National Church of God was rocking as people clapped, shouted and tapped their toes while a caravan of legendary gospel quartets at the Fort Washington church served up street-corner harmony in the name of Jesus.
"How many people feel saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost?" asked Willie Neal Johnson, as his Gospel Keynotes broke into song: "Jesus is on the main line, tell him what you want, call him up and tell him what you want."
The Sensational Nightingales, Highway QC's, and Canton Spirituals took turns recently performing for more than 3,000 people who sat in a plush two-story sanctuary with two big screens, stage lights and a high-tech sound system.
Every weekend, it is easy to find gospel concerts or stage plays in sanctuaries across Prince George's County, as a growing number of congregations are using their churches as venues for entertainment as well as for saving souls.
"We designed our building in order to host major Christian entertainment," said the Rev. Stephen Lowery, senior pastor of National Church of God. "From the stage design all the way to our state-of-the-art lighting and sound, we spared no expense to put what we needed to really facilitate Christian entertainment."
The church dedicated its $6 million sanctuary in August 1997. According to Lowery, whose father is the assistant general overseer for the 5 million-member Church of God denomination, the purpose of the building from the beginning was to encourage integration in the church. He sees the concerts as one way of doing that.
"Our mission is to bridge racial barriers, economic barriers and cultural barriers and truly be the New Testament church God called us to be," Lowery said. "It takes different forms of the gospel of Christ to reach people. Sometimes it's the preached word; other times it is dramatic plays and productions."
From the 4,000-seat National Church of God to the 10,000-seat Jericho City of Praise, the growing community of mega-churches in Prince George's is attracting national as well as local artists. The preachers say they want to make sure that music is only part of the appeal.
"It is not about the show; it is using what God has given to us to bring Him the glory," said the Rev. Betty Peebles, senior pastor of Jericho City of Praise, which is hosting a New Year's Eve concert featuring several gospel recording artists. "It is not about coming to be entertained. It is about teaching people that Jesus needs to be the Lord of their lives."
In addition to National Church of God and Jericho City of Praise in Landover, Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington and Riverdale Baptist Church and Evangel Church in Upper Marlboro frequently offer musical events open to the public.
For decades, gospel was found only in Washington, where places such as Constitution Hall, Uline Arena and WUST's radio music hall thrived, along with several large churches.
But as African Americans moved to the Prince George's suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, the large churches moved, too.
At first, many churches were too small to host a concert, so gospel promoters such as Sophia Prince and Rosetta Thompson turned to public high school auditoriums.
"I love the District, but we are bringing gospel into the suburbs because there is a huge appetite," said Thompson, who with ROU Marketing International Inc. sponsored the concert at National Church of God.
In the past 15 years, a significant number of churches have built their sanctuaries larger, so that they now often double as concert halls.
Roussan Etienne Jr., whose marketing, promoting and management firm books artists and venues across the country, said churches are not only hosting concerts but also getting into the booking business.
"Most churches deal directly with artists and promote the concerts themselves," Etienne said, adding that it is a new way for the churches to evangelize. "This is not a money-making venue. The reason churches are using big-name artists is to plug people into their ministries."
Lowery said that it costs about $4,000 to rent National Church of God and that most of the money goes for building maintenance. He said he gets about 20 requests a week to host events at his church.
Events at Jericho are free, but during the concert, a collection is taken and people are encouraged to give, usually after they are reminded that it takes money to bring in top recording artists.
The artists are eager to come, from Grammy winner CeCe Winans, who recently appeared at National Church of God, to Choir Boyz, a Baltimore group that used Ebenezer AME to perform music from their debut album, "Ordered Steps."
Horace Thompson and the Sensational Nightingales have been singing for more than four decades. Although he now sings in grand churches the size of sports venues, he said the group became what it is by singing for smaller crowds.
"We sacrificed for many years and sang for people no matter how small the town," said Thompson, 59. "People always remember that."
CAPTION: Richard Yerby, center, of the Choir Boyz, rehearses with Randy "Fruity" Roberts, rear, and Marty Wilson at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington. Below, a Choir Boyz member reads from the Bible before taking the stage.
CAPTION: Congregants pray before gospel performances at Ebenezer AME Church.
CAPTION: Performers delight a crowd at National Church of God, which uses its sanctuary for entertainment as well as sermons.