Feeling Empowered

Jamal-Harrison Bryant gets his message to members of his megachurch, whether it's by quoting rappers or insisting members register to vote


FOR NEARLY TWO hours, the arena-sized church on Primrose Avenue in Northwest Baltimore rocked with rhythmic fury. Its crowd of more than 2,000 danced, sang and clapped in cadence. Its charismatic young pastor and founder bellowed a powerful message that often brought the crowd to its feet.

Then it was time for the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant to wrap up his sermon and extend invitation to Empowerment Temple African Methodist Episcopal, the megachurch he founded six years ago with 43 members that has grown to more than 10,000.

Standing at the foot of the altar, scanning over a congregation still simmering with emotion, he stretched his arms and asks, "Would you come?"

This is the moment in African-American church worship when enflamed spirits often give way to cold feet. Pastors request visitors to come forward and join their flock, and some are fortunate to see one person approach the altar.

When Bryant finally closed the invitation, about 40 people stood before him -- young and old, dressed from Sunday best to casual to tattered. Undoubtedly, they were moved, beckoned by a message that seemed tailored just for them.

So what makes Bryant so special, his message so captivating? He quotes from rapper Jay-Z, blares music from rapper Kanye West. He speaks to women who are lacking a man in their lives. He mentions Prozac and talks openly about sex.

He insists that your life and faith are relevant no matter who you are. Then, he stresses ways for individuals to empower themselves by harnessing their uniqueness.

Empowerment Temple services also feature choreographed dance troupes, national recording artists, dazzling light displays and JumboTron speakers on both sides of a theme-decorated, basketball-court sized pulpit.

"The Gospel is ageless and empowerment is priceless," says Bryant during an interview, his voice trembling like that of a civil rights orator yet flowing like that of a smooth rapper. "Empowerment is something that you can't pay for; once someone finds it and finds their purpose, you can't put a price tag on it."

This type of talk has led to a huge surplus.

Bryant's church averages about 75 new members over three Sunday services. His attendees come from as far as New York City. He says 47 percent of his membership has never joined any other church.

"Pastor Jamal has focused primarily on the younger generation by bringing in young people not involved in anybody's church," says the Rev. Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mount Calvary AME Church in Towson. She served under Bryant's father, the Rev. John Bryant, at Bethel AME and has known Jamal-Harrison Bryant since he was a child. "His preaching style, his age and being in tune with that generation has drawn people to him."

Bryant has taken his message beyond his parish to become one of the most dynamic voices in ministry today, from a Saturday midnight program, Grace and Glory, on WMAR-TV to worship services on BET and TV One to a preaching schedule that includes stops in Chicago, London and the Bahamas.

Bryant, 35, is also one of the key figures in the megachurch movement spreading across the country. His approach is similar to that of his mentor, Bishop T.D. Jakes, who has taken his self-empowerment message mainstream with sermons, best-selling novels and a motion picture.

Megachurch ministers such as Bryant have all but abandoned structured, liturgical worship.

Many churchgoers find their personal-fulfillment approach more appealing than traditional preacher's discourses of original sin and redemption through God's grace.

Moreover, megachurches are designed to permeate every facet of a parishioner's life, offering health and wellness programs, restaurants, credit unions, private schools and day care centers.

"What you get is a religion that works," says Howard University associate professor Harold Dean Trulear. "Some people call it a psychologized version of faith. It's almost like group therapy; they really focus on helping people cope with life's problems and issues."

Bryant's ministry stresses not only personal empowerment but involvement: He insists that all new members register to vote. The church boasts several outreach ministries, many known by catchy acronyms.

There's a teenage-girl mentoring program called DIVAS (Daughters of Integrity, Vision and Spirituality). Among the music ministries is LYRIC (Liberating Yourselves Rhythmically in Christ). The single-parent ministry is known as SPICE (Single Parents in Christian Empowerment).

"What I'm trying to build is a church that is socially active and spiritually in tone," he says. "I'm a pastor. I'm a life coach. I'm a spiritual leader, a counselor."

Early failures

He's also the product of one of the city's most prominent families of faith.

His grandfather is the late Bishop Harrison James Bryant, his father Bishop John Bryant. Both were community pillars as former pastors of Baltimore's Bethel AME. His mother is the Rev. Dr. Cecelia Williams Bryant.

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