What's the difference between a church and a megachurch? Bishop T.D. Jakes, whose Potter's House congregation in Dallas boasts more than 30,000 members, impressed a gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists this month with a welter of facts and figures about the megachurch phenomenon. But it was a questioner from the audience who gave the best illustration.
She lived in Dallas and regularly attended services at Potter's House, the woman said. But here, standing at a microphone in an Atlanta ballroom, she was having her first conversation with Bishop Jakes.
For those of us who grew up thinking of the pastor as a kind of adjunct member of the family -- one who might drop by the house without warning, which meant you had to be on your best behavior, or else -- that's a big difference.
Emphasis on big: Americans have always believed in the gospel of size, and now this faith has manifested itself in the way our nation worships.
There may be as many as 1,200 megachurches -- defined as having at least 2,000 attendees in an average week -- in the United States, according to Scott L. Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Thumma has studied the megachurch phenomenon deeply, tracing its beginning to the late 1970s and charting its spread across the nation.
Thumma finds membership an unreliable measure, preferring to look at attendance -- how many people actually come to services. His database, which he soon plans to update, cites attendance at Potter's House of "only" 18,000. That's still mega in anybody's book.
Jakes talked about the job of running Potter's House in terms that someone like Jack Welch might have used to describe being a CEO.
"A preacher back in the civil rights movement didn't have a staff," Jakes told the journalists. "Maybe he had a secretary." By contrast, the nondenominational Potter's House has 400 full-time "employee members," including an accounting staff of 20. Jakes's first worry is maintaining his soul, he said; his second is maintaining his 501(c)(3) tax exemption.
One statistic in particular suggested a spiritual assembly line: Potter's House hosts an average of 400 funerals a year. That means that on some days one set of bereaved is just leaving as the next hearse arrives.
Obviously, Jakes himself can't do what the preacher did when I was growing up: write and deliver every sermon and visit every elderly shut-in and preside at prayer meeting on Wednesday nights and counsel every struggling couple or wayward teenager who needed counseling and send every single one of the dearly departed to his or her reward. Potter's House, like other megachurches, has a corporate organization chart: Below Jakes there are several pastors, and below the pastors a host of ministers.
Some megachurch congregations are mostly white, some mostly Latino, and some, like Potter's House, are mostly black. But Potter's House doesn't fit the traditional role of the black church in America as at least in part a political institution pushing for social change. "We walk in the shadow of those great ghosts" such as King and Abernathy, Jakes said, but he is resolutely nonpartisan: "I've never seen an eagle fly on one wing. I've got to be in the middle of the bird."
"The parishioner that we serve is vastly different . . . from 25 years ago," Jakes said. "People interview you before they join your church." They're looking for more than just spiritual guidance, and Potter's House has to deliver: computer hookups under some pews, simultaneous translation for Spanish-speakers, a streaming Internet feed for those too ill to come to church, ample parking, a multitude of youth programs, a $4 million air-conditioning system. Black megachurches such as his are just catching up to their white counterparts, Jakes said; the new trend is for deluxe amenities such as gymnasiums and food courts.
Jakes's main reason for being in Atlanta was to preside at MegaFest, a spiritual gathering that drew more than 100,000 people. "I never asked God to make me bigger," he said. "I think our prayers should be to make us better."
Thumma sees the phenomenon as religion finally adapting to changes that have been taking place in American society for many years. A lot of institutions have ballooned in size -- think of megaplex theaters, vast shopping malls and Disney-style theme parks. Churches are just catching up.
But churches have a different mission and answer to a different Boss. I guess I can't help wondering whether a food court can really be a substitute for loaves and fishes.