well-seasoned paternal authority. He has a large, pleasing voice, left somewhat coarse from years of delivering the Gospel at high volume.
When he can find the audience, Ferree preaches seven times a week, twice on Sundays. He eschews television and movies, and he reads no books other than the Bible, he says, for fear of crowding Scripture out of his head.
"We have no outside interests," he says. "I don't play golf; I don't go to the ocean; I don't surf; I don't hunt; I don't ride a bicycle; I don't fish; I don't own a four-wheeler; I don't own a boat; I don't take cruises to the Caribbean. Brother Eller, when's the last time you took a cruise around the Caribbean?"
Eller smiles and shakes his head abashedly, as though there is something faintly obscene about the idea of a Caribbean cruise.
"This is it right here," Ferree says. "It's all we do."
At 8 o'clock, services begin downstairs in the worship hall.
It's an oblong, irregularly shaped room. The ceiling is low, bristling with tiny crags of stucco, which Ferree is in danger of scraping his head on when he stands before the pulpit. Ferree looks at the crowd of 15 that is scattered through the pews, mostly African American women in their middle years. "If you was in Jerusalem," he says, "right now, tonight, in the tomb where Jesus laid 2,000 years ago, you couldn't get one bit closer than you can get in this room tonight."
"Help him, Lord," one woman says.
"Tell it," says another.
"How many knows there's nowhere on Earth that God's any greater than He is in this room?"
"Tell the truth."
"I'm trying," he says.
Ferree unspools his long, unscripted sermon, which begins with a kind of lollygagging comic overture, riffing on the woes of parenting and married life, and takes an occasional swipe at the celebrity clergy -- "that bunch that comes to bleed widows dry, to buy another jet, to put another wing on their house."
Ferree's delivery swells in an intensity that spreads ineluctably throughout the room. Trembling thickets of hands go up. Aggrieved moans drift through the church. Ferree's features begin to broaden and harden, and his phrases pour out in an impassioned torrent: He winces, clutches the microphone. "Oh God," he says, and then goes into a brief bout of tongues.
People sway and tap their feet to the rhythm of his words. A tiny, superannuated woman dances in the aisles. A heavyset woman in an electric-blue blouse interrupts Ferree's sermon with a long, sonorous declamation in tongues. Ferree falls silent to let her speak. "God is in this room," he says. "Speak to us, oh Lord."
Ferree himself was not always such an eager vessel for the Holy Spirit. He usually discloses, as part of his sermonic repertoire, that he was a drug user and pusher in his twenties, and was twice shot in drug deals: "One was self-inflicted, I was high on heroin. I had a loaded .38 in my pocket, and I accidentally shot myself in the knee." During another botched transaction in San Antonio, Ferree was buying drugs from a dealer who insisted on taking Ferree's money up front before going to get the drugs. When Ferree protested, he says, the man offered to leave his associate in the car as collateral and handed Ferree a gun. "He said, 'If I don't come back, shoot my friend.' I said, 'Okay, that'll work.'"
The dealer vanished with the money, leaving Ferree, his friends, and their hostage in an awkward spot. Soon after, Ferree says, the hostage pulled out his own pistol and "went to shooting" in the moving car. A bullet penetrated Ferree's back, collapsed his lung and lodged against his ribs, where it lies today. But Ferree managed to put a loaded pistol to the head of the man who'd shot him. "I cocked the hammer, and a voice which I now believe was the voice of Jesus said, 'Don't kill the guy,' so I ended up letting him live." For months after, Ferree says, the voice continually revisited him, ultimately compelling him out of addiction and into a 30-year career as a man of God.
At Jesus Way Temple, Ferree's sermon is winding down. "If you need prayer," he says, his forehead glistening, "come up here and let us lay hands on you."
The congregants come forward, seeking prayer for, among other things, back trouble, ill will toward others and poor schoolwork. When the altar call subsides, the congregants resume their seats, wearing expressions of exhaustion and relief, like people deplaning after a crash landing.
Ferree looks drained, himself. "Thank you, Lord, for stopping by this little church in Washington, D.C.," he says, his eyes shut tightly. "Thank you, Lord."
Then he adds: "Please friends, help me with an offering. This is how I pay my bills; this is how I stay on the field, serving the Lord."
People come forward with ones, fives and tens, but mostly ones. He accepts the modest collection and flashes his mammoth smile. Tomorrow he'll be on the road again, preaching at a church in Aberdeen, Md. "Come on by, friends, and wear your shouting shoes."
To an outsider, people who come to Mike Ferree's meetings might look like esoteric throwbacks to an antique, backwater faith; in fact, they're members of a new global religious vanguard. With more than 530 million followers across the globe (and 20 million in the United States alone), Pentecostalism and its interdenominational offshoot, the charismatic movement, have seen the most explosive growth of any Christian tradition in the world in the last 100 years. One-quarter of all Christians worldwide reportedly attend Pentecostal or charismatic churches, with the strongest growth in South America and elsewhere in the Third World.
Pentecostal churches have spread in China, Japan and Korea, where pastor David Yonggi Cho's Yoido Full Gospel Church (Seoul) lists a membership of more than 700,000, which would make it the largest church in the world. Though the tradition is barely a century old, Pentecostalism is far and away the most significant religious movement to emerge from the United States.
Yet American Pentecostalism is beginning to re-semble less and less the rough-hewn folk movement that helped propel it to global prominence. A tradition that was born in warehouses, home meetings and open-air revivals throughout the rural South, Pentecostalism now boasts some of the largest and wealthiest churches in America. The character of the faith appears to be shifting, too. Many of the movement's highest-profile personalities -- megachurch pastors such as Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen -- enjoy parallel careers as best-selling authors of Biblically grounded self-help books and personal prosperity literature (sample title from Creflo Dollar: No More Debt!: God's Strategy for Debt Cancellation).
"The question is, will success spoil Pentecostalism," says Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard University and author of numerous books on the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. "In this country at least, [the movement's] turned quite affluent and glitzy. One wonders what's going to happen to the ministry that was so characteristic of the movement?"
According to Cox, the wild, untrammeled worship Ferree devotes himself to, which has always distinguished the tradition, is quietly falling out of favor as mainline Pentecostal and charismatic churches attempt to enlarge their demographic. Speaking in tongues, once a requisite for salvation in many Pentecostal churches, is an increasingly rare practice among celebrity clergy. A recent memo from Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the 11,000-member charismatic New Life Church in Colorado Springs, cautioned his flock against untelegenic behavior such as "jumping and dancing," "excessive emotionalism" or anything that nonbelievers might construe as "spooky or weird."
In Pentecostalism's emerging markets -- sub-Saharan Africa, South America, China -- the movement still spreads through grass-roots networks, and unknown circuit preachers still command the sorts of audiences they did in Pentecostalism's nascent years in America. Ferree, who has twice preached in Nigeria, says that in Africa he drew crowds of 1,200, the largest of his career. "In three nights, 700 people got saved," Ferree says. "It was like something out of the 1950s."
The term "pentecostal" refers to a passage in Acts 2:1 in which Christ's apostles gathered on the day of Pentecost (the 50th day after Passover, "pentecost" means "50th" in Greek) and were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues, a practice that the modern-day faithful believe to be a direct communion with God. The language of tongues manifests as a barrage of asyntactic syllables, which believers feel to be the language of the divine. "It's the language of angels," says Ferree. "What language do you think an angel speaks, Japanese?"
When Ferree speaks in tongues, he says, he is not slipping from ordinary consciousness, nor is he expressing a formulated sentiment. "You feel a welling up of so much love for God that when you open your mouth, that's what comes out. It's sort of like how somebody might feel excited at a football game and have to jump up and holler."
Most trace the birth of Pentecostalism to a Kansas Methodist minister named Charles Parham, who, on January 1, 1901, saw one of his Bible school students speaking in tongues, a practice modern Christians then considered lost to biblical antiquity. The woman did not let up for three days, and afterward, Parham built a new doctrine based on the notion that speaking in tongues signified a new baptism of the Holy Spirit. But the movement didn't catch fire until six years later, at a revival held by a black preacher named William Seymour in a deserted warehouse on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Blacks, whites, Asians and Mexicans flocked to Seymour's meetings, where they spoke in tongues, quaked and shook on the sawdust floor, seeking what they believed to be a personal touch from God. As the movement spread from Los Angeles, mainstream churches viewed the emerging faith with scorn. Mainline ecclesiastical authorities dismissed Pentecostalists as lunatics, drunks, Christ-addled hicks and, as one theologian of the day put it, "the last vomit of Satan."
But Pentecostal evangelists were undeterred. They roved the country, spreading the new gospel, which found particularly fertile soil for its message in the American South. In the 1940s and '50s, what Ferree and his colleagues call "the great move of God" took hold. Pentecostal faith healers such as William Branham, Jack Coe, A.A. Allen and Oral Roberts were drawing audiences of thousands to their revival tents, claiming to have performed healing feats -- allegedly curing polio victims, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf -- that their followers accepted as bona fide miracles. In the eyes of the less credulous though, Pentecostalists' self-professed abilities to wield heavenly powers over health and illness continue to taint Pentecostalism with an air of cynical charlatanism. In 1987, Oral Roberts tested the faith of even his own congregants when he prophesied that God would kill him unless he raised $8 million. In 1999, evangelist Benny Hinn suggested that people might resurrect dead loved ones by basking their corpses in the life-giving glow of televisions tuned to the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
(In recent years, scholars, medical researchers and dabblers in the pseudo-sciences have conducted scores of trials, attempting to determine the practical effectiveness of faith healing and intercessory prayer. The few experiments claiming positive results have generally been proven methodologically shoddy. More rigorous trials, such as a study this year at Duke University, showed that prayer rendered no benefits to patients undergoing cardiac procedures.) In the 1960s, Pentecostal tent evangelists began to see their audiences winnowed, as newly constructed civic centers and hotel convention centers offered more comfortable revival venues, and as evangelists reached larger crowds and larger tracts of pocketbooks through their newfound telepulpits.
While the movement draws devotees across class strata, according to Vinson Synan, Pentecostal scholar and dean of the divinity school at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Pentecostalism finds its bedrock following among "the poorest people on Earth."
"It began as a movement of the common people," Synan says. "It reached out to people on an emotional level rather than an intellectual one, and offered a kind of religious experience anyone could respond to, which made it accessible to masses of people on an enormous magnitude."
For all the hubbub about the ascendant political might of evangelical Christians, and the burgeoning coffers and membership rolls of Pentecostal megachurches, tent revivalists such as Mike Ferree -- still clinging to a tradition from a half-century ago -- are proud to remain outsiders in a faith that first took root in America's religious counterculture. "We're on the backside of the desert," Ferree says. "Taking care of the inheritance."
When Ferree has preached his last revival for the week, he heads to his home in Cleveland, Tenn., which lies 20 miles north of Chattanooga in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Cleveland is home to a number of national Pentecostal denominations, such as the Church of God of Prophecy, which has 777,000 members worldwide, and the Church of God, Cleveland, which, with about 7 million members, is one of the largest Pentecostal organizations in the world.
But Ferree has few dealings with these larger seats of Pentecostal influence. He moved to Cleveland to be nearer to his mentor, H. Richard Hall, who traveled the roads preaching to crowds not much larger than those Ferree draws now. Though Ferree says Hall never earned a salary above $25,000, he was a man of legendary thrift, and he left an endowment of nearly $10 million to the United Christian Church and Ministerial Association, which he'd founded in 1956. After Hall died in 2002, Ferree accepted an appointment as UCMA's president. When he was hired, Ferree says, he was offered a salary of $40,000. "I told them, 'That's too much. I'll take $1,500 a month.' They said, 'You gotta have $2,000.' I said, 'Open your mouth again, and I'll do it for 12.'"
But Ferree broke with UCMA after a year and a half, he says, because he felt the organization was beginning to take on an expansionist, charismatic tincture -- both developments that Ferree believes Hall would not have approved of.
On a Saturday afternoon in Cleveland, Mike and his wife, Sally, a frank, bespectacled woman with long, graying hair, stop to visit their daughter Beth, who just bought her first home and is having a housewarming party. Inside, the living room teems with Mike and Sally's offspring: a son, half a dozen daughters and as many grandchildren. Mike Ferree takes a seat at the kitchen table and browses a slender volume titled Why God Didn't Kill the Devil. His daughter Melissa lingers at the table. She is 15, a sullenly elegant teenager with long blonde hair, braces and a superabundance of dark eye makeup. "You need to take some of that stuff off your face," Ferree says to her, and she looks at him as if he asked her to grow a tail. One of his granddaughters raves past, and Ferree scoops her up; she leaves a chocolate face print on his shirt, and he sets her down again.
Ferree, who is accustomed to the solitude of his highway voyaging, seems put upon by the chaos in the house, and after 15 minutes or so he gets up to leave. He pulls out of Beth's driveway, and on the way home, he drives past the Full Gospel House of Prayer, which is the church he pastors. The church is a converted auto repair shop in the center of a parking lot of cracked concrete, enclosed by a low Cyclone fence. A sign out front reads, "Jesus saves, Jesus heals, Jesus delivers." Ferree's house sits on a thickly canopied rural lane. He parks in his driveway, not far from the big white trailer that holds his revival tent.
The Ferrees' residence used to be a single-wide trailer, but Ferree converted it to a proper house and doubled its size a few years ago. Now it is a comfortable, if unsumptuous, place with freshly laid carpet and linoleum, and enough frugally proportioned bedrooms to accommodate the four children still living at home.
In a good year, Ferree might gross $50,000 -- though he and his wife lack the benefits and security they'd have enjoyed had he chosen a more conventional line of work. Ferree has no 401(k) plan, no health insurance, no retirement fund. When he and Sally were married, they didn't have the money for wedding rings, and neither of them wears one.
Ferree sits on the couch, enjoying the quiet in the house, but before long, the family arrives in a storm of friendly noise. He picks up a granddaughter who is pretending to be a spaniel, and, catching sight of Melissa, he says, "Have you been plucking your eyebrows?"
"Not lately," she says, and she and her sisters get into a conversation about cosmetics.
One of them remarks on the vibrant, dark rose color of daughter Louise's hair.
"I was going for the Lindsay Lohan look," Louise says. "It didn't really work out."
Melissa flips her hair. "I was going for Jessica Simpson," she says.
"Jessica Simpson? What in the world?" Ferree shakes his head and sighs into the scalp of his granddaughter squirming on his lap.
"Ain't none of y'all been whipped enough," he tells his daughters, and grins. "Amy, you still ain't too big to whip."
"Oh, please," says Amy, 27. "I was never whipped at all."
Only two of his children, Beth and Amy, have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, though most of them attend church. Aaron, the Ferrees' 16-year-old son who says rather proudly that he's been expelled from half a dozen schools, says he's not too big on church. Ferree says that he wishes his children would "get right. It hurts your heart, but you can't force it." He mentions an estranged older son, who is "backslid, drinking liquor, on drugs," Ferree says. "It's painful, but we love him, and he knows it . . . [But] if he comes to a meeting, and God moves, we'd cast the devil out of him."
The following morning, Ferree sets out under a gunmetal sky, a mizzling rain stippling the Cadillac's windshield, as a detachment of children and grandchildren come out to the porch to wave him down the road toward a three-day stand in Drexel, N.C.
Ferree, who has worked as a carpenter, says that he occasionally battles the temptation to pursue a conventional career. "You get old, and people don't want to hear you no more," he says. "But Brother Hall sort of prepared me for it, how hard and lonely being an evangelist can be. You'll go down these roads, and the devil talks to you: 'Nobody loves you, nobody cares. If you'd just quit preaching, you'd have a lot more money. If you got off the field and got a job, you could drive new cars and have new houses and have everything everybody else has got.' I've heard those voices every day of my life."
Ferree pulls off the highway, in search of a Starbucks. He's in luck, and back on the highway, running late for tonight's meeting, he lays heavily on the gas, barreling down on the North Carolina state line at 87 mph. A state trooper, blue lights flashing, swings out into the lane. Ferree's face goes ashen, but the cruiser swerves in behind a speeding pickup truck. "Thank you, Jesus," he says.
When Ferree was an infant, he says, his mother prayed that he would some day become a holiness preacher, a prayer that followed Ferree through a course of harrowing meanders before it wound up coming true.
Ferree's father owned a hog farm in southern Indiana. His mother worked in the home, and also at a gunpowder plant. His mother was a devout Methodist. His father did not care much for religion, and neither did young Mike. His chief enthusiasm, he says, was liquor and amphetamines, which he began consuming in volume at age 17. After years in the drug trade and hearing the voice of God in San Antonio, Ferree felt his life was tilting out of skew, and he began seeking spiritual aid.
In the winter of 1975, at the age of 25, Ferree says, he heard the voice of God, compelling him west to seek salvation through a friend in San Diego, a born-again Christian named Paul Pate. On a snowy morning in January 1975, Ferree went down to Interstate 65 outside of Louisville and held up his thumb, bound for California. Five days later, he arrived at Pate's home. "He pulled me in the door and pushed me down on the floor, and in 15 minutes the Lord turned my life around," Ferree says. "I never smoked another cigarette, drank another drop of liquor, or had another needle in my arm except one time to get a blood test when I got married."
When he returned to Kentucky, he heard the news that an acquaintance of his, Sally Lockman, had been saved as well. "This was the girl I ended up getting married to," Mike says. But before he found God in California, he says, "I wasn't thinking about marrying her. I was planning on killing her."
"Him and some guys had committed a robbery," Sally says, "and he was afraid I was gonna rat him out."
"I was going to put concrete blocks around her feet and throw her in the Ohio River," Mike says.
Sally, who plays the organ in Ferree's tent meetings and Sunday services, had been a heroin addict herself, but at his insistence, the two of them began attending church avidly. "We'd go every chance we could get -- Baptist meetings, Methodist, Independent, we didn't care. We just loved church."
Ultimately, Mike Ferree found his spiritual mentor in a "long-haired wild man" -- Hall, whose Louisville revival Ferree wandered into in 1977. Soon after his conversion, Ferree began pastoring a small church in Corydon, Ind., in a building he rented for $60 a month. (In the Pentecostal tradition, one doesn't need an academic degree to enter the clergy; one needs only to feel "anointed" to do so.) Ten years later, Ferree began his traveling ministry.
It was Hall who instilled in Ferree a dedication to spartan, simple living and a belief that the sick might be healed through a laying on of hands. "He'd sleep in his car, or he'd lay down on a church pew and sleep in his suit," Ferree says. "I don't think he ever ate a $12 meal in his life, but there wasn't too many blind eyes he prayed over that wouldn't open, or too many deaf ears that wouldn't hear."
Ferree says that the blind have been healed at his meetings, though he is somewhat diffident about his purported healing gifts. When Ferree lays hands on people, he prays for them, pleading that God might come to their aid. "But we're not stupid," he says. "We know not everyone we pray for gets healed, and not everyone who comes to our meetings gets delivered."
Ferree is not a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. His sermons generally traffic in messages of living a Christian life and strengthening one's relationship with God. Though Ferree frequently inveighs against the familiar targets of the religious right -- homosexuality, abortion, the moral depredations of Hollywood -- his most battered rhetorical punching bags are the "spirit of greed" Ferree sees driving high-capital ministries, American materialism and the "deceitfulness of riches."
"I don't believe Jesus ever intended that a preacher live above his flock," Ferree goes on. "Why would He want me to take money from widows and folk who don't have much to begin with? So I can live a lavish lifestyle? I don't know what you call that, but I call it sin."
The largest church in America is Lakewood Church in Houston. A capacity crowd at Lakewood is 16,000 people; it boasts 28,000 members in weekly attendance, and according to its institutional literature says that 200 million families tune in to receive weekly messages from Lakewood's pastor, charismatic preacher and motivational author Joel Osteen.
In 1999, Osteen inherited the pastorship from his father, John Osteen, a Pentecostal preacher who, ejected from the Baptist Church for speaking in tongues, founded Lakewood Church in a deserted feed store in 1959. Under the junior Osteen's stewardship, Lakewood underwent a mighty increase from an already formidable 11,000 members to its present multitudes. In 2003, the church began a 60-year lease for its current quarters in what used to be the Compaq Center, the former home court of the Houston Rockets basketball team.
According to Lakewood's Web site, the renovation cost $95 million. In addition to the worship hall, the building holds an Internet cafe, enough meeting spaces to accommodate Lakewood's 30 or so specialized subministries, and a bookstore whose inventory ranges from Christian fiction and nonfiction to radio-controlled monster trucks to iPod minis to jewelry. The vestibules where beer and nachos were formerly hawked are now stacked high with assorted Osteen merchandise.
One recent Saturday, Osteen's flock files in for evening services. It's a comparatively meager crowd by Lakewood's standards, perhaps 6,000 people or so, whose startling ethnic diversity -- nearly equal numbers of black, white and Hispanic congregants -- reflects the church's pandemographic appeal.
Lakewood's designers have eschewed crucifixes and biblical statuary for an atmosphere of state-of-the-art, nonsectarian opulence. The air throughout the mammoth temple is thick with a moist, swirling vapor, which is possibly rising from the dual waterfalls flanking the pulpit. To the left of the stage, and farther back in the floor seats lurk a pair of very large, faintly saurian camera booms, part of a sizable arsenal of cameras working actively during services. The cameras' live feed plays on the three giant screens beside and above the pulpit, and in subsequent broadcasts on TBN, the Discovery Channel, BET and USA, among others. High above what used to be center court hangs a firmament of rumpled fabric suffused with an ethereal azure glow. Behind the orchestra, a golden planet Earth the size of a weather balloon revolves slowly eastward, bathed in a gentle wash of stage lights shifting from aquamarine to vermilion.
The onset of praise and worship at Lakewood is heralded by a flickering in the giant screens, and the thousands in attendance turn to watch what amounts to a deluxe advertisement for Lakewood Church, which in its content and production values -- color-saturated, slow-mo vignettes of a grinning family on a verdant lawn, hard-hatted oilfield roustabouts torquing a pipe, a father and son lugging their fishing tackle to a golden, dawn-lit lake -- mimics an aesthetic vocabulary one sees in commercials for life insurance or allergy medication. The video's soundtrack is a thrumming jingle whose refrain drives home Lakewood's slogan: "Discover the champion in you."
Shortly, Osteen and his wife, Victoria, take the stage and welcome all assembled. "God bless you tonight!" he says. Osteen, whose PR office did not return repeated requests for an interview, is 43 and has a pleasant, angular face topped by a tidy shrub of wavy hair. The camera shifts to Victoria, a beautiful woman with flaxen hair and a pair of incandescent greenish eyes. A digital pennant bearing Victoria's name flashes on the giant screens, just beneath her alabaster chin, and a crashing wave of applause rolls through the sanctuary.
The secret of Joel Osteen's success, as a pastor and an author (his biblically driven self-help manual Your Best Life Now has sold nearly 3 million copies) lies in his rose-hued philosophy, which skirts contemplations of sin, Hell or persistent misfortune, and instead telegraphs a gospel of positive thinking and material prosperity. Osteen's feel-good message has garnered him a fair amount of criticism from believers in a more traditional gospel, none of which has dimmed the enthusiasm of his crowds. Last year Osteen sold out two consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden. Tickets for Osteen's appearances away from home sell online for as much as $130. When Lakewood moved into its current quarters, 42,000 people attended the opening ceremony.
"It's awesome," says Brenda Pearson, a two-year member of Lakewood, who recalls she wasn't that keen on church until she found Osteen. "There's no condemnation. You never walk out of here feeling guilty at all."
In Osteen's theology, God comes across as a kindly executive, ever on the lookout for right-minded employees to shower with promotions and benefits.
Your Best Life Now includes chapters such as "Developing a Prosperous Mindset," in which Osteen tells a gently chiding anecdote about the time a church member presented his father with a gift for $1,000, but the senior Osteen, suffering from a "poverty mentality," put the check in the church offering rather than keeping it himself. He "had a false sense of humility. He thought he was doing God a favor by staying poor." His father, Osteen writes, was shortsightedly resisting God's attempt to enrich him.
After Victoria Osteen delivers a brief prayer for the flock's children, volunteers fan out through the rows, bearing silver plastic offertory buckets. Joel Osteen says a few words about the debts outstanding on the new church. "We need about an extra $10 million between now and the first of January 2007." Then he goes on to discuss the importance of tithing. "When you tithe the first 10th of your income, that allows God to open up the windows of Heaven."
The congregation stirs as purses are unclasped and wallets are opened. In the seat beside mine, a young woman unfolds five $20 bills and places them in an offering envelope.
Victoria Osteen closes her eyes and utters a prayer for a healthy offering. "We're asking you in the name of Jesus to give us an unprecedented amount of money, Father," she says. "I just ask that every single person would get it in their heart to tithe their income so that you can move in their behalf in Jesus's name. Amen."
Once the buckets are collected, the artificial waterfalls, which had inexplicably slowed to a trickle during the collection, suddenly pour forth a robust flow.
Throughout the service, a few people here and there appear to be in religious raptures -- eyes closed, lips moving in silent prayer -- though ecstasy at Lakewood is generally expressed with careful politesse. The most outre expression of emotion comes from Joel Osteen himself, who, when thanking his flock for having elevated him to so lofty an office, suddenly breaks off midsentence, pinches the bridge of his nose and draws a tissue from the hollow of the lectern to stanch the tears of gratitude. "I don't know why I'm such a crybaby." Osteen's tears rouse the crowd to a standing ovation.
The effect strikes an equally potent chord the following morning, when, while delivering a sermon identical to the previous evening's, Osteen once again breaks into tears, during the same sentence as the night before. Again, the flock leaps to its feet and applauds. But Osteen earns his most thunderous response the third time around, in the second Sunday service, with the church crowded to the upper galleries. When the difficult sentence arrives -- "You believed in me" -- and Osteen again presses a hanky to his face and once more declares himself a crybaby, the house goes apoplectic with approval. "We love you, Joel!" someone shouts from the nosebleed seats, and it is a long moment before anyone sits down.
The most overt instance of traditional evangelical Christian worship comes at the tail end of the sermon, when Osteen asks those who have fallen away from God to stand and rededicate their lives to Jesus Christ, though at this point, lots of worshipers are already quietly trooping toward the exits to beat the exodus from the parking garage.
Mount Airy, N.C., is a small, mountain community on the Virginia border, a town of abundant churches and of retail establishments sprung from the marketing premise that this is the home town of TV actor Andy Griffith: Aunt Bea's barbecue, Floyd's barbershop, Goober's restaurant, etc., and the Andy Griffith Parkway, which runs past an open field north of town, where a sign stands reading "Old Fashion Tent Revival, evangelist Mike Ferree."
Though Ferree is, so to speak, the main attraction here, the 10-day revival is being jointly sponsored by fellow Cleveland, Tenn., preacher Cecil Hamby, Becky Ferree Trammel of Kentucky, who is Ferree's sister and who has been evangelizing ever since Ferree led her to the Lord 30 years ago, and her husband, Ronny Trammel. Minus the event's expenses, Ferree and his colleagues will net about $300 apiece.
On the revival's opening night, a small crowd rolls in around 7:30. It's a stifling, overcast summer evening. Plastic folding chairs sit facing a low, freshly painted platform supporting a drum set, an organ, a guitar and amplifiers, and an electric piano garlanded with red, white and blue bunting.
The band tonight includes Sally Ferree on organ and Beth Ferree on drums. Becky Trammel welcomes the group in song. Her speech oscillates between gentle solicitousness and a kind of enraptured overdrive. "Who wants a visitation?" she says.
"I'm looking for a visitation from God." Here, she goes into a long oration of rapid speech. Then, "If you love him, give him good praise."
The evening proceeds in a protracted ensemble of singing and testimony, plus sermons of varying length from the dozen or so preachers in attendance, punctuated here and there by orations from Hamby, Becky Trammel and Mike Ferree.
Trammel introduces a preacher, a man with a creased face and an immaculately shaven head. The man is a sheriff, she says. "If I'd met him a few years ago, I wouldn't have liked him, and he wouldn't have liked me. I was a heroin addict and a drunk, and I was trying to keep myself out of a woman's prison for being a drug dealer."
Trammel began seeking God shortly after her fourth drug overdose, on heroin. She lost consciousness, and her friends left her for dead in a bathtub. Ultimately, she came to, which she now credits to divine intervention. In the months after his spiritual journey to San Diego, Ferree had made a steady effort to win his sister to the Lord. "He would hitchhike to my house just to sit there and read to me from the Bible," she says. "I hated it, but he was my brother, so I'd listen. I'd be on drugs when he showed up, but when he'd leave, a strange thing would happen. I wouldn't be high anymore, and that scared me. It scared me that he could read out of that book, and all that money I'd invested in them good narcotics, Demerol or heroin or whatever, it wouldn't be good anymore."
After her overdose, Trammel went to visit Ferree. "I said, 'I don't know what you did when you were in California, but whatever it was, I wanna do that.'"
Ferree took her to church that evening, and she found salvation.
Back in the tent, Ferree walks down the center aisle, his hands aloft, his eyes closed in effort, as though he's holding up an invisible girder. A low hubbub of moans travels through the audience, which has swelled to perhaps 50 souls, drawn from points as distant as Florida, Maryland, Georgia and Arkansas.
Ferree stands before a swaying field of upraised hands. "How many's seeking His face with a whole heart?" he asks the crowd. He gazes at the ceiling with a look of pent-up woe. "Lay your hand on your heart and say, 'Greater is He -- greater is He -- that is in me than he that is in the world.'"
Ferree usually arrives at the tent lot midafternoon before the evening's services, and spends the three or four intervening hours sitting in his car, where he prays, reads his Bible and collects his thoughts before the meeting. Sally Ferree spends much of her days at the hotel, usually aswarm with children.
They married in 1976, and moved into an old farmhouse outside Louisville. Sally tended to their home, while Mike pastored a church and worked odd jobs as a roofer and housepainter, which Sally says was a hopeless endeavor because he had a habit of giving away his paychecks to people he felt needed the money more than he did. The Ferrees spent their mornings studying their Bibles; it was an unspoken rule that no one was allowed to work, or even to utter a word, before noon.
It wasn't easy, she says, adjusting to the subaltern, wifely role she and Mike believed then to be the cornerstone of a Christian marriage. "It was so bad the first year, me and him both used to pray, 'God if there's a way to get a divorce and stay Christian, show me.'"
Money was a bitter struggle, too. For the first few years, the church wasn't bringing in more than a couple of thousand dollars a year, leaving barely enough to feed and clothe the Ferrees' expanding family. One winter was so lean, Sally says, that the family survived on nothing but oatmeal. One summer, the family had to subsist almost entirely on vegetables from their garden. "Our kids never wore anything that didn't come from the Goodwill," Mike says. "We had nothing, I mean nothing, but we was so happy seeking God we didn't care."
"We didn't know how bad we had it," Sally says. "People had to tell us."
These days, Sally sees Mike two or three days every week. After 30 years as an evangelist's wife, she has grown used to the arrangement. "I love it when he's home," she says, "and I love it when he's gone."
The day after the revival's opening night, Becky and Ronny Trammel sit down to lunch with Danielle and Terry Donaldson, a couple from Hot Springs, Ark. The Donaldsons were saved only months ago, and they emanate a sort of giddy enthusiasm about their faith, like people in the throes of their first romance. They plan to stay for all 10 days of the revival, and Danielle tells me they drove through the night -- 850 miles -- to make it here last night.
I say that 850 miles is a pretty long drive.
"He died on the cross for us," replies Danielle, 31, in a forceful, almost offended tone. "We can go 850 miles for Him. We've never done anything like this before, but we felt like we had to. We came from such an awful mess."
"I owned a liquor store, but it was a demon zone," says Terry, 42, a tanned, muscular man with a short mustache. "I was making $100,000 a year, but I had a $50,000-a-year drug habit."
He and Danielle, he says, were addicted to methamphetamine. Danielle says that she had a 13-year drug habit and that Terry had been on drugs for 25 years. They found salvation, they say, after listening to a tape recording of Becky Trammel's personal narrative of her drug addiction, overdose and salvation. Terry soon sold his interest in the liquor store.
The meals arrive. Trammel says a brief prayer. The conversation turns to miracles and healing.
"Since I got saved, I'm not scared to die," Danielle says, apropos of what, it's not clear. "I'm ready to go at any time. It's gonna be so awesome. Going to Heaven? I can only imagine what I'm gonna do when I get there. I can't wait."
Trammel fixes Danielle with a forbearing look. "I'm not afraid to die," she says. "But I'm glad to be alive. I'm happy not to be on drugs. It's been 30 years, but I still feel like if I'm not cooking my breakfast in a tablespoon, it's a good day."
After a week of subcapacity crowds, the Friday evening meeting in Mount Airy draws a surprising throng.
The lot is crammed with cars nearly to the shoulder of the parkway.
Ferree is still out in his Cadillac, enjoying a moment of repose before the meeting. He steps from the car and appraises the lot. He snugs his necktie up under his stiff white collar, but he doesn't head inside yet. "I loaned one of my friends my hairspray, and the dickens, he locked it in his car."
Another pastor arrives with the car key. Ferree's hairspray is restored to him, and he stands in the lot, combing his hair. His sister's amplified voice booms from the P.A. system.
Ferree raises his hands to the heavens and strides into the butter-colored light spilling from the tent. The band begins with a thundering anthem, and from the first moment of the evening, almost no one is sitting. The band has grown to 10 musicians: four guitars, drums, two keyboards, a harmonica and several vocalists, whose singing is pretty much superfluous in the harmonious din.
A chaos of prayer and of layings on of hands ensues. Ferree lays hands on Trammel, and his sister lurches off, dazed, toward the stage. About a dozen people begin promenading before the platform, two by two, hands lifted, eyes closed, lips moving in prayer.
A female preacher lays hands on a large red-haired woman, whose torso whips violently under the prayers, as if she's riding an electric bull. Half a dozen little scrums of prayer crowd the floor. The tent resounds with weeping and tongues.
Ferree summons all the preachers in the house to the front of the tent and instructs them to turn toward the stage, which congregants will traverse under a gantlet of prayerful hands. The entire crowd, all 225 people, lines up and begins making slow progress through the line. Melissa Ferree walks through and continually fixes her hair where the preachers have mussed it. Where the line empties out, three or four people are laid out on the tent floor, quaking in the spirit.
Ferree gazes out over the crowd. "There's no telling how many people got healed in this tent tonight," he says. "No telling how many lives have really been changed. We've been sowing in this tent for 10 days, and tonight we started reaping."
Becky Trammel and Cecil Hamby fan out through the crowd to take up an offering, but the reaping brings forth a leaner harvest than anticipated. Hamby makes a second pass through the crowd and brings Ferree a palmful of quarters, which he regards wanly and then slips into the pocket of his suit.
The preachers and musicians step down from the stage, as the crowd staggers out. Ferree sits in the front row, exhausted, holding his face in his hands. Presently, a middle-aged woman in a maroon dress walks over to him, and Ferree squints up at her.
She tells him that she's traveled here from a town in West Virginia that was once a regular stop along H. Richard Hall's revival route. "He used to come through every three months or so and get us going, give us a jerk or two, but now we got nobody, nothing," she says, shaking her head sadly. "You think you might be able to come up sometime?"
"Well, I don't usually get up that far," says Ferree absently.
Her face clouds, and she says, "Now that I think of it, I don't know where you could even come to," she says, explaining that no one holds meetings anymore in the old hall where traveling evangelists used to preach. "They've got one of these big churches up the street now, but that place is awful. We don't know what we're gonna do."
The revival visitors make their way out to the parking lot, and the darkness outside the tent glows red with the taillights of people driving home. Ferree stands and smooths the hair back from his forehead. His fatigue of a moment earlier seems to dissipate, and an expansive grin brightens his face. "Call me," he says. "If there's a place for us, we'll come."
Wells Tower is a contributing writer for the Magazine.