As the economy continues to grind away at jobs, homes and lifetimes’ of savings, Bishop Thomas D. Jakes looks back from his position as one of America’s most successful preachers and remembers his own hard times.
T.D. Jakes — known internationally by those first two initials, or simply as “bishop” to the people at his 30,000-member Dallas megachurch The Potter’s House — began his life and ministry in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley. As a young husband and father, he lost his job when the local Union Carbide plant closed, and found himself slipping out of the middle class, working for years at hard jobs for low pay.
Eventually, though, he turned a seven-member church in the tiny town of Montgomery into the vast territories known today as T.D. Jakes Ministries and TDJ Enterprises — discrete kingdoms that nonetheless complement each other, with the Pentecostal-honed Christianity of the former blending with the empower-and-entertain entrepreneurship of the latter.
Jakes, 52, preached a sermon on Inauguration Day this year and is frequently mentioned as one of the prospective heirs to Billy Graham’s title as America’s Pastor. He eschews an active role in speaking out on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, though, warning churches not to become better known for politics than for prayer.
Instead, as the author of more than 30 best-selling books, producer of films and music and developer of a housing park in Dallas, Jakes displays his social engagement primarily from being a model of business leadership for the African-American community and a source of charity both at home and overseas.
Jakes shuns the term “prosperity gospel,” the belief that God is willing and eager to bestow material blessings on the faithful. But he has no problem with being a wealthy Christian, and with instructing other Christians on how they can emulate him.
Returning to Charleston this week for a major homecoming conference for the first time since he left for Dallas in 1996, Jakes spoke with The Associated Press about the economy, President Barack Obama and the changing face of American Christianity. Here are his answers in condensed form:
Q: What do you say to people who tell you, “I’ve been faithful, and now I’ve lost my job and my house?” Is it wrong for Christians to expect earthly rewards along with heavenly rewards?
A: After 52 years of living, I’ve learned that all Christians should come to realize that God sends us blessings, but he also sends us tests and challenges. It’s a misrepresentation to think we’re going to get all of one and none of the other. Life has a way of bringing both sorrow and success in our lives. Sometimes the test is not how much we get of either, but how we manage both. Financial success, academic success, those don’t exempt us from personal maladies.
Q: So there’s no contradiction in being a rich Christian?
A: You’re going to have Christians who are successful and Christians who are not. Just like you have Muslims who are successful and Muslims who are not. We’re not a monolith. There are so many factors besides whether someone is Christian. Are you educated? Are you entrepreneurial?
Q: You preached a sermon at President Obama’s inauguration and have met with him. What do you think about the job he’s done so far?
A: He hit the ground running 100 miles an hour. In some areas the progress has been amazing, but when I look at the work there is to do, though, its a mammoth task. He’s tried to do the things he promised during his campaign, and that’s refreshing. But we’re not all the way there yet. We haven’t had enough details about the health care plan. I’d like to hear more specificity about that. I’m certainly glad to see some glimmers of life in the economy. I do think we’re on the way to a turnaround.
Q: The Potter’s House is a nondenominational church, although you were ordained in the Pentecostal tradition. Are denominations losing their significance, especially for Protestants?
A: Denominations are not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a way to categorize our belief system. But today, I do find people are not nearly as loyal to the brand of their denomination as much as they are to their commitment to Christ.
Q: Is that good? Does that help newer, nondenominational churches at the expense of more traditional churches?
A: It’s coming from two sides. Those who are in denominations cannot take parishioners for granted. They have to work hard to see that those people’s needs are met. Those that are not a part of big denominations are no longer exempt from an opportunity to be heard and considered as a major place of worship. But it’s a new day in other ways and churches have to adapt. One of the things I’m noticing today is people watching ministry over the Internet, participating in services from home. Who would have thought that technology would allow you to have an audience at home as large as the audience in the pews?
Q: Surveys suggest that Americans aren’t necessarily turning their backs on spirituality so much as they’re growing disenchanted with established religious traditions. How can Christian churches address that?
A: The church has a tendency to show up in the public square, in secular media, enraged about issues and making statements about what they’re against. It has turned off people because it’s caused people to believe that Christianity is a negative religion. We have to talk about what we’re for, rather than what we’re against. We have to make our faith more relative to the needs of this generation. People do want to express their faith. They don’t want to be locked into political entanglements and picketing and fighting. They have problems of their own. They come to church to be uplifted, not enlisted.
Q: You’ve had tremendous success with books and programs aimed at women, particularly the multimillion selling “Woman, Thou Art Loosed.” Have traditional churches ignored women, or taken them for granted?
A: Any time the preponderance of the people in the pews are different from the people in the pulpit, whether by gender or class or race, we run the risk of lacking the sensitivity to make the appropriate decisions. And historically, the pulpit has been mostly male, and the pews have been mostly female. It’s important that men don’t lose their sensitivity to women’s issues. Women are emerging in all aspects of leadership today, both in the church and outside the church. It’s inevitable that we’ll continue to see women move up the ladder in leadership in the church and society as a whole.
Q: If you had to sum up Christianity for someone hearing about it for the first time, what would you say?
A: Christ came into the world that we might have life and that we might have it more abundantly. He came to give something to you, not to take something from you. If you open your heart and mind to that, you can receive it.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.