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 mission.
While other evangelists might have similar goals, none has the advantage of Solomon's perch as pastor of McLean Bible Church, a glitzy mega-church with enormous resources and influential members that some might see as 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.
Solomon's city-size flock is just the beginning of his pervasive influence 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 flag 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, claims to have pulled 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.
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, including WJFK 106.7, which hosts the Howard Stern show. 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.
As a former church staff member put it: "McLean Bible Church is the Wal-Mart of churches."
Solomon doesn't disagree. "The fact that we are large and have the resources that a large church generates enables us to launch into these ministries and do them, in my opinion, the way they should be done," he said. "I mean, how many churches could start a new ministry and throw $175,000 at it?"
His critics, including those from other faiths, said his agenda is divisive for the region.Several church members complained of being constantly asked for more donations, while former staff members called him controlling, saying he drove them to work 90-hour weeks.
But many who attend McLean Bible praised Solomon's talent for filling his followers with a sense of purpose.
"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.
Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, a close friend of President Bush's, said he feels a personal connection to the McLean Bible pastor: They both have disabled daughters. Solomon's 12-year-old, Jill, who suffered severe brain damage before mitochondrial disease could be detected and treated, is the inspiration for the church's planned $18.5 million center for disabled children.
Evans said the initiative is typical of Solomon, who has developed "a tremendous outreach program that is continually looking for ways to serve other people and lift people up and help other people across the whole spectrum of spiritual and social needs in our society."
Solomon is so central to the church that when it was seeking a construction loan for its new sanctuary, the bank took out what is known as "key man's insurance." The policy protects the lender in case Solomon dies and the congregation dwindles, leaving the church without enough income to pay its mortgage.
The mega-church phenomenon is nothing new. Some pastors draw so many followers -- the largest counts 25,000 in his fold -- and are so active in their communities that they create Christian mini-fiefdoms in their region of the country, church scholars said. But what makes Solomon unique among them is that his home base includes people who are running the country from the most politically powerful city in the world.
"I didn't plan that Washington was going to be the sandbox that God was going to give me to try to reach," he said. "This is the only city that we believe that you can honestly say, 'Change this city and you can change the world.' "
A Personal Quest
Solomon gives every newcomer to his church a CD recording of his life story and asks that it be passed along to someone Jewish -- "your doctor, your lawyer, your dentist, you know what I mean?" he joked.
The recording tells of being raised by Conservative Jewish parents who ran a jewelry store in Portsmouth, Va. But it focuses on his years in Chapel Hill, where he delved deeply into drugs.
His former fraternity brothers at Pi Lambda Phi described Solomon as "a ringleader" of campus drug dealers -- a characterization he does not dispute.
In 1970, Solomon said, he grew disillusioned with life and started a spiritual quest by looking into his Jewish roots and Buddhism. Then he came across a street preacher named Bob Eckhart.
Many students considered Eckhart crazy, but Solomon was drawn to the man, and the two began talking. Solomon said it was the first time anyone told him that Jesus was Jewish and that God wanted the Jews to believe in Him as the messiah. He took a Bible from the man and began to read.
"I finally got to Matthew, Chapter 11, where Jesus said, 'Come to Me, all you who are heavy laden, and who are burdened down, who are overwhelmed, and I will give you rest'," he said. "And when I read that, I'll never forget looking up and saying, 'Bingo! Bingo! That is exactly what I'm looking for.' " Solomon knelt and prayed, telling God he would become a believer in Jesus.
His parents and brother were furious at his conversion, but Solomon later persuaded them to become Christians, too -- including his father while he was on his deathbed. Solomon is on the board of directors of an organization called Jews for Jesus, which will partner with the church this summer for its evangelical outreach to Jews.
But Jewish leaders said Solomon's approach will harm relations between the faiths.
"When I hear about Christians starting campaigns to convert Jews, I'm reminded of the thousands upon thousands who died at the hands of Christian missionaries during the Middle Ages when Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity," said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the District. "There's an enormous link between Christian conversion and anti-Semitism."
A Friend of the Church
The story of how Solomon arranged for the church to purchase its 52-acre campus on Route 7 shows how he uses influential allies to his advantage.
As Solomon tells it, he was approached in 1995 by Stuart Mendelsohn, a relatively unknown McLean resident on the Fairfax County School Board.
A Republican, Mendelsohn wanted to make the leap to county supervisor, but he needed help. He asked Solomon if he could shake hands with folks as they were leaving his services at the church's original sanctuary on Balls Hill Road. About 3,000 people were attending then.
But the pastor balked at the idea. Then Mendelsohn revealed that he, like Solomon, was a Jew who became a born-again Christian. That was enough to persuade Solomon to welcome the candidate.
Mendelsohn won by about 1,200 votes, and after the election, he speculated to Solomon over lunch that McLean Bible's support was a key factor in his victory. The pastor replied: "You're welcome, and at some point I'll ask you for a favor."
Two years later, Solomon cashed in. He wanted to buy the headquarters of the National Wildlife Federation off Route 7 in Mendelsohn's district and build a huge sanctuary there. This time it was Mendelsohn who balked, saying it would cause traffic problems and an outcry from the neighbors.
Solomon responded: "I know this may be difficult, but this is what we believe God wants us to do." Then he added, tongue in cheek: "You don't get to choose the favor we ask you to do. This is it. This is our favor."
Over the next year, Mendelsohn became the church's champion among county staff members. Solomon said McLean Bible could not have relocated to Tysons Corner without Mendelsohn's help.
Mendelsohn, who said he attends the church occasionally, confirmed the story but said Solomon "embellished" some parts.
"He never said you owe me and you have to do it. That's where he took some license in telling the story," said Mendelsohn, who served two terms on the Board of Supervisors before retiring last year. Still, he added: "There's no question I played a key role [in the church building approval]. . . . God was working in my life to make this whole thing possible."
Solomon also urges wealthy executives and bankers who attend the church to support his many ministries.
Last month, a banquet at the Tysons Hilton raised $140,000 for the church's program for Anacostia teenagers. Donors lined up to take photographs with featured speaker Kenneth Starr, a longtime member of McLean Bible who was the special prosecutor in charge of the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton.
Starr said he goes to McLean Bible partly because he feels welcome. Solomon used to send him personal notes of encouragement when he was being excoriated by politicians during the investigation. He said Solomon also inspired him to spend time working with Anacostia teenagers.
"It is through McLean Bible Church that the door was reopened in my life to inner-city ministry," he said, "and I recommitted myself to the underprivileged in D.C."
A Large Production
Solomon's imprint is especially apparent at his services, which rival a Broadway production.
Hymns and prayers rarely run more than 10 seconds over their allotted time. Executive producers follow precise cues for mood lights or, at times, a fog machine. The sanctuary stage has the same lighting system as the Kennedy Center and features 92 speakers, more than Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
Nothing done by Solomon, a man with an admittedly obsessive eye for detail, is sloppy. . During an announcement about Sunday school, he pats the head of a boy -- but not before he discusses the little gesture with his staff. Then it is repeated in precisely the same way at all six weekend services.
"Few people know how much goes on behind the scenes," he said. "And we like to keep it that way." At one recent Sunday service, congregants had no idea that church officials were scrambling to fix "a problem": The temperature of the sanctuary was three degrees too high.
"Lon likes it right at 67," explained Denny Harris, director of ministry operations.
The new sanctuary has 2,400 seats, which will mean fewer services on Sundays and more room for the church to grow. Leaders project the congregation could double to 20,000 in a decade.
To reach so many people, Solomon sets the bar high for the production staff with the motto: "Whatever it takes."
"This is a driven town. It demands excellence in everything," he said. "Am I controlling? I've never heard of a leader, a good leader, who wasn't a little controlling."
He also pays his staff more than most churches, he said, though he refused to be specific, even about his own salary. The church has an annual budget of $15 million from offerings and also raised $5.5 million last year for its sanctuary and a two-tier 2,500 space parking complex.The church's silence about staff salaries irks some members, who complained in interviews about the lack of accountability in an organization with so much money.
Others said the church has resorted to too much show.
"Lon has always had to have excellence," said Vic McCauley, who served on the church's board of elders through the 1980s until he moved away in the mid-1990s. "To a point, this can be a detriment. They are so focused on having the timing and being precise that it becomes more of a production than a worship service."
Services last precisely 105 minutes. With thousands of people shuttling in and out of the many services, letting one extend even minutes over the allotted time causes nightmares in the parking garage and on Route 7, where off-duty Fairfax police officers hired by the church direct traffic.
By 1:30 p.m., near the end of one long Sunday morning, Solomon tells a joke in his sermon, which he has already preached five times that weekend. The congregation laughs. Then he talks about his disabled daughter and a sister-in-law who died of cancer at 27. A rapt silence falls over the sanctuary.
He then exhorts his audience to trust God when they face death, when their children struggle with disabilities, when they go through trials that they don't understand. Trust God, trust God, he tells them.
Then, after a 33-second prayer, the solemn moment pops like a bubble. Solomon abruptly and cheerfully says, "Thanks for coming, everyone," and walks off stage. The service is over. Most families hardly know each other among the thousands who have come to hear the preacher. So they head for the exits, the enormous parking garage, and the streets beyond where hundreds of honking cars being driven by their fellow Christians await them.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.