Monday, November 21, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting The Potter's House

DALLAS, Texas, October 27, 2013 -- The Potter’s House, which has as its pastor the nationally known author T.D. Jakes, sits on the north side of a four lane highway, with the largest of the parking lots on the south side.  A pedestrian bridge is available for attendees to move safely from one side of the highway to the other without stopping traffic.  Still, it is quite a long walk, and I was glad that by arriving 20 minutes early we would make it into the service on time. I wondered how people managed it when it rained.

As congregants made their way into the sanctuary a few minutes before the scheduled starting time of 9:00 a.m., a praise band and singers already filled the room with music.  Over 90% of the congregation seemed to be African American, and it appeared that at least 2/3 were women.  As is common in black churches, the congregation was for the most part quite well dressed, with both men and women in their Sunday best. While the extravagance and expense of what was taking place might have been surprising to past generations, the style and content of the music fit well with the heritage of Christian worship among black Americans.  The praise team sang:

“No more shackles, no more chains,
No more bondage, I am free….”

Shortly after my arrival, a female soloist led in singing, “There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain.”

After about 15 minutes of singing – it was remarkable that there was so little congregational singing in this service – and a time of greeting (congregants were told to share hugs), a well-acted drama of about 40 minutes in three acts followed. In the first act, a husband and wife were preparing to go out with another couple in order to celebrate the husband’s promotion.  The husband showed some clear signs of controlling behavior that made the wife evidently uncomfortable.  As this act closed, text on the large video screen advised women of various kinds of behaviors that should serve as warning signs.  In act two, the husband’s new position caused much stress, which added to concern over his mother who was suffering through treatments for breast cancer.  Cruelty toward his wife increased, culminating in a scene where he began to physically attack his wife just as his mother walked into the room and passed out when she witnessed what was happening.  This was followed again by text, this time giving statistics and other information related to both domestic violence and breast cancer. 

Act three began with the couple separating and the husband’s mother advising him that he needed help dealing with his anger.  Unresolved conflict with his deceased father was blamed, and the mother gave her son a book, “Let it Go,” by Bishop Jakes (outside churches, this is known as "product placement") and urged him to read it and get counseling.  Further scenes showed both husband and wife getting counseling, and we were left with the implication at the end that they would be getting back together, though the ultimate ending was left to a time beyond the conclusion of the play.

At this point, the church’s pastor, T.D. Jakes, appeared, to applause, on stage wearing a gray suit, striped shirt, and bright purple tie.  Mr. Jakes talked at length about the problem of domestic violence, saying that women in the church had been murdered by abusive husbands.  He said that his views had changed over his years as a pastor.  Twenty years ago, he would have simply counseled women to “have faith.”  While he still counsels faith, he now says, “If you’re being beaten, have faith from a safe place.” The pastor then transitioned to talking about his aspiration for the church that it be a place where people are honest about the reality of life, rather than piously papering over the real problems that afflict them.

Bishop Jakes, worked through a series of announcements and prayer requests, which included mention of a service being broadcast on BET and a prayer request for the recently hospitalized Paul Crouch of TBN fame. This was followed by preparations for taking the offering, which turned out to be an extended affair. The minister emphasized that the church did not receive money from the government or corporations, pointing out that it should be funded by the people who benefited from its ministries.  At one point, those who would be giving a tithe were asked to stand up (this was a bit uncomfortable for those of us left sitting), and many waved large offering envelopes in the air as the minister continued to urge giving.  After the offering was received, a series of people began bringing to the front large checks, mostly over $1,000, to be designated for a projected youth building.  After bounding up and down the platform steps several times as additional people came forward, Jakes joked that this made up for time not spent on the treadmill that morning.  When someone promised to give again, he proclaimed, “Saying we will give again is a way of saying we will be blessed again. In all, more than 30 minutes was devoted to the offering.

The actual sermon began at 10:40, over one and a half hours after the service started.  Jakes took as his text Numbers 20:7-13 as a jumping off place for talking about “The Fight with Frustration.” While much of the talk used the story of Moses smiting the rock as a means of understanding why we get frustrated and act in bad ways, Jakes did take some time to explain the typology involved in the passage, pointing out that God’s command that the rock be smitten only once, and spoken to this time, signified the once and for all death of Christ as sufficient.  He followed this by quoting Isaiah 53:  “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities.”  He later gave a reasonably good definition of justification, describing it as a merciful decree of exoneration.  This was the high point of the sermon, from this observer’s perspective, though one fears that it was subsequently lost by the emphasis on the primary theme of the sermon, which involved dealing with frustration.

At various points, Jakes urged the congregation to turn to each other and repeat things he said.  For example, at one point, he urged people to turn to someone beside them and tell them that you know it was like to be frustrated.

The sermon ended about 11:30, when a highly emotional invitation that ultimately would last about 30 minutes began. Jakes asked people who had been struggling with anger and frustration to make their way forward and be released.  It was difficult to know how many people were going forward, as a steady stream of people also began to exit at this time (a large portion of the congregation had also arrived late).  Once a large number of people had arrived down front, the minister began working his way among them, becoming highly emotional, claiming the Spirit’s power, and on multiple occasions speaking in tongues.  He put his hands on the foreheads of some, pronouncing them released.  With some, he held his hand in place until they appeared to faint.  One man shook vigorously from head to toe as the minister pronounced him delivered.

The service concluded around noon.

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