A pastor is led into temptation by the allure of a megachurch

October 23, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville

Not all is serene among the fundamentalists who control the theologically divided, 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention -- the nation's largest Protestant denomination. The Rev. Joel Gregory's gossipy book is readable evidence.

Selectively candid and self-serving though it is, his first-person account of the troubles of a Dallas "super church" and his sometimes dreary, sometimes tumultuous 21 months as its pastor provides fascinating insights into the inner workings of an increasingly influential wing of American Christianity.

The author makes no bones about the "seductive appeal" and "allure" that First Baptist Church of Dallas held for him in 1990.

That was when, at age 42, Dr. Gregory received the flattering summons -- and what was to turn out to be a strangely ambiguous commission -- to succeed First Baptist's legendary "Great One," its pastor since 1944, the Rev. Wallie Amos Criswell.

The contest that developed between the younger man and the patriarch proved unequal.

W. A., as Dr. Criswell is usually called -- "a virtual apotheosis, an icon standing above confrontation," Dr. Gregory adds acidly -- is still going strong at age 84. He celebrated his 50th anniversary last month as First Baptist's venerable survivor.

Dr. Gregory, meanwhile, was living quietly in his native Fort Worth 30 miles away. He was married to a new wife, and selling funeral services and burial plots door-to-door.

The Dallas congregation, in its nearly 100 years, had had only two pastors before Dr. Gregory.

Under W. A. Criswell, it became the prototype of today's "megachurches," with a staff of 300 and an annual payroll of $5 million, two radio stations, two schools, a college and 47 kitchens in its 5 square blocks of downtown real estate.

"What Rome is to the Catholic, Salt Lake City to the Mormon, or Canterbury to the Anglican," the author writes, "so is FBC Dallas to the Baptist.

"But that does not express it. There is also the appeal that Maxim's has to the gourmet, the Burgundy region of France to the connoisseur of wine, with a -- of the attraction Las Vegas has for the gambler."

First Baptist of Dallas "evokes something in the spiritual realm akin to sexual lust in the fleshly realm," Dr. Gregory writes.

While it claimed -- and still claims -- more than 28,000 congregants, he shocked insiders and outsiders alike during his brief tenure by publishing audited attendance figures showing there were fewer than a fourth of that number in the pews and classrooms on Sunday.

Whatever its true size, the congregation is said to include more millionaires than most churches have members. It sits where "the Way of the Cross intersects the American Dream -- Via Dolorosa at Wall Street," says the author, who is never at a loss for colorful hyperbole.

He states unequivocally that First Baptist of Dallas is "the nation's most powerful Protestant church."

His book offers varied perspectives on the state of the country and of the country's religion.

There are his contrasting pictures of nouveau riche Dallas and down-to-earth Fort Worth: "In Fort Worth, no one much gives a hoot what you look like. I'm sure that in some of the downtown law firms a few genteel Cowtown yuppies care, but not like Dallas. When I entered a Dallas church as guest preacher, the greeters and other members did not even try to hide a head-to-toe scan of coiffure, shave, tie, shirt, suit and shoes. . . . They X-ray you."

Political allegiances enter the picture: "To say that First Baptist had a high identity with the Republican Party is to say that fish have a high identity with the ocean. If there were Democrats in the church, they could have gathered in a janitor's closet."

Though faithful to fundamentalist theology, the author finds himself out of step with the politics of the church. "The identification of conservative evangelicals with the Republican Party always made me nervous," he writes.

There are the deferred disclosures, the awakened conscience, the calls for reforms. "When a church becomes so large that it is master rather than servant, it has become too large," he discovered.

While pastor, he followed the accepted practice and did not disclose to the congregation as a whole his $165,000 annual salary. Secrecy was a mistake, he now believes.

The author's scathing descriptions of W. A.'s meddlesome wife, Betty, and the power she exercised at First Baptist are grist for the mill of Roman Catholic traditionalists resisting the idea of a married clergy.

W. A. himself may be the "Baptist pope," as the book characterizes him, but decorum is stripped away. "He would get into the bath, fill the tub with water, set a basket of oranges by the tub, peel them and eat them right there," the author writes. "He said in his famous vibrato, 'The juice runs down my chin and down my arms, but I just splash the water on me and am never sticky.' "

Dr. Gregory says his sudden resignation from First Baptist's prestigious pastorate was the result of W. A.'s refusal to vacate the premises as he had promised, but the book contains a more persuasive, more engaging reason. The allure of huge, expensively furnished executive offices was transitory:

"I longed for earlier, simpler days when I would play dominoes with humble folk after Sunday night church, sit on a front porch and crank homemade ice cream with a deacon or crawl around in the attic of the church trying to fix the air conditioning.".

Mr. Somerville is religion editor of The Sun.

Title: "Too Great A Temptation: The Seductive Power of America's Super Church"

Author: Joel Gregory

Publisher: The Summit Group

Length, price: 332 pages, $24.95

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