Bishop T.D. Jakes, Revolutionary

The lengthy story on T.D. Jakes in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly is the best story that's appeared on the bishop to date, though that isn't saying much. (The Dallas Observer published the first major article on Jakes in 1996, but he and his ministry have changed a lot since then, so I'm not counting Kaylois Henry's fine piece.) Still, it's a good read, and writer Sridhar Pappu got one thing right that has somehow escaped Jakes' many other newspaper and magazine chroniclers: Potter's House is a Pentecostal church. (Jakes' flacks, however, will urge you to describe it as "nondenominational"--probably because the word Pentecostal has negative connotations to a lot of folks.) Why is that important? Well, a couple reasons. Pentecostals are taking over the world, statistically speaking, but they've never been granted much respect within evangelical Christianity. Today Jakes is not only the highest-profile Pentecostal preacher in the world, he's probably the highest-profile preacher period. That's significant in a realm in which Pentecostals have often been dismissed as fanatical nutjobs.

Having a grasp of Pentecostalism, in fact, is a key to understanding why Jakes is such a revolutionary. Why isn't he as overtly "political" as other powerful black leaders, as Pappu notes? Look to our roots (yes, I am a Pentecostal): American Pentecostalism was birthed as a truly interracial movement at the turn of the century—astonishingly, at the height of the Jim Crow era. Two of the fathers of the Pentecostal movement were black: William J. Seymour, a one-eyed preacher with Texas ties (he went to Bible school in Houston), and Bishop C.H. Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ. While the movement eventually became mostly segregated, Pentecostals recognize that this wasn't the intended outcome. Today you will find a much more conciliatory attitude about racial relations among black Pentecostals than you will among their mainline or Baptist brethren, and you will also find more ethnically mixed congregations among Pentecostals. It's part of the Pentecostal heritage.

Another part of that heritage is an arms'-length attitude toward party politics. Pentecostals feel a greater urgency to turn people's hearts to Jesus Christ than to wrest political control. In the early years, Pentecostals drew from the lowest strata of society, so political power wasn't a realistic option anyway. Even today, Pentecostals like Jakes see higher priorities than throwing their weight behind particular candidates.

An unusual part of the Pentecostal legacy is how it's opened doors for women in ministry. Pentecostals were ordaining significant numbers of women—or at least giving them meaningful roles in the church—long before any other branch of conservative Christianity. In fact, this is one of Jakes' most important achievements, though it isn't mentioned in The Atlantic Monthly story: He has launched more great women preachers (Juanita Bynum, Paula White, Rita Twiggs, among others) onto a national stage than anyone in the history of the American church. And quite a few of them are black. Fifteen years ago, the vast majority of evangelicals probably couldn't even name a prominent woman preacher, let alone a prominent black woman preacher.

Simply put, Bishop T.D. Jakes is making history, right here in Dallas. --Julie Lyons

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